Gail Collins: Bret, Democratic strategists are worried about hanging on to support in the working class. The good news, from my perspective, is that it looks like the big problem is economic concerns, not cultural ones.
Saying that’s good news because the Biden administration can respond to those worries by pointing to a ton of effort to create jobs and fight inflation.
Guessing you may, um, disagree?
Bret Stephens: In the immortal words of the “Airplane” sequel: “Just a tad.”
The big problem for Democrats is that their economic message — that happy times are here again — isn’t landing in the places where they need to win, particularly factory towns where elections in states like Wisconsin or Ohio are sometimes decided. Inflation is still too high and probably means the Fed will continue to raise interest rates. Unemployment is low in part because so many people have dropped out of the labor force. Years of lax border control creates a perception that cheap immigrant labor will further undercut working class wages. And a lot of the projects that President Biden’s spending bills are supposed to fund will take years to get off the ground because there’s rarely such a thing as a “shovel-ready” project.
Gail: Yeah, gearing up for a big construction effort does take time. But people who’ve suffered with terrible transportation problems for years do know the shovels are coming. Like the bridge project over the Ohio River that Democrats in Cincinnati have joined hands with Mitch McConnell to celebrate.
Bret: The other problem for Democrats is that, if they aren’t winning the messaging battle when it comes to the economy, they are losing it badly when it comes to cultural issues. You and I often rue the collapse of the moderate wing of the G.O.P. that was occasionally willing to break with right-wing orthodoxies, but Democrats could also do more to embrace candidates who depart from progressive orthodoxies on issues like guns, immigration, school choice, trans issues and so on.
Gail: “Depart from progressive orthodoxies” is a nice way of saying “embrace the bad.” I appreciate that it would be strategic for some purple-state Democrats to take moderate positions on guns, immigration, etc. But I’m not gonna be applauding somebody who, for instance, votes against an assault weapon ban.
Bret: You’re reminding me of the story, probably apocryphal, of the supporter who told Adlai Stevenson, during one of his presidential runs in the 1950s, that “Every thinking person in America will be voting for you.” “I’m afraid that won’t do,” he supposedly replied. “I need a majority.”
Gail: Let’s go back to infrastructure for a minute. Big story about that train wreck in Ohio. Do you agree with me that the whole thing is the fault of Republicans caving into pressure from the rail industry to loosen regulations?
Bret: Er, no. I read recently that there were more than 1,000 train derailments last year, which averages out to more than two a day, and that there’s been a 60 percent decline in railroad safety incidents since 1990. Accidents happen. When they do they shouldn’t become a partisan issue.
Gail: When major accidents happen in an industry that’s both necessarily regulated and greatly lobbied over, it should be a call for investigation.
And while we’re on this subject, please let’s talk about our transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg ….
Bret: So, to illustrate my point, I’m not going to raise an accusing finger at him. Not even remotely his fault, even if Republicans are trying hard to pin him with the blame. Although, for someone with presidential aspirations, he didn’t exactly help himself by showing up a day after Donald Trump did.
Gail: Sort of embarrassed that while I was trying to ponder rail regulation, my thoughts kept drifting off to Buttigieg the possible presidential candidate.
He’s one of the guys we always mention when we talk about who might be nominated if Biden doesn’t go for a second term. But Buttigieg’s performance in Ohio was definitely not the work of a guy who knows how to run for that job.
Bret: Switching subjects again, we should talk about the legacy of President Jimmy Carter. I was a 7-year-old child living in Mexico City when he left office, so your recollections of him are much more valuable and interesting than mine.
Gail: I distinctly remember bemoaning the energy shortage that left drivers waiting in long lines at the gas stations, but that’s hardly an insider’s story.
Bret: Those lines put last year’s spike in gas prices in perspective.
Gail: And every Democrat worried about Carter’s minimal talent for communication. He made a big TV appearance to promote energy conservation, wearing a sweater and sitting next to a fire, looking more silly than inspiring.
Now, when I recall some of the stuff he did — environmental protection, promoting diversity, negotiating a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt — I appreciate him a lot more.
Bret: Airline deregulation, too. Made air travel affordable to middle-class America for the first time. And he had the guts to nominate Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve in 1979 to jack up interest rates and finally tame inflation, even though it would help cost him his presidency the next year.
Gail: But the biggest thing he’s leaving us, Bret, is the story of his post-presidency. Campaigning endlessly for human rights, fair voting around the world and housing for the poor. Rather than holding press conferences to make his point, he’d swing a hammer with the crew at low-income housing construction sites.
If high-ranking politicians see retirement from their top jobs as just a path to giving big-money speeches and writing the occasional memoir, they set a bad example for every older American. Carter showed how the later stages of life can actually be the richest and most rewarding.
Bret: There’s a lot about Carter’s policy views that didn’t square with my own, and his persona sometimes struck me as … immodestly modest. But he was a unique figure in American political life, and he single-handedly disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention about there being no second acts in American lives.
Gail: Not to mention third acts!
Bret: He also showed how much more valuable a purpose- and values-driven life can be than one consumed by the culture of celebrity, wealth and pleasure — something that seriously tarnished the post-presidential legacy of a certain Southern Democrat who succeeded him, to say nothing of an even more saturnalian Republican president.
Totally different topic, Gail, but I want to recommend our colleague Michelle Goldberg’s terrific column on the terrible mental-health effects of social media, particularly for teenagers. She mentions a proposal by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri to totally ban social media for kids under 16. It’s one to which, as a father of three teenagers, I’m pretty sympathetic. Your thoughts?
Gail: I read Michelle’s great piece and remembered how paranoid I was as a teenager when I thought two of my friends might be talking about me on the phone after school. Can’t imagine how I’d have felt if they had the capacity to do it as a group, while they were supposed to be studying after dinner. With a transcript available to the entire class later in the evening.
Bret: Not only frequently abusive but also addictive. Someone once said that there are only two industries that speak of their customers as “users” — drug dealers and social-media companies.
Gail: Just saying that kids can’t use social media sounds very attractive. But somehow I have my doubts it’ll work. Wonder if the more likely outcome might be a system the more sophisticated kids could use while the poorer, or less technologically cool ones, got sidelined.
Am I being overly paranoid?
Bret: No ban works perfectly. But if we were able to more-or-less end teenage cigarette smoking over the last 20 years, it shouldn’t be out of the question to try to do the same with social-media use. I can’t imagine that it’s beyond the technological reach of a company like Apple to write some code that stops social-media apps from being downloaded to phones whose primary users they know are under the age of 16.
Gail: Well, happy to insist they do that. Even if they don’t know how, it’d increase pressure for them to find a way.
Bret: I would welcome it, and I suspect most teenagers would, too. It’s hard enough being 14 or 15 without needing to panic about some embarrassing Instagram pic or discovering too late that something stupid or awful you wrote on Facebook or Twitter at 16 comes back to haunt you at 20.
Gail: Hey, it’s traumatic enough being haunted by what I said last month.
Bret: Or last week.
As columnists, we volunteered to have a paper trail for our critics to pick through. We owe it to the kids to shield them from creating public records of their own indiscretions and idiocies. Life will come roaring at them soon enough. I say no social media till they’re old enough to vote, smoke and maybe even buy a drink. Full-frontal stupidity should be left to the grown-ups — like us!
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