Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)) walk on the stage after the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A few times in the Tony-winning musical Hadestown, characters raise their glasses “to the world we dream about, and the one we live in now.” This folksy retelling of an ancient Greek myth seethes with progressive energy, holding out the hope that the hippy poet Orpheus will overthrow the greedy capitalist Hades and free the summer goddess Persephone to usher in an endless summer. In the end, his success is only partial. The normal cycle of the seasons is restored, but Orpheus is exiled, and the pragmatic Hades, having softened just the tiniest bit, remains on the throne of the Underworld.
In a venue as pie-in-the-sky progressive as Broadway, it was refreshing to see a synthesis of utopian radicalism and status quo realism, a mixture of Plato pointing up to the realm of the Forms and Aristotle extending the horizontal hand of inductive moderation. Striking a balance between the two is difficult, but necessary.
It’s also exactly what the New York Times Editorial Board failed to do with its perplexing dual endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Board’s first failure is its most obvious: it is definitionally absurd to “endorse” two candidates for a nomination only one of them can secure. When Gollum found himself stumped as to what Bilbo had in his pocket, he used his third and final attempt to guess “String, or nothing!” which the narrator observed was “not quite fair—working in two guesses at once.” I quite agree—and I’m tempted to echo Bilbo’s response: “Both wrong.”
These endorsements are not “wrong” because Warren is, as Michael Warren Davis put it, “the very avatar of a screechy, preachy schoolmarm” and “the most unlikeable candidate to seek the White House since Walter Mondale.” Plenty of members of the Board expressed concerns about Warren’s condescending manner during the episode of Hulu’s The Weekly that chronicled this uniquely transparent endorsement process.
Nor are they “wrong” because Klobuchar’s poll numbers are currently in snowball-in-hell territory. The Board is well within its rights to pick the candidate whose policy proposals and leadership style they admire most and who they think has the best shot in the general election. I didn’t complain in 2016 when the NYT endorsed a struggling John Kasich for the GOP nomination as a protest vote against Trump and the Tea Party.
They aren’t even wrong because they just conveniently happened to endorse the only two female candidates still onstage. (Even if, by ending the endorsement with “May the best woman win,” the Board invited that criticism.)
These endorsements are wrong by the Times‘ own criteria. The Board writes:
On the Democratic side, an essential debate is underway between two visions that may define the future of the party and perhaps the nation. Some in the party view President Trump as an aberration and believe that a return to a more sensible America is possible. Then there are those who believe that President Trump was the product of political and economic systems so rotten that they must be replaced. 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.
After grouping the candidates into those who want to return to the status quo ante Trumpus (Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, and—weirdly—Yang) and those who want a revolution (Sanders and Warren), the Board decides to abdicate its responsibility and instead choose an inferior example of each. Rather than endorsing the most authentic representative of each camp, the Board chooses the most moderate radical and the most radical moderate.
If the Board wanted a utopian vision, Bernie was clearly their guy. In his interviews at the NYT headquarters, he came off as populist to the core, promising to be an “organizer-in-chief” who would force Mitch McConnell to play ball or get him kicked out of office by mobilizing a groundswell of opposition among Kentucky voters. Maybe not the most realistic plan, but Warren didn’t handle the question of how she would get things done any better. “So what do you want to do?” she asked a Board member, clearly exasperated. “You want to just give up?! Say, ‘Oh damn! Mitch McConnell has the Senate!’?”
Bernie was notoriously shafted by the DNC in 2016. Now it’s beginning to look like, thanks to Democratic establishment organs like the DNC and the New York Times, the fix is in for Warren this time around. Just look at the ridiculous fake scandal surrounding the supposedly sexist remarks that Bernie supposedly made in 2018 and that Warren conveniently remembered to be mad about just last week. And why? If you want my opinion, it’s because Bernie committed the sin of populism.
When asked whether he thought Trump was the disease (the “realist” position) or a symptom (the “radical” position), Bernie’s response was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable in a way that made the Board visibly uneasy: “I think it speaks to something that I talk about a lot and that is the fact that the — not everybody, but tens and tens of millions of Americans feel that the political establishment, Republican and Democrat, have failed them. Maybe The New York Times has failed them, too.” They edited that last sentence out of the episode of The Weekly, by the way. “Dishonest media” indeed.
“That explains the appeal of racism?” Board member Brent Staples shot back. And there it is. Bernie had dared to suggest that Trump voters were something other than reprehensible, backward hicks. For that reason alone, he was unworthy of the endorsement. After all, someone who can sympathize with Trump voters is himself suspect. Or as the Board put it, “Three years into the Trump administration, we see little advantage to exchanging one over-promising, divisive figure in Washington for another.” You heard it here, folks: Bernie is basically Trump (which, by the transitive property, makes him basically Hitler too).
Warren, of course, is too ivory tower to sympathize with the disaffected white working class and nowhere near charismatic enough to be any sort of demagogue. She’s willing to retain enough of the establishment status quo to keep the NYT elites happy. For the Editorial Board, she was the perfect faux-radical.
In Klobuchar, they found their perfect faux-moderate, rejecting the obvious choice: Joe Biden. If the Board’s intention was to endorse a moderate to balance out Warren, they could have hardly done better than Biden, who seems to be running on a platform that consists entirely of nostalgia for the relative normalcy of the Obama administration. Instead the Board rejected him in favor of Klobuchar because his agenda “tinkers at the edges of issues like health care and climate” and “will not get America where it needs to go as a society.”
In other words, the Board committed to endorsing a moderate and then rejected the most moderate of the moderates for being too moderate. Perhaps after more than a decade of playing hype man for Hillary Clinton, they’re nervous about backing another old, white establishment type with a long track record, strong name recognition, and all the baggage that goes with it. If Biden got the endorsement and lost to Trump (despite Biden’s insistence that he would win the Midwest “in a walk”), the Democratic left wing would be furious, perhaps to the point of fracturing the party
It is true that Klobuchar is more moderate than Warren. She favors free community college, for example, while Warren wants to make all public colleges free. The more significant difference between them, though, is one of brand positioning. Klobuchar portrays herself as a unifier who can succeed in red districts, while Warren has trouble making any sort of argument for her own electability. Plus Klobuchar voted for the bombing campaign that reduced Libya to a failed state with literal slave markets, which makes her presidential material in the eyes of the New York Times. The Board seems to have selected Klobuchar as a way of hedging their bets, a sort of Warren-lite. She certainly isn’t an existential threat to the Warren campaign.
In summary, the two candidates on offer are an ivory tower “radical” who offers elements of Sanders’ agenda without the distasteful flaw of treating Trump voters like human beings and a “moderate” who isn’t so moderate after all. We’re left with a less populist Bernie and a more progressive Biden. The Board has watered down both the “radical” and “realist” visions by rejecting the candidate who most fully embodied each. The endorsement claims that the American people deserve to see a no-holds-barred debate between those two visions, but what the Board’s members really want is to ensure that this debate takes place within parameters that they find acceptable.
The Board, by failing to commit to one candidate and splitting the endorsement, proved itself to be “lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot.” By failing to choose the candidate who best represented each of their two categories, it proved that a second time.
This decision by one of the most prestigious gatekeepers of the Democratic establishment reveals the extent to which the American left-liberal coalition has fragmented. It also reveals the lengths to which those gatekeepers are willing to go to preserve their influence, playing both sides of the radical-realist divide while simultaneously working to shift the definitions of those two camps back toward some sort of consensus.
But will the Board and their ilk succeed in forging a new Democratic consensus somewhat further to the left? Or will populism and factionalism fracture the party irreparably?
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.