The Election No One Seems to Want Is Coming Right at Us

Gail Collins: Hey, Bret, it really is 2024 now. Happy new year. And the race is on! Next week, the Iowa caucuses. After Iowa …

Bret Stephens: Le déluge.

Gail: OK, I want to hear your thoughts. Any chance Donald Trump won’t be the Republican nominee? Do you have a Nikki Haley scenario?

Bret: Gail, my feelings about the G.O.P. primary contest are like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. After the 2022 midterms, when Trump’s favored candidates were more or less trounced and he looked like a total loser, I was in complete denial that he could win. Then, as his standing in the party failed to evaporate as I had predicted, I was angry: “Lock him up,” I wrote. Next came bargaining: I said he might be stopped if only Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie and every other Republican dropped out of the race to endorse Haley.

Gail: Stage four?

Bret: Now I’m just depressed. After he takes back the White House in November, I guess acceptance will have to follow. Is there a stage six? Does eternal damnation come next?

Gail: I don’t accept acceptance! Come on: I know Joe Biden isn’t the most electric candidate in history. We’re all obsessed with his age. But he isn’t under multitudinous indictments, charged with trying to overthrow the democratic process or in a stupendous personal financial collapse.

We may wind up going through this every week for the next 10 months, but I’m sticking with my Biden re-election prediction.

Bret: Saying Biden can win is like playing Russian roulette with three bullets in the revolver instead of the traditional one. You might be right. Or we end up like Christopher Walken at the end of “The Deer Hunter.”

Gail: Ewww.

Bret: It isn’t just that Trump is running ahead of Biden now in the overall race, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of polls. It’s that he’s running ahead of him in the states that matter: Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin. I don’t quite understand all of these Democrats who say Trump is an existential threat to decency, democracy and maybe life on the planet and then insist they’re sticking with Biden instead of another candidate. It’s like refusing to seek better medical care for a desperately sick child because the family doctor is a nice old man whose feelings might get hurt if you left his practice.

At a minimum, can we please replace Kamala Harris on the ticket with someone more, er, confidence-inspiring? Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan? Or Wes Moore, the governor of Maryland? Come on, why not?

Gail: Real-world answer is that Harris hasn’t done anything wrong. You don’t dump a hard-working, loyal veep who also happens to be a woman and a minority just because you think there might be somebody better out there somewhere.

Bret: Saying Harris hasn’t done anything wrong leaves out two more salient questions: What has she done well? And does she add to or detract from the ticket’s electability?

Gail: Let’s go back to Biden. We all know the problems. But he’s done a good job. The economic recovery is going well. And did you hear his speech on Friday? I know he’s not a great orator, but he made it clear that he’s going to campaign against Trump very, very, very hard.

Bret: Well, let’s hope it doesn’t kill him. In the meantime, your thoughts about Trump potentially being disqualified from running in Maine and Colorado?

Gail: While I love the idea of his role in Jan. 6 making him an insurrectionist who’s constitutionally not permitted to run for president, I have to admit the whole thing makes me very nervous.

You don’t take care of the Trump problem by evicting him from the ballot. He has to be defeated or it’ll be a rallying cry for his many crazy supporters that could split the country in two.

Am I being too much of a downer here?

Bret: Couldn’t agree with you more. The decisions are wrong, pernicious, misjudged, arrogant and guaranteed to backfire.

Gail: Great string of adjectives there. Go on.

Bret: If Eugene Debs could run for president in 1920 from prison after he was convicted of sedition, why shouldn’t Trump be able to run for president without having been convicted of anything? If Trump can be kicked off the ballot in blue states on account of a highly debatable finding of “insurrection,” then what’s to stop red state judges or other officials kicking Biden off on their own flimsy findings? And on what basis can liberals continue to argue that Trump or Republicans represent a threat to democracy when they are the ones engaged in an attempt to deny tens of millions of voters their choice for president?

