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The New York Times’ Best Books of 2023
Congratulations to our fiction and nonfiction books that made the “10 best books of 2023” list by the editors of the new york times book review ..
Chain Gang All Stars
By nana kwame adjei-brenyah, paperback $18.00, buy from other retailers:.
by Zadie Smith
By daniel mason, hardcover $28.00.
The Best Minds
By jonathan rosen, hardcover $32.00.
Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs
By kerry howley.
By john vaillant, hardcover $32.50.
Some People Need Killing
By patricia evangelista, hardcover $30.00.
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Democrats Have a Better Option Than Biden
It requires them to embrace an old-fashioned approach to winning a campaign..
Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’
[You can listen to this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” on the NYT Audio app , Apple , Spotify , Amazon Music , Google or wherever you get your podcasts .]
A full transcript of this audio essay is available here:
Ezra Klein: My heart breaks a bit for Joe Biden. This is a man who has been running for president since he was young. He wins the presidency, finally, unexpectedly, when he’s old. And that age brought him wisdom. It brought an openness that hadn’t always been there in him. He’s governed as a throwback to a time before “I alone can fix it,” a time when presidents were party leaders, coalition builders.
Biden has held together a Democratic Party that could easily have splintered. Think back to the 2020 campaign, when he beat Bernie Sanders, when he beat Elizabeth Warren, when his victory was seen as, was in reality, the moderate wing triumphing over the progressive wing, the establishment over the insurgents.
But instead of making them bend the knee, instead of acting as a victor, Biden acted as a leader. He partnered with Bernie Sanders. He built the unity task forces. He integrated Warren’s and Sanders’s ideas and staff into not just his campaign but also his administration.
I had a conversation recently with Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the House progressive caucus, and I asked her why the Democratic Party hadn’t ruptured the way Republicans did. She pointed me back to that moment. Biden, she said, made this “huge attempt to pull the Democratic Party back together before the 2020 election in a way I’ve really never seen before.”
And it worked. Democrats had 50 votes in the Senate. Fifty votes that stretched from Bernie Sanders on the left all the way to Joe Manchin on the right. Biden and Chuck Schumer, they often could not lose even one of those votes, and at crucial moments, they didn’t.
With that almost-impossible-to-hold-together coalition, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats passed a series of bills — the bipartisan infrastructure deal, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act — that will make this a decade of infrastructure and invention. A decade of building, of decarbonizing, of researching. They expanded the Affordable Care Act, and it worked — more than 21 million people signed up for the A.C.A. last year, a record. They did what Democrats have promised to do forever and took at least the first steps toward letting Medicare negotiate drug prices.
And the Biden team, they said they were going to run the economy hot, that at long last, they were going to prioritize full employment, and they did. And then inflation shot up. Not just here but in Europe, in Canada, pretty much everywhere. The pandemic had twisted global supply chains and then the economy had reopened, and people desperate to live again took their pandemic savings and spent. And the Biden team, in partnership with Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve, got the rate of inflation back down, and we are still beneath 4 percent unemployment.
And I don’t want to just skip over that accomplishment. Most economists said that could not be done. The overwhelming consensus was we were headed for a recession, that the so-called soft landing was a fantasy. It got mocked as “immaculate disinflation.” But that is what happened. We didn’t have a recession. We are still seeing strong wage gains for the poorest Americans. Inequality is down. Growth is quick. America is far stronger economically right now than Europe, than Canada, than China. You want to be us.
And yet Biden’s poll numbers are dismal. His approval rating lingers in the high 30s. Most polls show him losing to Donald Trump in 2024. Then comes the special counsel report, which finds no criminal wrongdoing in his treatment of classified information, which is — remember — the question the special counsel was appointed to investigate. But the counsel takes a drive-by on Biden’s cognitive fitness. Says a jury would think him a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.” Says Biden doesn’t remember when his son Beau died.
And Biden, enraged, does what people have been asking him to do this whole time. He takes the age issue head on. And he gives a news conference full of fury.
