It Could Have Been Worse: Kim Strassel And Ross Douthat Review 2021

interview with Ross Douthat, Kimberley A. Strassel
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

To watch the video, click here.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. In 2009, Ross Douthat, then not yet 30, became the youngest columnist in the history of the New York Times. Ross' books include Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, and The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Ross' newest book, published just this year, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery. In 1994, still in her very early 20s, Kim Strassel graduated from college and immediately took a job with the Wall Street Journal. So there, Ross Douthat. Since 2007, Kim has been writing the Potomac Watch column Her books include The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech, and most recently, Resistance At All Costs: How Trump Haters Are Breaking America. Kim, Ross, thanks for joining us. I'm in Palo Alto. This is a fake background because I'm actually using a spare bedroom and it's just too embarrassing. Where are you? Kim, where are you?

Kim Strassel: I am up in Alaska at my house in Alaska where I split my time between here and the Great Potomac area.

Peter Robinson: Ross?

Ross Douthat: I'm in my attic, which is in New Haven, Connecticut, which is almost as far from civilization as Alaska, but not quite.

Peter Robinson: Farther on some reckonings, Ross, but maybe we can come to that. 2021, the year that was, I thought we would approach this conversation in the spirit of the unofficial motto of the New York Daily News. You had to have known some old time New York news hands to have heard this unofficial motto, but I've always thought it summed up beautifully real journalism. And here is what used to be the unofficial model the New York Daily News. Tell it to the McSweeneys, the Stuyvesants already know. Isn't that lovely? Okay, so in the spirit of that model, I'm going to behave as a McSweeney and simply give you some of the big stories of the year. And the two of you, hot shot journalists since you were still in swaddling clothes, can tell me what it all means. So, let's start here. President Biden, two quotations. Here's David Gergen on CNN this past April. Biden is off to an excellent start, arguably one of the best since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Here's an article in the Wall Street Journal just last week, "Voters are in a sour mood, short on confidence in President Biden. Some 46% of voters say they would continue Mr. Biden's policy course, while 48% say they'd rather return to the policies of Mr. Trump." What happened, Kim?

Kim Strassel: Well, oh, wow, that's pretty remarkable, too, if you're thinking just one year. But I mean, look, some of this is just good old fashioned basic political arrogance. They came in and heard all those quotes about being FDR and actually thought it might be true. And you had a party that, while it campaigned on some of the things it's been doing, didn't recognize that most voters never heard that. They heard a guy who was coming to office who they thought would not be Donald Trump and who would deal with COVID. Those were the two main promises. And instead, we've had this dramatic overreach. I think that's also been inspired and encouraged by this split you've seen in the Democratic Party and an ascendant progressive wing that views the takeover of Washington, both the White House and Congress as a once in a generation opportunity. And so, they have pushed some extremely giant provisions that the American public just isn't ready for. But also, I think this has got to get thrown in because it gets mentioned less, like people talk about that kind of overreach and they talk about the split in the party progressives. But there has been some phenomenal mismanagement of this White House and this Congress, whether it's the Afghanistan withdrawal, which was just handled terribly, whether it's been the failure of the White House to look at the economy and make some smart decisions about spending versus inflation, et cetera. But also, Congress itself in this endless fight over this Biden legislation and two leaders, Schumer and Pelosi, who should know better but don't seem to know where all of their caucuses despite historically thin margins, and continue running their guys up this hill where there's no place to go but to jump off.

Peter Robinson: Ross? So, Ross, if the argument is the Joe Biden was elected 20% to pursue a progressive agenda and 80% simply not to be Donald Trump, to return the country to normal, the argument I think Kim is making in a way is that the administration got the proportions exactly reversed.

Ross Douthat: Well, I mean, like most Alaskans, Canada's obsessed with inside the beltway politics, whereas salt of the earth, Connecticut Yankees know that really the only thing anyone in America cared about electing Joe Biden was the end of the pandemic. So, it wasn't 20% or 80% progressive this versus not being Donald Trump that. It was all about COVID. And I really think just a huge share of Biden's troubles have to do with basically the delta wave coming along and sort of overthrowing the White House's own confident expectations that the pandemic era was over. I'm exaggerating a little bit for effect. I basically agree with a lot of Kim's critique of the Biden White House's thinking and how they've handled various things, including negotiations in DC. But the backdrop to that has been Biden declaring victory, basically, on July 4th, over the pandemic, having the delta wave come along and show that the pandemic wasn't, in fact, over. And then, I mean, look, some of this is obviously beyond any president's control, which, of course, was not what Democrats were saying when Donald Trump was the president. But let's concede that some of it is beyond any president's control. But I also think that there's just been just a sort of deficit of creativity and flexibility in the Biden White House in sort of dealing with the shift that this sort of the return of the pandemic created, where in part, they should have followed some of Kim's advice, basically, and recalibrated their legislative agenda and said, "All right, if we're still in COVID time, we want to make sure that anything we're trying to pass, anything we're trying to push through Congress has something immediately to do with the state of the economy." And so, if the state of the economy is a situation where we have all kinds of problems with shipping and ports and these kinds of things, and we want whatever bill we're passing to be laser focused on that, that kind of thing. And that's obviously not what they've done. There were some stuff in the infrastructure bill that you could argue is connected to that. But basically, they're just trying to pass sort of long-term progressive bills in the midst of a very sort of immediate and ongoing bizarre situation where the US is sort of half in and half out of the COVID era. And I mean, it's tough to say exactly the kind of things that they should be doing, but they've sort of ended up with a default of we're going to return to masking and we're going to have a vaccine mandate that probably isn't constitutional and we aren't ever actually going to be able to enforce. And I just think that we're probably even on something like the rapid tests that everyone has been arguing about in the last two weeks, the United States has lagged way behind Western Europe in rolling out rapid testing, something you can buy for a dollar in a pharmacy. And there are regulatory reasons for that and there are spending reasons for that. But there's been no moment when the Biden White House has seemed to say like, "Okay, we're getting back on top of the pandemic." And I think that's hurt him a lot. And so, is the fact and then you can push it maybe, Peter. But once you went back into crisis mode, people noticed more of the obvious reality that Joe Biden seems a bit too old for the job which is something I think-

