Can Biden — and his vice-presidential pick — take us there?
Gail Collins: Bret, welcome to our new conversing day. Let’s celebrate by disagreeing. This week Congress is trying to work out a second-stage coronavirus relief program. But the president has been stalling in an attempt to get them to cut payroll taxes.
If I remember correctly, you’re a big champion of cutting the tax, which is used to help fund Social Security. Does that put you on the Trump side?
Bret Stephens: Gail, my feelings about tax cuts are basically the same as my feelings about ice cream. It’s not that I dislike any particular flavor, but I like some more than others.
In the case of a temporary payroll tax cut, the good thing about it is that it’s money in people’s pockets when they may need it the most. Just think of all the parents who’ll need child care because their kids can’t go to school in the fall. The bad thing about it is that because it’s temporary it doesn’t give people or businesses a motive to hire and invest. Most of the Republican caucus in Congress doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic.
Gail: We don’t need to be losing sleep over it. No rational politician is going to mess with Social Security. Even the Senate Republicans aren’t keen about Trump’s idea.
Bret: The best thing Trump could do to improve the economy is eliminate all the tariffs he’s imposed, which are a direct tax on the consumer and a huge burden on any importer. But of course he won’t.
Gail: Can I confess that I’m not really into tariffs? But a hike clearly isn’t in the interest of the average consumer.
Bret: Think of tariffs as what happens nine months after an ardent xenophobe and a failing businessman get hitched.
Gail: Let me ask you about something I’ve been obsessing about recently: the polls. I see all the polls showing that the public is never, ever, going to re-elect Trump. But then I remember how the polls seemed to show the same thing last time around. Hillary was a shoo-in! Until election night. Are you as insecure about this as I am?
Bret: The same fear spins around in my head like a scene in a horror movie — the one in which the evil ax murderer has a knife in his back and seems to be dead, but you know he’s coming back for one last terrifying chop.
Gail: I hate when that happens.
Bret: I can think of all kinds of things that could derail a Biden bid.
- He stumbles really badly in an interview.
- Police officers get massacred at a protest, as they were in Dallas in 2016.
- His veep pick is too far to the left.
- China shoots down an American surveillance plane.
- Fed-up parents start a movement to send their kids back to school, and Biden opposes them to take sides with the teachers’ unions.
- Covid-19 fatality rates reach a plateau and then fall,
- unemployment comes down,
- crime shoots up.
In other words, a lot can happen. On the flip side of this is the likelihood, or at least the prayer, that most Americans have really soured on Trump, and they’re just waiting for Biden and his V.P. pick to give them a sense of reassurance that they’ll be the right mix of harmless and hopeful.
Gail: Well, things look so good for Biden now there are only two possible worries. Yours is the classic Joe Screws Up, and I am not going to try to convince you that’s impossible.
Mine is a suspicion of polls. I’ve always suspected that when people get called by a poll taker, they want to say something they think will make them look good. There was a period in which some Black candidates did better in the polls than they did in the actual votes on Election Day, and one thought was that respondents just wanted to seem tolerant.
Bret: I think you’re referring to the Bradley effect, after the African-American L.A. mayor Tom Bradley, who lost a governor’s race in California to a white opponent even though pre-election polls had him ahead.
Gail: I’ve wondered if the polls showing Hillary way ahead four years ago were the product of people not wanting a stranger on the telephone to know they were a Trump kind of voter. And now we’re back again, except supporting Trump is even more embarrassing. Could we be seeing the same thing?
Bret: It’s a good question. My guess is, probably not. I think the main reason the polls failed to predict the outcome in 2016 wasn’t so much that people lied to pollsters. It’s that swing voters who hated both candidates decided late in the day that they hated Hillary more. The release of James Comey’s letter saying he had reopened the investigation into Clinton’s emails was a big deciding factor. And Trump was, unquestionably, the “change” candidate, whereas Hillary ran as the candidate of the status quo.
Gail: And I must admit a friend who knows a lot about such things told me the embarrassed-by-Trump voters I was describing wouldn’t say they were voting for Biden. They’d just claim “undecided.”
Bret: My main doubt about the current polling is that Trump is basically running against a candidate named “Not Trump.” Remember how “Doonesbury” used to depict George H.W. Bush as an invisible figure? That’s Biden today. But eventually he’s going to have to become more visible, and that’s when the polls will really start to count.
Can I switch the subject? I know we’ve often discussed this before, but this is probably our last conversation before Biden names his running mate. How about we place a small bet — a glass of wine — on whom he chooses?
Gail: Hey, I’ll bet you a bottle of good zinfandel it’s Kamala Harris.
Bret: OK, and I’ll bet you a reasonably priced Sancerre that it’s Val Demings. Give me your thinking on Harris.
