Episode 162: Gaffe-Prone, but Going Strong

Joe Biden speaks with supporters at a community event in Marshalltown, Iowa, July 4, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
A discussion of Biden’s poll results, Trump’s tweets, Brexit, and much more.

This is the transcript from Episode 162 of The Editors.

Rich: Joe Biden stays strong, or does he? The Amazon fires mean global calamity, or do they? Parliamentary government in the U.K. teeters on the edge of collapse, or does it? We’re going to discuss all this and more on this week’s edition of The Editors.

I’m Rich Lowry, as I’m joined always or, to be honest, for the first time ever, by Theodore Kupfor . . . Kupfer. Sorry, Teddy.

Teddy: That’s all right. Everybody gets it wrong.

Rich: Rhodes Fellow and acting managing editor of NR. And Madeleine Kearns, who is a Buckley Fellow and quite an accomplished singer, and you might know her from her recent harrowing cover story on prostitution.

Teddy, we have had some new polling in the Democratic race. There was a Monmouth poll that briefly caused a flutter because it had Biden basically tied with Warren and Sanders. Polling experts poured water on this at the time, saying, look, it’s only 228 people, or whatever it was, so it’s not a good sample. It’s probably an outlier. Lo and behold, you had at least another two polls showing Biden with a double-digit lead, but you had two more polls today that had Biden up. One was four nationally; the other was seven nationally. But the average, he’s around twelve points. How do you evaluate Biden’s position in this race?

Teddy: Yeah, that’s right. I don’t think it’s worth reading much into the Monmouth kerfuffle. They actually came out and said it does appear this poll is an outlier. They defended their methods, of course, and sometimes you get outliers, not everything is going to be at the average, but The Economist poll notwithstanding, it does seem like Biden still has a pretty commanding lead nationally.

What I do think is worth reading into, especially in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, which had Biden up double digits, is his support among African-American voters, who in southern states make up a majority . . . well, a lot of southern states, they make up a majority of the electorate. Biden is polling 46 percent, per Quinnipiac, among African-American voters, Sanders and Warren polling 10, Harris 7, and Booker 3. There’s still a lot of people undecided, but Biden’s lead there is humongous.

I think that gives Biden still, despite all of these gaffes, despite what seems sometimes like aphasia, although I don’t want to cast any aspersions and sort of kidding about that, but his lead is still strong and the fundamental of his campaign is still strong. He’s occupying the moderate lane among white voters, and he has a good, durable support base among African Americans.

So if I’m somebody trying to beat him, what is my bet? If I’m Booker, if I’m Kamala Harris, I’m hoping that Biden loses Iowa, and then I can mount a furious rally to capture South Carolina, where African-American voters turn out a lot. If I’m Sanders, actually, paradoxically, a lot of Biden’s supporters prefer me as their number two, and I hope maybe I can knock him off in Iowa, maybe I can knock him off in neighboring New Hampshire, and erode his veneer of invincibility.

Ultimately, until we see some sustained drop in the poll, which we have not seen yet, Monmouth notwithstanding, until we see something like that, Biden still seems like a pretty good bet, no matter how shaky he appears on the trail. And I don’t want to underplay that. He does seem very shaky. There was a bit today he seemed to fabricate or get the details confused of a story involving an act of military heroism. There are too many of these to count, but at the end of the day, the fundamental bet on this campaign seems pretty strong.

Rich: I think one of the key questions is just how solid that African-American support is. Is it a leading or lagging indicator? Are they with him just because he’s ahead and they think he’s a winner, which is kind of why African-American voters were with Hillary Clinton in 2008, and as soon as they saw a sign of weakness on Hillary’s part, especially the strength of Barack Obama, that vote totally flipped. Now, there’s not a Barack Obama in this field, but I just wonder how firmly attached they are to Biden. I’m still a Biden skeptic, because I think you need excitement to win a nomination and to win the presidency. That’s why I give Elizabeth Warren a little stronger odds at the moment, because she’s got crowds, and I don’t think Biden could build a crowd if his life depended on it.

Maddy, you have kind of a scientific cast of mind, at least relative to all the rest of us English majors. What did you major in?

Maddy: English.

Rich: Okay, there you go. So did Kevin, and Kevin has a more economic cast of mind than other English majors. So what do you make of the polls and the phenomenon of polling in general?

Maddy: Sure. I think I’m slightly less in the weeds than you guys, and not being in the weeds, it kind of looks to me like nothing that much has been changing. Biden maybe drops a few points in this poll, picks up a few in another poll. I’m of the view that polling, it’s limited in its reliability, and I’m going off just the various political happenings of the last few years. Australian elections, the Brexit result, the Scottish independence referendum, all these things the pollsters got wrong, and I don’t really trust them that much. I actually wonder sometimes whether polls are more used to influence opinion than they are to measure it.

Something that I thought was really interesting was there haven’t actually been that many state polls. This was a point that Gabbard actually made to Tucker Carlson when she stepped out of the race. She basically said that she felt that the DNC’s decision to make polling a prerequisite for the next round was actually kind of unfair, and there was a lack of transparency there, and it was too in the weeds, and it didn’t have any real bearing on actual popularity and things like that, and also may have been . . . Oops. Sorry, Sarah.

Rich: We’ll see whether Sarah can get that out.

Maddy: Also, no wild gesticulation. Note to self. Okay.

Rich: I’ve done that myself. I gesticulated wildly in a debate with David French once.

Teddy: That’s the authenticity of the show.

Maddy: You’ve just got to keep your hands in the box.

Anyway, sorry, what was I saying? Michael Bennet, his campaign wrote this letter to the DNC, saying when, why, and how did you decide your polling benchmark? That actually seemed like a fair point to me, but I think Teddy might disagree.

