Gail Collins: Bret, can you remember any other Election Day that was ever like this? With the whole nation so crazy nervous-excited about congressional races? I do not believe in other years I had intense conversations with neighbors about who was going to win the Indiana Senate race.
Bret Stephens: The only thing that’s remotely comparable in my memory, Gail, were the 1994 midterms, when Republicans regained control of the House after 40 years in the minority. One reason that election is worth mentioning is that it probably did more to strengthen Bill Clinton’s presidency, after a chaotic first two years, than it did to weaken it. It gave Clinton a useful political foil in the person of Republican speaker Newt Gingrich, and it forced him to compromise on politically popular legislation, like welfare reform.
My point, to those of us who want to ensure that Donald Trump is a one-term president, is to be careful what we wish for. Whatever happens on Tuesday isn’t going to decide what happens in 2020. Or am I missing the forest for the trees here?
Collins: Depends which forest you’re meandering in. If, as most people presume, the Democrats take the House but Republicans keep the Senate, we’ll see some interesting investigations into the president. I do sorta dream at night of seeing all those tax returns.
But you’re right that Trump will try to turn Nancy Pelosi into the new version of immigrant caravans. The Republicans have made her into their all-purpose target already, even when she hasn’t actually had the power to do anything to thwart them.
I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about Pelosi. If you were the Democrats, would you replace her or would any new Democratic speaker become the same kind of whipping person?
Stephens: Pelosi personifies the Democratic Party a lot of people love to hate: wealthy coastal liberals who have been in office forever and cannot imagine why anyone who voted for Trump did so for reasons other than bigotry or imbecility. If she becomes speaker again, Democrats will be materially damaging their chances of defeating Trump in two years. Please, someone else, like Ohio’s Tim Ryan or Massachusetts’ Seth Moulton: Someone who can help win back the millions of voters who went for Barack Obama in 2008 and Trump eight years later.
About those investigations: Yes, they might be very interesting. But I tend to doubt we’ll learn anything from them that we won’t eventually find out from Robert Mueller, and whatever he produces will have greater credibility for not being partisan. Also, investigating the past is probably not what’s going to decide the election. Democrats need to put forward an agenda, work with the Trump administration on things like immigration reform and an infrastructure bill, and appeal to a wider cross-section of Americans. The question of Trump’s tax returns is mostly a distraction from that goal.
Collins: Yes, of course, you’re right about the agenda. But the evil side of me really, really wants those tax returns.
Stephens: My evil side wants to outlaw New England sports franchises and zap people who walk too slowly on Manhattan sidewalks as they stare at their smartphones.
Collins: On the Pelosi front, I do think the Democrats need new faces. But she deserves a little bit of a run first — I hate the idea of just caving into the Republicans’ demonization of her.
Have we discussed the way all of Trump’s regular Democratic targets — except with the perfunctory nod to Chuck Schumer — are women? Does anybody think his tirades about Maxine Waters aren’t playing to the Republicans’ worst strain of racism and sexism?
I just got a generic fundraising letter from Eric Trump’s wife, Lara. (No idea why I’m on her list, but it’s always interesting to hear what the president’s daughter-in-law has to say.) The message was to send in one last contribution because “we can’t let Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters run the people’s House.” Maxine Waters is ranking member of the Financial Services Committee, for God’s sake. There are a dozen Democrats way more powerful and influential than she is.
Stephens: Speaking of singling out minorities, one of Trump’s signature election themes — both in this cycle and the last — is the vilification of Latin American migrants. It’s not enough for him and other Republicans to campaign on historically low unemployment and a big jump in annual wage growth. He needs a bugaboo, and the images of the migrant caravan play into his base’s biggest phobias. Did I mention that last week was the 80th anniversary of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, featuring an imaginary Martian invasion?
Collins: OK, I really do like that “War of the Worlds” comparison. They’re coming! They’re coming!
Stephens: The question is whether it will work. I’m hoping it won’t. But my guess is that elections in the United States have now become base plays where the key is to get your people to the polls rather than win over undecided voters. It also doesn’t help that Democrats have barely made an effort to offer their own ideas about the caravan. Health care isn’t the only issue in the world.
