This Wasn’t the Vibe Shift Democrats Had in Mind

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “This Wasn’t the Vibe Shift Democrats Had in Mind”:

Gail Collins: Bret, as you know, I always try to avoid discussing foreign affairs — never been my specialty — but I do want to ask you about the British, um, situation.

Bret Stephens: You mean the country that seems to have switched places with Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, politically speaking, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Argentina, economically speaking, and Groucho Marx’s Freedonia, comically speaking? Go on.

Gail: The Tory prime minister, Liz Truss, set a record for failure before she slunk out of office last week. She came into 10 Downing Street promising to cut taxes on the rich, and she did, and she … nose-dived.

Any message there for the rest of us?

Bret: When Margaret Thatcher was pressed on whether she would switch course on her free-market policies, she famously said, “The lady’s not for turning.” She went on to be one of the longest-serving prime ministers in British history. Truss turned against her own policies almost immediately and wound up being turned out of office almost immediately.

So the first lesson is that if you announce a policy, have the guts to stick to it or face political destruction.

Gail: Well, in this case I think we’d have seen political destruction either way. The tax cut idea was disastrous.

Bret: I’d say it was the execution, not the idea: Tax cuts usually stimulate a sluggish economy. The second lesson is that Britain’s economic mess isn’t the result of a month and a half of Truss but 12 years of big-government Toryism under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Britain just isn’t an attractive country to live or invest in anymore, particularly after it made the foolish decision to leave the European Union.

Bottom line: Have the courage of your convictions and the wit to defend them. Your take?

Gail: That cutting taxes on the rich isn’t the magic answer to economic problems. I believe in a lot of what you’d call big government, but sooner or later, you’ve gotta pay for stuff.

Bret: Gail Collins, fiscal conservative …

Gail: Speaking of debt, President Biden’s plan to start his program of canceling student loans to poor and middle-class borrowers is facing a slew of Republican court challenges.

I’m rooting for him to win the fight — a matter on which I believe we disagree.

Bret: Totally against loan forgiveness. We’ve increased the national debt from $20 trillion to $31 trillion in barely five years and now higher interest rates are going to make it more expensive to service that debt. And we are supposed to write off $400 billion in college loans — including to couples making up to $250,000 — without even giving Congress an opportunity to weigh in? It’s bad policy and worse politics.

Gail: Let me quickly point out that many of the folks who are spending their lives paying off big student loans signed up for the deal when they were little more than kids, some not ready for the programs they were recruited into, and some who were assured that their major in medieval history would lead to high-income jobs that would make it easy to pay off the debt. The system did not work.

Bret: I probably shouldn’t say this, but anyone who thought, at any age, that a degree in medieval history would lead to a life of riches needs stupidity forgiveness, not loan forgiveness.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough if the courts even allow the plan to go through, though I did find it interesting that Amy Coney Barrett effectively sided with the administration on this issue. Nice to see a Trump nominee show some independence.

Gail: Agreed. Meanwhile, I’ve been wanting to ask you about the Senate races. The whole world is watching! Or at least the politically obsessed part of America. Anything grabbing your interest?

Bret: The most interesting Senate race is in Ohio. I really don’t see Tim Ryan beating J.D. Vance, but the fact that he’s even competitive in a state Trump won in 2020 by eight points suggests he’s found a formula for how Democrats win back white, working-class votes from the Republicans. Mainly that means running as far away as possible from Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and the progressive wing of his party.

How about you?

Gail: Since Cincinnati is my hometown, I’ve been watching Ohio pretty intently. I think Ryan has a chance — he’s in a pretty red state, but one that’s elected Democrats before. Including the state’s other senator, Sherrod Brown, who’s considered liberal.

Bret: True. And just by outperforming expectations Ryan is forcing Republicans to pour a ton of money in the race just to hold the seat.

Gail: Plus Ryan is running against a truly terrible candidate. Vance seems to have an unending supply of mini-scandals about his financial dealings.