Teddy: Well, I’ve long been of the view that the parties have a prerogative to exercise more control over the primary process than they do currently. I think we’ve been on the wrong trajectory ever since 1968, when Humphrey got the nod despite being out of step with the Democratic mood at the time. I think having a lot of primaries, having a lot of democratic input in the primary process creates weird outcomes in our general national politics. You wind up with candidates responding to a different set of voters than the one that they campaign for in the general election. Primary voters tend to be like us, very engaged in politics, a little weird in that respect.

So I don’t really have much sympathy for the Michael Bennets and Tulsi Gabbards of the world because, while I think it’s true polls don’t capture everything and we can get a little too caught up in data journalism, especially this far out of the election and there’s so much uncertainly, I do think they are a useful tool, at least, for the DNC to whittle down the field at this point, which it has every right to do.

Just on the state-level polling question, it is true that there haven’t been as many. But to Rich’s point, it is also true that Iowa and New Hampshire both seem a little bit closer than the national numbers. If you’re thinking about Biden being potentially vulnerable to a decline in African-American support, when that inevitability wears off, I would look to Iowa especially, but also New Hampshire. If he loses one of those early states, he might be in trouble, and his campaign could . . . I think Biden either wins the nomination or he collapses extremely rapidly.

Rich: Maddy, to your point, how polls are sometimes used to influence the process more than they reflect what’s going on, I remember when Carly Fiorina had this good debate moment against Donald Trump in the primaries, and a couple days later there was a poll that showed Carly near the top. I was kind of excited by this, and a friend say, “No, that’s just a media poll just driving the narrative.” Unfortunately, it was true. I think there were some polls like that after the Access Hollywood tape broke as well. I do think that is a phenomenon.

But what’s your level of concern or how freaked out are you over Biden’s continued gaffes? He had one within the last week where he is like, “I love being here in Keene, New Hampshire,” or wherever it is, “The people are so wonderful. The mayor is great. And Vermont is beautiful.” It’s like, “You’re in New Hampshire.”

And then as Teddy mentioned, the story over the medal to the hero, it’s sort of within range of what these people do. Hillary had this famous flak jacket story that she exaggerated. I’m sure they put a flak jacket on her when she landed somewhere in the Balkans, but then suddenly it was sniper fire was ricocheting all around her. Then, of course, the Brian Williams . . . Newscasters aren’t exactly politicians, but the same sort of type . . . where he exaggerated this incident on a helicopter.

You can sort of see the Biden thing being of that nature, but then it’s also really exaggerated and over the top. He himself was in danger giving this medal, and it was a grizzled old guy that he was giving the medal to. He actually did give a medal to an amazing guy who went through an absolutely harrowing experience trying to save a friend and said he didn’t want the medal. There was the kernel of the truth there, but you get this weird embellishment and messing it up in a thousand different ways.

Maddy: Well, I think, being British, I am inclined to love gaffes. We think they’re just hilarious. Actually, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our current prime minister is pretty gaffe-prone. As foreign secretary, one of his first trips was to Turkey, and I think three months prior to this trip, he had written a limerick for The Spectator, where he used to be the editor, which was a very rude limerick about Erdoğan. There was a competition to rate the rudest possible poem about Erdoğan. Then there he was in Turkey shaking Erdoğan’s hand as foreign secretary. I guess I’m kind of biased by that, so I quite enjoy the gaffes. I find them endearing almost.

Rich: So you’re rooting for a Biden–Trump race—

Maddy: Yes.

Rich: . . . just on that basis alone.

Maddy: I think I am, yeah. And—

Teddy: Biden has always been gaffe-prone. Let’s not forget.

Rich: It’s not new.

Teddy: That’s not new, but I do think qualitatively something seems to be a little bit different this time.

Maddy: Yeah.

Rich: Yeah. Let’s go to the exit question on Biden, and I’ll go to you first, Teddy. Rate how much Joe Biden’s gaffes will matter in the Democratic primary, zero to ten. Zero, they don’t hurt at all and maybe help. Ten, they’re an anti-aircraft missile to the bow of his campaign. See what I did there?

Teddy: Yeah.

Rich: See what I did?

Teddy: I think seven. I know I was saying earlier that Biden is still in a good spot, and I think that’s right. I think seven, not because the gaffes themselves are going to sink him, but I think the gaffes are a pretty reliable indicator that his stamina is diminishing, that he’s old, and that if things start to go awry in the primary, he’ll collapse very quickly.

So I would give him a seven. I don’t think any one story is going to be the moment that his election was lost, but I do think the gaffes tell you something about Biden that is going to be important to keep in mind as the primary rolls on.

Rich: Maddy, zero to ten.

Maddy: I’m going to say four, and I’m going to say four for a second just imagining that America is not full of Americans, but instead Brits.

Rich: I say about four as well, for a slightly different reason. I think the lack of energy and enthusiasm around the campaign is the bigger political threat to him. Then another big threat is just if he doesn’t seem that awesome a candidate. Certainly, a buttress underneath his campaign is the head-to-head polling against Trump, but he needs to back that up with performance on the trail, and the gaffes will be part, I believe, in underperformance.

The scenario I can see very easily is him losing Iowa and just the bottom falling out, although this was kind of my theory with Trump as well. Beat him in Iowa, and his whole thing is based on being a winner and having great poll numbers, and the bottom will fall out. And the bottom didn’t fall out because he never moved an inch in New Hampshire. But Biden is not as strong in New Hampshire at the moment as Trump was going into Iowa last time. Anyway, we have about six months or so to go on that.

Maddy, we’ve established, if nothing else, in this podcast that you’re a fan of gaffes, so you just must’ve loved the president’s Twitter feed all through August, where he outdid even himself with controversial tweet after controversial tweet, with strange reversals and somersaults. It feels already like it was a month ago, given the news cycle, but last Friday he was asking whether the chairman of the Federal Reserve or the president of China was the greatest enemy of the United States. He hereby ordered businesses to leave China. It was quite an afternoon. The market dropped about 600 points because they’re not always as fond of gaffes as you are necessarily. What have you made of the president’s August?

