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Opinion | David Leonhardt Returns for a Debate Debate

michelle goldberg

I’m Michelle Goldberg.

ross douthat

I’m Ross Douthat. And this is The Argument. [MUSIC PLAYING] This week, the final presidential debate, the end game of the 2020 campaign, and for this show’s two-year anniversary, a very special guest. Last night, Joe Biden and Donald Trump met in the 2020 election’s final presidential debate. And here to talk about that debate and the last days of the race with us is our old friend, longtime Argument co-host, David Leonhardt, who we have kidnapped from the news side, where he now runs an amazing newsletter, to force him to give us his takes in the last days of 2020. David, sorry about the kidnapping. Welcome back to the show.

david leonhardt

It is wonderful to be here. I missed you both, and our listeners.

michelle goldberg

We missed you, David.

ross douthat

We did. It’s been a pretty — you know. I mean, a lot has happened since you decided — you know, since you got pulled off into the exciting world of the newsroom and the newsletter that you now run. I’m not going to say that I hold you personally responsible for the collapse of America into plague, fire and fury. But I mean, I think maybe if you’d stuck with the show, 2020 would have been a little calmer. I’m just throwing that out there.

david leonhardt

Yeah, I think my last couple episodes, I was holed up in a little corner of my bedroom, right? It was the very beginning of the lockdown. So I’ve mostly been missing you guys.

michelle goldberg

Oh, when we thought it was going to be, like, three weeks?

david leonhardt

Yeah, I guess. I can’t even remember what we thought, right? I mean, it was so long ago. It’s, like, impossible to remember.

I think one of my last recommendations is people should keep an audio journal to remember what this time was like, which I think I kept up for about 4 and 1/2 days.

ross douthat

As it became — it was like an Edgar Allan Poe story, where you became more and more insane with each entry. And the end was like, for the love of God, Montresor.

david leonhardt

Yes.

ross douthat

Yeah. I think that was — it was, like, 15 days to slow the spread, right? That was probably the slogan then. And here we are, and it’s —

michelle goldberg

A new high today.

ross douthat

Yep, it’s spreading again. So I guess bringing you back to The Argument did not, in fact, save America. But we had to try. So —

david leonhardt

Give it some time.

ross douthat

So let’s just dive in. We’re going to talk about the debate and the homestretch of the campaign. And I’ll go to you first, David, since we’re on tenterhooks. Who won the debate last night?

david leonhardt

I mean, can I first just say that I’m glad we don’t have to watch any more of these? I mean, they’re just not pleasant experiences to watch. And I generally like these things. But they’re stressful. Both of these guys are old, even setting aside all the stuff we’re going to get into. And I loved watching the Obama-Hillary Clinton debates back in 2008. And this is like the opposite of that. So with that out of the way, I guess America won, because we don’t have to watch another one of these. I mean, Biden won the debate. The post-debate polls showed that he won the debate. Trump did better than he did the first time in a performative way. But Biden won, I would say, narrowly. But even a tie is a win for Biden because unless the polls are horribly wrong — and I know everybody on both sides assumes there’s a chance they’re horribly wrong because of what happened four years ago. Trump needed a big win. And instead, I think he got a narrow loss. Any disagreement?

ross douthat

Michelle?

michelle goldberg

I mean, I guess I would — my only disagreement is — I don’t know. David, did you call them unpleasant? I mean, to me, they’re psychologically brutal, right? They’re just these kind of unspeakable experiences that, inshallah, we will not have to experience again, because unless Donald Trump runs in 2024, this will be his last presidential debate, no matter what happens in this election.

ross douthat

You guys, I just have to cut in. You guys are really jinxing this here, right? Because you know that after all this, he will run in 2024. And I at least will have to sit through not one but, like, 13 Republican primary debates featuring Donald Trump.

