Biden, Trump and the state of our disunion


Frank Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, hosted a written online conversation with the politics writers Joe Klein and Olivia Nuzzi to discuss the state of the likely Biden-Trump race, this week’s State of the Union address and the state of possible third-party threats.

Frank Bruni • Olivia, Joe, I’m so psyched to be doing this with two journalists I so hugely admire. This conversation appears on Super Tuesday, which means we’re fully, terrifyingly deep into the presidential election season — and I can’t shake the sense that it’s over, at least the part where we know the nominees. Am I bowing too much to conventional wisdom?

What, really, are the chances that something happens today, or tomorrow, or when President Biden delivers his State of the Union remarks on Thursday, that translates into either him or Donald Trump not being on the November ballot? And which of those two would be more likely not to be?

Olivia Nuzzi • Aside from biblical intervention, I don’t think anything could possibly happen this week, in the primaries or at the State of the Union address that would dramatically shift the conversation.

Joe Klein • Super Tuesday is almost always a disappointment. Too many venues, not enough focus, and not nearly the fun of the early retail primaries. This year, it’s more like Sleep-In Tuesday. It’s not nearly as important as Biden’s speech — which will provide the mental acuity assessment we’re all anxious about.

Bruni • So the State of the Union is basically Biden’s visit to the national neurologist, and the content of what he says will be lost to the winds?

Nuzzi • I think that will be the case for a majority of the president’s public appearances from now through November.

Klein • It depends. If it’s a traditional laundry-list State of the Union, the focus will be on Biden’s acuity. But if he takes a bold, unexpected position or two — I’d nominate the border and Gaza — that might transcend the cognitive assessment.

Bruni • What, Joe, would you have him say about the border and/or Gaza if the goal is to give the media a headline other than a gaffe count?

Klein • I hope he will go to the left on Gaza and to the right on the border.

Bruni • Olivia, if you were advising him, what would be your top pieces of counsel?

Nuzzi • Have you seen “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”? I’m kidding. But the only way for Biden to reassure voters that he is capable is to appear capable in full view of the American public as often as possible. He should have sat for a Super Bowl interview. He should sit for many more interviews. He should hold more news conferences. He should simply be more accessible; 2024 is not 1896, and it’s not 2020 — there is, thank God, no public health crisis to confine Biden to running a front-porch campaign. His appearance with Seth Meyers was a good start in this regard, but it also demonstrated the risks inherent to sending a president out in public while the world is on fire • Some people saw the interview and were convinced he seemed alert and were even charmed by him, but the image of the ice cream cone diplomacy is what lives on as a meme.

Bruni • Senator Katie Britt of Alabama is giving the G.O.P. response to the Biden address. If she nails it, is she Trump’s V.P.? If not her, who?

Nuzzi • Personally I’m bracing for the My Pillow guy. Trump is more likely to go with a character who is more familiar to fans of the MAGA cinematic universe. I’d guess Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas or Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio.

Klein • I’m sure he’ll go with the most distinguished, statesperson-like choice.

Nahh! I think he’s going to double-down on everything, though perhaps a “nasty woman,” to use his old phrase. Britt would be a logical choice — but since when has he been logical?

Bruni • Given his ego and his appetite for fealty, I kind of imagine him giving prospective veep candidates an exam on the contents of the “The Art of the Deal” and awarding the slot of running mate to whoever gets the most answers right.

Nuzzi • He does famously love to read, Frank.

Klein • And the V.P. pick has to be good-looking.

Bruni • Before we leave Super Tuesday completely behind — I mean, it’s super, we owe it another moment — is there any marker, any result, any percentage, any Nikki-ness or Haley-ness, that we should look carefully at and that might be some revealing, prophetic glimpse of the electorate? Anything? Please?

Nuzzi • A certain Times writer that I love wrote that she is already winning … sort of.

Bruni • Guilty as charged! And blushing at being the recipient of Olivia love. My life’s work is done. I can retire.

Nuzzi • I have actually been surprised by her performance. She’s losing, obviously, but I figured she would be doing much worse. Trump is underperforming, even as he gallops to his inevitable nomination. We certainly can read something into that about the size of his fervent base and their level of enthusiasm.

Bruni • Tell me more about “Trump is underperforming.” Is there a case to be made that Trump’s numbers in these contests are a greater concern for his side than Biden’s terrible polling is for his side?