Maddy: Sure. I think, first of all, there’s two things going on. The first thing is that so much of what Trump does and says is really very funny, and it is actually important to recognize that. It doesn’t mean that, in recognizing that, you think it’s okay or you think it has no consequences. Not at all. But the reason I think it’s important to remember that is that his base love it. His supporters love it. They find it very entertaining. It’s like watching this reality TV show.

But the reality is, as we know, people who complain about the executive branch having too much power, but it’s really the executive thumb. This has serious consequences at a policy level, for diplomacy, so many other things. The way I see it is, as a performer, because I started . . . Well, I thought I was going to be . . . That’s a very long story, and it’s not relevant. Anyway, as a performer, I’m very interested in I think what I consider to be the difference between a person who is theatrical and a person who is dramatic.

I would say that, just as a point of comparison, since the Left loves making this point of comparison, and I don’t think they do it very well, the difference between Boris Johnson and Trump. Johnson, I would say, is theatrical. A theatrical person is self-aware, and that’s the difference, whereas a dramatic person is not self-aware, and therefore self-indulgent. A dramatic person might still be wildly entertaining for all the wrong reasons, but he’s not somebody you want running the country. As entertaining as it may be, it is very worrying.

I watched Trump’s . . . Well, actually I tried to watch as little of it as possible . . . but his August feed, with his comments about being king of Israel and fighting Scaramucci and all that good stuff.

Rich: I already forgot about the Scaramucci feud. That’s how quickly things disappear.

Maddy: Well, I watched it uncomfortably. I was entertained and appalled, but mostly appalled, because I’m a decent sort.

Rich: To the point of being entertained, I just can’t help at times being entertained. I just remember a couple weeks ago there was this thing where he was doing one of his pressers before he got in the helicopter, and he’s like, “Why is everyone obsessed with plastic straws? There’s also excess plastic packaging. Why isn’t everyone obsessed with that?” It’s like, “Yes, finally, a president who asks the important questions.”

There was a thing a couple days ago Axios reported, and Trump denied it, but it sounds really true to me, where he was asking why can’t we nuke hurricanes. That’s the kind of thing . . . I’ve wondered that in the past. I know you wouldn’t want to nuke them and create a radioactive storm, but is there anything we can do to disrupt a hurricane before it really gets going?

I like that theatrical-dramatic opposition. I think clearly Trump does fall into the dramatic category, except for occasionally. On the Greenland controversy, he showed some self-awareness, because when he retweeted the image of the all-gold Trump Tower in the middle of this little fishing village in Greenland, he’s like, “I’m not going to do this to you, Greenland.” That was some self-awareness, Teddy.

Teddy: It was. Yes, I agree that Trump is funny. We ran some, I think correctly, critical coverage of just his tweets and the month that he had the Friday that he went on that little rampage.

Again, I would just echo what Maddy says. There is a bit of an issue when it crosses over into the real world. For instance, Greenland. I think purchases of land are a great American tradition, especially purchases of land, the acquisition of which would be in the national interest, which Greenland certainly is. We have a base at Greenland. It’s strategically important. But when it becomes . . . First of all, it’s not the 19th century anymore, as much as some of us might wish it was. But when it becomes a diplomatic crisis with Denmark, then you have an issue. Similarly, the comparison of Powell to Xi, I think, is distasteful, although one might’ve laughed at it. I might’ve chuckled when I first saw it. But first of all, when it moves markets—

Rich: Did you chuckle?

Teddy: Yeah. I laugh at his tweets, and then I take a step back and feel a little bit more disturbed. That’s—

Maddy: It’s like a Tarantino movie with the violence. You’re like, “Oh, I’m enjoying this, and now I feel bad.”

Rich: Yeah, I can’t watch the violence in it. I’m very squeamish about movies in general, but especially Tarantino movies. Did you see the—

Maddy: I did.

Rich: . . . Once Upon a Time in . . . I could not watch. The final five minutes, I had—

Teddy: Oh, that movie ruled.

Rich: . . . hand up. Just hearing it was enough. You liked it?

Teddy: Yeah, it was awesome.

Rich: I thought Kyle was exactly right. It was too saggy.

Teddy: Yeah. Right. The pacing was strange. It had momentum and then it didn’t, and then the end started moving very quickly.

Rich: But Brad Pitt was amazing. It should’ve been a movie about—

Teddy: Cliff Booth.

Rich: . . . the Brad Pitt character.

Maddy: He was good. He was very, very good.

Teddy: In any case, I do think it is a problem when the president does these things because they have bad real-world consequences. I don’t like what Trump is doing to the relationship between, for instance, the presidency and the Federal Reserve. I think that announcing $250 billion of new tariffs on China at five o’clock on a Friday is a destabilizing decision, and I think ratcheted up the trade war. It was bad for markets. That sort of thing suppresses business investment when the president is that unpredictable. I do think that Trump has a penchant for the dramatic, or maybe for the theatrical, but ultimately I laugh and then I step back and I wonder, “Is this really worth laughing at?”

Rich: How, Maddy, would this strike you as a general principle? You don’t have to get specifically into trade, but the trade tweets last week really brought this up. I was talking to someone, a conservative who’s not a big Trump guy, but is a China expert and very critical of China, and he makes the case, well, yeah, there have been these tweets, and there’s been an announcement we’re going to do X, and then it’s like, no, we’re going to do Y, and, no, we’re coming back to doing it X. And the case he made, which I guess you could apply maybe to the Trump administration generally, is if you tuned all that out and you just took the line of what’s happened, and over the last two years a steady increase in tariffs on China in response to what China has done and its unwillingness to cut a deal, that if you took out the zaniness, and that’s all that happened, we started with this much, a tiny amount of tariffs, now we’re at a medium-size amount of tariffs, two years later, you’d say that’s reasonable, so we should judge it maybe a little more on that basis rather than get caught up in the day-to-day wackiness.

