Was the New York Times’ Split Endorsement Savvy or Stupid?

The Political Gabfest debates the paper’s two-way tie.

Side by side images of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren both close up and talking into a microphone at a rally.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images and Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

On this week’s Political Gabfest, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discussed the New York Times’ endorsement of both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, as revealed on a special edition of the paper’s FX show, The Weekly. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

John Dickerson: I would like to rise in partial defense of the New York Times. Believe me, I’ve got critiques, but I think part of what they have put their finger on is an unsettled question that should be pushed more to the front, which is are we in a time of repair of existing institutions, or are we in a time of radical solutions? And by that I mean both the systemic problems with the machine of American government and also what is the temperament of the nation.

If Donald Trump is to serve just one term, the appetite in the country for massive change in the other direction is not going to be super high. There is a symbiotic relationship between the desires of the country and what a leader can do. Leaders can’t just run up the hill if people aren’t going to follow them. So figuring out that tension explains what kind of candidate you want and the desired outcome you have. There are a lot of steps in between that are required. First is winning the election, and then comes working through the system to get there.

People often focus on their desired end state, which is important, but it’s not the only issue. And what the Times is wrestling with is both what makes a person electable in this moment, but then also, when they get in the job, how can they govern? Is it a world where you can build bipartisan consensus for things? People talk about Elizabeth Warren’s first effort being corruption reform, OK, but are Republican senators really going to give her a first victory the minute she gets in office? They’ll change the corruption legislation into being about something else.

Or maybe not. Maybe the country will have roundly defeated Donald Trump, and there will be a huge revolt against the Trump idea and Republicans will be rushing to find a safe space, and anti-corruption will be like motherhood and apple pie. But how you see those two things determines whether you think Elizabeth Warren is the person for the day or not. That’s all very much unsettled. And so when the Times makes its choice, I think there’s a defensible case that you need to focus on the frame and the debate first, before you can even pick the candidates.
Since we haven’t settled on the frame, here we go.

David Plotz: That’s weak, man. The point of an editorial, especially the way they constructed it in this whole reality TV spectacle, is that they are trying to make it something that draws attention and that makes a difference. And the only time an editorial endorsement matters is when it is emphatic and well-timed and signals to voters that this is a choice that it’s now safe for them to make, or it validates a choice they can make.

For the Times to fail to pick one candidate, to strip their own endorsement of any power and any meaning is an act of stupidity. I am shocked that the Times did that. It would have been better to pick Tom Steyer or Tulsi Gabbard.

That’s not to say that what you just said is wrong, John. It is true. There are these frames for looking at the election and ways of thinking about it. So if the Times is taking its responsibility of endorsing seriously, it should say the way we believe you should look at it is this way, and therefore we endorse Amy Klobuchar. Or it’s that way, and therefore we endorse Elizabeth Warren. And make a difference. And instead they’ve made this endorsement that will help neither Warren nor Klobuchar and embarrasses the Times. It’s infuriating to see them waste that opportunity. It’s like they’ve been given a $1,000 truffle, and they’ve …

Dickerson: Put it in a smoothie.

Plotz: They’ve put it in baked beans. It’s just stupid.

Dickerson: Can I modify my view? OK, say all that stuff I just said, which I still agree with, but then faced with that , if you believe that the frame is still at issue, then you’ve got to pick one candidate. If you think it’s about picking the frame, then fine, pick the frame. But you can’t duck your obligation to pick one candidate.

Dickerson, Plotz, and Emily Bazelon also discussed the impeachment trial, the state of the Democratic race, and Mohammed bin Salman’s hacking of Jeff Bezos.

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