michelle goldberg

Right, and I will not because I will be in a cabin in New Zealand with no internet access. So I mean, yeah, I basically agree with David. I think there’s this weird — and this isn’t an original observation, right? But I think that so many pundits are still trapped in the ‘90s, still sort of have their brain broken by the ‘90s, where they assume that the audience for these things are basically to their right. The immediate reaction that I saw on Twitter, there was a lot of people worrying that Biden had really blown it with his answer on transitioning away from fossil fuels and thinking that Trump had done well because he didn’t seem like he was literally going to kind of pop a vein from steroid overuse. But, in fact, Donald Trump is extremely unlikable, and most people don’t like him. And he stayed sort of calm for the first half and then got really angry and bitchy and nasty. And he also took extremely unpopular stances on issues that people care a lot about, right? So he reiterated this idea that we are turning the corner on coronavirus, which I think most people understand in their own lives to just not be true. I thought it was a big deal when he came out very, very clearly against Obamacare and kind of wanting to eliminate Obamacare. Because even though we all know that Donald Trump wants to end Obamacare and is, in fact, going to the Supreme Court to do that, the Republicans are sort of fudging about that, right? They are kind of insisting that that’s not going to happen. And so to have him say very clearly, “I’d like to terminate Obamacare,” I think was meaningful, especially for whatever sliver of voters still haven’t made up their mind. But if you go back to 2016, part of the thing that made him different from other Republicans, right, was that he was running this economically populist pitch. And that was all gone here. He completely ceded the mantle of economic populism to Joe Biden, who was able to talk about expanding healthcare access, who was able to talk about raising the minimum wage, bailing out small businesses. And I think those things seemed to me to be more important than any sort of marginal improvement in Trump’s affect.

ross douthat

Yeah, I mean, that seems broadly right. I think you can tell how debates go, basically, by how they map onto pre-existing polling. So if you can get people who don’t support or aren’t supporting a candidate to say that that candidate won, then the debate was probably meaningful and moved the needle. And so last time in the sort of instant polls and also, to some extent, in the betting markets, you clearly saw that some percentage of people who probably either like Trump, or at least are voting for him, were willing to say that he’d lost, which was a pretty good sign that Trump lost. And this time, the polls, as far as I’ve seen — there have been three or four — basically just tracked partisan sentiment. So Biden’s ahead by nine points in the polls, and people said that he won the debate, and the betting markets didn’t move. And in that sense, I think you could call it a draw. I think in our sort of debates scorecards, I gave it to Biden by one point. I agree with Michelle that there’s, in both of these debates and generally, an important aspect of Trump’s 2016 campaign, his willingness to sort of move to the center and even sometimes outflank the Democrats on economic populism, has been lost. And his argument against raising the minimum wage nationally is one that I agree with. I think it’s correct. You want to have a minimum wage that varies from state to state. You don’t want to set the national minimum wage too high. But it’s a very conventional conservative policy wonk argument. It’s not a sort of, I’m going to give you more jobs and a big, beautiful healthcare plan argument. And his answer on Obamacare was just this endless word salad that sort of distilled 10 years of Republican failure on healthcare policy. At the same time, I thought Biden was stronger than last week at some points, especially around the middle of the debate. He was sort of clearer and seemed less faded. I do think that he faded at the end, as he often did in the Democratic primary debates. And I think his stumbles around oil and energy were part of sort of a late debate fade. And you could sort of — in a world where they’d had more debates and longer debates, you could imagine that being maybe slightly more of an issue. But I mean fundamentally, Biden is faded. He’s not senile. He can win as a faded candidate. Trump needed him to seem senile. He’s not senile.

