Opinion | Let’s Talk About Biden, Trump and … Taylor Swift

Bret Stephens: Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving, Gail. Peggy Noonan had a terrific column last week in The Wall Street Journal, making the case for why Taylor Swift should be Time’s person of the year. Aside from the fact that her Eras tour transformed the economy of many of the cities in which she played, she also spoke to the hearts and souls of millions of Swifties — including my two daughters — and spread joy, romance and glamour across the fair land.

Anyone else you’d like to nominate?

Gail Collins: Had a great Thanksgiving, Bret. Can’t say that Swift came up in conversation, but happy to give her a shout-out. She’s politically savvy, even by nonsuperstar standards. And she’s currently giving a lift to all the people slogging through the football-watching season with their loved ones: Will Taylor be there to cheer Travis Kelce on at the Super Bowl? Even people who have never heard of the Kansas City Chiefs are wondering.

Bret: You’re assuming the Chiefs make the Super Bowl. I’ll bet you a bottle of good wine that it’ll be Philly against Miami. And the Eagles will win. Sorry, go on.

Gail: On a less gleeful note, just ran across a story that estimates that almost two-thirds of American parents who have kids from 22 to 40 years old are giving them some kind of financial support — with the average being $718 a month.

Think that’s one of the reasons so many voters are feeling grumpy about the economy?

Bret: Well, let’s just say those voters probably wouldn’t select Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary, as their person of the year. Mortgage rates have nearly doubled since January 2020. The rent, to borrow a phrase, is too damn high. Grocery prices are up by double digits since 2021, even if the rate of inflation is mercifully cooling off. Restaurant prices keep going up. A new survey shows that only 36 percent of voters now believe that the American dream — work hard and you’ll get ahead — remains a reality, down from 53 percent in 2012, at the halfway point of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Beyond that, illegal immigration remains largely out of control, despite the Biden administration’s repeated pledges to tackle the problem. The world feels palpably more dangerous today than it was before this administration took office. And not a single member of President Biden’s cabinet has been asked by the president to step down.

Gail: Wow, sorry I opened up the blame-Biden game. Must be post-holiday crankiness.

Bret: You’re right. I’m already sounding like everyone’s least favorite relative. Apologies.

Gail: In the real world, the rent is too damned high in large part because there’s hardly any place to build new houses, thanks to zoning laws that more or less prohibit any variation on the theme of affordable housing.

Bret: Well, true, although those same zoning laws were in place long before rents started skyrocketing.

Gail: Don’t think I can argue that Biden’s done a great job on illegal immigration, but one of the big barricades is the hysterical resistance of the weensy House Republican majority to working out any solutions.

Bret: No debate from me about that. But part of a solution is doing a much better job of controlling the southern border so that American cities aren’t overwhelmed by migrants, and restrictionists don’t have talking points that work — because the crisis is real and getting worse.

Gail: The world does feel dangerous, for a lot of reasons. But in America, one big explanation is the ease with which the vast majority of adults, no matter how crazy, can acquire any weapon, from handguns to assault rifles.

Bret: Well, on that we continue to agree. But the problem is that all of this is happening on Joe’s watch, which means it’s his problem.

Gail: He can split the blame, at a minimum, with the Republicans in Congress who have been largely unwilling to work on bipartisan solutions.

Not to change the subject — well, to sort of change the subject — one topic I’ll bet came up in a lot of Thanksgiving conversations is Biden’s age. And I’ll bet that at many tables someone pointed out that Donald Trump’s life expectancy isn’t that different, given the fact that he’s 77 and in much worse physical shape.

Bret: Not to mention crazy and dangerous. Yet also manically vigorous, like an alligator that swallowed a bottle of Cialis.

Gail: I have to admit I’m bringing this up because while I was pawing through some old research over the weekend, I ran across a 1961 story from The Los Angeles Times saying that the American Medical Association estimates that “if medical progress continues at its present rate, the life expectancy by the year 2000 will be 120 years.”