And then, when he is about to leave, he comes back to take one more question — this one on Israel and Gaza, where he says that America is no longer lock step behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s invasion, and then describing the effort he put in getting President Sisi to open the Egyptian border for aid, he slips. He calls Sisi the president of Mexico. Makes the kind of slip anyone can make, but a kind of slip he is making too often now, a kind of slip that means more when he makes it than when someone else does.
Since the beginning of Biden’s administration, I have been asking people who work with him: How does he seem? How read in is he? What’s he like in the meetings? Maybe it’s not a great sign that I felt the need to do that, that a lot of reporters have been doing that, but still. And I am convinced, watching him, listening to the testimony of those who meet with him — not all people who like him — I am convinced he is able to do the job of the presidency. He is sharp in meetings; he makes sound judgments. I cannot point you to a moment where Biden faltered in his presidency because his age had slowed him.
But here’s the thing. I can now point you to moments when he is faltering in his campaign for the presidency because his age is slowing him. This distinction between the job of the presidency and the job of running for the presidency keeps getting muddied, including by Biden himself.
This is the question Democrats keep wanting to answer, the question the Biden administration keeps pretending only to hear: Can Biden do the job of president? But that is not the question of the 2024 campaign. The insistence that Biden is capable of being president is being used to shut down discussion of whether he’s capable of running for president.
I’ve had my own journey on this. I’ve written a number of columns about how Biden keeps proving pundits wrong, about how he’s proved me wrong. He won in 2020 despite plenty of naysayers. The Democrats won in 2022, defying predictions. I had, in 2022, been planning to write a column after the midterms saying there should be a primary because Democrats need to see how strong of a campaigner Biden still was. The test needed to be run. But when they overperformed, that drained all interest among the major possible candidates in running. That test wasn’t going to happen. But still, I thought, Biden might surprise again. I’d grown wary of underestimating him.
We had to wait till this year — till now, really — to see Biden even begin to show what he’d be like on the campaign trail. And what I think we’re seeing is that he is not up for this. He is not the campaigner he was, even five years ago. That’s not insider reporting on my part. Go watch a speech he gave in Pennsylvania, kicking off his campaign in 2019. And then go watch the speech he gave last month, in Valley Forge, kicking off his election campaign. No comparison here. Both speeches are on YouTube, and you can see it. The way he moves, the energy in his voice. The Democrats denying decline are only fooling themselves.
But even given that, I was stunned when his team declined a Super Bowl interview. Biden is not up by 12 points. He can’t coast to victory here. He is losing. He is behind in most polls. He is behind, despite everything people already know about Donald Trump. He needs to make up ground. If he does not make up ground, Trump wins.
The Super Bowl is one of the biggest audiences you will ever have. And you just skip it? You just say no?
The Biden team’s argument, to be fair, is this: Who wants to see the president during the Super Bowl, anyway? And even if they did the interview, CBS would just choose three or four minutes of a 15-minute interview to air. What if CBS chooses a clip that makes Biden look bad?
That’s all true. But that’s all true in the context of a team that does not believe that the more people see Biden, the more they will like him. There’s a reason other presidents do the Super Bowl interview. There’s a reason Biden himself did it in 2021 and 2022, that Trump said he’d gladly take Biden’s place this year.
I was talking to James Carville, who’s one of the chief strategists behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and he put this really well to me. He said to me that a campaign has certain assets, but the most desirable asset is the candidate. And the Biden campaign does not deploy Biden like he is a desirable asset.
Biden has done fewer interviews than any recent president, and it’s not close. By this point in their presidencies, Barack Obama had given more than 400 interviews and Trump had given more than 300. Biden has given fewer than 100. And a bunch of them are softball interviews — he’ll go on Conan O’Brien’s podcast, or Jay Shetty’s mindfulness podcast. The Biden team says this is a strategy, that they need apolitical voters, the ones who are not listening to political media. But one, this strategy isn’t working — Biden is down, not up. And two, no one really buys this argument. I don’t buy this argument. This isn’t a strategy chosen from a full universe of options. This is a strategic adaptation to Biden’s perceived limits as a candidate. And what’s worse, it may be a wise one.
I want to say this clearly: I like Biden. I think he’s been a good president. I think he is a good president. I don’t like having this conversation. And I know a lot of liberals, a lot of Democrats are going to be furious at me for this show.