michelle goldberg

But Ross, so I just want to ask you about this. Because we all had to rate these debates. And you made this argument that strikes me as just bananas and also at odds with sort of every fact checking organization, that they both made about as many lies and flubs. Because watching, especially the first part of the debate, what struck me is Trump’s — not for the first time — is Trump’s greatest power in these things is his ability to lie so prodigiously and shamelessly and relentlessly. And it’s just impossible to fact check someone in real-time. And you get into these moments when the candidates are just like, yes, it is. No, it isn’t. Yes, it is. No, it isn’t. Right? And there’s sort of no way for someone watching at home to make an independent judgment, unless they go back later and check the fact checking record. And everyone whose job it is to fact check these things for a living said that this was just an absolute avalanche of mendacity from the president and a few things Biden got wrong. So how do you — what equivalence do you see with these two men?

ross douthat

I mean, I haven’t — so generally, I think you’re right that Trump lies more prodigiously than other politicians. I think I said that because I thought there were some notable moments of where it wasn’t just Biden getting things wrong. I think Biden is dishonest about Hunter Biden, which was the subject that Trump was very eager to bring up and did bring up. And Biden —

michelle goldberg

Dishonest in what way?

ross douthat

Dishonest in the sense that he always wants to say my son did nothing wrong. Everyone agrees he did nothing wrong. And in this case. I think he specifically said nobody —

michelle goldberg

He said everyone agrees that Biden did nothing wrong. And everybody does agree that, including the report of Ron Johnson’s Senate investigation, right? I mean, one of the fascinating things that happened last night is that the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page had this piece that I guess the Trump campaign had been excited about because it was going to substantiate these bizarre laptop from hell allegations. And almost just moments after, the news side publishes a piece that basically debunks the case that Trump and the conservative media has been trying to make against Hunter Biden, at least with regards to China.

ross douthat

So, right. But Biden did — I mean, we should get more into the Hunter Biden question in a second with David, but Biden specifically said nobody made any money in China, right? Trump was accusing him of —

michelle goldberg

That’s what the Wall Street Journal said.

ross douthat

No, the Wall Street Journal said that Joe Biden himself was not —

michelle goldberg

No, it said that — no. I mean, at least in this particular deal, there was no — but the deal never went through and nobody made any money.

ross douthat

The deal never went through in this particular case. But Hunter Biden has been, almost certainly, he’s been on the board of a company making large scale investments in China over a substantial period of time. I think it is almost certainly false to say that Hunter Biden didn’t make any money in China.

michelle goldberg

OK, that’s fair enough.

ross douthat

And it just — I mean, I just have been struck by sort of repeatedly when this has come up. I mean, it’s understandable that Biden — Biden doesn’t want to get bogged down in saying, OK, my son was doing a bunch of influence peddling that was pretty shady, but I personally didn’t do anything wrong. He just wants to say comprehensively that his family didn’t do anything wrong. I think that’s not true. I think the debate started out with this back and forth about the travel ban and whether Joe Biden called the travel ban xenophobic and so on.

michelle goldberg

Wait, look at the tweet. I’m sorry — go back and look at the tweet where he called him xenophobic. He’s not talking about the travel ban. He’s talking about Trump’s referring to the virus as the “China virus.”

ross douthat

Right. No, Biden did not specifically call the travel ban xenophobic. He just tweeted the day after the travel ban, we’re in the midst of a crisis, and we need to lead the way with science, not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear mongering.” And then Biden didn’t actually say he supported a travel ban until April. Which was months — months later. But yeah, I mean maybe you’re right that that doesn’t count as being dishonest.

david leonhardt

I mean, in a world where Trump actually put in place — Ross, you’ve written about this. In a world where Trump actually put in place a real travel ban, in that world, it is true that he would have been criticized by lots of people on the left and in the center. And it now looks like it would have been a good move, right? There are multiple countries in Africa that put in place travel bans. And it has helped them keep out the virus. New Zealand and Australia and Hong Kong. It’s generally true that — I think it’s generally true that large parts — parts of the political left and center — were and, in many cases, continue to be wrong about the efficacy of a travel ban. But the problem with Trump, as always, it’s like, we can kind of construct some alternate reality where he could have been right. But instead, what Trump did was he put in place a partial and totally ineffectual travel ban while saying racist things about China. And so, yes, there is a world in which this would be an effective line of attack on Biden. There really would be. I just don’t think it’s the world we’re living in.

