He’s impossibly young, infuriatingly accomplished, and impressively wonky. In a town full of journalistic flop sweat, he glides instead of glistens, handsome enough to make the ladies turn their heads, and affable enough that their boyfriends compete for his attentions, too. Like ripples around a stone, influential circles appear seemingly wherever he dips his toe. Washington insiders seek his ear, New York magazines compete for his byline, and older journalists puzzle over how he could master journalism’s technological revolution and the northeastern media corridor well shy of his 30th birthday.
Of course, I’m talking about Ezra Klein, the 28-year-old “wonkblogger” whose visage and byline are everywhere these days, from The Washington Post to MSNBC, Bloomberg View to The New Yorker. But the same description, more or less, has been applied to a century-old line of (mostly) liberal opinion journalists, from Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop to Michael Kinsley and Peter Beinart. Like Klein, these erstwhile wunderkinds rose to prominence during Democratic administrations, took seriously the responsible exercise of power, and acquired reputations as sober-minded truth-seekers in a field littered with irresponsible ideologues. “He is just a good explanatory reporter and writer,” says David Weigel of Slate. Klein “focuses on empiricism instead of ideological posturing to engage readers in progressive dialogue,” Natalia Brzezinski wrote in The Huffington Post in 2010. “He is able to deftly crystallize an issue without seeming canned or esoteric.” Or, as biographer Ronald Steel wrote of Walter Lippmann, “Readers turned to [him], not for solutions, but for dispassionate analysis. He had a marvelous ability for simplifying the complex.”
But Klein adds some new wrinkles to this stock character of Beltway journalism. Whereas his predecessors were exclusively eastern-seaboard, Ivy-League types, Klein is a California kid from the UC system (Santa Cruz and Los Angeles). Instead of launching his career by leveraging connections to the established elite, he built his reputation by blogging loudly, and sharply, into the void. Yesterday’s Kleins earned their fame at The New Republic; today’s model rose to prominence despite avoiding, and occasionally bashing, progressivism’s flagship magazine. With these departures in style, substance, and comportment, Klein’s meteoric young career underscores not only the dynamic transformation of the media business, but changes in liberalism itself.
An activist progresses
“Ezra is very, very good,” New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in October 2007, “and very, very young.” Klein was all of 23 at the time, but had already notched clips from the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Monthly, LA Weekly, Slate, and The American Prospect, while churning out megabytes of now-hard-to-find posts on lefty blogs like Pandagon.net and Not Geniuses, as well as his various solo sites. He was a familiar face on MSNBC, and three years removed from his first go-round as a subject of media coverage, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC), as a member of an exotic new tribe called political bloggers.
Back then, Klein was more partisan rabble-rouser than journalistic explainer. As he told The Philadelphia Inquirer before the DNC, he considered himself “an activist walking the halls of power.” Klein had been part of the (presumably tiny) group of UC Santa Cruz students agitating in 2003 for yet another presidential run by . . . Gary Hart.
Unlike in, say, 1987 (when I was a college student during an ill-fated Gary Hart run), a young person obsessed with Democratic politics in 2003 could discuss his enthusiasms in a way that people with actual power might notice. “I was writing about what were the issues of the day and just giving my uninformed opinion,” is how Klein describes his early efforts now. But his writing on Hart did attract some important eyeballs. “I had this little blog that 30 people read a day,” he says, “but it turned out one of them was Joe Trippi.”
Trippi, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist, was then helping organize what would soon become a national, if short-lived, political earthquake: the technology-fueled, anti-war end-run around Democratic Party politics as usual by a previously obscure Vermont governor named Howard Dean. Here’s how Klein described his unusual new relationship in the October 2004 issue of The Washington Monthly:
As our correspondence continued, my initial, tentative support gave way to full-blown enthusiasm. . . . Trippi slowly drew me in. Each time I opened my email or checked my messages and found a Dean campaign official inside, my interest intensified. Soon I was selling Howard Dean online, then organizing for him around my Southern California hometown. Finally, I accepted Trippi’s invitation to spend the summer in Vermont, working for the campaign. I had barely noticed, but Trippi had turned me from a nominal supporter of his candidate into a die-hard Deaniac.
