No. Ezra Klein is Completely Wrong. Here’s Why.

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A number of you have written in to ask about Ezra Klein’s audio essay “Democrats Have a Better Option Than Biden: It’s requires them to embrace an old-fashioned approach to winning a campaign.” Is it a good argument? Does it change the equation? What do I make of it? Just for the purposes of cutting to the chase: my answers are “not really,” “no” and “not much.” But Klein is a smart, articulate guy and sitting at the top of the Times op-ed page he has vast influence. So I wanted to break the argument down into its moving parts.

Klein begins his essay by assuring us that he likes Joe Biden and actually thinks he’s done a good job as President. This is to soften the reader up and dispel any notion that he’s got some anti-Biden axe to grind. I don’t think Klein is disingenuous or cynical about this. I think he believes it. He not only doesn’t think age has hindered Biden in doing the job as President so far; he doesn’t think it would in a second term either. The issue for him, Klein says, isn’t about being President but running for President: Biden has slowed down considerably, even from his last run in 2019–2020, and Biden simply is not up to running a vigorous campaign in which the candidate is an asset, not a liability.

The middle part of the essay basically has Klein knocking down a series of straw man arguments, many of which I’ve never heard before. People say this is age-ism! I haven’t heard this stupid argument. But Trump’s also old! People do say this and it’s true. It’s not really an argument though. He knocks down a few other straw man arguments before getting to one of the real and strongest ones: Biden is, for all intents and purposes, already the nominee. It’s over.

It’s not too late at all, says Klein. How can it be too late when it’s February? (Which isn’t a bad point.) Biden may get all the delegates, which he certainly will. But if he steps aside and releases his delegates then you have an open convention in which party activists and delegates pick the nominee with a free choice. He then outlines a scenario in which a strong bench of possible alternative nominees vie for nomination, generating positive press and party enthusiasm which leads to a vigorous campaign and, hopefully, a general election victory.

This is the gist of Klein’s argument, his “old-fashioned approach” to winning a campaign which is essentially, in his accounting, not to drift into the general election unprepared but have the convention come up with a specific plan for victory. There’s a huge amount of wishful thinking and razzmatazz in this concluding third of the essay. But let’s zero in on two key pivot points.

First, will convention-chosen candidate X do better than Biden? As I noted on Friday, polling evidence makes that assumption at least highly questionable. That’s not the only question. Is early 21st century America really ready for a party nominee literally chosen by a few thousand party insiders and activists? I have real doubts about that. Will the convention not become a forum for litigating highly divisive issues like Gaza, Medicare for All and the broader contest between progressives and establishment-oriented liberals? The last half century of American politics has been based on the idea that the convention is a highly scripted unity launch event. This alternative would mean a free for all, in which the choice between a number of quite promising candidates will be made by a group whose legitimacy will likely be highly suspect. Not good!

Then there’s another issue. Okay, say you’ve convinced us. The thunderdome convention scenario is the better bet. How do we get there? Klein is refreshingly candid about this while somehow not being remotely realistic about how wildly improbable it is. You do it by mounting a public campaign to convince the people in Biden’s inner circle — Mike Donilon, Anita Dunn, Steve Ricchetti, maybe Barack Obama and whoever else — to convince Biden to step aside. That’s almost word for word the plan. Let’s drill down on what that means. Your plan is to convince the people who are pretty much by definition the most loyal to and invested in Biden — more than anyone in the entire political world — to abandon the plan they’re already two-thirds of their way through and convince Biden to step aside. We can add the more cynical point that this also means ending their own political careers at the top of the political game. As of today, the right-leaning RCP Average shows Biden 1.1 points behind Donald Trump. Are you really going to point to that and convince them that it’s hopeless? That to me is not remotely a serious plan. It’s not a serious anything.

And what exactly is the plan while you’re executing that plan? Unless I’m missing something, this plan means spending the spring perhaps not campaigning but in the midst of a public intervention trying to make the case that the party’s nominee is too old and frail to be President. On the off chance this plan doesn’t work, that seems pretty damaging to the nominee.

Many people I have this conversation with end the conversation here with a simple “the best thing is for Biden to step aside.” This, I confess, is where my brain generally freezes up. There is clearly a big sense of psychic release from arguing this. I share all the anxieties expressed by those anonymous Democratic insiders and campaign strategists who apparently can’t stop calling reporters and telling them how worried they are. I just don’t see the point of going down this path or, more accurately, waving vaguely toward that path, if there is no plan or likely scenario in which anything like it happens. Maybe I lack imagination.

Which brings me to my final point. Klein’s essay has been the top conversation of the political set since it was published three days ago. It’s garnered many responses like the one from Harvard Law Professor Larry Tribe who wrote on Twitter that while he didn’t agree with Klein, “we ignore this problem at our peril. Pretending that enough voters will be motivated by the catastrophic results of a second Trump presidency just won’t suffice. This is a crisis.” This is like others who’ve said that even though Biden is the nominee, “we have to address” the issue, or “can’t ignore” the issue, or have to “discuss” the issue.

(I should be clear: I’m not picking on Tribe. It’s just the last example I saw. It’s relevant because it’s like so many others.)

Given where we are in the calendar, we’re way past the time for general statements of concern. As far as I can see we are talking about it. A lot. Are we ignoring it? We seem to be giving it quite a lot of attention. The only way to “address” or do something about Biden’s age is to replace him with someone else. Of course there are course corrections you can make within the campaign. Jon Alter says the campaign should stop trying to insulate Biden from press availabilities because he might flub some words and put him out more. Accept the flubs, even embrace them. He’s right. But I don’t think that’s what any of these people are talking about.

The right answer to anyone making these kinds of open-ended statements of concern is to say, tell me specifically what course of action you’re advocating and, if it’s switching to a new candidate, how you get there in the next few weeks? Could I end up looking silly if Biden stumbles through the campaign with growing evidence of declining acuity and loses in November? I guess. But I don’t see how that changes the validity of any of the analysis above.

In life we constantly need to make choices on the basis of available options. Often they are imperfect or even bad options. The real options are the ones that have some shot at success. That’s life. Klein’s argument really amounts to a highly pessimistic but not unreasonable analysis of the present situation which he resolves with what amounts to a deus ex machina plot twist. That’s not a plan. It’s a recipe for paralysis.

I think the Democratic Party has thought — or is in the process of thinking — about this, is addressing it, not ignoring it, pick your vague verb. In addition to many strengths, including incumbency, Biden has a big campaign liability: his age. Democrats have decided that even with this liability he’s probably the best shot to defeat Donald Trump. And even if he’s not, there’s no viable path to switching to anyone else. Accentuate the positive, back burner the negatives, and run the campaign.

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