Peter Robinson: So, that's what I wanted. Kim, who's sitting in Alaska is the insider here, we're paying attention. You both said they should have done this, they should have done that. It's interesting to me, neither one of you said the president should have done this. Now maybe, I'm reading too much into that form of words. But Donald Trump, George W. Bush, go all the way back to my boss and hero, Ronald Reagan, you could argue about the extent to which they understood the details of this or that policy. But there was no doubt in the administration or outside it that in each of those administrations, when the president wanted to have the last word, he had the last word that fundamentally the president was-

Ross Douthat: In the Trump administration, Peter?

Peter Robinson: Oh, yeah.

Ross Douthat: Oh.

Peter Robinson: They wanted to do things in Syria, Trump said no.

Ross Douthat: And then they them anyway behind his back.

Peter Robinson: Oh, really? Okay, okay.

Ross Douthat: I mean, Trump wanted to pull out of Afghanistan and it was Biden who did ... I don't know. I think a comparison to Bush and Reagan is a little more solid.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so I'll withdraw that, because I'm simply trying to set up one question. And the question is, who's running things in that White House? I would have expected journalists to be all over that question that you'd have had the Washington Post with one profile after Ron Klain. And there have been charts. I remember a Time magazine article in the beginning of the Reagan administration. And it was simply titled, The Troika. And it was a story on Jim Baker and Mike Deaver and Ed Meese and how they ran things. We don't seem to be getting better.

Kim Strassel: Well, let me just try to bridge the Peter-Ross divide here. In terms of who's actually running ... Look, I mean, there's always a different dynamic in White Houses. Sometimes you have trios of people. Sometimes you have stronger or weaker chiefs of staff. Sometimes, Ross does make a point that the Trump administration, there were people in agencies that were doing things that I doubt Donald Trump even knew was happening because he wasn't that kind of a micro focused person. I do think that entirely different dynamic that you're seeing with the Biden White House, and it goes back to that original comment about the extraordinary power right now, for better or worse, and whether legitimate or not, are necessary or not of this ascendant progressive wing. Joe Biden is not really running things, so much as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, or at least the sentiment that she represents. And I'm dying to see Joe Biden, the real Joe Biden, please stand up. He talks a lot about his negotiating skills and his time in the Senate. And he certainly has suggested, this was why he won the primary. He was not Bernie Sanders. The rest of the party is striking back. I'm the guy who won because I wasn't him. Then immediately went to him and said, "Hey, let's break bread. And you come up with all my policy positions." And increasingly, that has been what has happened is whatever the more extreme version of the Progressive Party says is what the White House adopts. So, I think the real question is not so much a Ron Klain or different department heads or even Joe Biden itself. It's Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So, the question then is, here's the poll from the Wall Street Journal, same poll about a week ago. "Many voters now say they would back a Republican, more likely to back a Republican than a Democrat for Congress 44 to 41%." All right, those numbers, it turns out that poll, the generic Republican versus Democrat poll, are very powerfully predictive, as I understand it, in about the last decade or decade and a half of elections in the house. And Republicans if they get up a point or two, that's territory where you can have a blowout 30, 40 seats in the house. All right, the point is simply this. Nancy Pelosi, an 80 plus year old Democrat, who grew up as the daughter of the mayor of Baltimore, she knows politics. Chuck Schumer knows politics. They know that they are facing, a year is a long time in politics, of course. But they know that they're facing tremendous political danger next year. And yet, they continue on this progressive path. I just don't understand. What are they thinking, Ross?

Ross Douthat: They're thinking that the outcome of the election is baked in by economic trends and that the economic trends are likely to be bad, and they're going to lose seats. So, they might as well this is their one chance to pass something they might not have unified controls government for 5 or 10 years. So, they're thinking that. And they're thinking that if the economy turns around, if COVID goes away, then there'll be a recovery and no one will care exactly what happened in the negotiations over build back better. I think that's literally how they're thinking about it.

Peter Robinson: Kim, if I may paraphrase brother Ross, the Democrats in Congress are relying on the inattentiveness and confusion of the American electorate.