Sounds like a Paul Begala or James Carville in the making, right? Think again. The Dean experience actually pushed Klein away from party activism and toward what would become his career. “It turned out I hated working for a campaign,” he says now. “I have strong opinions about American public policy, and the nature of working on a campaign is that you have to sublimate your opinions to somebody else’s. It’s really around that time that I began taking journalism more seriously.”
Klein became part of an emerging “Netroots” phenomenon: left-of-center political junkies, native to the Web, who tilted at windmills during the dark reign of George W. Bush and would eventually help refashion Democratic politics and political media. These young grassroots bloggers were basically functioning as political columnists without a mainstream-media platform: among them, Markos Moulitsas (founder of the innovative and high-trafficked community site Daily Kos), Duncan Black (the dour, acid-penned proprietor of The Eschaton Blog, known by his pen name, Atrios), and Matthew Yglesias (well-known even before graduating from Harvard in 2003).
During President Bush’s second term, the left’s newly energized bloggers developed a wry shorthand to mock the political-media bubble they saw enveloping Washington. Morally pompous Iraq war supporters (especially on The Washington Post op-ed page) were tagged “Very Serious People,” since “un-serious” was a frequent slur on the allegedly ill-informed anti-war left. Above-it-all Beltway paeans to bipartisan comity were dubbed “High Broderism,” in anti-tribute to David Broder, still considered by many to be the dean of the DC journalism establishment. “Even The New Republic” became a favored sardonic phrase. As National Review’s David Frum wrote in May 2007, “If even The New Republic finds more to praise than to blame in the left blogosphere, then the brakes are truly off the Democratic machine.”
The Netroots crowd reserved its harshest critique for what it dubbed “The Village”—that unreal political island in the District of Columbia where absurdly powerful people treat important policy like frivolous sport and pretend to disagree with one another on cable chat shows. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman—sanctimoniously pro-war and favorite of The New Republic—always seemed to be the only Village “liberal” allowed in places like NBC’s Meet the Press, where he would wallow in host Tim Russert’s High Broderism and cluck his tongue at the uncivil rabble to his left.
“I think a lot of blogging was founded on a very particular critique of the media,” Klein says. “During this period of the Iraq war, there was a broad feeling that the media hadn’t done its job, that it had been hampered by this requirement to pretend the truth always was in the middle. And I was part of that critique.” (Klein was originally in favor of the Iraq war on liberal-hawk grounds that he would soon repudiate.)
Still an undergraduate, Klein found himself attracted to Matthew Yglesias and the older, left-of-center blogger Kevin Drum, both of whom were more journalistic and amiable than the typical bomb-throwing diarist at Daily Kos. “If you wanted to tell the story of my coming up, Matt Yglesias is the key figure,” Klein says. “Matt’s blog was a major inspiration for me, because he was a college student and he did this kind of data-driven, very careful work that appealed to me.”
There are many, both within Netroots and without, who would object to several of my descriptions and reductionisms, but essentially the movement’s more buttoned-down Klein/Yglesias/Drum wing began to gravitate to The Village—or at least toward its coterie of smallish-circulation magazines of political opinion. Yglesias was nicknamed “Big Media Matt” for getting signed to The American Prospect in 2003. Drum’s blog became the homepage of The Washington Monthly for four years beginning in 2004 (it’s now hosted by Mother Jones). And Klein took his initial plunge as an unpaid intern at The Washington Monthly in the summer of ’04.
(This is as good as place as any to note my numerous conflicts of interest: I edit a monthly, Reason, that competes with the aforementioned magazines; I was one of the first to praise Yglesias’s blog, and also recommended him to the Prospect; I was part of the “warblog” crowd that incensed the Netroots; I’ve tangled with many of these guys publicly, including Klein; and I once enjoyed a cocktail at Drum’s apartment. You can be a relatively minor cog in the wheel of Washington journalism, and be riddled with so many conflicts that the whole Village critique feels inadequate.)