Collins: There’s also the importance of stopping the Republican agenda. There are only a few things they’re actually capable of passing legislation on — maybe Kindness to Kittens Week, although I’m not even sure that one would get past our pet-phobic president. But one is taxes. Tax reform is fine but all the Republicans can do is cut, which means slashing revenue, adding to the deficit and increasing pressure on important social programs.
I realize we are not entirely in accord on this matter.
Stephens: Tax cuts, I like. Deficits, I don’t mind (as long as there is robust economic growth). But I like the Republic even more, and I’d hate to see Trump’s first two years in office vindicated with wins in both houses of Congress. So I’m prepared to forgo additional tax cuts in the hope, probably vain, that Democrats will be strategic stewards in the House and not give in to the stupid temptation of seeking Trump’s impeachment or getting lost in endless committee investigations about whether Trump misled the IRS 20 or 30 years ago.
I’d also love to see the emergence of Democratic presidential contenders who aren’t the same people now auditioning for the role.
Collins: Which includes ... pretty much everybody. Are you hoping for a governor who hasn’t raised his or her hand? A former Cabinet member who’s been working in the library on a new book for the last two years? Tom Hanks? Everybody likes Tom Hanks.
Stephens: Well, I can think of one former Hollywood actor who turned out to be a great president, so I’m not ruling it out. And as much as Ronald Reagan was hated by progressives, he did a lot to unite the country, which is what we could use now. The hideous anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh, and the resistance of many Pittsburgh residents to Trump even showing up, is another reminder that Trump can’t fulfill even the most basic presidential duty of consoling a wounded nation. We need a Democrat who can address the fact that the United States is in a moral recession even in the midst of an economic boom.
Collins: We may be down to Tom Hanks.
Stephens: Or Michelle Obama.
Collins: But seriously, I keep thinking about how we got to Trump, and how Trump got to Trump. He was a guy with virtually no political principles or governmental ideas when he started out. And early on, when you asked him why he was so obsessed with a wall, or why he had apparently changed his mind on abortion and gun control, the answer would invariably be that the crowd went crazy over that.
He’s a total creation of the yelling crowds. Sure, he gets huge audiences, because they know he’s going to tell them exactly what they want to hear. And when they roar their approval, it reinforces his determination to do whatever they scream loudest about.
I guess the big question is how much the people who come out to howl at his rallies reflect the people who come out to vote.
Stephens: There’s a side of me that thinks that Trump is a natural culmination for a country that has spent the past 60 years besotted with television, the past 50 with moral relativism, the past 40 with ostentation, the past 30 with the politics of sex, and the past 20 with the politics of fear. He seems to encapsulate all of it.
Collins: Don’t forget the internet. And Fox.
Stephens: But I also think that it’s a mistake to treat him as pure product of the crowd. For all the Democratic talk that the economy blossomed under Obama, there were pockets of the recession that never went away for the eight years of his presidency. It showed up in the large number of discouraged workers, especially those in late middle age, and probably in the opioid crisis. And Trump found a way to speak to that part of the United States in a way that Hillary Clinton never did. The Democrat who can win will be able to do the same.
Collins: I agree, and hoping for a Democrat who can speak to all the parts of the country. Or at least most.
Speaking of — um, it was elections, right? Any particular one candidate you’re dying to see win/get creamed?
Stephens: It probably isn’t going to happen, but I’d love to see the Democratic candidate in Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, pull off an upset in his Senate race against Marsha Blackburn. He represents the kind of centrism the party could really use. I also like Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo, a pragmatic Democratic governor, and I’m happy to see Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, having no trouble with his re-election bid. You can probably see where I am here: I tend to like red state Democrats and blue state Republicans, people who by temperament and necessity have to learn to get along with the other side.
I think I know what you’re thinking: The country is in crisis, a Republican victory in the House would consolidate a reign of bigotry and ruin — and this guy wants everyone to have a lollipop and be nicer to their neighbors. But after the last couple of years, I think that would be achievement enough.
Collins: Totally in favor of the lollipop. Putting in a Hail Mary that somehow the evil racist Steve King loses his seat in Iowa. And that we have another two years of arguing about tax cuts without the danger there will really be any.
Happy voting, Bret.