Gail: Well, he’s promised to nominate a woman and there’s a growing expectation it’ll be a woman of color. There’s quite a talent pool for him to choose from, but Harris has some of the strongest national political experience. She can point to her work in the Senate, and she’s usually good on TV. Her own presidential campaign wasn’t very well-run, but that shouldn’t be a problem if she’s on Team Joe.
Plus, she’s got a lot of experience in criminal justice, which will be a big topic this fall. Now you.
Bret: My thinking about Harris is that she comes from a state, California, that Biden doesn’t need to win. Demings comes from Florida, which Biden really would like to win. Harris is a senator, and Biden an ex-senator, so there isn’t a good mix of legislative and executive experience. Demings was a police chief, meaning she’s inhabited the sphere most Americans think of as the real world. Harris attacked Biden pretty viciously in the early debates, and those attacks will be used against them both. Demings has, as far as I know, stayed out of the intramural Democratic squabbles. I suspect that many white voters feel that Harris projects establishmentarian entitlement while making them feel uncomfortable on subjects like busing. Demings’s life story is a classic tale of pulling herself up every step of the way, from deep poverty to the floor of Congress. Harris’s background as a tough-on-crime prosecutor may haunt her. But Demings’s background as a police officer will refute the G.O.P. attack line that the Democratic Party hates the cops.
Gail: You’ve made a good argument about why Demings should get the nomination. But when it comes to who will I just feel Democrats may be more comfortable with Harris, who they’ve known a lot longer.
Bret: Then again, our colleague Frank Bruni made a compelling case for Illinois’s heroic Tammy Duckworth. And I know Susan Rice would make the case that she knows her way around the White House and would be ready for the job, though some of her poor judgments, her notoriously brusque manners and her lack of normal political experience will be big strikes against her.
Anyway, that’s my bid for the Sancerre. If we’re both wrong we can just trade bottles.
Gail: I can think of a lot worse ways to spend an evening. Cheers!
And consider, what will it take for the Republican Party to begin to heal itself?
If Donald Trump stages another come-from-behind victory in November — helped, in all likelihood, by the collapse of public order in American cities — the Republican Party will become an oddity for the Trump Organization: the only entity it owns but does not brand. Not only will Trump remain in office for another term, but the Trumpers will also dominate the G.O.P. for another generation.
Look for Tom Cotton to be the likely nominee in 2024 (with — why not? — Laura Ingraham as his running mate).
And if Trump loses? Then the future of the party will be up for grabs. It’s time to start thinking about who can grab it, who should, and who will.
Much depends on the margin of defeat. If it’s razor thin and comes down to a vote-count dispute in a single state, as it did in Florida in 2000, Trump will almost surely allege fraud, claim victory and set off a constitutional crisis. As Ohio State law professor Edward Foley noted last year in a must-read law review article, a state like Pennsylvania could send competing certificates of electoral votes to Congress. Interpretive ambiguities in the 12th Amendment and the Electoral Count Act of 1887 could deadlock the House and the Senate. We could have two self-declared presidents on the eve of next year’s inauguration.
Who controls the nuclear football in that event is a question someone needs to start thinking about right now.
But let’s assume Trump loses narrowly but indisputably. In that case, the Trump family will do what it can to retain control of the G.O.P.
Tommy Hicks Jr., the current Republican National Committee co-chairman, is one possible candidate to move up to become chairman, and run the R.N.C., but the likelier choice is Hicks’s good friend Donald Trump Jr. The Trumpers will make the argument that NeverTrumpers cost them the election and are thus responsible for everything bad that might happen in a Biden administration, from crime on the streets to liberal Supreme Court picks to some future Benghazi-type episode.
Something unpleasant might come of this. It tends to happen whenever a large mass of conformists convince themselves that they’ve been betrayed by a nonconforming minority in their midst.
Then there’s the third scenario: An overwhelming and humiliating Trump defeat, on the order of George H.W. Bush’s 168 to 370 electoral vote loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.
The infighting will begin the moment Florida, North Carolina or any other must-win state for Trump is called for Joe Biden. It will pit two main camps against each other. On the right, it will be the What Were We Thinking? side of the party. On the further right, the Trump Didn’t Go Far Enough side. Think of it as a cage match between Marco Rubio and Tucker Carlson for the soul of the G.O.P.
Both sides will recognize that Trump was a uniquely incompetent executive who — as in his business dealings —
- always proved his own worst enemy,
- always squandered his luck,
- never learned from his mistakes,
- never grew in office.
Both sides will want to wash their hands of the soon-to-be-former president, his obnoxious relatives, their intellectual vacuity and their self-dealing ways. And both will have to tread carefully around a wounded and bitter man who, like a minefield laid for some long-ago war, still has the power to kill anyone who missteps.
