Thursday, 27 Feb 2020

Opinion | Elizabeth Warren Divides the Room

Gail Collins: Bret, where should we start? Democratic debate? Impeachment? Mideast crisis? Rudy Giuliani? Actually, as a New Yorker I always figured that someday Rudy would do something even more outrageous than the time he called a news conference to announce he was separating from his wife before he told said spouse. But I did not imagine it would include sleazy Ukrainians and Joe Biden’s son.

But hey, it’s debate day. Let’s start with the Democrats. Who do you like tonight?

Bret Stephens: Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to start with a certain Gail Collins, whose extraordinary history of older women in America, “No Stopping Us Now,” hits bookstores this week. Congratulations!

Gail: Thanks! You’ve made my day.

Bret: O.K. Now to the doleful stuff.

I know we don’t often discuss foreign affairs, but I feel sick about the way in which President Trump has betrayed our Kurdish allies. They lost thousands of soldiers to defeat the Islamic State, which made it possible to keep American casualties to a minimum in that fight. And now we’ve sold them out to a Turkish strongman who takes Americans hostage, locks up his political opponents by the thousands, makes common cause with Hamas, mutters anti-Semitic garbage, blackmails Europe, attempts to steal elections and builds a gigantic palace for himself.

It’s one of the lowest moments in American foreign policy. Which is to say, just another day in Trumpworld.

[The big debates, distilled. This guide will put in context what people are saying about the pressing issues of the week. Sign up for our new newsletter, Debatable.]

Gail: You know I try to avoid conversing about foreign affairs — I’ve always been on the domestic end of things. But you’re right, this is too incredible to dodge. What’s scary is that it’s not a good move on even the bottom-feeding-deeply-political-with-no-principles-whatsoever side. The Republican senators just hate it. They’re all that’s standing between Trump and the collapse of his presidency. But he goes out of his way to alienate them by doing something that’s also shocking, awful and totally not in the nation’s interest.

What’s his thinking?

Bret: A combination of things, I think. Partly, it’s ideological: Trump is a truculent isolationist and has been since at least the 1980s. Partly it’s psychological: Trump loves acting the part of the tough guy, but hates doing things that are genuinely tough, like standing up to dictators or firing his subordinates in person.

Gail: Yeah, the guy who made his name firing people on TV is clearly terrified to actually tell anyone they’re canned face to face.

Bret: Partly it’s political: He thinks that ending “endless wars” plays well with both his base as well as many independents whose votes he will need.

And, no doubt, it’s about impeachment. What better way to distract attention from what we are learning about Ukraine, Rudy, his associates and everything else that has come out in recent days than with an abrupt move in the Middle East?

Gail: I do want to get to the Democrats but first one more quick question. Are you still staying off the impeachment wagon?

Bret: Wavering. A few of my arguments against impeachment no longer look as good to me now as they did two weeks ago. Public sentiment in favor of the inquiry is growing, even among a few Republicans, which makes the impeachment process itself less likely to be a purely partisan process. The evidence of presidential malfeasance is also growing. That’s an argument to let the process continue, see what we learn and keep an open mind. And if the impeachment process really wounds Trump, it might invite a really serious Republican primary challenge.

But I still have my doubts. …

Gail: I am pretty confident you’ll be climbing aboard soon. But now — Democrats! We will avoid making any jokes about whether a debate is cheaper by the dozen. Sort of looking forward to the time when these things are a little less crowded.

I’m kicking off my book tour Tuesday so I’ll have to tape the debate for late-night viewing. Which means I’ll miss our columnist vote on who did the best. So give me a preview. Who do you think is going to get an A?

Bret: You know I’ve been partial to Pete Buttigieg. Part of his problem is that his performances are so polished that too many people fail to notice how consistently and brightly he shines. And I think there’s a potentially winning lane for him if Joe Biden fades as the leading moderate in the race.

Gail: I can definitely imagine Buttigieg being the Democratic nominee down the road — in another four or eight or 12 years. And I think it’s very smart for him to be running, introducing himself to the public and ratcheting up his profile. But he’s still a 37-year-old whose top political experience is leading a college town with a population of 100,000. That’s roughly half the people in my neighborhood in New York.

My wish for Mayor Pete would be a high-profile job in the new Democratic administration.

Bret: Including as veep.

As for Elizabeth Warren, I have no doubt she will deliver the sort of performance that thrills progressives and leaves the rest of us somewhere between nervous, because she probably can’t win the presidency, and appalled, because she shouldn’t be president. I know this view won’t endear me to some of our readers, but I see her as the left-wing answer to Trump, minus the ethnic bigotry and sophomoric narcissism: railing against a “rigged” system and making promises she can’t deliver.