ross douthat

No, well, I don’t think Trump has — I mean, I don’t think Trump has, on these issues, particularly effective lines of attack against Biden. I guess I was just — I thought he was sort of less distinctively mendacious, and that they were sort of arguing more the way normal politicians do about sort of interpretations of public rhetoric and public argument. It’s the same thing with Biden and fracking, right? Biden does not officially support a fracking ban. He has, in fact, at moments in the Democratic primaries, seemed to say things that implied he supported a fracking ban. That kind of back and forth on what that means is much more typical of sort of politician back and forth than what we got in the first debate. And that was sort of mostly what I was going after. But I think the same thing applies — I think your point, David, applies to the Hunter Biden stuff. And I’m curious what you guys think. I mean, I think that the press is — there is this sense, basically, in the mainstream press, this deep anxiety about getting sort of played by the Trump campaign or by right-wing media into having some kind of repeat of the Jim Comey investigation in the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign. But I feel like that has sort of prevented people in the mainstream press from sort of saying what are pretty obvious things about Hunter Biden’s career and sort of the fact that there is this web of influence peddling around Joe Biden that is seedy and not as — it’s not like Trump, right? It’s not like running your political party’s events through your hotels and possibly twisting US foreign policy because you have business dealings in the Philippines and Turkey. It’s not that bad. But it’s probably OK for the press to say there’s shady stuff going on here, right?

michelle goldberg

Well, right, and most of the shady stuff that we actually know about is because of reporting like this recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, like the big New Yorker profile of Hunter Biden. I think it’s — the press cannot just sort of cooperate with a Rudy Giuliani campaign the way that they eagerly lapped up these disclosures from WikiLeaks and pretended that there was a big scandal as they combed through these secret emails and sort of ignored the broader scandal, which was the Trump administration’s collusion with Russian agents to get these emails out there in the first place, right? And similarly, the scandal here is what Giuliani is doing and the sort of extremely shady backstory to how he got this material in the first place, his working directly with somebody that the Treasury Department has sanctioned as a Russian agent, right? Even if everything in these emails was true — and I think it probably is, although I understand why the press doesn’t want to take it at face value. Because it’s important to note that where mainstream outlets have asked Giuliani or people involved in this material to hand it over so that they can look at it themselves, they’ve refused, right? So they’re basically demanding that the mainstream media take Giuliani’s oppo research as filtered through the New York Post at face value, and then use it as a news hook for a bunch of stories about Hunter Biden’s business deals and shady past, as if that is, in and of itself, a sort of important news story 11 days out from the campaign. It’s only an important news story because of what Trump and his associates have done to inject it into the campaign. It’s why you don’t see a bunch of stories about Ivanka and her unbelievably corrupt business dealings in China as she sits in the White House, right? It’s just the media has not decided that that’s a super important story 11 days out from the campaign. There’s no independent reason why they would decide that Joe Biden’s son’s business history is worth a lot of attention, except that there’s this sort of drumbeat from the right that if they don’t devote a bunch of space to this, then they’re somehow complicit with the Biden campaign, right? They actually are getting played.

david leonhardt

I mean, Ross, I agree with you that the Hunter Biden stuff seems sleazy, right? But I agree with Michelle. The media has reported on it. And it’s not clear to me — there’s no evidence repeatedly. There is the opposite of evidence that Biden did something wrong here, right? It’s that Hunter Biden has a job that it feels like — I mean, the kids of politicians deserve to have jobs.

ross douthat

Wait, wait, wait —

david leonhardt

But this seems like a job — this seems like a job that he has because he was Joe Biden’s kid, and it’s sleazy, right? And he probably made some money off of it. And that’s sleazy. And the press has reported about it. And, but it’s just like, it doesn’t seem like a major story right now. What is it — I guess, what are the questions that you want to see explored that you’re not seeing explored?