Kim Strassel: I mean, I think that except for that, they're not going to win that game. I think it's more as Ross said, I think he's got it completely right, which is once in a generation opportunity is what they see. And they feel as though ... That's not what they're telling their members. It's interesting. The leaders are smarter than that. And they are saying you've got to pass this so that we don't lose the election. It's exact opposite. And I think somewhere deep in their hearts, they know those members that are still taking direction. I mean, look, really, this vote that Nancy Pelosi made her members take on the Build Back Better Bill, she had promised them, "I'll never make you vote for something that hasn't already been cleared in the Senate. I won't make you vote for a bunch of provisions that ultimately are not going to become law and are going to hurt you back in your central districts." She did it anyway. She's using them as cannon fodder. But they're also agreeing to it. And they know that they can't probably win this next year. And so, instead, they're going to pull up any stop they can to make some of the most fundamental changes to American government and the system of American programs, entitlements, et cetera, that has been seen in this country for decades.

Ross Douthat: Sort of, except a lot of what they're doing will ... I mean, again, remains to be seen, and I think there's still a chance that the bill just never passes. But a lot of what they're doing are these sort of one to two to these three to five year kind of gimmicks where you set up a program or you set up a funding stream for a program that states can opt into, which is what they're doing with universal pre K. They're not actually setting up pre K, they're setting up the idea that states can partner with the federal government. But guess what? The money goes away automatically in five years, lessons renewed. I mean, that'll add to me ... Well, I mean, it will, I mean, one and first of all, I think-

Kim Strassel: [crosstalk 00:16:36] program that's been started that ever died.

Ross Douthat: But I mean, when Obamacare passed, the Democrats expectation was that every state would go in for the Medicaid expansion. And that didn't happen immediately. And it happened eventually because Obamacare itself survived and more states went in for it. But that was a preexisting program. Everybody understood how it worked. I think the idea that, I mean, there's also huge design problems right now in some of these, some of the childcare stuff where you end up doing as Obamacare did, sort of raising prices for middle class parents, potentially. I think a lot of states are not. I think I would expect a minority of states would accept the money for these kinds of programs. And then, that puts Republicans in a position where they don't have to abolish a whole national program. They can say, "Oh, we're just cutting off funding to New York, California, Massachusetts and New Jersey." And yeah, I think it could go away. And to me, that suggests that there isn't any really central plan, and I'm contradicting myself a little because I just give you a central plan, Peter, but some of it is just you have an unwieldy coalition. Nobody can give up on their idea. If the Democrats were smart, they would just collapse all the childcare stuff into a single child tax credit and call it a day. But nobody can give up the idea that, oh, we're going to have pre K or we're going to have childcare, we're going to do these things.  And so, Pelosi and Schumer are in the position of trying to figure out a way to tell everyone who thinks they're in this once in a generation opportunity that they're getting what they want, when really they're getting like 1/6 of the loaf that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell might very well do away with some of it.

Peter Robinson: I'm a little more skeptical, but not willing to make a detailed argument to express my skepticism. But here's what-

Ross Douthat: Well, if you're right, but if you're right, then the Democrats should absolutely do it. If none of this ever goes away, then they're making the right move, right?

Peter Robinson: So, here's what I think you both agree on to one extent or another. And it's this interesting inversion, we're told, the press tells us over and over again, that the Conservatives are always extreme conservatives or extreme right wingers. In fact, what you're saying is that all this notion that the political ... Nelson polls, the great late political scientists, well, actually, the House of Representatives is close to the people, you're always going to get pragmatic solution. No, that's not happening at all. What you're both saying is they're ideologues. They don't care if they lose. They want to get this done. Correct?

Kim Strassel: I'd say 80% of the party is there, yes. And then you have, for instance, so centrist members in the House or that's the term that is often afforded them, I would argue sometimes. But they're supposed to be the ones because they hail from districts where Trump won or narrowly lost are supposed to be more reflective of the public mood, but have also been told that if they don't get along with this, and you know that these conversations are happening behind the scenes, that they will lose leadership support on other aspects of their work in Congress. And so, Nancy Pelosi gets things done for a reason. She rules with, what is it, the woman with the iron fist and the Gucci glove I think is what they say. And then, look, I mean, it's remarkable if you go back we were talking about Obamacare, at least when Obamacare 10 years ago, there were a number of members in Senate in the Democratic Party who had to be bribed to come along. Remember the Cornhusker Kickback? Remember the Louisiana Purchase because you had Mary Landrieu. Those people have all lost their elections. It's down to Joe Manchin. And when he talks, the things he says, they're not crazy. They actually are the things that are on most people's minds. They are worried about inflation. They don't like budget gimmicks and bills. But he is a lone voice in the Democratic Party these days.

Peter Robinson: All right, let's go to COVID. First, a clip here, John Tierney writing in the City Journal, "We still have no convincing evidence that the lockdown saved lives, but lots of evidence that they have already cost lives and will prove deadlier in the long run than the virus itself." Jay Bhattacharya, how can we ensure that no such thing ever happens again?

Jay Bhattachary: I mean, I think the first thing that has to happen is that public health should apologize. The public health establishment in the United States in the world has failed the public.

Peter Robinson: All right, that's item two. Item one of two, Kim and Ross. Here's item two. Here's a quotation from Dr. Fauci in an interview late last month. "When people criticize mem they're really criticizing science because I represent science." As this year ends, what are we to make of the way public health officials and the administration handled COVID?