But to say this is a media invention, that people are worried about Biden’s age because the media keeps telling them to be worried about Biden’s age? If you have really convinced yourself of that, in your heart of hearts, I almost don’t know what to tell you. In poll after poll, 70 percent to 80 percent of voters are worried about his age. This is not a thing people need the media to see. It is right in front of them, and it is also shaping how Biden and his campaign are acting.
Democrats keep telling themselves, when they look at the polls, that voters will come back to Biden when the campaign starts in earnest and they begin seeing more of Trump, when they have to take what he is and what it would mean for him to return seriously.
But that is going to go both ways. When the campaign begins in earnest, they will also see much more of Joe Biden. People who barely pay attention to him now, they will be watching his speeches. They will see him on the news constantly. Will they actually like what they see? Will it comfort them?
That was why that news conference mattered. That news conference had a point. It had a purpose. The purpose was to reassure voters of Biden’s cognitive fitness, particularly his memory. And Biden couldn’t do that, not for one night, not for fewer than 15 minutes. And these kinds of gaffes have become commonplace for him. He recently said he’d been speaking to the former French president Francois Mitterrand when he meant Emmanuel Macron. He said he’d been talking to the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl when he meant Angela Merkel.
None of these matter much on their own. The human mind just does this. But it does it more as you get older. And they do matter collectively. Voters believe Biden is too old for the job he seeks. He needs to persuade them otherwise, and he is failing at that task — arguably the central task of his re-election campaign.
And that can become a self-fulfilling cycle. His staff knows that news conference was a disaster. So how will they respond? What will they do now? They will hold him back from aggressive campaigning even more, from unscripted situations. They will try to make doubly sure that it doesn’t happen again. But they need a candidate — Democrats need a candidate — who can aggressively campaign, because again — and I cannot emphasize this enough — they are currently losing.
Part of my job is talking to the kinds of Democrats who run and win campaigns constantly. All of them are worried about this. None of them say that this is an invention or not a real issue. And this is key: It’s not the age itself they are worried about. The age of 81 doesn’t mean anything. It’s the impression Biden is giving of age. Of slowness. Of frailty.
The presidency is a performance. You are not just making decisions, you are also acting out the things people want to believe about their president — that the president is in command, strong, energetic, compassionate, thoughtful, that they don’t need to worry about all that is happening in the world, because the president has it all under control.
Whether it is true that Biden has it all under control, it is not true that he seems like he does. Some political strategists I know think that’s why his poll numbers are low. That even when good things happen, people don’t really think he did them. One was telling me that what worries him most about Biden is how stable his approval rating is — it doesn’t really go up or down. Inflation has gone down a lot in recent months. People feel a lot better about the economy. You can see that in consumer sentiment data. But Biden’s approval rating, it has not gone up. His performance on Ukraine did not make it go up. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act did not make it go up. To this strategist, it looked like a lot of Americans just don’t give Biden credit for things even when he deserves them. And Biden isn’t now a capable or aggressive enough campaigner to win that credit for himself.
The arguments I see even some smart Democrats making so they don’t have to look at this directly are self-defeating. The one I hear most often is that Trump is also old. He’s 77. He also mixes up names — he recently called Nancy Pelosi Nikki Haley. He sometimes speaks in gibberish. And it’s all true. But that is a reason to nominate a candidate who can exploit the fact that Trump is old and confused. The point is not to give Trump an even match. The point is to beat Trump.
Another argument I see is that this is ageism. This is an unfair thing to point out about Biden. It is age discrimination and, I have actually seen people make this argument, age discrimination is illegal in the workplace. But it is not illegal in the electorate. If the voters are ageist and Biden loses because of it, there is no recourse. You cannot sue the voters for age discrimination.
And then there’s the argument you’ve heard on my podcast. An argument I’ve made before. Biden doesn’t look like a strong candidate, but Democrats keep on winning. Biden won in 2020. Democrats won in 2022. They’ve been winning special elections in 2023. They just won George Santos’s seat in New York. There’s an anti-MAGA majority in this country and they will come out to stop Trump. And I think that might be true. I still think Biden might win against Trump, even with all I’ve said. It’s just that there’s a very good chance he might lose. Maybe even better than even odds. And Trump is dangerous. I want better odds than that.
