In November 2006, a feistier and more economically progressive Democratic Party re-took the House of Representatives, most statehouses, and the US Senate from the gop. Pundits started declaring the death of “neoliberalism,” that strain of liberal commentary first championed at Charles Peters’s Washington Monthly in the early 1970s, in which the primary target was well-intentioned Democratic governance that had gone wrong in practice.
The Village was becoming a friendlier place, not just to the type of return-to-form liberalism Klein preferred, but to the emerging blogger-journalist hybrid he represented. At the beginning of the decade, only a couple of opinion magazines had blogs; by the end, nearly all did. In March 2008, The New York Times took notice of all these Beltway blogger kids, profiling not just one but three DC blogger houses, with such wince-inducing details as an Iron Chef-style cooking contest between Team Liberal (including Klein) and Team Libertarian, duly broadcast on BloggingHeads.tv.
But not everyone was a fan. Washington Times writer Eli Lake dubbed the whole crowd “the Juicebox Mafia.” Blogger Mickey Kaus accused Klein at various points of “hectoring naïveté” and “spout[ing] the party line,” and I once mocked Klein on Reason.com as an “omniscient child pundit.”
Klein managed to irritate even as he inspired awe. In nine months, he was able to go from admitting that he had “little-to-no expertise in labor issues” to writing op-eds for the Los Angeles Times on the subject, with smarty-pants lines like “Before we get into all that, a bit of background.” Conservatives still mock him for saying on MSNBC in 2010 that “the issue with the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than a hundred years ago.” (He continues to defend this sentiment, if not the wording.) Older colleagues grumble with grudging admiration about Klein’s ability to burnish his intellectual credentials by plucking policy papers from obscurity and wielding them in his arguments. With Klein, the line between clever and too-clever-by-half gets blurry sometimes. “President Obama, if you look closely at his positions,” he wrote in 2011, “is a moderate Republican from the early 1990s.”
Trailblazers or Juiceboxers or both, the liberal side of The Village blogging world found itself in a new position after November 2008: Not only had it poked holes in the media bubble, but the Democratic Party swept into power after a long and vigorous campaign talking about universal healthcare. It was a moment tailor-made for Ezra Klein.
ObamaCare and beyond
In early 2009, Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein was alerted by a friend to Klein’s work at the Prospect. “I was blown away by how good he was—how much the kid wrote—on so many subjects,” Pearlstein later told Washingtonian. Within weeks, Klein was hired as an economics/politics blogger. Within months, his stuff—policy breakdowns, political musings, Q&As with everyone from labor heavy Andy Stern to tax-cut obsessive Grover Norquist—was the most popular on the paper’s website. And with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Klein had a subject as big and complicated as his journalistic appetite.
Then, just as Klein was taking off, he stumbled. In June 2010, The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s website, published leaked emails from a private listserv of 400 or so left-of-center reporters, commentators, academics, and policy wonks, called “JournoList,” that Klein had run since 2007. Klein drew plenty of snickers with his activist/wonk-straddling explanation that “the emphasis is on empiricism, not ideology.” But the idea that a former critic of The Village had organized a salon of politically simpatico professionals, in true DC-establishment fashion, barely raised an eyebrow. If anything, his professional rise has only accelerated in the wake of this kerfuffle. (Klein defended, and still defends, JournoList but pulled the plug anyway. “Insofar as people’s careers are now at stake, it has to die,” he said at the time.)
The great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn had a memorable line about “that usual tedious trajectory from left to right” as writers grow older. One might include in that sentiment the equally predictable earlier-life journey from outsider to insider, from critic to actor. In his 20s, Walter Lippman went from junior Socialist Party agitator to senior Woodrow Wilson functionary. Klein (who says of his early 20s that he “was more liberal then than I am now”) originated from much further outside the bubble, using the disintermediation of technology to vault himself up the totem pole in ways not conceivable a century, or even a decade, ago.