ross douthat

I mean, I thought — I mean, in general, I thought the debate moderator did a good job last night, Kristen Welker. And I think that the way she handled it was reasonable, to bring it up as part of sort of a constellation of issues, including Trump’s tax returns and other things like that. I mean, I think, generally, what we know about Hunter Biden is not just that he did business deals that sort of traded on his family name. It’s that he did business deals in two major fronts of U.S. foreign policy — Ukraine and China. First of all, U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine was basically designed to open up Ukraine to stronger western influence and detach Ukraine from Russia’s orbit. And in that sense, the macro level of U.S. foreign policy was extremely helpful to people like Hunter Biden who wanted to get board seats on Ukrainian companies. And in China, there was —

michelle goldberg

Wait, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

ross douthat

— obvious —

michelle goldberg

No, Ross, the substance of the accusation in Ukraine is whether Joe Biden intervened to fire this prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who the right claims was investigating Burisma, the company that had Hunter Biden on the board. And that is a flat —

ross douthat

Yeah, that specific allegation seems wrong.

michelle goldberg

That’s not the specific allegation. That’s the whole of the case against him. And it is flatly, not just untrue —

ross douthat

Not —

michelle goldberg

— but the opposite of true because getting rid of Viktor Shokin made a prosecution of Burisma more likely, not less. And I would just say incidentally that when I was in Ukraine last year, I have never heard— when I interviewed kind of anti-corruption activists, people who devote their lives to fighting endemic corruption in Ukraine, the only person I’d ever heard speak with that much kind of deep and profound gratitude and admiration for Joe Biden is maybe Josh Barro on Twitter, right? He’s like a big Joe Biden fan.

ross douthat

Well, that’s a good — I don’t want to carry us too deep into these debates.

michelle goldberg

OK. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ross douthat

All right, let’s pause there for a minute and take a quick break. We’ll be right back.

And we’re back. I’m wondering, David, bringing you back for this pre-election reassessment, how do you like Joe Biden now?

david leonhardt

I mean, so I enjoy thinking about alternative history, and I would really love to know what the world would look like if the Democrats had nominated Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. And Michelle, I’d love to know what you think. I’d love to know what both of you think about that. But I think — so we have to do some guessing here, right? I mean, my personal history on this is I wrote a column back in — when was it — 2018 or ‘19, arguing that Biden running was very good for the Democrats, when people were saying, should he run, should he not run? Because I said you can’t know what the race is going to be like in advance. And one of the big mistakes the Democrats made in 2016 was clearing the field for Hillary, right? And they shouldn’t clear the field for anyone. And Biden is just unlike any other candidate. So maybe he’ll run and do terribly and lose. But instead, it looks to me, at this point, like he is the best possible nominee the Democrats could have had. I mean, again, it’s so hard to talk about this race because we all remember 2016 so well. And we think there’s a chance that it’s going to end in some very unexpected way. And let me say it could end in some very unexpected way. But at this point, it feels like the most likely outcome is, Joe Biden led Donald Trump in the head to head polls from the very beginning. He led him by substantially more than Elizabeth Warren, by a little bit more than Bernie Sanders, by more than the other plausible Democrats. And that lead has remained really steady. It’s grown a little bit. It’s shrunk a little bit. Mostly, it seems to have grown just a little bit. And it now looks like that Biden avoids getting on the wrong side of the American people’s public opinion in the way that some Democrats don’t. He’s not in favor of getting rid of private health insurance. He avoids — as much as it pains me to say this, he avoids the sexism of American voters, right? Because he’s an old white guy. And so it just seems to me that the most likely thing is Democrats should look back and feel very fortunate that they had Joe Biden to run against Donald Trump. That’s where I am.

ross douthat

Michelle, what do you think?