That’s where agreement ends. The What Were We Thinking? Republicans will want to hurry the party back to some version of what it was when Paul Ryan was its star. They’ll want to pretend that Trump never happened. They will organize a task force composed of former party worthies to write an election post-mortem, akin to what then-G.O.P. chair Reince Priebus did after 2012, emphasizing the need to repair relations with minorities, women and younger voters. They’ll talk up the virtues of Republicans as
- reformers and problem-solvers, not
- Know-Nothings and culture warriors.
The Didn’t Go Far Enough camp will make the opposite case. They’ll note that Trump
- never built the wall,
- never got U.S. troops out of the Middle East,
- never drained the swamp of Beltway corruption,
- ended NAFTA in name only,
- did Wall Street’s bidding at Main Street’s expense, and
- “owned the libs” on Twitter while losing the broader battle of ideas.
This camp will seek a new champion: Trump plus a brain.
These are two deeply unattractive versions of the party of Lincoln, one feckless, the other fanatical. Even so, all who care about the health of American democracy should hold their noses and hope the feckless side prevails.
As with the Democrats after Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980, it will probably take more than one electoral shellacking for conservative-leaning voters to appreciate the scale of disaster that Trump’s presidency inflicted on the party and the country. It will probably also take more than one defeat for the party to learn that electoral contests should still be waged, and won, near the center of the ideological spectrum, not the fringe.
But everything has to start somewhere. A decisive Trump loss in November isn’t a sufficient condition for the G.O.P. to begin to heal itself. It’s still a beginning.
This spring I taught a seminar (via Zoom, of course) at the University of Chicago on the art of political persuasion. We read Lincoln, Pericles, King, Orwell, Havel and Churchill, among other great practitioners of the art. We ended with a study of Donald Trump’s tweets, as part of a class on demagogy.
If the closing subject was depressing, at least the timing was appropriate.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented national catastrophe. The catastrophe is not the pandemic, or an economic depression, or killer cops, or looted cities, or racial inequities. These are all too precedented. What’s unprecedented is that never before have we been led by a man who so completely inverts the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
With malice toward all; with charity for none: eight words that encapsulate everything this president is, does and stands for.
What does one learn when reading great political speeches and writings? That well-chosen words are the way by which past deeds acquire meaning and future deeds acquire purpose. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” are the only false notes in the Gettysburg Address. The Battle of Gettysburg is etched in national memory less for its military significance than because Lincoln reinvented the goals of the Civil War in that speech — and, in doing so, reimagined the possibilities of America.
Political writing doesn’t just provide meaning and purpose. It also offers determination, hope and instruction.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” written at one of the grimmer moments of Communist tyranny, Václav Havel laid out why the system was so much weaker, and the individual so much stronger, than either side knew. In his “Fight on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill told Britons of “a victory inside this deliverance” — a reason, however remote, for resolve and optimism. In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., explained why patience was no answer to injustice: “When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
In a word, great political writing aims to elevate. What, by contrast, does one learn by studying Trump’s utterances?
The purpose of Trump’s presidency is to debase, first by debasing the currency of speech. It’s why he refuses to hire reasonably competent speechwriters to craft reasonably competent speeches. It’s why his communication team has been filled by people like Dan Scavino and Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Sanders.
And it’s why Twitter is his preferred medium of communication. It is speech designed for provocations and put-downs; for making supporters feel smug; for making opponents seethe; for reducing national discourse to the level of grunts and counter-grunts.
That’s a level that suits Trump because it’s the level at which he excels. Anyone who studies Trump’s tweets carefully must come away impressed by the way he has mastered the demagogic arts. He doesn’t lead his base, as most politicians do. He personifies it. He speaks to his followers as if he were them. He cultivates their resentments, demonizes their opponents, validates their hatreds. He glorifies himself so they may bask in the reflection.
Whatever this has achieved for him, or them, it’s a calamity for us. At a moment when disease has left more than 100,000 American families bereft, we have a president incapable of expressing the nation’s heartbreak. At a moment of the most bitter racial grief since the 1960s, we have a president who has bankrupted the moral capital of the office he holds.
And at a moment when many Americans, particularly conservatives, are aghast at the outbursts of looting and rioting that have come in the wake of peaceful protests, we have a president who wants to replace rule of law with rule by the gun. If Trump now faces a revolt by the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership (both current and former) against his desire to deploy active-duty troops in American cities, it’s because his words continue to drain whatever is left of his credibility as commander in chief.
I write this as someone who doesn’t lay every national problem at Trump’s feet and tries to give him credit when I think it’s due.
Trump is no more responsible for the policing in Minneapolis than Barack Obama was responsible for policing in Ferguson. I doubt the pandemic would have been handled much better by a Hillary Clinton administration, especially considering the catastrophic errors of judgment by people like Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo. And our economic woes are largely the result of a lockdown strategy most avidly embraced by the president’s critics.