Maddy: Yeah. I think it’s just that the day-to-day wackiness is just so distracting, and it’s what most people see. I’m not well-versed enough in the actual economics to judge his trade policy, but I think when you’re dealing with something like diplomacy, it’s a whole other story because theoretically I think you could actually probably start a war on Twitter, and that’s kind of a scary thought.

I don’t know. I think it definitely does have . . . the bluster does have . . . it’s more than just bluster. There are real consequences.

Rich: Teddy, what’s your view on where we are with China? There’s a question now . . . I always thought there’d be at least a papered-over kind of deal to get everyone through the interim, and then maybe if Trump wins reelection, he can come back at it. But it seems like the prospect of that is getting a little more distant, and there’s a possibility that the Chinese might want to wait him out.

Teddy: Yeah, it’s getting more distant. I think they have every incentive to wait out the 2020 election, and so I think the prospects of a deal have declined. I also think that, while we had every reason to be angry at China for things like forced technology transfer, their misbehavior on the global marketplace, the original sin, and this was a bipartisan sin in 2016, was saying we need to jettison TPP, because jettisoning TPP made it harder to put a lot of combined pressure onto China. Maybe you would say, “No, the original sin was granting them Most Favored Nation status in the ’90s.” Perhaps.

In any case, the numbers are not good for the domestic economy. I don’t think the trade war is the cause, certainly not the root cause, of the global slowdown, but if you just look at American manufacturing, if you look at orders for capital goods, if you look at orders from manufacturers, if you look at even the service sector—

Rich: He’s literally looking at these.

Maddy: I know. I can see.

Rich: Our listeners can’t see, but he is literally.

Teddy: There was a spike right around the time Trump got elected, and now things are starting to get bad. Manufacturing is starting to move into contractionary mode, not expansionary mode. And there’s been a slowdown in business investment, simply generated I think by the trade war. That, I think, is an overriding cause of the slowdown in investment.

While there is a germ of a point, and I think Trump is correct in the broad reorientation of the United States toward China, I just think that China is going to wait him out, and there’s not really going to be any significant achievement to point to, at least in his first term. Now, if he wins reelection, perhaps the calculus changes. I do think we’re going to look back in 25 years and say, however history evaluates the president, if it’s unkindly, he still did something right on China. He broke with the consensus that was stale and misguided. So I think it’s a mixed bag, but just for the next two years, the outlook is not great.

Rich: Have you followed the manufacturing, and is the trade war overwhelmingly the reason why manufacturing has fallen back, or it’s just cyclical?

Teddy: Well, yeah, these things are cyclical. These things depend on the commodities markets. They depend on demand in Europe, which slows down. They also depend on demand in China, which has slowed down.

I think the rationale for the trade war was that it was going to bring back a resurgence in manufacturing, and so if you evaluate it simply on those terms, it hasn’t done that.

Rich: Maddy, exit question to you first on this. There will be a trade deal with China before the election. Yes or no?

Maddy: No.

Rich: Teddy Kupfer?

Teddy: Yeah, I think no. I think Trump will be advised to take one if they offered it, but I don’t think Xi feels any pressure to do so.

Rich: I’m going to make it unanimous. I think probably no. Not 100 percent on that. I think there’s still a chance that if China is hurting enough, that they’ll want to relieve the pressure by agreeing to buy some more soybeans again or something. Certainly won’t be a meaningful deal, and I think the odds are against any deal at all before November 2020.

Rich: Speaking of deals, and deals that may not happen, Maddy, got some Brexit drama going on in the U.K., where Boris has, what, prorogued the Parliament?

Maddy: Prorogue, yeah. Either is fine.

Rich: Prorogued the Parliament. There’s going to be a queen speech, which I didn’t even know existed. You have protestors in the street and loose commentary that this is a fundamental violation of democratic principles, which I know is an exaggeration at best. What should we make of this tactic on the part of Boris?

Maddy: Sure. Unlike America, the Brits, our Constitution is unwritten, so it’s sort of constantly evolving. It’s meant to be under the sovereignty of Parliament, and actually up until this point, that system has worked fairly well. The question now is, if the EU won’t give Britain a deal they can accept, and the PM government wants to go ahead and leave without one anyway on October 31st, which is the next deadline, can Parliament stop them? It turns out that nobody is really sure.

So in Johnson versus anti-no-deal MPs . . . there’s actually various other players involved. One of them is the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who is supposed to be impartial, but he’s not impartial. In fact, he had a sticker on his car that I think was . . . it might be too rude to say, but it was something to Brexit. He said it was his wife’s sticker. Anyway, he can table amendments and that sort of thing.

Then, of course, there’s the queen, which, again, in America, you guys don’t have. Basically, what happened this week was Johnson went to the Queen, and he asked her to approve suspending Parliament between mid September and mid October. We’re meant to leave on October 31st, and so this basically means that MPs will not really have enough time to block no deal through legislation.

Rich: So they’d have to block it before that.

Maddy: They’d have to block it before that, or when they come back for the queen’s speech, which is October 14th, and that’s just completely unrealistic.

Rich: Okay, but in theory they’d have like two weeks?

Maddy: They have two weeks, yeah. There’s not really any clear plan of how they would do that anyway.

Rich: Sorry, the queen’s speech is after this period rather than before it?

Maddy: Yes. The queen’s speech is October 14th.

Rich: So how does a queen’s speech work? I had the vague impression when I was following this yesterday that the queen’s speech began the proroguing, but it ends the proroguing?

Maddy: It ends the proroguing, yes. The queen’s speech is basically —

Teddy: This is the point of the Revolution, to not have to worry about this stuff.

Maddy: What the queen’s speech is she basically . . . it’s written by the government, and it marks the beginning of a new session of Parliament. In her speech, she lays out the legislative schedule for the next session of Parliament.

