Gail Collins: So Bret, did Joe Biden’s convention speech make you comfortable? The idea was to reassure folks like me about health care reform and raising the minimum wage but not so much that folks like you would consider a conservative revolt.
Did it work?
Bret Stephens: I think so, yes. As best as I can tell, the basic idea of the “convention” (can we even call it that anymore?) was to offer America a hot soak, warm socks and a cup of peppermint tea after the cold, dark night that has been Donald Trump’s first term in office. It was like a quirky (if rather pricey) Vermont bed-and-breakfast, with comfy furniture and rooms to spare, where the proprietor tells you, “stay as long as you’d like.”
Gail: My immediate impulse is to forget Joe Biden and find that inn.
Bret: The highlight, for me, was Jill Biden’s classroom speech. She projected intelligence, warmth, concern and classiness. She gave you the sense that, if her husband were elected, we would again be governed by people who live in reality, as opposed to a reality TV show.
Then again, a friend of mine, wise in political things, tells me the whole thing felt like a boring infomercial, thin on substance, that wouldn’t win over the middle-of-America-middle-Americans Biden needs to win. What did you think?
Gail: Well, if we were looking for excitement, we picked the wrong campaign.
Bret: Is there a word for something that’s exciting precisely because it is boring? Like reaching the calmer waters of the Pacific after rounding Cape Horn? Sorry, go on.
Gail: This isn’t a normal race. The country’s great priority is having somebody who is not Donald Trump, and Biden has that down.
He also has an agenda that’s attractive. Which, as the campaign goes on, Trump will so mischaracterize — OK, lie about — that people could well imagine that Biden’s main goal is burning down the suburbs.
Bret: Wait, his goal isn’t to burn down the suburbs?
I was very much taken by our news-side colleague Adam Nagourney’s article this weekend, which revisited the Bush ’88 campaign as a template for Trump ’20. You’ll remember that Bush’s Democratic opponent, Mike Dukakis, came out of his convention with what seemed like a prohibitive 17-point lead in a Gallup poll. But Bush ended up clobbering him that November, thanks to a bare-knuckled campaign that painted the Massachusetts governor as a criminal hugging, pledge-of-allegiance-despising liberal.
Gail: You’re referring to Willie Horton, who, as you doubtless recall, was serving life without parole for murder when he disappeared from a weekend furlough program while Dukakis was governor in Massachusetts and ended up committing more crimes, including armed robbery and rape, that became fodder for a notoriously race-baiting ad.
We were so much more media-naive then. If Dukakis were running now, his media people would have already figured out a way to acknowledge what happened and turn it around somehow. Dukakis 2020 would maybe use it as an example of a mistake that made him smarter than ever on how to be tough on crime.
Everybody should read Adam’s piece. Takes you back in a scary, important way.
Bret: Other than advising Biden not to get in a battle tank wearing an oversized helmet, what’s your campaign advice for Joe?
Gail: Stay virtual.
Bret: Right. Virtual Biden versus virtue-less Trump.
Gail: Stick to coronavirus criminality on Trump’s part. And sell the program.
A program which you can’t love, right? I was sort of hoping this part of the campaign would actually give us a chance to argue about issues. Anything bother you in particular?
Bret: It would bother me a lot more if, say, Elizabeth Warren were the candidate, because then I’d worry that she actually meant it. In that case, we’d have pitched ideological battles about stuff like modern monetary theory and the proper role of U.S. foreign policy. But Biden’s a transactional guy wedded to a semi-liberal version of the status quo. The way I read his campaign positions is that they are opening gambits to a Congressional negotiation in which Democrats try to increase government spending on this or that program, and Republicans revert to making believe they are the party of fiscal rectitude.
Gail: I really miss those clean-shaven boring Republicans moaning about deficit spending. Where did they all go? To a well-endowed retirement village somewhere?
Bret: I think it’s called the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
My bigger worry for Democrats is on social questions. Biden has a left flank that isn’t thrilled with him and is way out of step with much of the country, or at least its noncoastal sides. And this is the flank that Trump is going to attack. He’s telling voters that “Sleepy Joe” is a political fig leaf and that the real nominee is Kamala Harris, arguably one of the most liberal members of the Senate. He’s accusing Democrats of seeking to turn U.S. cities into a giant, police-free Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. He’ll probably warn that progressives mean to use Covid-19 as a pretext to shut down millions of businesses while making people financially dependent on unemployment benefits. And he’ll continue to play up the looting that occurred in cities like L.A. or New York as a prelude to what’s coming to places like Shaker Heights or West Palm Beach.
And if Democrats aren’t careful, it could work. Remember that moment in 1988 when CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis about whether he’d continue to oppose the death penalty if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered?
Gail: Michael Dukakis was a lovely guy but running Massachusetts is not a good preparation for a presidential campaign. Just ask Mitt Romney.
Bret: Bill Clinton was so haunted by the death penalty question that he actually flew back to Arkansas during his own campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1992 to associate himself with the execution of a mentally impaired prisoner named Ricky Ray Rector. Horrible.
Sorry, go on.
Gail: Joe Biden has very liberal views on social issues but unlike Dukakis he’s spent a long time on the national stage and knows how to answer questions in a way that pleases his base without driving other parts of the center nuts.
Bret: God love ya.
That said, I must admit I’m already having nightmares about what could happen in those debates.
Bret: Me too. I suspect nothing can really prepare you for debating Trump because he’s a guy who never plays by any set of rules. On the other hand, Trump has made such an issue of Biden’s mental acuity that all Joe has to do is display reasonably normal mental competency and he’ll exceed expectations. And Biden performed just fine in his one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders, who’s a much sharper debater than Trump will ever be.
Gail: I also have debate fantasies of Trump suddenly mispronouncing “Ohio” or denying he ever got divorced. One good moment when Biden can say: “Man, what are you talking about?” while most of America nods.
Bret: Or maybe, “President Trump, just try speaking English in complete sentences for a change.”
The thought of the debates brings another election-year memory to mind, this one from 2000: Remember when Al Gore kept sighing during his debate with George W. Bush, who also managed to exceed expectations while winning the sympathy vote? These things can work in funny ways, and I’m willing to place a bet that Biden will emerge from the debates as the clear winner.
Gail: From your lips to God’s ears.
Bret: In the meantime, Gail, we have the Republican Lollapalooza to, um, look forward to. It’ll be the most relentlessly negative event in recent political history, or at least since Steve Bannon last gazed at his own reflection. Its motto is going to be “When they go low, we go so much lower,” or “Sure, you’re out of a job, but Tesla’s stock is north of $2,000 a share!” And of course it could work, because negative campaigns often do, and Democrats are such experts at painting targets on their own backs.
What do you expect? And what will you be drinking during it?
Gail: Something very sturdy. Should we agree to have a slug of wine any time somebody mentions A.O.C. or Hillary Clinton? Interesting how many of the right’s obsessions are with women.
Bret: I can drink to that. In the meantime, if this election turns out as horribly as the rest of 2020 has been, I have a whiskey bottle we can share. It’s called — I kid you not — “Writer’s Tears.”
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