Maybe the national crankiness is a reaction to overly great expectations?

Bret: When countries become anxious or pessimistic about their future, they often take dramatic steps to correct their perceived shortcomings, like Japan after Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853 or the “Sputnik moment” of 1957, which spurred the United States to put men on the moon by 1969. Paradoxically, optimistic countries can become complacent, ungrateful and too set in their ways, which leads to stagnation, decline and unhappiness. We became much too complacent after the end of the Cold War, and we’ve been reaping the consequences ever since. But now that we’re so upset, we could harness our pessimism to good ends.

Gail: Go ahead with your ideas about good ends, and I will refrain from blaming the internet.

Bret: There’s so much we could change. We could completely reform higher education by getting rid of the four-year college degree — three years is just fine — and expanding vocational schools. We could eliminate time-consuming and sometimes farcical permitting requirements that make it next to impossible to build any infrastructure in this country, except on geological time scales. We could require anyone who wants to own a gun to participate in a “well-regulated militia.” We could turn social-media companies into public utilities and ban anyone under 18 from having access to their malignant services, just as we forbid kids from purchasing tobacco or alcohol.

The field is yours.

Gail: “Well-regulated militia” as in taking gun safety lessons or as in having to join the National Guard? Either one sounds good to me.

Bret: The National Guard, as suggested by the text of the Second Amendment.

Gail: Fine. I suspect we’ll also concur on the infrastructure issue until we hit some new example of a dreadful super-super-highway program.

Bret: Let’s not stir the ghost of Robert Moses. But a subway line to La Guardia Airport would be nice — and transmission lines to bring wind energy from the middle of the country to the coasts.

Gail: Absolutely agree.

When it comes to higher education, there’s lots and lots of room for improvement. Right now the national mind-set is geared too much to tradition — and the desire of colleges and universities to protect the status quo.

Let’s make a trade: I’ll agree that we should evolve out of our four-year-degree obsession if you’ll agree that the people who got caught up in its web should be given a break on paying off student loans. Biden is right: There needs to be some forgiveness that frees ex-students from a lifetime of indebtedness.

Bret: I still believe that loan forgiveness is a terrible idea: a handout to the upwardly mobile at the expense of poorer folk. But I will accept your trade if Biden does it with congressional authorization and not through executive action, because Congress, as the people’s house, must still control the purse strings. Then we can turn second- and third-tier colleges, which are already in deep doo-doo because of changing demographics, into three-year, vocational-plus colleges that focus on training students for degrees in actual coding or machine learning or data science and nursing with some liberal-arts extras, particularly foreign languages or history classes.

By the way, you still haven’t answered my question about who, other than Swift, might be person of the year.

Gail: Fair question and you’re gonna hate my answer: Joe Biden.

Bret: Go on.

Gail: Look, he’s run the country very well during a super difficult era. In a time when our politics is awash in anger, he manages to generate some cheer — or at least serenity. OK, his face on the cover isn’t gonna sell a lot of magazines. But sometimes a little bit of boredom at the top is a good thing.

And who’s your nominee?

Bret: You’re going to like my answer a lot less: Donald Trump.

Gail: Aaaaggghhhhhh.

Bret: Hey, Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khomeini, Joe Stalin and Adolf Hitler were past winners. They weren’t selected for their moral virtues.

A year ago, Trump had been given up for dead, politically speaking, including — idiotically — by me. He has been indicted in multiple jurisdictions, on a variety of charges, some of them dubious (like the payoff to Stormy Daniels) but others very serious (like obstructing an investigation subpoena). He’s apologized for nothing, his rhetoric has become more awful and his message hasn’t changed. Yet his dominance over the rest of the Republican presidential field keeps growing, and various polls have him beating Biden in a general election by anywhere from one point to six.

That’s some kind of dark political magic at work. To quote Taylor Swift: “I’m shaking my head, I’m locking the gates, this is why we can’t have nice things, dar-ling.”