The reason that Johnson is doing this is that it basically gives a pretense of legitimacy around proroguing Parliament that’s not to do with Brexit, because what he’s basically saying is “No, no, no, we need to . . . this session of Parliament has gone on too long. We need to cut it here. Then when we come back, we’re going to . . .” Number 10 said publicly that they’re going to talk about . . . In the Queen’s speech, there’s going to be all sorts of things promised to do with the domestic agenda, so it’s really not about Brexit. Of course, it is actually about Brexit, as we know.

Now what Parliament has . . . Parliament, which is overwhelmingly against no deal, the option that they have is to have a vote of no confidence and bring down the government, and so they would vote against the government break time, but at this juncture, actually, that suits Johnson’s purposes quite well, as well, because basically the government would just continue, and then they’d dissolve Parliament, and then they’d hold a general election, and hopefully, because the Queen’s speech was so well-written and so colorful and promised so many things, that everybody would be thinking, “Oh, well, I’m going to vote for them again because they’re going to be great.”

Really, the only suggestion that the pro-remain and anti-no-deal MPs have is, well, why don’t we have a caretaker prime minister once we brought down the government. And who has put himself forth for this? Jeremy Corbyn. The thing is that’s actually really silly because he doesn’t have the support for that, neither in the Commons nor in the country. Also, constitutionally, it’s not even clear that they have any grounds to insist on a caretaker prime minister, because constitutionally, Number 10 are saying, no, no, if there was a vote of no confidence, we would continue on as normal and dissolve Parliament.

I actually think that Johnson and his sidekick, Dominic Cummings, have played this rather well because they have a plan and a strategy, and it’s all going to plan, and their enemies are disorganized and chaotic and can’t agree on anything. Yeah—

Teddy: Can I—

Rich: Sorry to focus on the . . . Sorry, Teddy. Sorry to focus on the Queen’s speech, but the Queen’s speech sets out the agenda of the government, or she’s just a mouthpiece?

Maddy: It’s normally not very . . . Nobody really pays that much attention to it because it’s really just a formality. She comes forward and in her very posh English accent says some lovely things about what they’re going to do, and it doesn’t really matter. But the reason I think it’s significant this time is that it is going to be this very loaded thing where . . . Also, it’s a way to prep the country for a general election. People do love the Queen over there. I mean, some people here. But a lot of people, they really love the Queen, and if the Queen seems on board, then that’s very encouraging.

Teddy: Yeah, so I guess I have two questions, as somebody who sort of follows this stuff, but doesn’t pretend to be an expert. The first I would ask is just descriptive. Do you think Boris wants to do this because he wants no deal? Is no deal the end game? Or is the end game improving his negotiating position against the EU, and the thought that Parliament would undermine that by going against his wishes? If he has command over the government and can do what he wants, then he presumably has a stronger hand to play at the bargaining table. That’s my first question.

Then my second question, I guess, is normative. I’ve seen an argument made prominently yesterday by Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic, this idea Brexiteers, team Leave likes to involve the will of the people, democracy, small-D democracy, but Johnson has just suspended a democratically elected Parliament. Johnson wasn’t democratically elected. Johnson was elected by a small group of Tories. So constitutionally speaking, is this appropriate for somebody to invoke democracy, but to, somebody without a democratic mandate, go say, “Parliament, you don’t really have a place here”?

Maddy: Okay, so the first question, does Johnson want no deal? No, I don’t think he wants no deal, but I think he’s quite practical about the likelihood of it. I would say, as well, if you’re thinking about the psychology of negotiation, one of the biggest problems for the last three years with Theresa May was that every time she came up and said . . . Well, she stopped saying it eventually . . . but when she would say, “No deal is better than a bad deal.” It’s like that teacher in high school who’s like, “One more time, I’m going to send you out of class,” and you’re like, “No, you’re not, and everybody knows you’re not,” and so you just carry on as you were. This is the same thing that the EU have been doing ever since she lost her majority after 2017. The EU have been behaving abominably, and that is because they’ve been getting away with it.

Now, the difference with Johnson was, and I think this is something he recognized well before he became PM when he was writing his columns for The Telegraph, is that if you’re going to have any success in a negotiation, the other side has to really believe you when you say, “I’m prepared to walk away without a deal. I am prepared to walk away without permission.” I think he’s just saying and doing what he always said he would say and do-

Teddy: Yeah. Sure. I see.

Maddy: . . . and waiting for the EU to either call his bluff and realize that he’s not bluffing, or to just behave irrationally and let us walk away without a deal, and then there will be a, hopefully, well-organized damage-control exercise because I think it’s naïve to pretend that it wouldn’t be very disruptive, because it obviously would.

What was the second question? It was well—

Teddy: Does it undermine democracy to do what he did, especially considering he wasn’t elected by the people?

Maddy: First of all, you’re American.

Teddy: That’s okay. I think it seems like a legitimate question, though.

Maddy: Yeah. No, it is a legitimate question.

Well, the thing is I think ordinarily, if this wasn’t so much about Brexit, I would probably say, “Yes, Teddy. Yeah, you’re right. This is outrageous. I’m outraged.” But the thing is the will of the people vis-a-vis Brexit has for the last three years been so obviously, in plain sight, repeatedly undermined, overruled, that the level of condescension the elected MPs have treated the Leave vote and the level of polarization that has ensued because of that, I think at this point he probably . . . Now we’re back to polls, which I don’t believe in. But I think he probably is fairly in step with the people if you-

Teddy: Sure, or at the very least, he can cite a mandate-

Maddy: Well, he can cite a mandate, yeah.

Teddy: . . . from back then.

Maddy: I think because this is about Brexit and it’s an exceptional case, that the criticisms that you just raised, which I think are reasonable, I would say don’t stand, but in ordinary times, perhaps American political philosophy has it right and the Brits do not.