Nuzzi • They should both be terrified. If I were Biden, I would not feel particularly good about the fact that my opponent, who is campaigning in between court dates after leaving office a certified loser in disgrace, is nevertheless narrowly beating me in almost every survey.

If I were Trump, I might consider getting myself indicted again — the indictments seem only to improve his standing. It is early, and we have compelling reasons to peer at the polling with some healthy skepticism. However, both likely major party nominees are so unpopular that they would each be the most historically unpopular nominee were it not for the other one. It’s a remarkably precarious situation.

Klein • Trump has a ceiling of, say, 47 percent, with the wind at his back. But his supporters are the most coherent force in American politics, which puts the burden on Biden. A lot of people are going to just say, “I’m bored and tired of these geezers.” It may be a big year for “uncommitted.” Or, more accurately, “unengaged.” Two key factors in November will be turnout and third parties.

Nuzzi • Yes, we’re forgetting or purposefully ignoring something rather important about this election • It’s not a two-man race. It’s a three-man race. A majority of Americans say they are unhappy with another “lesser of two evils” contest, and they’re in luck, as they have a range of third-party candidates to choose from. One of those candidates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is polling competitively, especially among young people, and he’s steadily gaining ballot access across the country. Last Tuesday, the campaign announced it had collected enough signatures to qualify in Arizona and Georgia, crucial swing states.

Bruni • Olivia wrote a must-read profile of R.F.K. Jr. for New York magazine. Joe, how big a factor could he be in November?

Klein • I agree that R.F.K. Jr. should be taken more seriously — not just because he can influence the election, but because his antiwar, pro-environment views (if not the anti-vax stuff) represent a real movement among young people. If they vote. If he can tip a few states — like Arizona — he can tip the election.

Cornel West can also be a factor if he draws enough Black votes in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philly and Pittsburgh — though the third parties (except the Greens and Libertarians) are going to have a tough time getting on the ballot in enough states.

Nuzzi • The establishment press has been reluctant to cover Kennedy like a serious contender because they fear they will face criticism for “platforming an anti-vaxxer.” But the establishment press doesn’t get to decide who voters take seriously. In 2016, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein earned enough of the vote in enough swing states to cost Hillary Clinton the election. Kennedy is performing way better than either of them ever did.

Bruni • Speaking of polling … let’s say the polls don’t get any better for Biden. Or somehow — hard to imagine! — get worse. What date would you identify as the final off-ramp for him and the party — the moment when, if he’s still trailing by as much as he is now, the party should (can) find another nominee?

Nuzzi • The fact that we are all now having this conversation out in the open following the Hur documents report is sort of proof of the wisdom of actually holding a primary, isn’t it? I don’t know what the calculation would have to be for the party to do something so deeply undemocratic. I cannot imagine that voters would like to see a new nominee installed on their behalf. Doing so would be an admission that the party had been running an unfit candidate. That would color the perception of whoever they did nominate instead. It seems like bad and impossible politics.

I don’t make bets in politics or in general, but I would be very shocked if, barring some sort of health event to prompt it, the Democrats chose to throw everything into chaos this way.

Klein • My grandfather was the Jewish guy who kept the books for Tammany Hall, the old New York City machine. I love smoke-filled rooms, brokered conventions. The results were, arguably, better than the flagrant democracy of the primary system since 1972. But Biden is a tough, stubborn guy.

Olivia, you have mentioned divine intervention, perhaps a visit from the ghost of Woodrow Wilson, cautioning him about the health effects of second terms.

Bruni • Biden is indeed tough and stubborn, in ways good and bad. He’s also, like almost all people who run for and become president, vain. I feel that we sometimes talk about Biden and Trump both being old as if age is the story when I think as much of the story is vanity. People who have a shot at the presidency or a taste of the presidency want the glory of the presidency. It’s a problem baked into the altitude of the office, no?

Nuzzi • Any person who wants to govern a group of people larger than a dinner party probably has a personality disorder.

Bruni • That sounds, Olivia, like some federal-constitutional version of the Groucho Marx joke that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him, or however that goes. So you both see Biden in November as pretty much inevitable.

Klein • Not so fast, Bruni! Something in my gut tells me that something is going to happen to either Trump or Biden between now and November. But that may just be wishful thinking on my part.