Gail: If we eliminate all the candidates making promises they can’t deliver, we’ll have to nominate … who? Warren understands how all the pieces of the economy work. She isn’t afraid to make very specific proposals on how to fix what’s wrong, particularly the huge gap between the ultra-wealthy and the average citizens, in which Category 1 is getting all the tax breaks.

Both she and the voters are aware that you have to set high goals because Congress, even under optimal circumstances, will give you only a piece of what you’re striving for.

Bret: I think there’s a fine line between setting high goals and setting delusional ones.

I would also love to see Amy Klobuchar step up. Like Buttigieg, the Minnesota senator has a good claim to lead the moderate wing of her party, and she is far more experienced than the mayor of South Bend.

Gail: Klobuchar always seems to have the best line in the debates. But I’ve never heard her deliver a passionate address that could rally the country.

Bret: I don’t expect much from the rest of the field. Kamala Harris doesn’t seem to believe in much beyond her own ambition. Cory Booker? Ditto, and his tenure as Newark mayor left a lot to be desired. Bernie Sanders should set an example by bowing out with grace. Julián Castro behaved despicably toward Biden at the last debate; he failed as a human being, never mind as a politician. And I hope Tom Steyer spends at least $100 million of his own money on his bid. I just know he has a chance!

Gail: Pretty much agree with you on the others. Kamala Harris probably gets the prize for Failure To Live Up To Expectations.

But what about Joe Biden? He’s certainly moderate and not likely to be a guy delivering some major social revolution. Do you think he’s too old?

In my capacity as a person who’s been writing a book about older women, I have to say it’s interesting that of the three 70-something candidates running for the Democratic nomination, Warren is the only one for whom it doesn’t seem to be a major issue.

The obvious reason is that Warren is racing around like an overachieving bee. While Bernie is recovering from a heart attack and Biden is making appearances in which he reminds me of a very friendly 15-year-old golden retriever.

Bret: Golden retrievers are good at all ages.

Gail: I’ve always had a theory that when people age, barring health crises, they simply become more like whatever they were at 40. Warren sort of undercuts this — she’s much more personable, politically astute, with a stronger public presence than when she first emerged on the political scene. But Biden is that same friendly pol who likes to work the system. Maybe more so. There’s a reason he’s always failed trying for the nomination in the past — he just doesn’t seem to have the makings of a great No. 1.

However, if he wins the nomination, do not remind me of all this in the fall. Then he’d be the only thing standing between us and four more years of Donald Trump, and I guarantee I will find a ton of great qualities to admire.

Bret: I would gladly vote for Biden. He is a respecter of our institutions, and that’s something the country dearly needs now. What he lacks in ideological ambition and rhetorical nimbleness he more than makes up for in human decency and political good sense. He cares about America’s place in the world and will mend fences with our allies. He has experienced the kind of personal tragedy that hardens a person’s will and softens the heart. He will surround himself with sensible advisers. I won’t agree with them much of the time, but I will rest easy knowing they aren’t likely to make catastrophic mistakes like the Kurdish fiasco. For all of his manifest flaws, he can restore the country’s emotional balance, which is no small thing after four years of Trump-astrophe.

And, most important, I think he can win a general election, which is why Trump went to such sneaky and discreditable lengths to smear him.

Gail: The Trump part is absolutely true. But I’m not sure I trust Trump’s judgment on anything, including who he ought to be most afraid of next fall.

Bret: Disagree. It ought to scare Democrats that Trump, whose political instincts are sharp, seems to want Warren as his opponent. Again, I know I don’t speak for many of our readers on this one. But I’m pretty sure I speak for a lot of Americans in saying I find her intensely alienating, a know-it-all with a dozen half-baked plans for everyone and everything — all of which will fall apart when put to practice, as grandiose plans usually do. And she has a habit of biographical embellishment that, while trivial next to Trump’s, is still disconcerting.

Gail: Well, we can save the alleged biographical embellishment for another conversation. We’ve got enough to keep track of right now, what with the Middle East blowing up, Giuliani running amok and Trump staging endless rallies in which he uses language nobody would tolerate at a meeting of the local block association.

Just thankful I’ll have a chance to vent when I’m conversing with you.

Bret: As the Brits say: Mutual!

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Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist and a former member of the editorial board, and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007. @GailCollins Facebook

Bret L. 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. Facebook

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