Rich: I was talking to a friend, Maddy, just earlier, very Brit, very plugged in, and he says he’s not sure that if there were a vote of no confidence, what’s supposed to happen. Is there another election, or can Corbyn make a case that he is supposed to be the caretaker? It just seems like . . . I know Brits are attached to your unwritten constitution, but it just seems like this is an important circumstance where we should know what the rule is.

Maddy: This is the big problem, is we’re kind of making it up as we’re going along, and it was all fine. We were fine doing that while we were all mild-mannered and very civilized and not really doing very much, but now we’re on the brink of this constitutional crisis, or potentially even revolution or whatever. Yes, that is a fair point. I’m afraid there’s no answer to it.

Rich: I’ll stick with you, Maddy, for the exit question. Rate the odds of a no-deal Brexit in your mind at this point, zero to 100 percent.

Maddy: I’m going to say 80 percent.

Rich: 80. Teddy?

Teddy: 50 percent, plus or minus 50 percent, because I have no idea.

Rich: I’m going to say 65, but I think it’s clearly above 50. Would Boris then call an election shortly afterwards? Is it a major event that would seem to be worthy of an election? If you have a no-deal Brexit, that inherently is going to be at least somewhat chaotic, because at the best circumstances, to be running it-

Maddy: Yeah, I think we are headed to a general election one way or another. Either he’ll call it, or perhaps more likely at this stage, there will be a no-confidence vote, and then that will be the obvious next step. We could actually end up with an election as early as early November, what with the new proroguing.

Teddy: This is a terrifying prospect.

Rich: Yeah, I know. I fear a debacle.

Maddy: Yeah.

Rich: Let’s move on, Teddy, and hit another topic here, which is Amazon fires, which were consuming the political debate for about a week there or so, became a major focus of the G-7. Emmanuel Macron was very seized of the matter. Macron had this tweet that almost every single line in it was false. The suggestion that something radically different is happening in the Amazon. The image he tweeted was not of a recent Amazon fire. He said the Amazon is the lungs of the planet, which is BS. He might have even said it’s responsible for 20 percent of our oxygen, which is BS.

Now, I get everyone complaining about Trump making stuff up and Trump being disruptive at these meetings, but for me, it’s just a sign of how the great and good, as they imagine themselves, are so easily pushed around by fashion. You had basically this false meme grow up around these fires, and a bunch of celebrities and climate scientists tweeting them, and some TV images, and boom, it’s at the top of the Western agenda. That just seems ridiculous to me.

Teddy: Yeah, so I have a reputation at NR as our flag-bearing green, our squishy environmentalist. I first looked into this story, didn’t really know anything about it, and I was concerned. I think there’s still a level of concern over . . . Nobody wants the Amazon to disappear.

But, yeah, it turns out that a lot of the data were just simply off. Under Lula in the last decade, that was when Brazil had the highest incidence of forest fires. The notion that the Amazon provides 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen is just false. This has been debunked several times. The Atlantic published a piece on it, to their credit. Michael Shellenberger had a great article in Forbes that just ran through the evidence. Yeah, I think it is a good illustration of social media distorting the universe of facts, and then the corrections coming after the fact not getting as much attention.

I am somebody who is concerned about climate change and the future, but I think the Amazon fires are interesting in that respect for a different reason. Henry Olsen made this argument in the Washington Post this week, and it’s really smart. One thing to understand about the fires is they’re not just happening spontaneously; they’re happening because the administration of Jair Bolsonaro has decided to weaken protections in certain parts of the Amazon to allow for farming. The fires being burned are the result of farmers trying to clear land so they can make a better living for themselves.

Olson points out that this is the pattern in developing countries. When you have people trying to improve their standard of living, as they improve their standard of living, as it rises, their carbon footprint also rises, and so understanding the Amazon fires not as this environmental catastrophe, but as a microcosm of how carbon emissions rise in countries like Brazil, China, and India is a more fruitful way to look at it because you then realize, okay, this isn’t a catastrophe that requires us to all tweet out pictures of a fire that actually happened 30 years ago and mislead about statistics of forest fire rates,

It is something that invites creative planning, policies, innovation, adaptation, and it’s something we have to understand, that people want to live better lives. They want to be prosperous. They want to do things like clear forests to farm on them, so that they can sell those goods for a profit and make money and provide for their families. That’s something that, if you’re concerned about climate change, you have to be aware of. This is what happens.

Rich: Yeah, so there’s just a huge incentive on the part of the climate alarmists. They need something beyond just “In 80 years, our estimate is in this range, that we might have this two-degree increase in the global temperature.” They want and need a catastrophe now, and one that’s photogenic, one that’s easily understandable. That’s why they fasten on any natural disaster that’s at hand, and the Amazon fires happen to be at hand.

Deforestation of the Amazon is not a great thing. We should be doing what we can, reasonably, to try to convince the Brazilians to save the Amazon, which is not in imminent danger of destruction with 80 percent still there.

I have no use for Bolsonaro, but, Maddy, there was at least one tweet he had . . . I think it was a tweet, or maybe it was a statement. I think the Germans said something, and he’s like, “Well, you deforested your entire country as part of your economic advance and industrialization. You have all this money. Plant trees in Germany. Don’t come to me and tell me my farmers can’t encroach a little bit into their forest when you totally eradicated yours.” Now, that may be an exaggeration. Actually, Europe and the U.S. and China have actually been reforesting over the last couple of decades, but for me, that argument has some force.

Maddy: Yeah. I think one of the things that most annoys people about climate change activism is sometimes, not always of course, but sometimes the level of hypocrisy of those who are loudest about it. Recently, in the U.K., we had Prince Harry and Meghan Markle run into lots of trouble because they’d been flying around the world . . . That was actually quite funny. He had flown to Sicily to give a talk, barefoot, at a Google conference, and he’d flown there in a private jet. Then within eleven days, he’d done three more private jets and—

Rich: But does he not wear shoes on the jet either, or is he slightly a hypocrite, he wears shoes on the jet and just takes them off for a speech?