Ross Douthat: So, on the one hand, I think public health officials handled COVID In many cases very badly. On the other hand, since you started with the John Tierney quote, I don't think we know that that is correct. 800,000 people have died from COVID in the United States.

Peter Robinson: No, we don't know that. They've died with COVID, but we don't know of COVID. Even that statistic is still disputed, as I understand it.

Ross Douthat: Yes. But in fact, excess mortality in ... I mean, I don't want to go down all the way down-

Peter Robinson: No excess mortality is a different ... Okay. That one-

Ross Douthat: Excess mortality has remained extremely high for reasons that suggest that most of the people who are said to have died of COVID are actually dying of COVID. Not everyone shares that opinion. But that is my take on the numbers. I think the numbers are broadly accurate, are probably a slight undercount. That's a lot of people. And I think the lockdowns, the debates that we're having now or debates in which the public health establishment continues to flail and fumble, their debates over masking in schools where I don't think they should be masked in schools and they are in many blue states and many blue cities. I think that's a mistake. I mean, I think there's a very long list of mistakes that the public health establishment has made. But the premise, I would dispute the premise that overall, the public health establishment should say COVID was not as big a deal as we imagined it to be. I think COVID has been as big a deal as people imagined it to be at the start.

Peter Robinson: Well, I want to press a little bit because that's not quite what John Tierney or Jay Bhattacharya said.

Ross Douthat: I read the Tierney piece and I thought it was wrong. So, it is. I do think it's what he was saying. I can't speak for Jay.

Peter Robinson: He was talking about a lot of downs. Neither Jay nor John as far as I can tell. They were saying the lockdowns, we don't have evidence the lockdowns ... Sorry, I won't go on and on. But we don't have evidence the lockdowns do any good. You just think that?

Ross Douthat: I don't think we have convincing evidence one way or another about the efficacy of the lockdowns. I think the lockdowns were not the grave mistake of the public health establishment. The lockdowns were a temporary measure that basically in the US were done by the summer. I mean, we haven't had anything that could be reasonably called a lockdown in the United States, generally, especially not in most of the country. And you could argue that some restrictions in a few liberal cities fit the bill. But I think the mistakes the public health establishment have made have been around communication. The stuff you got with the Fauci quote, the idea that anything the establishment says counts as science and anyone who doubts that is against science. That's all rubbish and ridiculous. A lot of the emphasis on masking kids has been terrible and sort of the continued, yeah, the sort of continued sort of swings back and forth and public messaging where you're sort of encouraging this mood of constant panic even once you have vaccines. All of that's been bad. But I'm just here to say I think COVID has been really, really bad and I [crosstalk 00:25:24].

Peter Robinson: Okay. I'm sorry, one more question then over to Kim.

Ross Douthat: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Evidence mixed on whether the lockdowns were efficacious or not, a bad messaging and a certain, what, arrogance? I don't know. I don't want to mischaracterize you. But bad messaging on the part of public health officials, what did they get right?

Ross Douthat: I think it's an arrogant sort of ... Well, I think the fundamental, the core mistake that runs through the entire public health response has been the need to act as if you have this sort of scientific certainty when you're actually in a fluid, fast moving situation with a novel disease that nobody fully understands. And so then, when you have to change your guidance, people are understandably confused and baffled by why you acted like you had all this certainty at the beginning. If the public health officials had come out at the beginning and said, "We don't know what's going on. Everything we're doing is precautionary because we don't know how bad this thing could get," that would have been a lot more reasonable. And that has been, I think, a problem throughout. And now, you do have a sort of persistence in more liberal parts of America of, I think, unreasonable COVID theater that some of the stuff that went into place after 9/11 maybe with us for years or decades, even. And that I think is quite bad.

Peter Robinson: Kim?

Kim Strassel: Well, let me just by comparison, first off, say all the people that got everything right because the contrast between the public health official establishment and elements of the federal government is so profound. Most Americans, at least in the past year, got everything right. And I'm talking about those who did go and get vaccinated. Okay. If you want to deal with this problem, my colleague, Holman Jenkins, had the number and this is a very rough estimates. But if you had an unvaccinated person and you made the comparison between the flu or COVID, COVID was about twice as deadly. It was really bad. I mean, it was bad and more so obviously, for older Americans. But people went and got the vaccine. And when you are vaccinated, actually, for most Americans, the risk to them as a vaccinate person coming in contact with COVID is less than that of the flu. So, if you want to get the country back on the path to normal, most Americans who went and got their vaccinations they did that. Pharmaceutical industry has been amazing, not just in terms of creating that vaccine, but also the recent therapeutics has been coming out with. Business community extraordinarily nimble dealing with some of these supply chain challenges, et cetera. And some governors and local jurisdictions who understood what experts were telling us even at the beginning of this year that at some point this was going to become an endemic disease, it's going to be around and we're going to have to figure out how to get on with it. It's a public health establishment. I mean, I can't think of anything that it actually got right. Other than making the consistent argument that you should go and get vaccinated, but they were wrong on lockdowns, they were wrong on masking, they were wrong on social distancing. None of it, by the way, the states that did it more aggressively versus the states that did it not at all. There has been no difference in who got waves and when they came, or the severity. We know that that just simply doesn't work. They got it wrong on schools. They listen to teachers unions as part of the information they made to decide to lockdown kids and deny them an entire year of schooling. They've been wrong on economic questions, and in particular, not balancing the economic questions that go into this, which have also had huge ramifications for public health. If you're going to shut down all kinds of things, people are not going to go get preventive care, we're beginning to see the consequences of this now. So, yeah, they got mostly everything wrong. Shifting guidance, I can't think of a high point.

