Gail Collins and Bret Stephens: “What We’re Watching on Election Day and Movie Night”

From a New York Times conversation between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “What We’re Watching on Election Day and Movie Night”:

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. No Republican has won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. And Joe Biden took the state by more than 10 percentage points last year. But now the polls are showing a dead heat between the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, and his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, in Tuesday’s race.

I’ll bet you a California cabernet that Youngkin wins.

Gail Collins: Bret, I’ve had a lot of fun conversing with you, mainly, of course, because of the intellectual stimulation. Plus, you always bring really good wine into the mix.

But about Virginia …

Bret: Even if McAuliffe ekes out a victory, this looks like a lousy omen for Democrats.

Gail: A couple of caveats. People don’t always vote the same way in local elections as they do in national elections. That used to be more true than it is now, and I’m sorry about that. I remember the day when you’d vote for liberal Democrats on the national ballot and then toss in some moderate Republicans for governor or attorney general just to keep an eye on things at home. Especially the spending.

Bret: Still happens sometimes. It’s how a Republican like Charlie Baker got elected governor in Massachusetts. Ditto for Larry Hogan in Maryland.

Gail: McAuliffe appears to be in trouble because of a remark he made in a debate, saying that parents shouldn’t “be telling schools what they should teach.”

Bret: A politically bone-headed remark that might cost him the election.

Gail: It’s not a popular position, but I do agree with the point. Schools are responsible to the whole community, not one group. The right doesn’t like a curriculum that focuses on racism, which is such a central part of our history. The idea of making teachers afraid to bring it up is awful.

Bret: Our colleague David Brooks had a terrific column that touched on this question. He noted that in Virginia’s affluent Loudoun County, near Washington, a training for public school administrators claimed that “fostering independence and individual achievement” was a feature of “white individualism.” No wonder so many parents of any background are worried about what their kids might be taught in school.

Gail: Parents being worried about what their kids are being taught is hardly new. But thanks to the wonders of modern communication, every worrisome anecdote is now being disseminated from sea to shining sea.

Bret: In New York City, the former schools chancellor Richard Carranza implemented training on “white supremacy culture,” which supposedly includes things like “perfectionism” and “objectivity.” It’s why people like The Atlantic’s George Packer, not exactly a fire-breathing conservative, have also publicly despaired of public schools.

Of course, schools need to teach and explore the shameful sides of our past. But parents have a right to expect that the schools their tax dollars pay for don’t blur the line between pedagogy and ideology. I’ll bet many readers would agree if the shoe were on the other foot and a conservative school district tried to foist, say, a creationist science curriculum on kids over their parents’ objections.

Which reminds me, Gail. What do you think of the ballot initiative in Minneapolis to replace the Police Department with something called the Department of Public Safety?

Gail: Minneapolis had a dreadful police-community crisis after George Floyd was murdered in such a slow and painful manner for all the world to see. The Police Department’s standing in the Black community was in total collapse. Changing the name to the Department of Public Safety isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it would remind everyone that things are not going to be the same as they were.

Does it bother you?

Bret: Well, as names go, it beats the Committee of Public Safety, of Robespierrian fame. Otherwise, the whole exercise just reminds me of my favorite line from my second-favorite movie, “Animal House”: “This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.”

Gail: Remind me to ask you later what your first-favorite movie is. But for right now, about Minneapolis.

Bret: Minneapolis has seen a huge spike in violent crime since last year, which corresponds with low police morale and hundreds of cops quitting their jobs. The people who wind up suffering the most from diminished policing tend to come from poorer communities. The proposed Department of Public Safety would still have armed officers, but there would be no staffing minimum, and the focus would be on public health, not public safety. Persistently high rates of violent crime will lead to an exodus of both business and wealthier residents to the suburbs, which would mean a smaller tax base for the city, which would then create a vicious cycle of deteriorating services, more crime, merchants closing up shop and so on. It’s how other American cities, like Newark and Baltimore, did themselves such harm.

Gail: That’s quite a leap from a name change.

Bret: Abolishing the police sounds like a right-wing parody of loony leftism, except it might come true. It would be such a progressive own-goal that it almost causes me to wonder whether its proponents aren’t secretly working for Donald Trump.

Gail: Those high crime rates have a lot to do with the wide availability of guns around the country — so wide that rifles and pistols flood even into places that try hard to keep them out.

Bret: Totally agree.

Gail: The initiative in Minneapolis goes way beyond a name change, and I’m not sure it’s got the public support necessary to pass on the ballot. But if it does, it’ll be a good test of the theory that police should be seen not just in terms of arrests but also as men and women whose jobs include intervening in family crises or neighborhood disputes that might lead to violence.

Bret: It’ll be … interesting. In the meantime, Gail, we have the big climate summit in Glasgow. Are your hopes high?

Gail: It cannot possibly be a good omen that while Biden was packing for Glasgow, his negotiators in Washington were caving in to Senator Joe Manchin’s determination to protect our coal-based energy production.

Bret: Here’s my cue to again ingratiate myself with zero readers by mentioning how much I respect Manchin.

Gail: Substituting clean energy, like solar and wind power, for coal and oil is critical for protecting future generations from global warming. But Congress is at the mercy of one guy from West Virginia, who’s in bed with the coal industry.

Bret: I’m no fan of coal, but we’re deceiving ourselves if we think we can somehow transition seamlessly to wind and solar anytime soon. Doing so will exact huge economic and environmental costs, plus a lot of political blowback that could in turn lead to bad environmental choices. Right now we’ve got a huge energy crunch; even the White House has been urging OPEC to pump more oil. We should be doing more of that here in the U.S. so that we aren’t at the mercy of dictators, while investing in natural gas as a bridge fuel and reinvigorating the nuclear-power industry for electricity production.

Gail: Let’s talk about something cheerier — for me, anyhow. What do you think about the G20’s work on establishing a global minimum tax, so corporations can’t dodge their responsibilities by shifting their headquarters to some tax haven?

Bret: Self-defeating, I think, because nothing about it is truly global. It’s just an incentive for countries that aren’t a party to the agreement to set themselves up as corporate tax havens and benefit from the foreign investment that comes with it. That’s one of the ways in which Ireland grew rich in recent decades.

I generally think corporate taxes are a bad idea because much of their cost often gets passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices, to employees in the form of depressed wages and to shareholders in the form of lower dividends. And speaking of taxes, do you think Democrats will succeed in their effort to tax billionaires on their unrealized gains?

Gail: Well, it’s got a better chance than my all-time favorite, giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices. All hail the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry lobby.

Bret: Hehe. Very true.

Gail: Hey, just realized we haven’t gotten back to the matter of your favorite film. Not sure I could name just one. I remember going to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968 and coming out just floored that a movie could take you out of yourself like that. It was before the boom of special effects, and until then, I’d only seen your basic comedies and westerns. When I saw the documentary “Hoop Dreams” with my husband, we were so moved, we just watched it right over again. For silly escapism, I’d pick “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and for something I’d turn on any night at 2 a.m. if I couldn’t sleep, I would have to go with “Casablanca.”

Your turn.

Bret: I love all of the movies you mentioned, especially “Casablanca.” But I have to say my all-time favorite is “A Fish Called Wanda.” You won’t be surprised to learn that I have a soft spot for Kevin Kline’s character, Otto.

He’s a profoundly insecure, perpetually belligerent, gratuitously bigoted, maniacally jealous, unintentionally hilarious, colossally obnoxious sashimi-eating thief and assassin who pretends to speak Italian, imagines he understands Nietzsche and is, quite obviously, a Republican.

Somehow, he steals the show.

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist and a former member of the editorial board, and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007.

Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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