Bruni • Maybe wishful thinking, maybe actuarial thinking. But OK, Klein. What advice would you give Biden?

Klein • I’d like to see him — and Democrats in general — be less precious when it comes to hardball. Trump is a bully. Kick him in the teeth and see what happens.

Bruni • Olivia, what else would you urge him to do — or to avoid — to maximize his odds of victory?

Nuzzi • No risk, no reward. Biden’s greatest gift as a politician is his ability to connect with other people. He is more human than politicians often are. It does not always come through the filter of news coverage (he is not Bill Clinton), but he has real abilities as a retail politician. Unfortunately, because his public appearances are so tightly controlled so as to avoid calamity, we rarely see this.

Bruni • Help me understand something, you two. Trump’s supporters have stuck with him through four indictments comprising four gazillion felony counts — OK, I exaggerate slightly — but a sizable percentage of them say that if he’s convicted, they might bolt. Huh? Because they’re suddenly listening to a system that they believe, as he does, is “rigged”? I am not smart enough to follow this logic. Please rescue me.

Nuzzi • I don’t think that percentage represents what you’d call his “superbase” of supporters. Anecdotally, when you encounter those voters outside the scene of his courtroom appearances (which they attend like they’re Deadheads), they are largely unfamiliar with the particulars of the allegations because, in their view, such allegations were always inevitable in an epic witch hunt, which is what they believe this to be. They aren’t following the details closely. The details are irrelevant.

Klein • Those folks are part of Haley’s 40 percent. They’re reflexive Republicans. Old-fashioned law-and-order types. A sliver of the party — but this is an election where every sliver will count.

Bruni • Does Mitch McConnell’s announced retirement and Ronna Romney McDaniel’s exile (in favor of Lara Trump!) make those Haley Republicans more irrelevant or at least further defenestrated than ever? I kind of thought Trump’s takeover of the party was already complete, but this now feels like something beyond even that — like he’s the demon possessing Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” and making her contort and thrash this way and that. Where’s a priest with holy water when you need him?

Nuzzi • The Republican Party does not exist anymore. Now it’s Donald Trump’s party. If he loses in November, his movement will follow him until he departs the face of this earth, like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. If he wins, I hope you’re ready for Don Jr. 2028.

Klein • It’s his party and I’ll cry if I want to …. I’ve always wondered if there was a place in American politics for a party of the radical middle. Traditional conservatism — as opposed to populist nuttery — is a powerful movement and eventually should find an expression, if the Republic is to survive.

Bruni • It’s time to finish with a lightning round. Short answers, please • On a scale of one to 10 — 10 being a president, one being George Santos/Lauren Boebert — how big an impact has Mitch McConnell had on recent American history, and why?

Klein • A lot. He gave us the Supreme Court.

Nuzzi • He arguably gave us Donald Trump, too.

Bruni • You’re in a casino placing a bet • Who’s the next Republican Senate leader?

Nuzzi • All I know is I am not betting on anybody whose name starts with “Mc” — the Matt Gaetzes of the world seem to have it out for the Irish.

Klein • The Senate’s a different ecosystem than the House. It’s probably not going to be an all-out Trumper. Maybe Senator Rick Scott of Florida.

Bruni • Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy — which is most likely to figure prominently in whatever the Republican Party is in 2028 and beyond, and why?

Nuzzi • I don’t think his presence will be hugely consequential, but I think Vivek has been very shrewd about positioning himself to achieve maximum exposure while making nice with Trump’s base. He’ll be hovering around the movement for the foreseeable future.

Klein • None of the above. Someone Trumpish, but with better skills than DeSantis. Who knows, maybe Katie Britt. Or, ugh, Tucker Carlson.

Bruni • What are the odds that one of the Oscar nominees shows up on the red carpet in the shimmering new gold Trump sneakers?

Nuzzi • I won’t forgive you for making me picture that.

Klein • Better odds • Someone comes dressed in the Palestinian flag.

Bruni • Thank you both so much for your time and insights. Have an, um, super Tuesday!

Nuzzi • Thank you.

Klein • Thanks for having me.

Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Joe Klein writes the newsletter Sanity Clause and is the author of, most recently, “Charlie Mike.” Olivia Nuzzi is the Washington correspondent for New York magazine. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.



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