Peter Robinson: Kim, you wrote in the journal earlier this month, earlier this month of December, "The Biden administration at some point will realize that its political fortunes are tied to a virus that isn't going anywhere."

Kim Strassel: Well, to go to Ross's point about the fundamental error of Democrats, I agree that a huge amount of this has been about Joe Biden spiking the football in July. But that arrogance goes back to last summer. I remember being stunned when I first started seeing Democrats saying Donald Trump should be controlling this virus and the fact that he isn't is the reason why he should not be reelected. No politician can control a virus. And that was Joe Biden's campaign message. Put me in office and I'll make this go away. Even as the experts were explaining that, it wasn't likely to ever go away. So, now at every single time they say, "Well, look, we'll just do this one more thing and it'll make it all better," I don't have a lot of sympathy because this was something that just an obvious person even a year ago knew was bad politics.

Peter Robinson: Hoist by their own petard, which I honestly have never understood what petard was in the first place. So, Ross, so should the administration somehow or other dissociated itself from, declare victory somehow rather. We have the vaccines. We're learning to live with it and move on. How should the administration behave at this stage?

Ross Douthat: I mean, I think the challenge for the administration is, in part, they are part of a political coalition that includes both the public health establishment and a sort of a culture of sort of permanent theater and then fear as a response to the disease that's part of their coalition and their sort of limits and clearly there seem to be limits to how far they can go in challenging that. At the same time, I don't fully agree with Kim. I mean, I think just the fact that vaccines do work against the disease means that there is something that public health can do about the disease. There is something that the Biden administration can do about the disease. And I don't think that that's something is a national vaccine mandate. But for instance, the Biden White House was very slow to authorize booster shots, that do now seem like for people who haven't had COVID are probably a good idea, especially older people who's sort of most likely to be vulnerable to disease. And this was a case where the critique of the public health establishment held because the public health establishment wasn't sure about authorizing them, and the Biden White House sort of half overruled them, but didn't completely overrule them. And there's mixed messaging for a long period of time. And the upshot is that the US is behind Israel in the United Kingdom and a bunch of other places in booster uptake. So, that would be a concrete example of something where I think that they could have gotten out ahead of the new wave a little bit. And there are limits, but there are still things that you can do in public policy to increase vaccination rates and thereby, hasten the period when, I guess, I'd say there are a lot of different ways for a disease to be endemic. Right now, with the number of deaths that we're having from COVID, endemic COVID means something still a lot worse than the flu. And that will change as more people are vaccinated and more people have prior immunity. But we aren't to a level where it's just like the flu yet. And that's a problem for the administration. It's a problem because even in economic terms, one of the reasons that we have as much inflation as we do is that people are still consuming goods rather than services. They're buying things on Amazon instead of going out to dinner and going on vacation because they're still reacting to the disease, even if they aren't living in fear of it in the day to day. That change would make a big difference for the economy, IF people were spending money on a family vacation more than ordering six more things to go through the port of Los Angeles.

Peter Robinson: Personal anecdote, my family and I went to see West Side Story last night. And the theater, it was the multiplex, but they give the big theater, 300 seats for 300. There were 12 people in the theater, the big holiday release, which is opening to sensational reviews, 12 people in the theater.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, older people are not going back to the movie theater. So, as far as anyone can tell. The only movies that are doing well, and I mean, there was a preexisting pattern here. But the divergence is sharp. Movies that are doing well are just for the most part movies pitched to younger people. And you have not gotten people who would normally go to see the big Oscar nominees back into theaters yet.

Peter Robinson: China, The Economist magazine this past March, "China is increasingly sure that America is in long term irreversible decline. China is now applying calculated doses of pain to shock Westerners into realizing that the old American led order is ending." Is it, Kim?

Kim Strassel: Well, I'm sure that China hopes it is and is certainly taking actions in the belief or hope that it is. I also think though that when you look at what China's doing, and yes, we should be very concerned about what China's doing, not just its aggressive posture increasingly in the region, but also its attacks on us, whether that be through cyberattacks or whether it's patent theft of companies that work in our area, or whether or not it's, for instance, the fact that China continues to buy oil from Iran in direct violation of US sanctions, it's increasingly acting in a hostile way. But I think the scary thing is you have to ask yourself why. And the reality is, I mean, you could make the easy argument that it's because it's a reaction the United States are taking an opportunity that it thinks will hurt its biggest super rival, but this is also internal dynamics in China. And that is what's a little bit more scary, is that for decades now, the west is operated under this belief model that the Chinese were attempting to do this hybrid, where it allowed a certain level of free market engagement. We took them up on that deal because we figured it was a way to introduce their people to democracy, free market ideas. There's a pushback against that. GE is clearly worried. He's stepping away from that. I think that also the economic problems that the rest of the world has been facing one way that you deal with it, when you have more of an authoritarian regime is you try to divert everyone's attention away from their sorrows. You do that by raising nationalistic flags and saying, "Taiwan is ours, Hong Kong is ours." And those kind of dynamics, I think, are more frightening because it isn't really so much a reaction as it's bigger sea changes happening within China that could have long-term ramifications.