michelle goldberg

I think that’s roughly right. I think he’s run a superb campaign. And one of the astonishments, at least to me, is that his favorability ratings have gone up in the course of the campaign, which I certainly didn’t think would happen. And he’s also been able, it looks like — I’ve gone back to this a couple of times. But I’ve gone back to this interview that I did with Erica Chenoweth from Harvard, this expert on mass non-violent protest movements. And I remember I was asking her, when do these starts of mass movements against authoritarianism work? And she’s talking about protests, not elections. But one of the points she made is that they need to be able to peel off not just the usual suspects, but kind of defectors from the regime, validators in the military, kind of unexpected allies. And I think that Joe Biden has been able to do that really, really well, right? I mean, Joe Biden seems to be ahead with sort of generals and national security people. How much that matters to kind of the average person I don’t know. But you do hear — so for example, recently, I’ve spoken to Sarah Longwell, one of the founders of Republican Voters Against Trump, who’s done a ton of focus groups with women who voted for Trump and then soured on him. And in her focus groups, she says that Biden was frequently the most acceptable to them. And so, I think early on, I kind of underestimated the degree to which there would be Republican defectors from Trump. And there’s not a lot, but it looks like in polling, there’s enough to make a difference in some of these states. And I think that what it looks, at this point — and again, knock wood. But it looks at this point, whatever deficits he has with turnout and enthusiasm — and I think those aren’t going to be as serious as I feared earlier, just because the left has really, really come together in a way that it didn’t in 2016. But if there are any, I think Joe Biden’s kind of broad acceptability to people who might have considered voting Republican make up for them.

ross douthat

But what about the Klobuchar candidacy, which would be leading —

michelle goldberg

Yeah, no, I don’t think that- –

ross douthat

I mean, I think —

michelle goldberg

Well, I think Klobuchar would be not doing well because I think that you just can’t — I mean, one of the lessons to me of the last four years is just that toxic, hostile sexism is a much, much bigger force in American politics than I had previously wanted to believe. So this is, to me, a really depressing statement about whether women in this country will ever have full equality or equal representation. But kind of given the emergency stakes of this election — and even though I think — I have no doubt in my mind that, of the candidates, Elizabeth Warren would have been the best president, I am relieved that our candidate is an old white man.

ross douthat

I actually think Klobuchar would be doing quite well. I think there are some interesting gaps in polling where there are places where Democratic Senate candidates are running behind Biden. There are also places where they’re running slightly ahead of him. And I think there are female candidates who could do quite well with the kind of voters that Biden is doing well with. And I still think Klobuchar was one of them. So that dream, I refuse to let the Klobuchar dream die. That being said, I mean, I think, obviously, the pandemic just completely transformed the likely shape of the race. And I think a world where the economy was doing well and Trump was able to sort of tout his foreign policy successes in the Middle East and various other things is just a very different kind of campaign. And I can still imagine someone on the left, making the argument that in that world where the election would have been really close, and base turnout would have been everything, and you would have had to contest Trump on the economy in a much more substantial way than the Democrats have had to do, that doing the Bernie Sanders thing would have been the right call.

michelle goldberg

I think that’s right because in a world like that, you’re less likely to have such a mass defection of upscale suburbanites, right? And so you need to have a lot more base turnout. I mean, I definitely — my mom lives in Arizona. She definitely knows people who are voting Biden over Trump, but would have voted for Trump over Bernie.

ross douthat

That’s — yeah.

michelle goldberg

But —

ross douthat

Yeah, no, I mean, you have to assume.

michelle goldberg

Right, but in a different kind of world where all those people are basically somehow satisfied with Trump, Bernie, I think, would have done much, much better with Latino mobilization. He was much better at that in the primary. So I think there’s total — there are counterfactual worlds where a much more ideological campaign would have been the right one.