In November 2004, months before Klein headed to DC for his first real journalism gig at The American Prospect, a Q&A with the website LAist.com showed he was starting to realize that his instinct for partisan activism was best served through practicing journalism. “I used to have political aspirations,” he told LAist. “But over time, I found that I enjoy writing far more. More to the point, I think that the creation of a media environment that can sustain and propel progressivism is more important than any single elected official. I’d trade a liberal O’Reilly (or Limbaugh!) for five, 10 congressmen. The media is as effective and important an agent for change as the legislative bodies, and I think it’s where I’m happiest and most effective.”
A wonk is born
There is on MSNBC this newish thing called “The Ezra Klein Challenge.” When Klein guest-hosts The Rachel Maddow Show, producers slap a two-minute timer on the screen and he races the clock to “explain complicated stuff, especially in the economy”—things like Spanish bond yields and why big US banks need to be broken up. Like much of what Klein does, it successfully navigates the terrain between glib and well-informed, whimsical and dead serious, know-it-all and let’s-learn-it-together. Unless you already have strong reason to doubt or dislike him—and few MSNBC viewers do—you leave the experience feeling smarter.
Reading Klein’s similarly expository Washington Post Wonkbook blog, it’s hard to imagine such tart political one-liners as, “He’s like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like,” which is how Klein described former House Majority Leader Dick Armey in the Prospect in June 2007. Klein laughs at the memory. “I sometimes feel like I was a better writer years ago than I am now, or certainly a funnier one,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t even write the Dick Armey line now. I try not to be a mean writer. I really do like explaining policy. It’s not a joke; it’s not a stance.”
The “hinge moment” in Klein’s professional development came in April 2005, when, while still hurrying through his UCLA degree in political science, he mentioned on his blog a new healthcare report by the lefty think tank Center for American Progress. “I remember reading the comments, and seeing a lot of people arguing about Canada,” he recalls. “And I thought, Okay, I don’t know anything about the Canadian healthcare system, or any of these healthcare systems. So I told my readers I was going to do this feature for a week called The Health of Nations.” After checking out a bunch of books at a UCLA library, Klein launched a daily stream that summarized health-delivery systems in Japan, Canada, Germany, England, and France. “I mean, they were like Wikipedia entries or something,” he says. “But I loved it! I really thought it was interesting. And the readership really liked it, too. It was useful information, which was not really something that I was providing for them before. That’s when the sort of thing I like to write about began to take shape.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Not only had Klein entered political blogging at a moment when digital natives were beginning to reconstitute the opinion-journalism profession, but the topic that fused his passion and wonkery—healthcare—was surging back into the public discussion, as progressive ideas resurfaced within American liberalism.
In 2005, just before graduating from UCLA, Klein was hired as a writing fellow at The American Prospect, which was co-founded in 1990 by Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, and Paul Starr as a sort of exploration of modern Democratic progressivism through the lens of Washington policymaking. Klein says he knew he had found a home when his first real story meeting ended with then-editor Michael Tomasky telling him to go spelunking among the social scientists to figure out “what’s hot” in poverty. “Being at that place where policy journalism was the thing you did was absolutely critical for me,” he says. “Nobody said, ‘That’s too boring.’”
At the Prospect, Klein wrote about procedural Washington reform, tangled with the “ruthlessly serious” liberal hawks at The New Republic, and continued his path-clearing work in the weeds of healthcare delivery systems. His byline started popping up elsewhere, mixing pedagogy with policy prescriptions. “Think money drives medicine? You don’t know the half of it,” he wrote in The Washington Monthly. For Slate, he debunked “The Medical Malpractice Myth.” In the LA Times he advocated “Going Universal.”
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.
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.”
So the activist-turned-opinion journalist is becoming more radicalized. If the last decade is any guide, wherever Ezra Klein’s politics go next, American liberalism will go as well. Whether the latter will still be a force for change is something the rest of us won’t know until Klein is at least 29.