Gail: Speaking for liberals, I agree. But I also commend Biden for trying to make Trump’s outrageous, dangerous behavior on Jan. 6 a campaign issue.

Bret: The Supreme Court should overturn the Colorado court, swiftly and unanimously, and let voters choose the next president. Maybe at Harvard, too, while we’re at it.

Gail: Hmm, do I detect an issue that’s really on your mind? Have to admit Claudine Gay’s problems at Harvard haven’t been at the top of my obsession list. But are you ready to rant?

Bret: Yes, particularly about a tweet that The Associated Press sent out the other day that seems to capture a particular kind of inanity. It read: “Harvard president’s resignation highlights new conservative weapon against colleges: plagiarism.” Maybe this “weapon” wouldn’t have been so injurious to Gay if she hadn’t violated a cardinal academic rule more than three dozen times or been at the top of an institution that is supposed to uphold strict intellectual integrity.

I also think the episode is a good opportunity for universities to try to rethink what their core mission ought to be. For starters, they should reread the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report and get out of the business of making political statements of any kind. They should foster more intellectual diversity in their faculties and student bodies. And they need to downsize and restrain their administrative side, particularly the thought police in their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office.

Gail: Let me pick out a sliver of agreement here. This country has long had a crippling system of higher education in which kids could get very expensive loans very easily. Sometimes from smarmy private lenders who needed to be shut down and sometimes well-intentioned government-backed ones. But either way, ambitious young people were encouraged to borrow tons of money, and then left with hopeless piles of debt.

And all that cash flowing in allowed universities to grow way too much, particularly in areas like administration.

Bret: If we keep agreeing this much, the world might end.

Gail: University heads have a lot of roles. Representing inclusivity is a worthy one. We’re moving into an era when schools can no longer consider race as its own factor in admissions. But they have to keep finding ways to make sure their student bodies aren’t totally dominated by well-heeled white kids. One strategy is having high-profile administrators and professors who represent a good mix of race, background, special interests, etc.

Bret: Sure.

Gail: ClaudineGay was an attractive choice on that front. Her performance at that hearing on antisemitism was a disaster, I think in part because she was used to appearing in very different contexts, and didn’t expect her generalizations about inclusivity to be so sharply attacked. Her mistake.

Bret: Part of the problem here is that diversity, equity and inclusion went from being a set of worthy aspirations to a bureaucratic and self-serving apparatus with a highly ideological, polarizing and often exclusionary concept of its own mission.

Gail: Think you’re leaving me behind here. But go on.

Bret: Another part of the problem is that, while diversity is a fine goal, it needs to be in service to the university’s central mission of intellectual challenge and excellence, not at cross-purposes with it. My biggest problem with Gay wasn’t her plagiarism or even her disastrous testimony to Congress. It was her thin academic record: 11 published papers and not a single book in 26 years. I hope her successor is a model of scholarship, irrespective of race or gender.

But getting back to politics, Gail, give me your advice on how Biden should run his campaign.

Gail: Did you hear his Jan. 6 speech, the one I mentioned earlier? I thought it was pretty good. Best way for him to get past the age issue is to be feisty, take Trump head on. Make the Donald mad — because when he gets mad, he tends to sound more demented than Biden at his worst.

Bret: The “Give ’Em Hell, Harry” approach. I like it.

Gail: Our president should remind the country of all the good stuff that’s happened under his administration. Including the large economic improvement. And the country’s struggle against that huge jump in the national debt created by Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Bret: Biden needs an ad campaign in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s “There Is a Bear in the Woods.” In one ad, people would constantly wake up to a jackhammer, a chain saw or a car alarm, to remind them of what it was like to wake up to whatever Trump had tweeted at 2 in the morning. In another, parents have to deal with a petulant and boastful 12-year-old boy who’s constantly lying to them. A third would just be footage of Trump lavishing praise on Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, not to mention Hezbollah.

At the end of each ad, a voice that sounds like Tommy Lee Jones’s would ask the question: “Some people want four more years of this — do you?”

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