Gail Collins: O.K., Bret, it’s debate week — Round 2. Are you still rooting for Mayor Pete?
Bret Stephens: Nah, I’ve checked out. I’m totally rooting for Donald Trump.
Gail: Um …
Bret: Kidding! But if the Democratic contenders continue along the same path they were on during the first debate, they might as well write checks for Trump. Because the party of open borders, access to health insurance for the undocumented, free college and the Green New Deal isn’t going to win next year barring an economic meltdown or a catastrophic war.
As for Pete Buttigieg, I think he is by far the most politically gifted person in the field, even if on policy I’m closer to someone like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper or Michael Bennet (our boss James Bennet’s brother, but we don’t hold that against him!). But Buttigieg would be wise to start staking out moderate policy positions at odds with the more progressive candidates in the field that can broaden his appeal and enhance his image of electability.
Gail: I have a feeling a lot of the candidates felt stampeded by the format of the first debates. That whole “Raise your hand if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants” was a trap — were you supposed to vote to let them get sick and die? But the impression was that the candidates wanted to treat illegal immigrants better than a lot of citizens.
By now all the serious candidates have worked out a strategy for getting their points in, making a splash. I’m kind of hoping this time Julián Castro will have a chance to shine. He struck me as one of the more thoughtful debaters first time around.
And of course I’m rooting for my current fave, Elizabeth Warren.
Bret: A friend of mine, a former politician and prominent Democrat, suggested that instead of raising their hands, at least some of the candidates should have raised a middle finger. But whatever else they do, they need to start speaking to a Democratic base that’s not vocal on social media, that despises the president but doesn’t want to spend the next 66 weeks re-litigating the 2016 election, and that is interested in a candidate who is going to care most about improving life and opportunities for the broad middle class, not appealing to party extremes.
Gail: O.K., for this debate the moderator can say, “Raise your hand if you care about improving life for the broad middle class.” You’d have to pull them off the ceiling.
Bret: Ha! As regards to Warren, I don’t agree with her on much of anything, but at least her focus is on everyday economic issues. I’d be happier if she didn’t treat every American corporation as if it were an enemy of the people. Her endorsement of eliminating private health insurance for the tens of millions of Americans who have it is going to be a major political liability for her if she wins the nomination.
Gail: I’m looking for a candidate who can lead us away from politics controlled by big corporations, special interests and rich egomaniacs. Warren seems like a good bet.
Bret: I gather Tom Steyer would be one of those rich egomaniacs. But let’s talk about the other candidates. Joe Biden is still the front-runner, despite his tepid performance in the last debate. Why is that? Kamala Harris doesn’t seem to have capitalized much on her strong debate performance. What about that? And Cory Booker seems about as capable of catching fire as a wet log. How come?
Gail: Biden’s great strength is that everybody remembers him from the happy Obama Days. Just being a familiar name is a huge advantage when there are so many little-knowns. We’re more than six months from the first primary and while Democrats are obsessed with getting rid of He Who Shall Not Be Named, you can’t blame them for not becoming intimately acquainted with the whole throng of current candidates.
The big Biden question is whether he’ll flounder the way he has previously over the last, um, 30-plus years of trying. Everybody likes him personally but so far there’s nothing about his current campaign that I see changing the long-running disaster-strewn plot. Do you think he’s shown any promise?
Bret: Well, he started out well enough by calling out Trump over Charlottesville. But he should be doing more to defend his record than to apologize for it, especially when it came to Harris’s scurrilous innuendo that he’s O.K. with racists. And to be honest, his debate performance last time was worse than weak. It suggested, to put it delicately, that he was slowing down.
Gail: I’m eager to get rid of all the ego-driven hopeless cases who are counting on a miracle — or at least a book contract and a historical footnote. Begone John Delaney and Bill de Blasio!
Bret: Hang on, I kind of liked John Delaney, at least on the subject of private insurance. But I take your larger point.
Gail: Then we’ll see if Kamala Harris has any real, specific vision and the ability to stay on track. She’s very good at seizing a moment — Biden certainly learned that.
