Opinion | Are There Eclipse Glasses for the Election?

Bret Stephens: Good news, bad news, Gail. The economy added just over 300,000 new jobs last month, which gives Joe Biden something to brag about. But illegal immigration is now the No. 1 concern for voters, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal, and in one February poll 65 percent of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of the border.

You still feeling chipper about the president’s chances this year?

Gail Collins: Yep. It’s one thing to be cranky about the state of the union. It’s another to want to hand it over to a multiply indicted jerk who is supposed to go on trial this month for paying hush money to a porn star, followed by cases involving everything from stashing classified documents in the bathroom to criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

Well, I could go on and on. And the cases will go on and on. Voters are going to have to pay attention, and that’s going to give Biden the election.

Feel free to torture me if I turn out to be wrong.

Bret: I pray you’re right. But you have more faith in the wisdom of the American people than I do. I’m with H.L. Mencken on the presidency: “As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people …. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Adorned a second time, I should say.

Gail: If Biden were running against a right-wing stranger, maybe I’d agree. But the country knows Trump, and I’m betting a majority realizes that what they’d be getting with his return would be pretty unpleasant.

Bret: Memories get awfully short once you reach the trillionth tweet.

Gail: Every time we talk about this stuff, I feel that it’s all about new forms of communication. If the country were just listening to critiques of the Biden administration from the mass media of right, middle and left, we’d be in a different world. Not saying we should go back there, just that now people have the chance to vent their feelings to hundreds of thousands of strangers. It creates a whole different mega-conversation.

Bret: A nation of self-important dunderheads, venting.

Gail: Truly, Bret, if Trump had been president for the last few years, do you think there’s any chance people wouldn’t be posting even greater outrage?

Bret: You’ve raised a couple of points that I often think about. The first is the way that social media has hastened the return of mob politics. It has the same combination of anonymity and mass; of the direct interface between the leader and his “followers”; of the absence of context that newspapers used to provide; of immediacy and rage amplification. No wonder Trump was such a master of the medium.

The second is that, of all the many reasons I don’t want Trump back in office, his presidency will once again unleash all the left-wing furies that Biden’s presidency has largely calmed. With Trump back in the White House, I can easily see half of America looking much the way Portland did in the summer of 2020. Trump isn’t the scourge of wokeness; he’s its rocket fuel.

Gail: You’ll forgive me if worries about a resurgence of liberal-left politics isn’t something that dissuades me from anti-Trumpism.

Bret: For me, it’s just another reason to oppose him.

Gail: But about immigration and the economy: I’ll start with the economy — and so, I strongly suspect, would practically every Democratic officeholder in the country. I know politicians aren’t supposed to lecture people about how great their lives are, but it’s weird that the nation doesn’t seem more conscious of how well things are going.

There are plenty of jobs available. Prices have generally stabilized or begun to drop. Even though it’s true those prices are still higher than they were before the Covid era — and you can’t expect the average shopper to be cheery when the price of eggs keeps going up. (Thank you, bird flu.)

My bottom line is that Biden can justly claim that things have gotten much better for American consumers, but he’s gonna have to do some real campaigning to persuade the voters. All the while pressuring businesses to restrain their greed.

Bret: It isn’t just avian flu and the price of eggs. The median asking rent when Biden became president was just over $1,600. Three years later, it’s close to $2,000. A 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 2.7 percent when Biden was inaugurated. Today: 6.8 percent. A basket of groceries that would have cost $100 just before the pandemic now costs $125. The fact that the rate of inflation is finally coming back down to normal — although it’s not there yet — doesn’t mean people don’t feel pinched. And even though wages are starting to catch up with inflation, it feels like a case of running to stand still.

Truth is, the economy is nowhere as bad as Republicans claim — but not close to great, either. And the immigration crisis infuriates people, because the administration let it happen, then denied it was happening and now blames others for it continuing to happen. It just feels like a failure of government at its most basic level of responsibility. I don’t expect Biden to admit he was wrong, but he’s got to do more to show that he gets that it’s a huge problem.

Gail: Sorry, Congress was prepared to pass a perfectly reasonable immigration bill supported by the administration. Then it was killed at the last minute because Trump started howling.

Bret: That’s true. But Biden only got serious when the problem was already out of hand.

Gail: I’d never argue a total solution to all immigration issues is at the doorstep, but that was a good plan to move in the right direction, which included a solid increase in the border police presence. Republicans chickened out because their next presidential candidate doesn’t want anything to get better while he’s not in office.

Bret: True again. But blaming Trump and his minions for being Trumpy isn’t going to absolve the administration of its mistakes — like Kamala Harris declaring in 2022 that “the border is secure” — or, more important, move the political needle for Biden. He needs to use his executive powers to do something dramatic, like deploying thousands of troops to the border and finding legal ways to expand their powers of arrest.

Can I switch the subject? Ron DeSantis just signed a law that basically forbids kids under the age of 14 from having social media accounts. Is this Big Brother in action or sanity at last?

Gail: Really good question, and the fact that I’m even considering a DeSantis attention-grabber anything but a play for right-wing headlines demonstrates how worrisome this stuff can be.

I know I’ve told you that when I was a kid a millennium or so ago ——

Bret: Just half a millennium, Gail.

Gail: All the girls I knew were obsessed with a telephone tree that featured critiques from boys our age and gossip among the girls who tried to be insiders by thinking of catty things to say about their former friends.

Now the idea that you could hear reports on who said what on the phone was so traumatic for us — I just can’t conceive of what it would be like for young people who have to read that kind of look-at-me backbiting online.

On the other hand, do we feel kids under 14 shouldn’t share their thoughts about the world around them? I’m torn. Tell me what to think.

Bret: I’m almost always for free speech and I’m usually against intrusive nanny-statism. But this time, DeSantis is right, for the same reason it’s right to make it illegal for kids to buy cigarettes or alcohol: Social media isn’t just a means of communication. It’s a mechanism for addiction and a recipe for destruction.

Gail: OK, continue depressing me.

Bret: The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes in his new book, “The Anxious Generation,” that there is a striking correlation between the birth of social media and the iPhone around 10 to 15 years ago and a long list of psychological and social pathologies among adolescents, from sleep deprivation to suicide. I’d love to think parents can do it alone, but sometimes families need help from the state to stop something that is otherwise as damaging as it is ubiquitous.

There, we did it: We had a nice thing to say about the governor of Florida.

Gail: There has to be something wrong here. I’ll sleep on it.

Bret: And before we go, Gail, we’re having this conversation on the eve of the big solar eclipse. Any deep thoughts on this stellar event — assuming it isn’t too cloudy to see it — coming so soon after our itty-bitty earthquake last week?

Gail: Not my job, Bret. This calls for a man with a poem. C’mon.

Bret: A literary friend of mine introduced me to this beauty by Archilochus of Paros, who lived 27 centuries ago. It’s a reminder of all the transcendent natural experiences that connect us, as human beings, over time, distance, religion and culture — and of how the Greeks always said it best.

Nothing will surprise me any more, nor be too wonderful

for belief, now that the lord upon Olympus, father Zeus,

dimmed the daylight and made darkness come upon us in the noon

and the sunshine. So limp terror has descended upon mankind.

After this, men can believe in anything. They can expect

anything. Be not astonished any more, although you see

beasts of the dry land exchange with dolphins, and assume their place

in the watery pastures of the sea, and beasts who loved the hills

find the ocean’s crashing waters sweeter than the bulk of land.

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