Peter Robinson: So, this is, who was it, I think this is a Kissinger point, I'm going way back to when the Cold War was still taking place. But to Kissinger's point, it was either Kissinger doesn't matter. It was a point that smart people made that absent our containment, when we played nice with the Soviets because of Soviet internal dynamics, they had no choice but to push against us. If we retreated, they would advance because of their internal dynamic, the dynamics of their internal politics. That's the argument, roughly.

Kim Strassel: Yeah, and that's absolutely my argument. And I think, by the way, too, China's senses something about the United States is not necessarily, at least not yet some fundamental sign of decline or retreat or change so much as a belief that at least the current occupant of the White House is not willing to check their behavior in any way.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So, Ross, still on China, but setup slightly different question. Neil Ferguson wrote a piece this year that I found more than striking, I found frightening. And Neil Ferguson known to both of you, historian, Neil said, "It looks to me as though Taiwan could be the American Suez." And, of course, Suez, 1956, the British organized for the French and the Israelis to go in and recapture the Suez Canal from Nasser and then the British come in on their side, and it all falls apart. And that is the moment when what was left of the British Empire simply disintegrates. All right. So, I thought, that's very arresting, but still often the who knows when future, item one. Item two of two, then I came across this report. This is Reuters. This is a news report, Dateline Taipei. This is about two months ago. "China sent more fighter jets into Taiwan's air defense zone on Wednesday in a stepped up show of force around the island Beijing claims as its own, and Taiwan's foreign minister said it would fight to the end if China attacks. Taiwan's Defense Ministry said 15 Chinese aircraft including 12 fighters entered its air defense identification zone, with an anti-submarine aircraft flying to the south through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines." This is very serious. This is very serious, with the Chinese engaging in repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace and the Taiwan defense minister saying, "We'll fight to the end." Ross?

Ross Douthat: Yeah, I mean, I'm maybe a little more pessimistic than Kim. I agree with her general analysis of the internal Chinese situation. But look, I mean, American power has declined relatively speaking over the last 15 or 20 years. Chinese power has increased. Chinese technological proficiency has pretty obviously increased. And when China looks at us, on the one hand, on the left, they see basically sort of a woke progressivism that they like to mock and that they think represents a sort of a kind of internally directed self-hatred, characteristic of an empire in decline. But then also on the right, we were just having this conversation about sort of the impossibility of controlling a virus. China doesn't think it's impossible to control a virus. China looks at the US and says that we controlled it and you guys didn't. China has put out propaganda videos. I've seen them contrasting their successful coronavirus response to our flailing and unsuccessful one. So, they think the American right and the American left are unready for what it would actually take to defend Taiwan. So, yeah, I think it's a very dangerous situation. And I don't think it's a Suez scenario in the sense that when that happened, it was clear that the US and the USSR were there to sort of take over as two competing superpowers-

Peter Robinson: In 1956.

Ross Douthat: Right. If China defeated us in a war for Taiwan, we would still be the second most powerful country in the world at that point, congratulations to us. So, our power would not evaporate immediately. But we would certainly no longer be able to call ourselves the world's dominant power. That period would end. And there are good reasons to think China won't actually do it. But it's certainly something that-

Peter Robinson: But those good reasons do not include American's strategic insight and political resolve.

Ross Douthat: I mean, there has been some undergoing-

Peter Robinson: The Chinese don't-

Ross Douthat: [crosstalk 00:41:38] there has been some recalibration where we have moved more military assets to East Asia and tried to essentially refocus our defense and diplomatic efforts. This is what you see with the submarine deal with the Australians. I mean, we are doing some things. We're not just sort of sitting acting like this is sleepwalking into disaster. But actually it's a real military challenge. And it's hard to know for certain what the current, what the actual balance of power in such a conflict, military power, I mean, between the US and China would be.

Peter Robinson: Kim. Kim, back to you on this China segment for two reasons. And I'm hoping you can end this segment on an optimistic note for two reasons. The first, of course, is that this is meant to be a chipper and cheerful yearend review program. And the second is that if you don't, I'm going to get an email from Ross, the author of The Decadent Society, saying "See, see."

Kim Strassel: So, again, I consider this much more an issue of the current administration. Look, the moment at which the entire Chinese establishment rubbed their hands and said, "Oh, goody," was the day that Joe Biden named John Kerry as his new climate envoy, because that sends the signal that that was the number one thing they cared about. And until this administration makes a decision that it's going to have that political fortitude, it needs to be signing a deal like the one it's signed with Australia on those subs every week. It needs to be pursuing a new TPP trade program that makes it very clear that China will be isolated, unless it changes behavior. But it's not going to be doing any of these things. And it is proceeding under the constant imperative that it keeps China on side so that we can all link arms and say that we have solved the global climate crisis, which by the way, China is never going to agree to do anyway. But I am far less pessimistic than Ross that this is a long-term problem. I think with the right administration and the right focus that you could certainly get that message out. And I think that we do not need to be in decline.

