Gail Collins: Bret, the president’s been putting on quite a performance. Cavorting with Kim Jong-un in the DMZ and joking with Vladimir Putin about Russian interference in our presidential election, hehehe. Next, he’s planning to expropriate the traditional Independence Day celebration in Washington and turn it into some kind of Donald Does Democracy personal extravaganza.
Lots to contemplate. But first, since we haven’t yet talked about the Democratic debates, I want to hear your thoughts on the gang. I’m already prepared for something, um, unenthusiastic.
Bret Stephens: Well, I still like Pete Buttigieg. And that John Delaney guy was very convincing on health care ….
Gail: Love a good John Delaney joke. Delaney, the former Congressman from Maryland, has been running for president since 2017, mainly in Iowa. where he’s now trying to visit each of the state’s 99 counties for a second time. And it’s made no impact whatsoever.
Delaney will never be president, but maybe the world will remember him as the guy who demolished the idea that an unknown can win an important election by shaking the hands of at least 92 percent of the eligible voters.
I’m gathering there were contenders you found less entrancing?
Bret: I’ve long been worried that Joe Biden would prove to be the Jeb Bush of the 2020 election cycle. On Thursday he seemed uncertain, unprepared and, well, feeble. It undermines the core promise of his candidacy, which is that he’s the guy who can beat Trump. Another performance like this one and I think he’s done.
Gail: Biden always screws up when he runs for president. But there was a little flicker of hope that maybe this time …
Oh well. What did you think about the high-achieving end of the field?
Bret: Kamala Harris is getting generally rave reviews from her performance, and that’s reflected in the polls. But she raised her hand on eliminating private health insurance (before reversing herself the next day), and that’s not going to help her win a general election. And her attack on Biden struck me as demagogic.
Gail: I thought the attack on Biden was pretty damn smart. You want to know how well a candidate does when he’s really in a corner? Let Kamala show you.
The worrisome thing about her isn’t that she wants to eliminate private health insurance; it’s that she can’t seem to decide what the heck she wants to do. She’s changed positions I don’t know how many times.
Bret: Elizabeth Warren has great rhetorical skills and no shortage of moral passion. But she evaded the question that she needs to answer in order to be a credible candidate in the general election: If, as she thinks, so much is wrong with the way the economy of the United States functions (and requires a radical fix) why does half of America think things are just fine?
Gail: Not sure that’s true about half of Americans thinking things are great. If they’re in school they’re probably worried about college debt. If they’re in their working prime they’re probably juggling like mad to take care of both their jobs and their children — and maybe sick parents. If they’re older, they almost certainly don’t have enough savings to support a comfortable retirement. And if the economy starts to dip, you can multiply all that uncertainty by 10.
Bret: All true, but I’m not sure it’s enough to justify a wholesale reinvention of the system.
Gail: This election is going to feature a smug Donald Trump presenting himself as the savior who gave us the economic boom. I’m hoping that once the real debates get underway, Americans will appreciate that the man who saved us from the Bush crash, and built the economy back to prosperity, was Barack Obama.
Bret: If the economy were lousy right now, Trump would surely get the blame.
Gail: As well he should, since he inherited such a good one. Over the next year I expect to hear a lot of Trump assuring the public that all the signs of an economic bust they’re seeing are actually mere meaningless blips, like fiscal fireflies.
But you haven’t finished going over the Democratic candidates. What about Bernie?
Bret: Sanders was … Sanders. After this week I don’t think he’s going to be the nominee. But what’s unsettling to me is that his side of the Democratic Party has gained the upper hand, ideologically. The party many Americans saw this week is one that seems to want to decriminalize border crossings, provide taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants, take over vast swathes of the private economy, and spend trillions on progressive priorities that can only be funded with large tax increases and even more government borrowing.
Which brings me to my bottom line: The big winner of last week’s debate was Donald Trump. The Democrats may be firing their base, but their turn to the left is scaring a lot of the core voters — especially in places like Ohio and North Carolina — that they will need to win next year.
Gail: I appreciate your sending out a warning flare. A lot of Democrats are starting to get nervous about the left tilt of the candidates’ agenda. I bet you’ll see things moderate, once we’re down to four or six survivors. Most of them will be touting strong proposals on issues like health care and immigration that don’t scare the hell out of people.