Bret: I thought Vance did fine in the debate last week. What bothers me about him aren’t his financial dealings. It’s the crass opportunism it took for him to flip almost overnight from Never Trumper to MAGA Republican. And the fact that he represents the isolationist wing of the conservative movement. Hard to overstate how dangerous that is in the face of the new axis of evil in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.

Gail: Also interested in New Hampshire, where the Democratic incumbent, Maggie Hassan, seemed doomed in a Republican-leaning year, given that she won her last election by only about 1,000 votes.

But her opponent, the retired general Don Bolduc, has been another awful candidate — all over the map, trying to be a right-wing stalwart in the primaries and now metamorphosing into a moderate who wants to raise Social Security taxes on the wealthy.

Who would you vote for there?

Bret: Hassan, no question. She’s a good senator, willing to work across the aisle. I would have supported the Republican governor, Chris Sununu, if he’d decided to run, but apparently the sanity gene runs too strongly in his family so he stayed out of the race. And Bolduc isn’t just an election denier or even an election-denier denier — in that he retracted his denialism after he won the primary. It’s that he subsequently denied that he denied being a denier. Which means he should be denied the election.

Gail: Bret, either you are the most fair-minded commentator in the country or this is yet another marker for how far the Republican Party has sunk. Even its defenders can’t defend many of this year’s candidates.

I’m inclined to say both are true, by the way.

Bret: Thanks! Can we switch to some of the races for governor? In New York the Republican candidate, Lee Zeldin, seems to be zooming up in the polls.

Gail: Aauugh. If this was a New York Republican like your old fave George Pataki, I’d be unshocked — Gov. Kathy Hochul hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But Zeldin is terrible! If you want to get a really good feel for this contest, read our editorial board’s very powerful Hochul endorsement.

Bret: Zeldin is doing well because New Yorkers are doing badly. We have the highest overall tax burden in the country if you count income, property, sales and excise taxes, but we are very far from having the best school districts, the best infrastructure or the safest streets. The only area in which we lead the country is in losing people to other states. And one-party rule is bad for governance. There are things I don’t like about Zeldin, starting with his proximity to Donald Trump, but I’ll vote for him next month.

Gail: Looking elsewhere — how about Arizona? The race pits Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state, against Kari Lake, a Republican TV personality. I certainly think Hobbs would make the better governor. But if Lake wins I could see her turning into a possible vice-presidential candidate on a Trump ticket.

Bret: Our news-side colleague Jack Healy wrote a devastating report about Hobbs, whose personal strengths apparently don’t include campaigning. She refuses to debate her opponent on the grounds that Lake is an election denier, which seems to me like an especially good reason to debate. My bet is that the governorship stays in Republican hands — and that it might push Blake Masters to victory in his Senate race against the incumbent Democrat, Mark Kelly.

Gail: It was a great piece, which did note that Lake refuses to answer any questions from the state’s major newspaper.

Bret: Bigger picture, Gail, I suspect it’s going to be a pretty good November for Republicans, despite all of the lousy candidates they’ve put forward. Do you see this as just part of a natural cycle in which the incumbent party usually does badly in midterms? Or would you put some blame on the way Biden has handled the presidency so far?

Gail: In a world full of war, energy shortages, health crises and political polarization, our president is doing a decent job of keeping things calm. Wish he had a more electric personality, but we’ve certainly learned there are worse things than a chief executive who isn’t great on camera.

It is true that the incumbent party usually does poorly during the midterms. Fortunately, the Republicans under Trump have nominated so many terrible candidates that there’s a chance the results won’t be quite as dire for Biden’s side.

What do you think? And more important, which side are you rooting for?

Bret: I’m rooting for Biden to succeed because we can’t allow Trump to come back, Vladimir Putin to win or the country to come even more unglued and unhinged than it already is.

Of course my way of rooting for success is to scold Biden nonstop whenever I think he’s screwing up. It’s a formula my mom has been using with me for nearly 49 years. She’s confident that in a few years more, she might even succeed.

Gail Collins is an Opinion columnist, is 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 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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