Joseph Biden spoke in Warren, Mich., on Wednesday.Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Let’s Fret the Night Together

The Biden campaign and the world it’s playing out in are making us all nervous wrecks.


Gail Collins: Bret, I am generally a pretty cheerful person. But I have to say that the news has been really, really depressing lately. At least on the domestic front.

Plague, fire, economic collapse and the daily reminder that we have a president who isn’t qualified to be head of a local block association … Come on, give me some happy headlines.

Bret Stephens: Um, Tom Brady now plays in Tampa?

Honestly, Gail, I wish I could think of something positive for you. My problem is that I’m suffering from post-2016 stress disorder, which means I can’t get it out of my head that the polls are all wrong and Donald Trump is going to win again. I get that Joe Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton. I know he’s doing better in battleground states than she was at this point in the race. And voters have had enough of Trump to last at least four bad lifetimes. And yet I just can’t shake the feeling. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Gail: You’re wrong.

Bret: Say more.

Gail: Well, I may have sounded a tad overconfident.

Bret: Gail!

Gail: But this is not 2016, when many Americans wanted change after two terms of one party, and the Democrats nominated the most familiar political face of the last 30 years. Now the change-seekers will definitely be going in another direction.

Bret: That’s true. The change vote ought to belong to Biden. Except that he’s a recent former veep, as Walter Mondale was in ’84. And he was also a fixture of the Senate for decades, as Bob Dole was when he ran in ’96. My point is, he’s not a fresh face in the way Barack Obama was in 2008, so the change he represents really means a restoration of sorts. Which would be completely OK by me, but I don’t think I’m the most representative voter.

Gail: Yeah, whenever we go down this road we wind up panicking. Think of it as post-post-2016 stress disorder.

If Joe Biden doesn’t have a disaster, he should be elected. Although just talking about this brings up feelings of terror that remind me why I keep discovering that football games are so relaxing.

Bret: Speaking of terror, I was particularly freaked out by a story by our news-side colleague, Giovanni Russonello, based on a study the Pew Research Center just did, which found that some groups that swung toward the Democrats for the 2018 midterms aren’t really warming to Joe. One of the most interesting finds was that while Biden has a wide lead over Trump among Hispanic voters, it’s still much weaker than Hillary’s lead four years ago. And that tracks with a lot of what I hear anecdotally, with fears of future lockdowns. Just keeping the fear-meter high here.

Gail: Bret, the one thing that really drives me crazy right now is our obsession with Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Lovely states, but it reminds me that thanks to our electoral system, I can’t remember a national election where I thought my New York vote really counted.

Bret: My inner Burkean tells me that abandoning the Electoral College would lead to all kinds of problems we can scarcely anticipate today. But it does seem insane that the most consequential presidential election in decades comes down to what a relative handful of people, mostly white suburbanites in six or seven states, happen to think on the first Tuesday in November. Or, with all the mail-in ballots, sometime in the preceding weeks, assuming their votes get counted.

Gail: Someday remind me to tell you the story of why I almost didn’t graduate from college with my class at Marquette because my Ethics of Journalism teacher wanted to give me an incomplete. Long ago, but I was thinking the other night that if he’d won that battle I might never have graduated, or left Milwaukee. On election night I’d be so … popular.

Bret: I hope that teacher lived long enough to either apologize or eat his shoe. But back to my freak-out: We may not know the winner on election night, or even for days or weeks after that. If Trump is ahead on election night, he’s going to want to declare victory long before all the ballots are counted. If he does that, there is going to be unrest. If vote totals are close in several states, we’re going to have a replay of Florida, 2000, but on a much larger scale. You mentioned wildfires, and this just feels like multiple political lightning strikes on millions of acres of dry grass and dead wood.

Gail: Yeah, at least in 2000 we were just looking at one state that couldn’t get its votes counted. The inefficiency of our election system is a scandal we manage to forget once the crisis is over.

Bret: Maybe we can outsource the vote counting to the Netherlands or Taiwan. They wouldn’t screw it up.

Gail: When you combine it with the inefficiency of the mail, the pandemic, the Trump paranoia — yikes. The only way we avoid it, I suspect, is if one candidate wins by a landslide.

And that, by the way, would make our votes relevant again. If the national popular vote is, say, 60 percent Biden, Trump won’t have the traction to resist.

Bret: Dream on, Gail.

Gail: Sure he could lock himself in his bedroom and refuse to come out, but the world would just go on. A new president would be inaugurated and sooner or later Trump would run out of snacks and be forced to concede.

Bret: I like this scenario. Trump tries to pull an Edwin Stanton, but then K.F.C. and McDonald’s unite by refusing to deliver and democracy is saved. I see Zach Galifianakis and Jack Black starring in whatever movie they make of this.

Gail: And when it comes to a landslide like that, even New York votes would count for something. And I would remember this election forever as the one when my vote actually mattered.

Bret: Which raises the question of how Biden can turn this into a romp. I don’t think it’s going to come from anonymous and disputed claims in the mainstream press that Trump disparaged World War I soldiers. Those sorts of stories just play into the Trumpian narrative that the media can’t be trusted. Nor do I think Bob Woodward’s revelation that Trump downplayed the virus will make much of a difference: Our own Bill de Blasio was doing much the same thing in early March.

Gail: Most New Yorkers would not find “Bill de Blasio did it, too” as a good excuse for anything except maybe excessive gym use. But continue …

Bret: What works best against Trump is mockery, not moral thunder. Like, where is the forthcoming best seller, “The Melania Trump Tell-All (As Told to Whoopi Goldberg)”? And what works best for Biden isn’t the moral earnestness of emerging from darkness into light. It’s something along the lines of Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” riposte to Jimmy Carter, when the Georgian accused the Californian of being a wild-eyed extremist.

What are your suggestions for Joe?

Gail: Well I’d like to hear him challenge Trump to a push-up competition again. It’s an excellent reminder that whenever the president tries to depict Biden as old and doddering, we’re talking about a physically fit 77-year-old whose age is being attacked by an out-of-shape 74-year-old.

Bret: “Out-of-shape” is putting it delicately.

Gail: On a more serious note, I think the Biden campaign’s focus on health care is smart. Those swing voters we’re worried about would drop Trump on a dime if they really understood that he wants to end the requirement that insurance policies cover pre-existing conditions.

Bret: Also, ending NATO. And ending America as a welcoming home to refugees. And ending America as, well, America.

Gail: I hope Biden will hammer away at health care during the debates. Which are coming up, Bret. Two weeks! By next conversation, we’ll be talking about nothing else.

Bret: One thing that gives me optimism, Gail, is that Trump has spent so much time talking about his opponent’s mental feebleness that the bar has been set pleasingly low for Biden. Joe also shouldn’t be shy about mentioning that he’s worked hard to overcome a childhood stutter, but what’s Trump’s excuse for lifelong verbal diarrhea?

Gail: In the meantime, try to relax. Watch a football game. Or go for a nice long walk. And don’t forget your mask. They’re healthy and Trump hates them. Can’t think of two better compliments.

Bret: I have a dog to keep me company. Wards off all sorts of evils, Trump included.

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