Maddy: I couldn’t tell you. Anyway, people find this immensely, immensely irritating. Same thing with the G-7 summit, with Macron giving everybody these watches made of recycle fishing nets and powered by solar energy.

Then, of course, as you say, there’s something just so ripe about the image of trees burning because, I mean, who wants to see trees burning? It’s sort of like in Lord of the Rings with the Ents, and Saruman burns the trees. That really resonates with the public imagination. Of course, as we know, I’m sorry to just passionately agree with what’s already been said, but NASA did—

Teddy: If we all agree, it means we’re all right.

Maddy: Well, that is true, absolutely. Majority rules.

NASA came out and said that, actually, fire activity is at or below average. At the same time, I think Bolsonaro probably should’ve accepted the 20 million from the G-7.

Rich: Yeah. Why not?

Maddy: I don’t think I would be so stubborn not to accept that kind of money, which maybe is not that grand in the big scheme of things. Anyway, but, yeah, I think it was just overblown, and yet another thing that’s probably going to prove to be fairly counterproductive in the long run about dealing with climate change.

I agree, Teddy. I’m also a green, although I don’t fly my flag quite so high.

Teddy: I mean, I’m a green—

Rich: Well, who doesn’t love trees? Trees are great.

Maddy: I love them. Plant more trees.

Teddy: That’s right. I’m a green relative to my colleagues, I think.

Rich: Teddy, this is one thing I wonder. If they say the Amazon is absolutely so important to fighting climate change, it just seems to me like, okay, if climate change is a problem, why can’t we just plant more trees? That seems like a really easy thing.

Teddy: I mean, we should, and I think we are doing that. I also just don’t really buy the premise . . . I think the Amazon is important for other reasons, biodiversity. There are a lot of species that don’t exist anywhere else. No, to me, the things to be concerned about are different, permafrost in Siberia, glaciers up in the Arctic, but I don’t really believe . . . Based on my cursory reading of the literature, it doesn’t seem like the Amazon are the lungs of our planet.

Rich: Maddy, exit question to you on this. We will be talking about Amazon fires two months from now a lot, a little, not at all?

Maddy: A little.

Rich: Teddy?

Teddy: Not at all.

Rich: Yeah, I think somewhere on the spectrum between a little and not at all, maybe leaning to not at all.

Maddy, before we move on, and while we have you here, I mentioned your cover story at the outset on prostitution. You went out in L.A. and did a ride-along with a vice squad. It was my editor’s pick a couple weeks ago, very compelling story. Tell us a little bit about it. What did you learn? What were your surprises and your big takeaways?

Maddy: Sure. The interesting and very rewarding thing about this piece was that I actually went in with the policy angle, obviously not the problem itself, but with the policy angle, I went in with a fairly open mind about how we should address this problem of sex trafficking and how that relates to prostitution. I went in with two questions. The first question was, does legalizing prostitution increase or decrease sex trafficking? The second question was, does legalizing prostitution . . . Actually, no, not even legalizing it. Is prostitution just intrinsically exploitative?

The evidence was overwhelming. There was no doubt in my mind by the end of it. As far as was possible in the time allowed, I really did leave no stone unturned. I spoke to as many people as I could. I spoke to the women themselves, both those still in the game, as it’s called, and those who had survived and are now doing other things, and much happier because of it. Yes, I think legalizing prostitution does make sex trafficking worse, and there’s good data on that, for anyone who’s looking for it honestly, as I was. It is just intrinsically and inherently, and just inexcusably, in my view, exploitative.

It was very heartbreaking. There’s a lot more stories that didn’t make the final copy, and it was very profoundly upsetting in many ways, but really worthwhile. I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad that it resonated with so many people. I’ve had lots of people, actually across the political spectrum, perhaps people who don’t normally read National Review, saying how much they enjoyed it. That’s the wrong word, but how much they appreciated it.

It’s very worthwhile. I’m very glad I did it, and I’m very grateful to you, Rich, for putting it on the cover. I think that was a very powerful, striking image to go with it.

Teddy: Had to be the cover story.

Rich: Yeah, it’s the least I could do. So in terms of public policy, you are a supporter of the Scandinavian approach, which is you-

Maddy: The Nordic Model. Yeah, the Nordic Model is basically where you decriminalize the selling of one’s own body, and you criminalize pimping and buying sex. The thinking behind that is that the girls really benefit far more from rehabilitation services, which actually already happen very effectively at the grassroots. So I encourage anyone listening, if this is something they feel strongly about, to donate to such organizations because they do really important work.

Yes, so I favor that model. I think it’s been very successful in the places where it’s been tried. The other thing is, as much as you could say what’s good for the gander should be good for the goose and things, but the thing is, I actually think in many ways giving a woman a criminal record when she’s trying to get out of the life, it actually makes things a bit harder in terms of rehabilitation. It can make her finding a job and with relationships with banks and things like that, it can make that more difficult. I just think it’s perhaps time that we talked about going in a different direction with that.

Rich: Congratulations again on the story.

Let’s hit a few other things before we go. Teddy, you’ve been in Vermont recently?

Teddy: I have. I used to work at a summer camp in central Vermont, right on the border of New Hampshire, made a lot of friends, worked there for five years back when I was in high school and college, and so we’ve started a little tradition of going up there every summer. We’ve been doing it for eight years in a row now. Nice little lake house that one of my friends’ family is lucky enough to have.

It’s just beautiful. Vermont, obviously, has strange politics, although on guns, it’s a surprisingly gun-friendly state. However, I just think Vermont is gorgeous. Driving around on these little dilapidated state highways, not really having cell phone service, lakes everywhere, and there’s just a—

Rich: Sounds nightmarish.

