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.
But he has become arguably the prototypical insider in the Age of Obama: confident, cloaked in numbers, assured about the virtues of economic intervention but alarmed by the growing dysfunction of politics. In fact, he is so deep inside now that he’s come to an even more terrifying conclusion about life in The Village than his Netroots compatriots could ever have dreamed: “I’m much more certain that the problems are systemic and the various forms of gatekeeping elites [are] impotent,” he wrote me in a follow-up email to our interview. “And that feeling—that the people in charge aren’t just wrong or bought off, but that, quite often, they fundamentally don’t know what they’re doing—is a bit scary, and fairly radicalizing.”