ross douthat

So David, we have one more episode of this show before the election, in which maybe Michelle and I will make predictions. But since we have you here on the spot, I’m going to ask you to give me your predictions for the election itself, and also maybe for the aftermath, what you expect to happen in the weeks afterward, since I assume you’re going to predict that Trump is going to lose. So give me a prediction. Give me some numbers so we have — so we can write them down and throw them in your face when they turn out to be wrong.

david leonhardt

OK, I’m going to play along. But first, I want to object and say the left —

ross douthat

You’re not in charge of this show anymore, Leonhardt.

david leonhardt

I know. That’s why I’m going to follow your instructions. But I’m just going to note that one of the big lessons I took from 2016 is, human beings, all of us, are really bad at thinking about probabilities, right? We hear something has a 20 percent chance of happening, and we say, well, that’s not going to happen. So let me state from the beginning that I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I think it is possible that Donald Trump will win. And I think it is possible that Joe Biden will win in a landslide that includes — that isn’t quite Reagan level, but isn’t like anything we’ve seen in decades. I think those two things are both possible. I think the most likely thing is that Biden will win. And he will win on election night, right? So there’s been all this focus of like this is going to go on for days and days and days. If the polls are correct, it’s not going to go on for days and days and days, right? Florida looks like a toss-up right now. If Biden wins Florida, it’s just over. And we’ll know that on election night because Florida counts their mail ballots quite quickly. So if Biden wins Florida, it’s going to be over. And if he doesn’t win Florida, but he wins, to oversimplify, only a tiny little bit, three of these four — Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — he also wins. And he’s well ahead in the polls in all those. So I think that —

michelle goldberg

Although we won’t know Pennsylvania probably on election night.

david leonhardt

We probably won’t, but again, in a scenario in which Biden wins one of these states by seven or eight points, I think we’re going to have a very good idea. But yes, you’re right. So I think, to me, that looks like the most likely scenario with enormous, enormous error bars running. I mean, look, the thing that I think is really up for grabs is the Senate. I mean, I really could see the Senate going either way. There are all kinds of races that are unbelievably close — Montana, South Carolina, both races in Georgia. Then you’ve got a bunch of races that don’t look quite so close, but you could easily imagine going either way — Iowa, Michigan where a Democratic incumbent could lose. And so I think there is — I understand why we’re all focusing on the presidential race. But I would encourage people, to the extent that they want to think about a post-election world, a post-election world in which Republicans have the Senate and Biden has the presidency, I think looks like a massively dysfunctional American government. Because I don’t think Mitch McConnell plays along.

ross douthat

All right, I’m going to — specific. These are yes or no questions, David. Does Susan Collins lose?

david leonhardt

Probably.

michelle goldberg

Oh, yes.

ross douthat

Probably is not a yes —

david leonhardt

I’m a math nerd.

ross douthat

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

david leonhardt

So the listeners can translate.

ross douthat

All right, I’ll just do a couple more. I’ll do a couple more and then release you. What does — do the Democrats win the Senate seat in Georgia?

david leonhardt

No, probably not.

ross douthat

So they go to the runoff, and then they lose the runoff.

david leonhardt

I think that if you imagine a world where Biden has just won, I think it’s really hard for Democrats to win a special election in Georgia. It’s definitely within the realm of possibility. But if I had to do like a yea or nay bet, I would say Republicans keep the seats in Georgia.

ross douthat

Joni Ernst wins or loses in Iowa.

david leonhardt

That’s as close to a coin flip as I can get. Ooh, so I’ll say — so wait, I think the Democrats are ever so slightly more likely to retake the Senate. But they don’t need that seat to retake the Senate. So I’ll say Joni Ernst probably wins.

ross douthat

And then last but not least, give me a prediction for the popular vote margin between Trump and Biden in the great state of Texas.

david leonhardt

I’ll say Trump wins Texas by roughly the same that Cruz did.

ross douthat

All right. So David, as long as we have you here, we also have to ask you, of course, for a nonpolitical recommendation to carry our listeners through the 11 days and counting until Gotterdamerung.