Peter Robinson: Thank you. Kim. Ross' rebuttal is taking place in his reaction shot at the moment.

Ross Douthat: Eyebrow raised just-

Peter Robinson: Right, right. Roe and Dobbs, on December 1st, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a brief clip of legal scholar, John Yoo on a recent Ricochet podcast.

John Yoo: There's two remarkable things from the oral argument. One is no one defended Roe on the merits. The second one was Kavanaugh came out pretty much saying, "I don't really believe in starry decisis that much, at least not for really important issues." It wasn't really a question. He just said, "Here's a list of opinions that we overturned," and everyone knew and realized it was great starting with Brown versus Board of Education overturning Plessy.

Peter Robinson: All right, so almost five decades after Roe versus Wade was decided, in two hours, most oral arguments are only an hour, and in two-hour oral arguments before the Supreme Court, nobody defended Roe on the constitutional merits. And Justice Kavanaugh, who going into the oral arguments, had been the justice everyone was wondering about, said in effect, if it was badly decided, we need to overturn it. Is that a correct reading? Kim?

Kim Strassel: Yeah, I mean, it was remarkable for anybody-

Peter Robinson: Were you as astonished as I was?

Kim Strassel: The whole thing was astonishing. Because I certainly expected to have a couple of the justices go there. But like you said, no one defended it. I mean, even the liberal justices, most of their argument was, well, this is really ingrained at this point. And it would be really terrible if we got rid of it. But from a constitutional perspective, because it's also true, it was a terrible decision that looks more terrible as we go along. We've now seen Justice Blackmun's papers, in which he sent that correspondence to his colleagues on the court saying, "Well, you know this whole viability thing is just totally arbitrary. I mean, we could just as easily like, we could do a trimester test, but it's all just totally arbitrary." And obviously, inventing the right out of whole cloth and then putting this contrary as an aside into almost 50 years, as you said, of a pitted cultural war that has done nobody any good. But it was something to watch.

Peter Robinson: Ross, the argument from, I don't know that anybody would call it settled law because the disputes about whether Roe was any good continuing law schools across the country to this day. But Justice Breyer and Justice Sotomayor, most vocally, Justice Kagan seemed to me to be a little bit on the quiet side as if she was reserving room to maneuver in conference. But in any event, the three, they all said in effect, right or wrong, this has been the law for almost half a century. Millions of people have made life decisions based on what this court did in 1973. You try to overturn that, and you're going to place the legitimacy of this court, the entire political system under intense stress. We don't need to do it. What do you make of the argument? What do you think the justices will make of that argument, Ross?

Ross Douthat: Well, I mean, what's interesting is it's literally that's the argument that was made in Casey, in the ruling that rewrote and then upheld Roe.

Peter Robinson: Casey 1992, Roe '73, Casey '92.

Ross Douthat: Right. So, in Casey, the justices led by Anthony Kennedy said, "Look, we settled this. We call all Americans to defer to the settlement by the Supreme Court," basically. And the very fact that it is still a completely live issue that is literally dominated judicial politics ever since is, I think, evidence enough that that call has failed. And so, it's sort of you're in effect, the court will undercut its legitimacy no matter what it does. I mean, that's the reality. If you have a bad decision that's been law for a long period of time, either way once you admit it, either you admit it's bad law and cut your losses and move on, or you continue saying it's bad law and bleed credibility in a different way. But I think to bring that to a sharper point, I think what's interesting is that what you might call the institutionalists on the conservative side, meaning the John Roberts, who did actually sort of float the idea of a kind of a partial change to Roe in his questioning, and then Kavanaugh who emphatically did not. And you could probably put Amy Coney Barrett in that group, too. The institutionalists are, I think, they probably understand themselves to be caught between two forms of pressure. There's the pressure that Breyer and Sotomayor evoked the pressure that will only strengthen over the next few months and sort of the American political establishment, which is very much in favor of Roe and very much doesn't want to see it overturn. But then there's the pressure from within the conservative legal movement, where this is seen as kind of a make or break moment for the philosophy of originalism and the whole project of the Federalist Society, where a big chunk of American conservatism signed up for the somewhat abstract and theoretical vision of constitutional interpretation based on the promise that it would get decisions like this one right. And if for some reason you ended up with a decision where John Roberts and Elena Kagan bring Brett Kavanaugh around to basically uphold Roe one more time, the consequences on the right, the consequences for who the next conservative Supreme Court nominee will be, the consequences for the future of the Federalist Society, the main conservative legal institution, all of those consequences will be pretty significant as well. So, again, there's no consequence free way the justices can rule here.

Peter Robinson: The ruling won't come down until June as I understood. The court can send it, give it to us anytime it wants to. But everyone is expecting the court to hold it until June. It holds the most important decisions longest. So, John Yoo tells me. Dan Henninger had a really interesting piece. Speaking of consequences, I thought last week in The Wall Street Journal, would a Supreme Court decision sending abortion policy back to the states, that is to say overturning Roe, would such a decision disrupt American politics? Yes. But it would prove to the American people that change is possible, if not in Washington than in the states. So, Dan Henninger argued that overturning Roe indicates in some basic way that the American federalist projects still functions, that Roe would change all kinds of issues, where we've gotten taken it for granted that Washington makes the big decisions and then the states adjust themselves to Washington. And Dan argues, this could change that. This could change a lot of things beyond abortion itself. Plausible, Kim?