Teddy: No, it was beautiful. As a non-native New Yorker, sort of a reluctant New Yorker, I got a chance to exhale.

Rich: Maddy, you’ve been thinking about New York City neighbors?

Maddy: I have. I have quite bad insomnia, and lying in bed at night thinking of sex trafficking and angry transgender activists and all that kind of terrifying stuff. The other morning, it was maybe four a.m., and I went into my kitchen, opened up the window, and I’m on the sixth floor of my apartment, and crawled out onto the fire escape just to sit there and think about life, as one does, and I nearly gave my neighbor Tyrone a heart attack. Now, I haven’t seen Tyrone in about six months—

Rich: Just because you scared him, or because—

Maddy: Oh, because I scared him, yeah. Yeah, I should’ve clarified. I haven’t seen Tyrone in about six months. In fact, I think since the three years I’ve been living in that apartment, I have maybe met Tyrone on the stairs.

Teddy: Sorry, you saw him at the fire escape or just across—

Maddy: Sorry, this is like my balcony.

Rich: So it shares. His window—

Maddy: Yeah, his window—

Teddy: I see.

Maddy: It’s a shared . . . Yeah, I can see it very clearly in my mind, but I appreciate that you can’t. Yeah, it joins his window to mine.

Anyway, I think I’ve only met Tyrone maybe three times. I can’t remember. He said, “Oh my goodness, Maddy, what . . .” First of all, he remembered my name, which was really sweet. He said, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “Oh, I can’t sleep.” He said, “Oh, me neither.” We just sat there and talked about life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Actually, we didn’t talk about those things, but we did talk about lots of very interesting things, and I just thought, “That is such a lovely New York moment. Here I am on the fire escape at four a.m. with Tyrone.” Anyway, that was my light item.

Rich: Okay. Well, I just got back from the National Review cruise, which was of the Saint Lawrence River, and when we stopped at Prince Edward Island, I signed up for this excursion to go visit a falconeer. I did it with some hesitation because I thought everyone was going to be kids that signed up for this, but actually there weren’t any kids, six adults.

I love birds, and these are just amazing creatures. They’re not warm and fuzzy in the least. You can feel the prehistoric nature of these creatures, as the guy explained. If you imagine the most remote self-dependent cat you’ve ever experienced, they’re like 10,000 times more independent. You can have one of these birds for ten years.

The entire relationship is not . . . they don’t like you at all. They have no connection to you. It’s all built on food. You train them based on when they’re hungry. You can go hunting with them when they’re hungry. This guy uses them for a pest-control business he has to go scare off geese and crows and pest birds. You can work with them if they’re hungry, but if you take them out and they’re not hungry, they’ll just leave. They will not think of you again and will just take off.

Also fascinating, they’re just entirely visually stimulated, and they’re very easily stressed. That’s why you hood them. There could be a bald eagle right next to a falcon, and a falcon would freak out being next to a bald eagle, but you put a hood on the falcon and it can’t see the bald eagle, even if the bald eagle is making bald eagle sounds, it makes zero impression. The falcon just treats the bald eagle as if it’s not there, whereas if there’s a bear in front of us and you blindfold us, we’d freak out more.

Anyway, just amazing creatures. They look quite big, but they’re only about, the big ones, the big falcons, only about two pounds because it’s hollow bones and all feather. He had them flying afield, this hawk flying afield and land on our hand with the glove. It was just an amazing thing.

We couldn’t go out with the falcon because it started to rain, but he said a falcon can get up to 3,000 feet really quickly, and then within a minute just be a mile away if it sees something it wants to hit. The eyesight is obviously amazing. You holding a book two feet from your face, a falcon can see that just as well 100 yards away. Anyway, amazing creatures, and it was a lot of fun.

With that, let’s go to our editors’ picks. Teddy, what’s your pick?

Teddy: I am cheating. I have two. We ran two pieces this past week about the 1619 Project, the New York Times’s deeply researched and very fascinating look at the history of slavery in the United States, although it is a project that has some empirical and conceptual issues. It was a good moment for NR, I think, because when the New York Times first came out with this project, there was a lot of handwringing. There were some trollish responses at other publications. We took our time.

We had a great piece by Phil Magness, an economic historian and somebody who works at the American Institute for Economic Research, who went through carefully the scholarship on which one of the arguments was based, showed the problems with it, the so-called new history of capitalism that locates slavery as the main economic engine in American economic development. He points out this just is not supported by the record.

Then we had a piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty, who frames the entire project through what he calls the motte-and-bailey fallacy and explains this is valuable work, but here is the root of conservative objections.

I think both pieces were very convincing. They were also very judicious and smart. So those are my picks.

Rich: Maddy, what’s your pick?

Maddy: My pick is Michael’s piece on “If Joe Walsh is the Answer, Ask a Different Question,” in which Michael basically makes the argument that there’s no real, meaningful difference between Walsh and Trump in terms of the president’s more odious characteristics, and that he’s an ill-suited fringe candidate besides. I find it very convincing, and I just really enjoy Michael’s prose, which is stylish and has a lot of witty asides.

Rich: My pick is Sarah Schutte’s piece in the last issue of National Review, her first byline in National Review, a piece, as far as I can tell, occasioned by this very podcast in a discussion of who is the great American novelist or writer. Sarah objects to my nomination of Mark Twain, and instead advances Louisa May Alcott. The best writing is really people writing about things they love, and Sarah loves her. It’s a wonderful piece. Congratulations, Sarah.

That’s it for us. You’ve been listening to a National Review podcast. Any rebroadcast, retransmission, or account of this game without the express written permission of National Review magazine is strictly prohibited. This podcast has been produced by the aforementioned incomparable Sarah Schutte, who makes us sound better than we deserve.

Thank you, Maddy. Thank you, Teddy. Thanks especially to all of you for listening. We are The Editors, and we’ll see you next time.


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