The New York Times’ much-anticipated endorsement for the Democratic presidential nomination violated the first rule of editorial endorsements. When a newspaper makes an endorsement, it is suggesting how voters who respect the opinion of the newspaper might make their choice. To do this, the paper’s editorial board must necessarily make a choice of its own. In backing both Elizabeth Warren, the progressive senator from Massachusetts, and Amy Klobuchar, the more centrist senator from Minnesota, it failed to do just that.
The Times editorial board acknowledged in its editorial, which appears in Monday’s paper, that there is a fight going on for the soul of the Democratic Party—a struggle they suggest pits a “radical” vision for taking on President Trump and the challenges facing the nation against a “realist” one.
If they got out of New York a bit more, they would also recognize that what they imagine to be radical is realistic—and necessary. That’s not where the Times is at, however; indeed, the board’s longing for “a single, powerful moderate voice” is palpable in the editorial.
The problem is that the moderate the paper has settled on, Klobuchar, has run an uninspired campaign that still struggles to get out of the low single digits in national polls and trails miserably in surveys of key primary and caucus states. Even if the editors had gone with their instinct for the failed centrism of the past and endorsed Klobuchar alone, it would have been better for the discourse than where they ended up, which was on both sides of the one question they needed to answer.
“Both the radical and the realist models warrant serious consideration. If there were ever a time to be open to new ideas, it is now. If there were ever a time to seek stability, now is it,” the editorial muses. “That’s why we’re endorsing the most effective advocates for each approach. They are Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.”
That’s not an editorial endorsement. That’s a rumination on a competition between progressivism and centrism—or, if we are required to employ the starkly revealing language of the Times, between “the radical and the realist models”—that imagines voters can pick a favorite candidate from each category. But voters can’t avoid what the paper correctly identifies as an “essential debate…between two visions that may define the future of the party and perhaps the nation.”
The voters have to do what the editors of the Times refuse to do: choose.
For Warren or Klobuchar, a strong, clear New York Times endorsement would have been highly beneficial. Of course, newspaper endorsements do not elect presidents. If they did, Hillary Clinton would be finishing her first term in the Oval Office.
But as someone who has written hundreds of newspaper endorsements over dozens of years, however, I know they can matter. The keyword, of course, is “can.” There are right ways and wrong ways to endorse. Unfortunately for Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, The New York Times just got it wrong.
A co-endorsement does little to help either of them. Instead of providing clarity with a robust embrace of one candidacy—even Klobuchar’s unlikely bid—this editorial reads more as a rejection of a pair of “moderate voices” who are running way ahead of Klobuchar in the polls. Former vice president Joe Biden and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg are obviously acceptable to the Times editorial board members. But the flaws exhibited by these contenders are judged to be just a bit more glaring than those exhibited by the Minnesotan—even while the editorial grudgingly acknowledges that “reports of how Senator Klobuchar treats her staff give us pause. They raise serious questions about her ability to attract and hire talented people.”
The one clear statement that the Times editors make is in regard to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. It’s fair to say they do not like him. Yes, the editors admit, he has done much to open up the debate and seed it with “compelling ideas.” In a nice turn of phrase, they note that “a career spent adjacent to the Democratic Party but not a part of it has allowed him to level trenchant criticism of a political party that often caters more to rich donors than to the middle class.” And they remind us that
Many of his ideas that were once labeled radical—like paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, universal health care and limits on military intervention—are now mainstream, and may attract voters who helped elect Mr. Trump in 2016.
Yet the Times damns Sanders in the crudest terms, concluding, “Three years into the Trump administration, we see little advantage to exchanging one over-promising, divisive figure in Washington for another.”
Amazingly, the paper of record does not recognize the contradiction in arguing that Sanders is associated with “now mainstream” ideas that “may attract voters who helped elect Mr. Trump in 2016,” while at the same time dismissing him as too “divisive.”
The editorial is unfair to Sanders. But the Times was always going to reject the Vermonter. It simply needed a way to do that without rejecting all those “compelling ideas.” The senator from Massachusetts provided a needed alternative for the paper. “Good news, then, that Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a standard-bearer for the Democratic left,” the editorial chirps.
Good news for the Times, but not for Warren. She is, by any realistic measure, a more serious national contender than Klobuchar. Yet Warren finishes the day with only half an endorsement.
The Times concludes its editorial saying, “May the best woman win.” But the Times let Warren down by failing to make a real endorsement, just as it let Klobuchar down. Just as it let Democratic voters down.