This debate period is just the shakedown cruise. Nominating conventions aren’t until next summer. By the time we get there, we’ll have one or two or three Democratic contenders who have dramatic but not draconian plans to make America humane again.
Bret: Obviously I hope you’re right. I don’t want to vote third-party and I could never vote for Trump, the man who doesn’t know the difference between Western liberalism and West Coast liberalism. Or, frankly, a guy who seems to like tyrants more than he does small-d democratic leaders. Can you imagine what Republicans would have been saying if Barack Obama had made an impromptu visit to the Korean DMZ to shake hands with Kim Jong-un and flatter him after two failed summits?
Gail: Or giggling with the Russian dictator about how they should “get rid of” the press. Always a knee-slapper
Bret: Or questioning our cornerstone security treaty with Japan, whose prime minister has repeatedly gone out of his way to make nice with Trump.
Gail: And Bret, I know you won’t vote for a third party. Along with the interference of foreign governments, people voting for third-party presidential candidates was what put Trump in the White House. I’m convinced of that. They were too virtuous to skip the election and too sane to consider Trump. But they couldn’t bear to hold their delicate noses and vote Clinton.
Voting for a third party is the most unforgivable election sin. It’s pretending the choice doesn’t matter when really, even if you think both candidates are terrible, the choice matters.
Bret: That was my rationale in 2016 — I thought that voting for anyone but Hillary Clinton would be a cop-out for those of us opposed to Trump. But I also felt Clinton would be a reasonable president. This time there are too many potential Democratic nominees that I can’t vote for in good conscience, especially Sanders and Warren. So it just might be Bill Weld or Joe Libertarian or Mary-Write-In for me.
Gail: I guess we can pick that particular subject up again in, oh, 489 days.
Bret: But who’s counting?
Gail: Speaking of unforgivable sins against a democracy, I’m still mulling the last two Supreme Court decisions. They wiped their hands of partisan gerrymandering. And although they hedged on Trump’s census question about legal citizenship, I have a feeling that John Roberts is just repositioning on that one.
Bret: Roberts has become the Court’s new Anthony Kennedy, which definitely keeps things interesting. I only wish the liberals on the court would occasionally surprise me more with their decisions.
Gail: The idea that state legislatures have the right to design weirdly shaped voting districts to make sure their favorite party gets the advantage is so undemocratic, it — O.K., it makes perfect sense to come out of the Mitch McConnell era.
Bret: I was torn about that decision. I agree with you that partisan gerrymanders are undemocratic. They’re also driving our politics to extremes, since representatives in safe districts are only concerned about challenges from within their own party. Then again, I was reluctantly convinced by the conservatives on the court that the judiciary has no business drawing districts instead of politicians. I think this was a case of the court saying, “physician, heal thyself.”
Gail: Those decisions were awful, but hardly our worst problem with the judiciary. People are losing faith in the institution. Senator McConnell spent the entire Obama administration refusing to allow judges to be confirmed so on every level — from Supreme on down — the next Republican president would have a chance to pack the courts. Of all the evil deeds going on in Washington these days, this one makes me most crazy.
So what do you think about the Democratic candidates who want to add more members to the Court so they can get back their lost representation? Must admit it scares me. But after everything McConnell has done, I can appreciate the argument.
Bret: You’ll get no argument from me that McConnell’s behavior when it came to Judge Merrick Garland was a disgrace. But court packing is a truly horrible idea that threatens the institutional fabric of the country and should remain one of those closed chapters from the 1930s. Also, as with all such ideas, the people advocating them should remember the adage about the sauce for the goose.
But Gail, we’re so serious. Any barbecue plans for celebrating America’s 243rd?
Gail: I’ll be in Manhattan, where barbecuing is sort of … a challenge. But we’ll certainly be listening to the fireworks, which in our neighborhood tend to sound like a re-enactment of D-Day.
And then of course we’ll all gather in the living room to hear Donald Trump mess up the hitherto-nonpartisan Independence Day celebration in Washington.
But hey, we can rejoice that it’s still a free country, where all conversations are created equal. We’ll drink a holiday toast to you and your family, Bret. Then maybe order Chinese.
Bret: Nothing could be more American. Happy 4th.