Bret: It’s easy to forget that she’s a relative political novice, at least when it comes to national politics. It shows with her repeatedly shifting positions on health care, though I gather she now has a plan. There’s no question she has a serious shot at the nomination. But I have doubts about her electability. She’s ideologically too far left for the sort of constituencies a Democrat will need to win in November 2020. The question is whether she can win back the Obama voters that Democrats lost in 2016 to Trump.
Gail: Maybe we should give everybody until Thanksgiving to nail down a health care plan. The voters must be so confused by now with all the shifting messages. And if Trump would unveil that big Republican reform he was promising a while ago …
Gail: About Kamala Harris. I think she belongs in the first tier of possibilities. There are second-tier people who also deserve watching. Cory Booker is very smart and he can pack a ton of verbiage into a two-minute response. But he’s going to have to project a stronger image.
Bret: Much as I admire Buttigieg, I have a longstanding distrust of Rhodes scholars, and both he and Booker were Rhodes scholars. It just strikes me that they are the sort of people plotting their course to the presidency from the age of 8, hence not to be entirely trusted.
Gail: Well, there are Rhodes burdens, too. Perhaps right now at the humble Catholic school I attended, there are a couple of kids mulling a presidential trajectory. Highly unlikely they’ll make it, but if they fall short and wind up in the State Senate they’ll be pretty pleased at the opportunity to make a contribution. Whereas if there’s a former Rhodes scholar sitting in the next row, he’s drinking heavily and contemplating a new career in investment banking. Perspective is all.
Bret: Fair point.
Gail: Back to the candidates. Bernie Sanders will be in the pack forever but I don’t see any prospect of him winning the nomination. It’s not his positions — it’s that he comes across as a Yelling Guy. Probably because he is.
Bret: Several years ago I shared a stage with Sanders at an awards ceremony at the University of Chicago. We were each expected to make some gracious remarks about our mutual alma mater. He managed to turn his into a little stump speech suggesting the country was in its greatest crisis since the Civil War. Come again? This was late in the Obama presidency. It just reminded me that he’s the sort of guy who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. In other words, the definition of a fanatic.
Gail: Unless there’s an exciting drama — which we definitely deserve at least once over the next half year or so — the survivors going into 2020 will be Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg and maybe Booker or Castro. Anybody else you’d put in the pack?
And what about the Republicans? Any remote chance of a credible challenger? Please tell me yes.
Bret: I think one of the moderates may surprise on the upside: Klobuchar or Hickenlooper. Notice, by the way, how we didn’t even mention Kirsten Gillibrand? My, how her star sank.
Gail: True. I guess her star was a little theoretical. Klobuchar and Hickenlooper have been good at projecting pleasant, not-desperate images in the debates. Which will probably be even more welcome this time around.
Bret: As for Republican challengers, Mark Sanford of South Carolina sounds like he’s mulling a presidential bid, and I know frominterviewing Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland that he has given a lot of thought to running.
But one of the tragedies of the Trump presidency is how wholly he’s captured the G.O.P. Among Republicans, he may be the most popular president in modern memory. That has caused me more than one dark night of the soul, wondering how I ever kept faith with people who, as it turned out, were only too happy to keep faith with him. It’s like discovering that your kindly grandfather, Vito Corleone, isn’t just in the olive oil business.
A Republican challenge to Trump wouldn’t get very far, politically, but it would be remembered well historically. Any healthy democracy needs a morally serious and politically sane conservative party. Right now the United States doesn’t have one, I’m sorry to say.
Gail: Let’s spend a minute on something non-election-oriented. Amid all the howling about government that doesn’t work, the folks in charge did manage to put together a monster deal to raise the debt limit and approve a new spending package before the government ran out of cash. I know it wasn’t exactly … inspiring. But it got done. Any thoughts?
Bret: It’s a little like a very wealthy divorced couple finally agreeing to a parenting plan: The situation is far from ideal, but at least nobody is throwing china. Then again — sticking to the simile — a lot of the damage that the kids will endure is invisible and long term: a mountain of debt and the mistaken idea that you can escape hard choices by spending lavishly on everything.
It’s a depressing thought, but every century contains a national trauma. In the 19th century it was slavery and the Civil War. In the 20th it was the Depression and World War II. We are now nearly a fifth of the way into the 21st century and have yet to experience ours. I don’t think we know what it will be, but I do suspect Trump’s presidency is setting the stage for it.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.