Opinion | And the Award for Best Performance at the State of the Union Goes to …

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Opinion | And the Award for Best Performance at the State of the Union Goes to …


Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I think it’s safe to say that Joe Biden’s confident performance at the State of the Union has put to rest any doubts that he’ll be the Democratic nominee, with Kamala Harris as his running mate.

My questions are two: Did he change anyone’s mind? And can he maintain the momentum?

Gail Collins: Well, he probably won over some reluctant Trumpians. But the great thing about the speech, Bret, wasn’t that he changed people’s minds about who to vote for in November. It’s that it moved a ton of Biden voters who had been saying all along they wished he’d just get out and let some younger politicians have a chance at the presidency.

Bret: He also did a very good job defining the stakes of the election. Will we support the free world against Vladimir Putin or abandon it to him? Will we fight for reproductive rights or lose them? Will we do something about gun massacres or resign ourselves to periodic slaughter?

Also, I marveled at the many ways Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House, managed to approximate the expressions of a constipated turtle.

Gail: OK, he’s Mike Johnson, C.T., from now on. You know, our shared loathing of Donald Trump draws us together at moments like these. There’s so much we agree about. But I’ll bet I’m the only one of us who loved Biden’s tax-the-rich riff.

Bret: Not me. The top one percent already contribute about 40 percent of the overall federal income tax take. And if Biden were running against anyone but Trump, I’d be much more critical of some of the policy particulars of the speech. I also think he missed the opportunity to announce some needed executive actions, like sending troops to the southern border or seizing Russia’s frozen foreign assets and giving the money to Ukraine.

But I’m more than happy to put aside my policy objections to an old-school liberal when the alternative is the illiberal G.O.P. And I think Biden’s comparison to the stakes in 1941 was apt. If I had been around then, I might not have loved the New Deal, but I would also be thanking God that F.D.R. was standing up to fascism.

Gail: Woohoo!

Bret: That said, I doubt any of this is going to move the political needle by more than a few millimeters. Thirty million or so Americans watched the speech, which means that 300 million didn’t. And one good performance doesn’t mean Biden will be able to overcome doubts about his age or the general unhappiness with his leadership.

Gail: Well, it has to help that Biden’s been a really good leader. The economy’s doing very well. The less fortunate are being protected — although of course not as much as they ought to be. Reproductive rights are as secure as they can be with a Trump-dominated Supreme Court flapping around. And while the speech might not have changed the polls all that much, it was certainly a huge fund-raising lift.

Bret: And yet just 23 percent of the country thinks we’re on the right track, according to one polling aggregator, and only 26 percent rate the economy as “good” or “excellent,” as against 51 percent who say it’s “poor.” I know some commentators think they’re all delusional, but, to borrow a phrase, people will vote according to their “lived experience.”

Gail: The public’s been underestimating what Biden’s done to improve the economy, but this state of the moment may mark the beginning of a turnaround.

Bret: I doubt it, but hope springs eternal. In the meantime, our governor in New York, Kathy Hochul, has ordered the National Guard and the State Police to patrol the subways. What do you make of that?

Gail: This kind of thing has happened before. Bad surge in crime in some particular place, and suddenly a big police presence is marched in to give folks a sense of security. You can’t blame Hochul for wanting to respond in some very public way to incidents like that recent slashing of a subway conductor.

If the public feels something very bad is going on, the elected leaders need to show they’ve got a plan to fight back. It’s not a long-term solution, but it seems pretty rational for the short run. What do you think?

Bret: Biden said in his address that crime was at historic lows. But there’s something odd about the claim, possibly because there’s a disparity between the crimes people suffer and the crimes they report to police. The D.O.J.’s most recent criminal victimization survey notes that the “rate of violent victimization” rose from 16.5 per 1000 in 2020-21 to 23.5 per 1000 in 2022, the latest year for which we have numbers. That’s a 42 percent increase. At the same time, fewer people are reporting assaults, stranger violence and violent crime with a weapon. I also think there’s a lot more police tolerance for deviant behavior, like doing or dealing drugs in public, that we used to consider criminal.

