A Trumpless Future Is Hard to Get Your Head Around

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!

Nancy Pelosi, the Sequel

Republicans should promote their tax cut or Democrats will turn it against them.

When the Republican Congress passed these tax cuts in 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN, “If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work.”

.. On the day Republicans passed the bill, the RealClearPolitics average showed 51.1% of voters disapproved of it while only 21.6% approved. The Republican bet, not unreasonable, was that a growing economy would take care of that gap.

Is the Fight Over Brett Kavanaugh Really Good News for the G.O.P.?

One Democratic supporter told me last weekend that, although he personally hoped Kavanaugh’s candidacy would be struck down, the ideal outcome for the Party would be for the Republicans to railroad it through on the basis of a sham F.B.I. investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct. That is what is now happening.

.. sixty-six per cent of female college graduates believed Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and that just twenty-six per cent of them believed Kavanaugh.

.. among women who identify as independents—that is, about a third of them—fifty-six per cent believed Ford and twenty-four per cent believed Kavanaugh.

The Trump Divide Grows Wider

As the president moves from controversy to controversy, supporters are embracing him all the harder and detractors are growing more feverish in their opposition

From the moment he rode down the escalator at his eponymous Fifth Avenue skyscraper to announce his candidacy three years ago, President Donald Trump has divided Americans.

But the Trump Divide is growing wider and deeper.

As Mr. Trump moves from controversy to controversy, views of the president, pro and con, are hardening, with supporters embracing him more enthusiastically and detractors growing more feverish in their opposition. The middle ground, never very populous, now looks as sparse as a flower bed in February.

.. Certainly Mr. Trump seems disinclined to give ground to his detractors in hopes of winning them over. Rather, he often seems to do the reverse—show that he is prepared to antagonize them further.

After an eruption of criticism over his unwillingness to publicly criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin at their Helsinki summit meeting this month, for example, Mr. Trump backtracked slightly—but then promptly slammed into forward gear again by inviting Mr. Putin to another summit in the U.S. this fall. If that left his critics sputtering, well, that seems to be the way Mr. Trump likes them

.. “The more Mr. Trump gets criticized by the media, the more his base seems to rally behind him,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

.. A remarkable 88% of self-identified Republicans say they approve of the job he is doing, the highest share within a president’s own party at this stage of a presidency since President George W. Bush’s standing after the 9/11 terror attacks.

.. the share of Americans who say they strongly approve of Mr. Trump’s job performance rose to 29%, the highest mark so far.

.. At the same time, though, the strength of those pro-Trump feelings is more than matched by the intensity of anti-Trump sentiments. Some 52% of voters overall disapprove of the job he is doing, and a stunning 44% say they strongly disapprove.

..  it’s impossible to discount the extent to which a strong economy buys Mr. Trump support and forbearance. Politically, steady job growth can paper over many other doubts—though that also means economic deterioration would be especially dangerous for the president.

.. The core Trump support group always has combined

  • those drawn to him for economic reasons (a belief the global economy and its rules are stacked against them), as well as
  • those who are drawn to him for cultural reasons (a feeling that Mr. Trump shares their view that society’s elites, immigrants and liberals are combining to hijack their traditional lifestyle).

 

Republicans redefine morality as whatever Trump does

In marked contrast to the rest of the country, Republicans also say that Trump shares their values (82 percent) and that — get this — he “provides the United States with moral leadership” (80 percent).

.. Yet so strong is the pull of tribalism that we’ve reached a point where partisanship outweighs morality. Republicans aren’t approving of Trump despite his behavior; in calling him a role model, they’re approving his behavior.

.. The difference: Democrats disapproved of Clinton’s morality by 2 to 1 (65 to 33 percent), even as they overwhelmingly approved of his job performance. Only 16 percent of Republicans today say Trump does not provide moral leadership.

.. Such normalizing of Trump’s behavior makes the seediest elements feel safe to crawl out from under their rocks. The FBI reported in November that hate crimes were up again in 2016 after rising in 2015. And the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents were “significantly higher” through the first nine months of 2017

 

Inside the ‘adult day-care center’: How aides try to control and coerce Trump

During the campaign, when President Trump’s advisers wanted him to stop talking about an issue — such as when he attacked a Gold Star military family — they sometimes presented him with polls demonstrating how the controversy was harming his candidacy.

During the transition, when aides needed Trump to decide on a looming issue or appointment, they often limited him to a shortlist of two or three options and urged him to choose one.

And now in the White House, when advisers hope to prevent Trump from making what they think is an unwise decision, they frequently try to delay his final verdicthoping he may reconsider after having time to calm down.

.. The president is often impulsive, mercurial and difficult to manage, leading those around him to find creative ways to channel his energies.

.. Some Trump aides spend a significant part of their time devising ways to rein in and control the impetuous president, angling to avoid outbursts that might work against him, according to interviews with 18 aides, confidants

.. “I restrict no one, by the way, from going in to see him. But when we go in to see him now, rather than onesies and twosies, we go in and help him collectively understand what he needs to understand to make these vital decisions.”

.. Trump’s penchant for Twitter feuds, name-calling and temperamental outbursts presents a unique challenge.

.. One defining feature of managing Trump is frequent praise, which can leave his team in what seems to be a state of perpetual compliments. The White House pushes out news releases overflowing with top officials heaping flattery on Trump

.. One regular practitioner is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who praised Trump’s controversial statements after white supremacists had a violent rally in Charlottesville and also said he agreed with Trump that professional football players should stand during the national anthem.

.. Former treasury secretary Larry Summers wrote in a Twitter post, “Mnuchin may be the greatest sycophant in Cabinet history.”

.. Especially in the early days of his presidency, aides delivered the president daily packages of news stories filled with positive coverage

.. Some aides and outside advisers hoping to push their allies and friends for top postings, such as ambassadorships, made sure their candidates appeared speaking favorably about Trump in conservative news outlets — and that those news clippings ended up on the president’s desk.

.. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, has frequently resorted to diversionary tactics to manage Trump.

.. he will volunteer to have his staff study Trump’s more unorthodox ideas

.. When Trump wanted to make South Korea pay for the entire cost of a shared missile defense system, McMaster and top aides huddled to come up with arguments that the money spent defending South Korea and Japan also benefited the U.S. economy in the form of manufacturing jobs

.. If [Trump] wanted to do something that I thought could be problematic for him, I would simply, respectfully, ask him if we could possibly wait on it and then reconsider,” Nunberg

.. During the campaign, after reading a story in the New York Times that said Trump’s advisers went on television to talk directly to him, the candidate exploded at his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, chastising his top aide for treating him like “a baby,”

.. The president appreciates how Mattis, a four-star Marine general, speaks to him candidly but respectfully and often plays down disagreements in public.

.. Mattis’s focus has been on informing the president when they disagree — before the disagreements go public — and maintaining a quiet influence.

.. Mattis has also gone out of his way not to suck up to the president

.. Mattis has also worked to get on Trump’s good side by criticizing the media for putting too much emphasis on his disagreements with Trump

.. When he has broken with the president, Mattis has done it as subtly possible.

..  Several people who have met with Trump in recent weeks said he mocks other officials in Washington, especially fellow Republicans.

.. Trump upset Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) by cutting a deal with Democrats. In subsequent days behind closed doors, the president mocked the reactions of McConnell and Ryan from the meeting with an exaggerated crossing of his arms and theatrical frowns.

.. “They have an on-the-record ‘Dear Leader’ culture, and an on-background ‘This-guy-is-a-joke’ culture,”