But the point here isn’t that Trump is responsible for the nation’s wounds. It’s that he is the reason some of those wounds have festered and why none of them can heal, at least for as long as he remains in office. Until we have a president who can say, as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and be believed in the bargain — our national agony will only grow worse.
It’s not what the progressive left is talking about.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both campaigned for, and won, the White House on the watchword “hope.” What watchword will it take for a Democrat to win this time?
My suggestion: soap.
Nearly three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, America needs a hard scrub and a deep cleanse. It needs to wash out the grime and grease of an administration that every day does something to make the country feel soiled.
Soiled by a president who, Castro-like, delivered a two-hour rant at a rally in Michigan the night he was impeached. Who described his shakedown of Ukraine as “perfect.” Who extolled the world’s cruelest tyrant as someone who “wrote me beautiful letters. … We fell in love.” Who abandoned vulnerable allies in Syria, then opted to maintain troops in the country “only for oil.” Who, barely a year before the El Paso massacre, demonized illegal immigrants who “pour into and infest our Country.”
The list goes on, and most everyone feels it. In June, the Pew Research Center published a survey on how the country sees the state of public discourse. The most striking finding: “A 59 percent majority of Republicans and Republican leaners say they often or sometimes feel concerned by what Trump says. About half also say they are at least sometimes embarrassed (53 percent) and confused (47 percent) by Trump’s statements.”
What’s true of Republicans is far more so of the rest of the United States. Pew found that overwhelming majorities of Americans were “concerned” (76 percent), “confused” (70 percent), “embarrassed” (69 percent), “angry” (65 percent), “insulted” (62 percent) and “frightened” (56 percent) by the things Trump says.
These numbers should devastate Trump’s chances of re-election. They don’t, for three reasons.
- First, 76 percent of Americans rate economic conditions positively, up from 48 percent at the time of Trump’s election.
- Second, the progressive left’s values seem increasingly hostile to mainstream ones, as suggested by the titanic row over J.K. Rowling’s recent tweet defending a woman who was fired over her outspoken views on transgenderism.
- Third, the more the left rages about Trump and predicts nothing but catastrophe and conspiracy from him, the more out of touch it seems when the catastrophes don’t happen and the conspiracy theories come up short.
No wonder Trump’s average approval ratings have steadily ticked up since the end of October. In the view of middle-of-the-road America, the president may be bad, but he’s nowhere near as bad as his critics say.
In that same view, while Trump’s critics might be partly right about him, they’re a lot less right than they believe. In a contest between the unapologetic jerk in the White House and the self-styled saints seeking to unseat him, the jerk might just win.
How to avoid that outcome?
The most obvious point is not to promise a wrenching overhaul of the economy when it shows no signs of needing such an overhaul. There are plenty of serious long-term risks to our prosperity, including a declining birthrate, national debt north of $23 trillion, the erosion of the global free-trade consensus, threats to the political independence of the Federal Reserve, and the popularization of preposterous economic notions such as Modern Monetary Theory.
But anyone who thinks blowout government spending, partly financed by an unconstitutional and ineffective wealth tax, is going to be an electoral winner should look at the fate of Britain’s hapless Jeremy Corbyn.
What would work? Smart infrastructure spending. New taxes on carbon offset by tax cuts on income and saving. Modest increases in taxes on the wealthy matched to the promise of a balanced budget.
What these proposals lack in progressive ambition, they make up in political plausibility and the inherent appeal of modesty. They also defeat Trump’s most potent re-election argument, which is that, no matter who opposes him, he’s running against the crazy left.
Hence the second point. Too much of today’s left is too busy pointing out the ugliness of the Trumpian right to notice its own ugliness: its censoriousness, nastiness and complacent self-righteousness. But millions of ordinary Americans see it, and they won’t vote for a candidate who emboldens and empowers woke culture. The Democrat who breaks with that culture, as Clinton did in 1992 over Sister Souljah and Obama did in October over “cancel culture,” is the one likeliest to beat Trump.
Finally, the winning Democrat will need to make Trump’s presidency seem insignificant rather than monumental — an unsightly pimple on our long republican experiment, not a fatal cancer within it. Mike Bloomberg has the financial wherewithal to make Trump’s wealth seem nearly trivial. Joe Biden has the life experience to make Trump’s attacks seem petty. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have the rhetorical skills to turn Trump’s taunts against him.
As with most bullies, the key to beating Trump is to treat him as the nonentity he fundamentally is. Wouldn’t it be something if his political opponents and obsessed media critics resolved, for 2020, to talk about him a little less and past him a lot more?
When your goal is to wash your hands of something bad, you don’t need a sword. Soap will do.