I could be wrong about this, and I’d love to hear from readers who know more about the subject than I do. Even so, the gap between the claims Biden made about the state of the union and the way people are feeling about things remains really wide.

Gail: Before we leave the State of the Union address completely, Bret, I have to ask about Katie Britt, who the Republicans chose to respond to Biden’s speech. The youngest female G.O.P. senator sat in her kitchen and delivered a chirpy tribute to the glories of homemaking that I found downright creepy. Even before I learned that the terrible migrant incident she was denouncing had actually happened in Mexico during the George W. Bush administration.

I presume she was Trump’s choice. Does that mean he’s mulling her as a running mate? If so, nobody will ever dare to say a snide word about Kamala Harris again.

Bret: I only watched Britt’s response a day later, after I read some of the negative reviews, and learned later of her factually botched rape story. But apart from her somewhat nervous delivery, I thought she landed her points, particularly on the crises of immigration and affordability. Democrats would be foolish to tune it out and dismiss Britt as some kind of Southern beauty queen.

Bottom line: Take her seriously as a potential running mate. She’s almost surely on his list, along with Elise Stefanik, Kristi Noem, Tim Scott, and — so I’m hearing — maybe even Ben Carson. Aren’t you thrilled?

Gail: Ben Carson strikes me as the kind of name insiders come up with when they’re killing time before cocktail hour. I really think it’s gonna be a woman. Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, seems like a possibility, as you say. But she’s gotten a lot of her national exposure as an anti-abortion leader. I know that’s not unusual in a Republican, but I’m wondering whether Trump’s going to want to draw attention to it. He’s been worried in the past about losing votes on the issue.

Bret: One of the ironies of our time is that the Supreme Court, by overturning Roe v. Wade, did Democrats a huge political favor. Trump can’t afford to alienate his ultraconservative base when it comes to abortion. But one of the reasons he shoved aside Ron DeSantis so easily in the primaries is that the Florida governor came out as such an anti-abortion extremist, while Trump’s pro-life credentials are … flexible.

Which is to say: Yes, Trump will pick a woman who sounds pro-life notes, but doesn’t sound like a religious fanatic.

Gail: How about all the other elections coming up this fall? Are you hoping the Republicans expand their House majority? I’ve noticed you’re not madly in love with Speaker Johnson.

Bret: The only way to be in love with Speaker Johnson is if you’re mad.

Gail: On my end, of course, it’s cheers for a Democratic takeover.

Bret: I used to be a middle-of-the-road Republican. Nowadays, I think of myself as a Scoop Jackson Democrat — and my views have barely shifted. If my taxes go up, I’ll live. If my democracy goes down, I won’t.

Gail: Wow, you should be an election ad.

I’ve got to think of some way to be surprising on my end. Hoping to come up with a Republican candidate for governor I can cheer for — governors are always easier.

Bret: Well, definitely not Mark Robinson, the antisemitic Republican nominee in North Carolina — the guy who, as our colleague Michelle Goldberg noted, thinks the movie “Black Panther” is a conspiracy “created by an agnostic Jew” and a “satanic Marxist” to “pull the shekels” from the wallets of Black people.

How charming. Of course he has Trump’s endorsement.

Gail: Well, there’s plenty of time to look since we do have — sigh — eight months to go.

Bret: And speaking of time to go, I have to put in a word for Rod Nordland’s courageous, candid and wise essay in The Times last week. Nordland was a longtime foreign correspondent for this newspaper who, in 2019, was diagnosed with a glioblastoma that typically gives its victims about 15 months to live. Nearly five years later, not only is he still alive, he’s also writing as movingly as anyone I know about what it means to live in the shadow of brain cancer. “The big projects of my Second Life were closely connected,” Nordland writes. “I was revisiting my life’s work while I worked on repairing my life’s mistakes.”

My dad, aunt and grandfather all died from glioblastomas. It doesn’t frighten me, but it does make me try to live each day to the fullest. And as I read that Nordland and his partner are planning their “long-dreamed-for house in southern Italy” with “a grove of orange trees on a terrace over the sea,” I’m cheering them on.



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