david leonhardt

So doing recommendations is one of the things I really missed with you all. I took your own recommendations, and I made mine. So what I would say is that — and I spent a long time thinking about this, and there were some I considered and discarded. But I would say the pandemic has ruined so many of our daily rituals if you think about it. I mean, for many people, it’s getting in the car and commuting. For kids, it’s going to the school bus. There’s all these daily rituals, these ways that we mark time that we’ve lost. And so my family has actually added a new ritual during this time to just kind of mark the end of each weekday. It takes only about 20 minutes, 22 minutes to be precise, which is, we watch Jeopardy every night. We tape Jeopardy, and then we watch it, fast forwarding through the ads. I have teenagers. My kids are a little older than yours so it’s a little easier for them to watch Jeopardy. They get some questions right that my wife and I do not. And I have to say, I love it. First of all, I was never a Jeopardy person before this. Alex Trebek, who has this new memoir out — so if you’re a huge Jeopardy person, the recommendation can be that you go get that — is this wonderful figure. He’s calming. He greets you. He comes on the screen. You find your blood pressure falling. You just feel a little happier. But he also has these really subtle ways of kind of making fun of the contestants when they get stuff wrong, even as he’s rooting for them. Ross, I know I’m trolling you here, but he’s sort of like a secular priest. Just makes you feel good about the world. And so my family gets on the sofa, we cuddle, and we have a great time trying to guess questions and yelling at each other when someone answers the question too quickly.

michelle goldberg

How did this get started?

david leonhardt

It got started because one of my kids started watching it. And my wife enjoyed it before we were together. Many years ago, my wife enjoyed watching it by herself. So she kind of then glommed on to it, and the rest of us just sort of followed along.

ross douthat

How old are your kids now, David?

david leonhardt

17, 16, and 12.

ross douthat

Yeah, so I mean, I was a Jeopardy obsessive. We even had a Jeopardy board game, I think, in my house at some point. So we watched it every night when I was, like, 12 or 13. And I’ve wondered at what age I could possibly hook my kids. Because I feel like you have to — to really enjoy it, you have to have some baseline of hope of getting a certain number of answers right. Maybe that’s not true. But if every category is totally opaque to you, the show probably is less fun. But yeah, I was part of the cult for about five years in my youth. And it’s amazing now, as a cancer survivor, that Trebek is still there. Do people — I know there’ve been these players who have gone on these tremendous streaks that I’ve read about. And one of my worries with this, that there was a sort of Moneyball for Jeopardy, where people had figured out precisely the right way to bet on the Daily Doubles and pinging from question to question. Do you notice differences compared to — or did you ever watch it in the past? Sorry.

david leonhardt

I watched it enough, a little bit. Yes, there is Moneyball for Jeopardy. And you can see the people who come on — actually, the guy who has won the most recent episode I’ve seen, which was Thursday night this week, clearly was doing a Moneyball thing, where he was trying to get the Daily Doubles on the screen. And then he bet the maximum amount, and sure enough, he won. But I think that there is enough randomness, like do you know answer to final Jeopardy? There is enough randomness that it is hard to have one of these mega streaks, just based on cutesy Moneyball strategies. The only way to have one of these mega streaks of winning is just to be a ridiculous trivia person.

ross douthat

All right, David, so one more time, the recommendation is?

david leonhardt

Watch Jeopardy with your family.

ross douthat

And thank you so much for coming back and being with us.

michelle goldberg

Yeah, thank you, David.

david leonhardt

Thanks for having me. Let’s do it again before the 200th episode. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ross douthat

The Argument is a production of The New York Times Opinion section. Our team includes Alison Bruzek, Isaac Jones, Phoebe Lett, Paula Szuchman, Vishakha Darbha, Kate Sinclair, and Kathy Tu. We’ll be back next Friday at our usual release time. Thanks for your patience. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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