Joe Biden Had Better Watch It

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I’m dying to hear your take on the Republican convention. Mine in a nutshell: Joe Biden had better watch out.

Gail Collins: OK, open the nutshell — what should Biden be quivering over? Donald Trump’s seating arrangement for his speech? (Loved that squished-together audience.) Or Mike Pence’s rhetorical genius?

Bret: I need to be careful with the analogy here, so take this as a purely tactical comment. But I fear the Biden campaign has built its Maginot Line along the character-decency-goodness front, while the Trump campaign has launched its, er, Blitzkrieg against Biden’s left flank, aiming at the strategic Belgian town of (checks map) Kenosha.

Gail: Famous, in happier days, for its Cheese Castle.

This is the really sad part of the election year craziness. Kenosha’s people don’t want more trouble — and the same is true of Portland. But at times when everybody’s angry and twitchy, you need a well-run police department and an absence of political jerks who want to look like tough guys for their campaign.

As Joe Biden says, the job of the president is to lower the temperature. As the convention demonstrated, all Trump wants to do is raise it.

Bret: More broadly, the convention helped Trump politically in a bunch of ways. It did what every demagogic party needs to do: create a far-enemy, China, and a near-enemy, the radical left. It painted Biden as an enabler of both. It gave voters something visceral to fear: a progressive mob coming for your suburb, your job and your right to speak your mind. It painted Trump as a straight shooter whose coarseness was courage and whose rudeness was honesty. It gave shy Trump voters moral cover with its long list of Black speakers. And it promised economic growth as opposed to moral restoration.

I get that much of this is very distant from the truth. But Trump is now playing offense, and Biden needs a better counterattack than deploying a platoon of fact checkers.

Gail: Conventions don’t generally move the needle themselves — not over the long run. And if the target was undecided voters, I’ll bet there were at least 12 watching at home.

Bret: Not sure if I agree that there aren’t a lot of undecideds, but go on.

Gail: But if your worry is about Biden needing a more focused, aggressive campaign, you’re right. I’m hoping we’ll see that soon. Very soon. Cannot be overly soon.

Bret: The Democratic convention succeeded in uniting the party behind Biden. The Bernie Folk aren’t going to be sitting this election out, much less voting third party.

Now Biden has to counterpunch. He must say that the first order of business in restoring “law and order” is to get rid of the most lawless, disorderly and disordered president in American history. He has to give a stirring pro-police speech to some police union, akin to his speech this weekend to the National Guard, stressing the unity of every blue-collar worker.

Gail: The police unions are going to be tough. I was so depressed when the head of New York City’s P.B.A. showed up as a Republican convention speaker.

Bret: Biden has to take on the allegation that he’s mentally feeble by challenging Trump to additional debates. He has to say about Trump what Mary McCarthy once said about Lillian Hellman: that every word he says is a lie, including “and” and “the.” He has to mock a “people’s president” who stiffs his suppliers, scams his students and is currently swindling the American people. He needs to challenge Trump to a new kind of push-up contest: Do a push-up, show a year of tax returns.

Gail: Love the Trump push-up image.

Bret: And he has to get out in front of people, lots of them. The Biden campaign needs to figure out the public rally equivalent of safe sex: exciting, energetic, passionate, frictional — but virus-free.

What’s your advice?

Gail: I kinda think three debates plus one for the vice-presidential candidates is enough. More than that and they just become gaffe-traps. The only public takeaway is who said or did something stupid.

With these two guys I don’t think we need to go the extra mile just for a blooper or two.

But you’re right that Biden has to run an aggressive campaign that goes way beyond reminding people he’s nicer than Trump. And he needs a few resounding messages.

If you were advising him, what three issues would you tell him to stress?

ImageJoe Biden accepting the Democratic nomination for president in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 20.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Bret: The Supreme Court, for starters. A second Trump term almost certainly means a third (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), fourth (Stephen Breyer) and possibly fifth (Clarence Thomas) Trump pick. Roe v. Wade doesn’t survive on that court. If I were Biden, I’d ask Kamala Harris to go on a swing through Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin to explain that if Trump wins, legal abortion will become a thing of the past for every woman living in a red state.

Gail: Trump talks about his judicial appointments as one of his greatest accomplishments. That’s all thanks to Mitch McConnell, who refused to take up many of Barack Obama’s nominees from his first day as majority leader. I know that’s kind of inside baseball, but I wish there’d be a way to portray the president as McConnell’s Minion.

Bret: A second is ethics. Has the swamp ever been swampier than under Trump? Who elected Ivanka to rule over us? How did Jared get to lord it over us? Who turned the White House into a stage prop? Since when does the president use his office to blackmail foreign leaders into doing him political favors? Why is it that nearly everyone who has ever worked for Trump, people like John Bolton and John Kelly, finds him despicable? And did he get somebody to take his S.A.T.s for him? Biden should run a five-minute online spot titled “A Cheater From the Beginning.” Highlights would include bone spurs, (alleged!) cheating on the S.A.T.s and Marla Maples.

Gail: OK, I love that one.

Bret: Third issue: Dictator suck-up. No president in history has ever had nicer things to say about America’s enemies than Trump, just as no president has ever had nastier things to say about America’s friends. I also can imagine the imagery for this: Trump at Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, Trump at Panmunjom with Kim Jong-un, Trump in Osaka with Xi Jinping, Trump in the White House with Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What about you? What are your three?

Gail: First, the pandemic. Biden should remind people constantly that when he was vice-president there was an office of the federal government devoted to preventing this exact kind of crisis, and that Trump dismantled it.

Bret: Agree. And that he spent weeks pretending the virus would just disappear like morning dew.

Gail: Which would lead into my No. 2 issue: health care. Trump may deny it, but his assaults on Obamacare have put coverage of pre-existing conditions in jeopardy. Biden actually wants to give people more insurance options, earlier access to Medicare and address the cost of prescription drugs, which Trump also likes to talk about.

Bret: Don’t agree, but I see the political logic. Go on.

Gail: And I’m really glad he’s going to be campaigning on gun control. That’s not actually a No. 3, but it just feels like an issue whose time, as they say, has come.

Bret: Completely agree. And it might happen faster than you can think. It took people like Huey Newton and the Black Panthers to get Ronald Reagan, when he was the governor of California, to push for gun control. Watch that happen again the moment the far left starts asserting its Second Amendment rights as forcefully as the far right does.

Gail: Well, Bret, we’re taking a post-convention conversation break next week. But when we come back, it’ll be eight weeks to Election Day. Cooler weather but I’ll bet hotter politics.

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