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!