Gail Collins: Bret, have you ever thought about how much politics can be like … the Super Bowl?
Bret Stephens: Hmm. Please say more.
Gail: Actually, I wanted to compare it to the fight over the House Intelligence Committee memo. We go through a buildup that takes forever. The nation waits on edge. Nobody can talk about anything else. Then it happens! And no matter who wins, for most of the country it’s like — meh.
Of course, right now, if you’re a Philadelphia Eagles fan, the Super Bowl was the biggest moment in history. And if you listened to Donald Trump talk about the Nunes memo on Monday, you’d think the same thing. But for everybody else, it’s sort of a fizzled firecracker.
Bret: You’re right. The Nunes memo, like the Super Bowl, is what Daniel Boorstin called a “pseudo-event,” which is basically a made-up (or trumped-up) drama, the chief purpose of which is to give people something to talk about in a way that benefits the political or corporate interests of whoever invented the drama in the first place.
Gail: And to think I used to believe football was invented as a way to keep conversation going at family reunions.
Bret: Also, the memo, like football, has a way of leaving nearly everyone involved badly concussed. I think it is causing brain damage among some Republicans. Sebastian Gorka, who’s like Steve Bannon without the good looks, said the other day that the memo disclosed abuses of power that were “100 times bigger” than British abuses in the American colonies.
Gail: Among the many weird aspects of our current situation is the way everybody’s sort of switched sides on the F.B.I. Must admit that until rather recently, I was generally … wary of all things Federal Bureau-related. As investigators, I thought, they were way overrated. And of course I was aware that your average F.B.I. guy was on the conservative end of the political scale.
If we ever get back to normal, I suspect I’ll revert to being wary. But right now we — and by we I mean people like me — are rooting for them. They’re our protectors against Trump and the Russians.
Bret: Our colleague Frank Bruni wrote a wonderful column a few weeks back called “Democrats Are the New Republicans.” Fiscal responsibility: Check. The Russian government is not to be trusted: Check. Moral character counts in politics: Check. Law enforcement demands our highest respect: Check.
For me as a conservative, the experience is just head-snapping.
Suddenly we’re supposed to believe that Carter Page — a man who charitably can be described as Vladimir Putin’s useful idiot — is a martyr to American civil liberties.
Suddenly we’re supposed to think that people like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray — both of whom were appointed by Trump — are anti-Trump villains.
Suddenly we’re supposed to think that an election that Trump won was stolen from him.
Gail: Frank is always ahead of the rest of us. And once again, you and I agree. So let’s stop all this comity and find something to fight about. Tax cuts! That seems to be our one surefire point of dispute these days.
You’ve argued that the congressional elections won’t be as bad for Republicans as people have been predicting because the public will be happy about the tax cuts. You may be right — although I’m hoping critics can convince average Americans their boon is a tiny speck compared to what the rich are raking in.But doesn’t it worry you that the debt is soaring so high, the stock market is suddenly looking shaky and the Fed is worrying about inflation? It feels like the beginning of something bad. Although I immediately admit that when the Democrats were working on expanding the safety net, I pooh-poohed the whole deficit issue. The one perpetual rule of politics, I think, is that the people on neither side care about the deficit when they’re trying to get what they want.
Bret: The biggest mistake deficit hawks make is to suppose that creditors own their debtors — now in vogue among those who think that we are at Beijing’s mercy because they own so much U.S. government debt. But the truth is usually just the opposite: debtors own the creditors — provided, of course, that the debts are sufficiently large. Just think of Donald Trump’s business career.
That’s probably a bit glib, but I really do think the deficit is not much of a problem so long as investors, foreign and domestic, continue to have faith in the economy. Among the ingredients in that faith are the prospects for economic growth, the ease of doing business, the predictability of legal and regulatory frameworks, the attractiveness of the culture, society and environment, and so on. Most of the old debates between Republicans and Democrats center on just which parts of that overall package should matter most.
Gail: Well, the global warming one isn’t exactly teeny. But I see your point. Go on.
Bret: The markets do worry me. People a whole lot smarter than I am on this subject, like Elliott Management’s Paul Singer, have been saying for some time that the markets are overheated. And we’ve been living in an era of near-zero interest rates for so long that rising interest rates might be traumatic for many companies and investors.
But you were asking me about the tax cuts. And I want to tell you, that $1.50 extra in my paycheck is really putting a bounce in my step!
Gail: You can buy me a coffee! Well, not at Starbucks, but maybe the guy with the cart on the corner. Tell me your post-groundhog predictions. Will we still be shivering in March? I’m kinda confident Congress will find some way to keep the country more or less in operation — but what about the Dreamers? Is there an immigration deal the president can’t screw up?
Bret: Uh-oh. The trouble with making short-term predictions is that people might just remember what I have to say. (However, like John Maynard Keynes, I guarantee you that in 100 years we’ll all be dead.)
But, anyway, here goes: I don’t think there’s going to be a deal. I think we’re going to live from one continuing resolution to the next. Both parties see immigration as a political winner for them in the fall, and so they are not going to want to bury it in the form of a compromise that leaves a lot of people in their respective bases unhappy.
Gail: The groundhog sees Congress’s shadow and gets depressed …
Bret: Punxsutawney Phil might want to cover his ears for this one: Barring a market meltdown, Democratic chances of retaking one or both houses of Congress are slipping. Trump outplayed Chuck Schumer over the government shutdown, and he’s outplaying (or out-demagoguing) Democrats on immigration, too. For immigration restrictionists, showing charity toward the Dreamers is a relatively small price to pay for building a wall and fundamentally changing the rules of the game when it comes to who gets a shot at coming to this country. His State of the Union line that “Americans are dreamers, too” pretty much sums it up.
I could be wrong for all sorts of reasons, but I think Democrats need to stop playing to the most passionate quarters of their Trump-hating base and start targeting a different demographic: namely, the millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 but went for Trump in 2016.
Gail: It’s the economy, stupid? Not you, Bret, of course.
Bret: I think it’s a combination of the economy and the culture. Donald Trump is the embodiment of a raised middle finger at a certain kind of cultural self-satisfaction and smugness coming from the “elites,” or “coasts,” or whatever else you might want to call, well, us.
The whole point of a middle finger is to be rude and rageful, so Trump’s crassness is exactly what his supporters crave. He’s been adept at doing something tabloid journalism has done forever, which is to combine salaciousness with moral outrage in the same package. It’s the political equivalent of salted caramel or sweet-and-sour sauce. And if he can pull that off while the economy is growing against widespread predictions of doom, he’s on the road to winning.
Gail: Not giving up on the doom, but go on …
Bret: Trump’s opponents — not just Democrats but also conservative Never — need to figure out a way of countering this. Whatever the answer is, it can’t be the flustered outrage that’s been our trademark for the past couple of years. Trump’s opposition needs less self-important indignation, more charitable judgments of Trump’s base, and a pragmatic message aimed at middle class anxieties.
Basically, it needs a figure such as Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, or Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, or — subtracting libido, finger-wagging, and other character defects — Bill Clinton.
Gail: Whee. Let’s end on that note. I know when I’m ahead.