I think one reason Democrats react so defensively to critiques of Biden is they’ve come to a kind of fatalism. They believe it is too late to do anything else. And if it is too late to do anything else, then to talk about Biden’s age is to contribute to Donald Trump’s victory.
But that’s absurd.
It is February. Fatalism this far before the election is ridiculous. Yeah, it’s too late to throw this to primaries. But it’s not too late to do something.
So then what? Step one, unfortunately, is convincing Biden that he should not run again. That he does not want to risk being Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a heroic, brilliant public servant who caused the outcome she feared most because she didn’t retire early enough. That in stepping aside he would be able to finish out his term as a strong and focused president, and people would see the honor in what he did, in putting his country over his ambitions.
The people whom Biden listens to — Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, Mike Donilon, Ron Klain, Nancy Pelosi, Anita Dunn — they need to get him to see this. Biden may come to see it himself.
I take nothing away from how hard that is, how much Biden wants to finish the job he has started, keep doing the good he believes he can do. Retirement can be, often is, a trauma. But losing to Donald Trump would be far worse.
Let’s say that happens: Biden steps aside. Then what? Well, then Democrats do something that used to be common in politics but hasn’t been in decades. They pick their nominee at the convention. This is how parties chose their nominees for most of American history. From roughly 1831 to 1968, this is how it worked. In a way, this is still how it works.
I’m going to do a whole episode on how an open convention works, so this is going to be a quick version. The way we pick nominees now is still built around conventions. When someone wins a primary or a caucus, what he actually wins is delegate slots. How that works is different in different states. Then they go to the convention to choose the actual nominee.
The whole convention structure is still there. We still use it. It is still the delegates voting at the convention. What’s different now than in the past is that most delegates arrive at the convention committed to a candidate. But without getting too into the weeds of state delegate rules here, if their candidate drops out, if Biden drops out, they can be released to vote for who they want.
The last open convention Democrats had was 1968, a disaster of a convention where the Democratic Party split between pro- and anti-Vietnam War factions, where there was violence in the streets, where Democrats lost the election.
But that’s not how most conventions have gone. It was a convention that picked Abraham Lincoln over William Seward. It was a convention that chose F.D.R. over Al Smith. I’ve been reading Ed Achorn’s book “The Lincoln Miracle: Inside the Republican Convention That Changed History.” My favorite line in it comes from Senator Charles Sumner, who sends a welcome note to the delegates, “whose duty it will be to organize victory.”
Whose duty it will be to organize victory — I love that. That’s what a convention is supposed to do. It’s what a political party is supposed to do: organize victory. Because victory doesn’t just happen. It has to be organized.
Everybody I have talked about this, literally everybody, has brought up the same fear. Call it the Kamala Harris problem. In theory, she should be the favorite. But she polls slightly worse than Biden. Democrats don’t trust that she would be a stronger candidate. But they worry that if she wasn’t chosen it would rip the party apart. I think this is wrong on two levels.
First, I think Harris is underrated now. I’ve thought this for a while. I’ve said this before, that I think she’s going to have a good 2024. Is she a political juggernaut, a generational political talent? Probably not. But she’s a capable politician, which is one reason Biden chose her as his running mate in the first place. She has not thrived as vice president. The D.C. narrative on her has turned extremely negative. But when Kamala Harris ran campaigns as Kamala Harris, this wasn’t how she was seen. And Harris, in private settings — she’s enormously magnetic and compelling.
Her challenge would be translating that into a public persona, which is — and let’s be blunt about this — a hard thing to do when you’ve grown up in a world that has always been quick to find your faults. A world that is afraid of women being angry, of Black people being angry. A world where, for most of your life, it was demanded of you that you be cautious and careful and measured and never make a mistake. And then you get on the public stage and people say, oh, you’re too cautious and too careful and too measured. It’s a very, very, very hard bind to get out of. But maybe she can do it.
