Gail Collins: Bret, I’ve been musing a lot lately about masks. When I walk around my neighborhood, almost every single person is wearing one — even people who are way more than six feet away from the next pedestrian. Because, I guess, it’s a sign of solidarity. We’re all in this together.
Only one person I can think of never wears a mask. And that is …
Bret Stephens: Let me guess:
Gail, I think we’re thinking about one and the same guy: Mr. Lead By Example. The only spot of brightness here is that I’m becoming somewhat less confident about my prediction that Donald Trump is going to win re-election.
Gail: Well, that’s certainly a nice thought for us to begin with. But any new particular reason? I know he’s a horrible person with no ability to run anything, but that hasn’t gotten in his way so far.
Bret: Well, I try not to underestimate Trump politically in about the same way I try not to underestimate the resilience of the notorious honey badger.
Gail: Well, the honey badger is a lot cuter. I’d put Trump more in the murder hornet category. But go on.
Bret: He’s going into the race with some enormous advantages: money, social media and the usual perquisites of incumbency. The betting odds are still in his favor. And Rasmussen has Trump’s favorable/unfavorable ratings evenly matched, at 49 percent.
But things are very different now than they were even a month ago. Trump managed to screw up this crisis in at least six catastrophic ways. He failed to take the Covid threat seriously. He presided over a fumbling bureaucratic response. He embarrassed himself in his press conferences. He tried to throw money at the problem without effectively administering the funds. He demonstrated near-zero empathy with the victims of the disease or their families. And he never really articulated a sensible alternative to the lockdown strategy.
Gail: Yeah, you’d certainly think all that would be a problem.
Bret: The latest polls I’ve seen have him trailing Biden in must-win states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. One recent poll by The Dallas Morning News has him tied in Texas, which doesn’t mean Biden can win there but suggests Trump’s base may be having some second thoughts. I was particularly struck by a Times story noting that the president’s support among the 65-plus demographic has slumped very sharply. That’s not a demographic he can afford to lose, given that I don’t exactly predict a tidal wave of support among younger voters entering the worst job market in recorded history.
Gail: I like the idea of Trump losing the older voters and the younger voters. Got to watch out for those middle-aged folks, though.
Bret: All this means there’s an opportunity for Joe Biden, provided he can articulate not just a biting critique of Trump but a compelling rationale for his candidacy. He just hasn’t done it so far. What would you propose?
Gail: I wish Biden looked a little more geared up when it came to things like campaign structure and fund-raising. But for the big message — I think he can afford to wait awhile. Stay in his basement, do 10 million virtual visits a day and let Trump continue to irritate the hell out of everybody.
The Democrats do need a big plan for the fall, obviously. Lots of federal spending to reboot the economy, investments in education, help for the cities and states that are foundering. I remember a friend mentioning just last week during this exact same conversation that it’s time to bring back the spirit of F.D.R. and the New Deal.
Bret: That friend of yours is not to be trusted, Gail.
For a long time, I thought all a Democratic nominee needed to beat Trump was run on the slogan, “Make America Sane Again.” Maybe the new slogan needs to be “Make America Make Again,” or “MAMA.” The economic collapse we are witnessing now is absolutely terrifying. It’s going to hit nearly every family in the country, hard. And it’s a natural for a blue-collar candidate like Biden to make his own.
Gail: The most working-class part of Trump’s bio was the time his father made him go around and collect the rent.
Bret: I don’t expect the Biden team to listen to my advice, and I’m not even sure I’d endorse every bit of this in a fantasy Stephens presidency. But the chief parts of the MAMA agenda would include an unprecedented infrastructure plan, worth at least a couple of trillion dollars. A “Made Here”-approach to the supply chain through some combination of insourcing requirements and tax breaks.
Gail: So far we are in accord.
Bret: Steady levels of defense spending, not only to deter foreign adventurism and keep our troops in uniform, but to maintain an important part of our industrial base.
Gail: Never bought into the idea that the best way to help our economy was by juicing up the international arms race.
Bret: A Recovery Authority that makes it quick and simple for businesses to get access to capital, restructure their debts and cut through red tape that is often time-consuming, complex and expensive, especially for small businesses. A National Service option to give younger people locked out of the job market a way to keep busy, make a basic income and contribute to society. Comprehensive immigration reform to give undocumented people a path to citizenship and bring them into the regular economy.
Gail: Looking forward to those things happening so we can argue about the details. But in general I’m with you.
Bret: I know you’re going to say “public option” for health insurance. In normal times I would never endorse it. But if we end up with Depression-era levels of unemployment, even I may warm to some version of the idea.
Gail: Great. Have to tip my hat — if I had one — to Bernie Sanders, who so terrified Republicans with Medicare for All that they went fleeing to the public option, which is basically Health Care For All But You Can Keep Your Employer-Sponsored Insurance.
One thing we don’t hear about much — and I’m only bringing it up so we can disagree — is labor unions. Biden is a lifetime advocate and they need support.
Bret: Biden will have to stress his ties to labor unions. It’s as much a part of his political brand as community activism was to Barack Obama’s. Fine by me so long as it doesn’t get in the way of his concern for job creation. Unions are great when they’re defending the rights of all workers. They’re not so great when they’re protecting their perks or corrupt practices at the expense of other workers or of the unemployed, or against the interests of innovation and efficiency.
Gail: True, but that “innovation and efficiency” part is often used to cover a multitude of employer sins.
Bret: One thing I’ve noticed, Gail, is the conversation — our own and the country’s — is getting to be less about Covid and more about the world into which we’re moving. It seems so awfully bleak. Other than Trump’s troubles, what’s making you hopeful?
Gail: Part of it goes back to that mask-wearing. Every time I walk outside I see my neighbors working together, accepting some discomfort for the common good. And almost everyone I talk with — or Zoom with — is thinking about great things to do as soon as we turn a corner.
Bret: Agreed. I hope people are going to find opportunities for self-reinvention, not just in terms of their working life but in the things they value in themselves and others, and in the values they hold dear. For instance, I’m sure many of our readers might gladly envision me stocking shelves at a big-box store, or shrimp fishing like Forrest Gump.
Gail: I guess anything could happen, but I’m betting that we join hands, build a better future and quickly confine a Certain Person to the ash heap of history. Then you and I will have the leisure to really argue again.