Still, it is the party’s job to organize victory. If Harris cannot convince delegates that she has the best shot at victory, she should not and probably would not be chosen. And I don’t think that would rip the party apart. There is a ton of talent in the Democratic Party right now: Gretchen Whitmer, Wes Moore, Jared Polis, Gavin Newsom, Raphael Warnock, Josh Shapiro, Cory Booker, Ro Khanna, Pete Buttigieg, Gina Raimondo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chris Murphy, Andy Beshear, J.B. Pritzker — the list goes on.
Some of them would make a run at the nomination. They would give speeches at the convention, and people would actually pay attention. The whole country would be watching the Democratic convention, and probably quite a bit happening in the run-up to it, and seeing what this murderer’s row of political talent could actually do. And then some ticket would be chosen based on how those people did.
Could it go badly? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it will go badly. It could make the Democrats into the most exciting political show on earth. And over there on the other side will be Trump getting nominated and a who’s who of MAGA types slavering over his leadership. The best of the Democratic Party against the worst of the Republican Party. A party that actually listened to the voters against a party that denies the outcome of the elections. A party that did something different over a party that has again nominated a threat to democracy who has never — not once — won the popular vote in a general election.
That seems like an OK contrast to me.
Yes, the Democratic Party has been winning elections recently. But it is winning those elections in part because it takes candidate recruitment seriously. That was true in 2020. Biden wasn’t the candidate that set the base’s heart aflutter, but he seemed like the candidate with the best shot at winning. So Democrats did the strategic thing and picked him. And they won. In 2022, Democrats carefully chose candidates who fit their districts, who fit their states while Republicans chose MAGA-soaked extremists. And that is why those Democrats won.
The lesson here is not that Democrats don’t need to think hard about who they run in elections. It’s that they do need to think hard about who they run in elections. And they have been. They need to be strategic, not sentimental. And they have been. Because the alternative is Donald Trump. And Donald Trump is dangerous. And right now, Donald Trump is ahead.
I have this nightmare that Trump wins in 2024. And then in 2025 and 2026, out come the campaign tell-all books, and they’re full of emails and WhatsApp messages between Biden staffers and Democratic leaders, where they’re all saying to each other, this is a disaster, he’s not going to win this, I can’t bear to watch this speech, we’re going to lose. But they didn’t say any of it publicly, they didn’t do anything, because it was too dangerous for their careers, or too uncomfortable given their loyalty to Biden.
I’ve said on the show before that we live in a strange era with the parties. We’ve gone from the cliché being that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line, to the reality being that Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart. I’ve mostly meant that as a critique of Republican chaos, but too much order can be its own kind of pathology. A party that is too quick to fall in line, that cannot break line, is a party that will be too slow, maybe unable, to solve hard problems.
So yes, I think Biden, as painful as this is, should find his way to stepping down as a hero. That the party should help him find his way to that, to being the thing he said he would be in 2020, the bridge to the next generation of Democrats. And then I think Democrats should meet in August at the convention to do what political parties have done there before: organize victory.
I recognize there’s going to be a lot of questions and comments and pushback to this piece. So we’re going to do an “Ask Me Anything” episode next week — on this, on 2024 broadly. We’ve set up a voice mail box, if you want to leave a message that could get played on the show. Please keep them under a minute. We’re not going to use ones that are very long. The number for that is 212-556-7300. Or you can email us, both text and a voice note, at [email protected].
You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on the NYT Audio app , Apple , Spotify , Google or wherever you get your podcasts . View a list of book recommendations from our guests here .
This audio essay for “The Ezra Klein Show” was fact-checked by Michelle Harris. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Annie Galvin, Rollin Hu and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser.
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Democrats Have a Better Option Than Biden The Ezra Klein Show
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Biden is faltering and Democrats have no plan B. There is another path to winning in 2024 — and I think they should take it. But it would require them to embrace an old-fashioned approach to winning a campaign. Mentioned: The Lincoln Miracle by Edward Achorn If you have a question for the AMA, you can call 212-556-7300 and leave a voice message or email [email protected] with the subject line, “2024 AMA." You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs. This audio essay for “The Ezra Klein Show” was fact-checked by Michelle Harris. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Annie Galvin, Rollin Hu and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser.
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