Kim Strassel: Oh, absolutely. And I think Ross was making that point. There are consequences here on either side of this. And people are talking about all the horrible ramifications that would immediately happen. And you can bet, by the way, Democrats would run in the midterm elections on this, it would at least in the short term be a very powerful federal campaign for them. But in the long term and it stuck, not just what you just said, Peter, allowing people to say we signed up for this project to really put our focus on getting good justices, textualist justices on the court, and it is bearing some fruits. I mean, look, the courts also heard a Second Amendment case for the first time in a decade more than that, which is a really big deal. But also, think about how it would simply change abortion politics across the country. Right now, you have all of these state legislatures, particularly in Republican states, but also in Democratic states that are constantly putting out messaging bills, bills that they know cannot withstand the scrutiny of Roe v. Wade. And it leads to incredibly extreme politics, where the debate is over at the crazy rather than where can we meet in the middle. And would that have the potential to calm that down to force legislators at the state level to once again be responsible and accountable and actually pass things that matter? I kind of love the idea of that. And if we were to devolve more authority back to the states, we could see a more productive form of politics and more accountable politics at the state level. This could be a first step. I'd like to think that.

Peter Robinson: Ross, do you want to make a prediction?

Ross Douthat: No, I'm really unsure about-

Peter Robinson: Oh, you are?

Ross Douthat: I think that's part of what makes it interesting. I mean, I think the simplest thing you would say would be there will be some kind of pro choice backlash and mobilization that makes it helpful national issue for Democrats. And then you will have, essentially, over a four to six-year period, a lot of battles in the states that will end up with some number of states having the equivalent of what national abortion law is now, some percentage having restrictions, more restrictions after 12 weeks and a much smaller number having either outright bans or some kind of heartbeat law. So, that's the pundits, the safe pundits prediction. But this issue just hasn't been litigated in normal politics in so long. We don't know where intensity lies. I've been surprised that the Texas law, the Texas Heartbeat Bill, has not produced the kind of political backlash and political mobilization that I as someone who's prolife expected. And I don't know if that's an indicator, maybe it just will look really different if you nationalize the issue. And I do think it may as much as I'd like Kim's scenario revitalized federalism to be true, I think you could imagine this just ending up as something that is debated in DC constantly. But I think it's important to stress our, or at least my deep uncertainty about putting an issue that was last debated in a totally different America, the America of 1970, 1971. It's just a very different country. And I don't know what the debate will look like.

Peter Robinson: Listen, we have to do a segment on the economy because we can't not. But can we keep it to about two minutes because I really want to close on journalism, which of course is what I really want to talk about. So, let's just whip through the economy, the most important issue to most people that could possibly exist, but we'll just whip through it. Inflation, Wall Street Journal, last week, I guess the fed is behind the curve. Inflation is now persistent and very high prices in November rose 6.8% in the last 12 months, the most in decades. So, you still have the administration, pieces of the administration. Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury, talking about, well, these are temporary problems as we come back from COVID. Jerome Powell has backed away from calling it temporary. Transitory I think was the term he was using. It's clear. It's this weird thing where all the country says there's inflation and the fed of all institutions doesn't want to hear about it. Usually, it's the other way around. How bad is it? Does it have the mechanisms and the political will to address it? Ross?

Ross Douthat: I think the fed probably has some mechanisms and some political will to address it. But it is also bound up in, and it really is bound up in the weirdness of the COVID economy. And I think there are limits to some of what the fed can do that that would mean ... Basically, the fed doesn't want to bring on a sudden recession. So, it's not going to be Paul Volcker in the 1980s in response to this. It's going to act more gradually and necessarily. And so then, you are sort of stuck to some extent. And the Biden administration is stuck to some extent, waiting and hoping that the supply chain issues and everything else that is still somewhat COVID driven normalized before the midterms get, before the midterms arrive.

Peter Robinson: So, they hope. Kim?

Kim Strassel: Yeah, except for I think the problem here, look, why do you have inflation, inflation is always classically. It's a supply-demand problem. You've got too little supply of goods and services and too big of a demand from people. Now, some of this is obviously the fed. It should have moved to pull some of that money back sooner. It didn't. So, it's behind the curve. And that's one of the reasons the fed always gets scared about inflation is because once it takes hold, it's much harder to rein it in and it is to make sure you don't get it in the first place. So, that was a big mistake. And some of this is, as Ross said, supply chain constraints brought on by COVID and by a lot of people who have pent up demand. But why do they have as much money as they have? Because the government's been handing it out to them, hand over fist for the past 18 months and wants to continue doing that with a 3 to $5 trillion dollar Build Back Better Bill, which is a real problem. And you've also got people who are because of that money are being paid not to work. And you have an administration that simply by its signals of what it would like to do with taxes and with regulation is causing businesses to pull back and not engage in the sort of expansion and supply that you need to come out of an inflation issue. This was what Ronald Reagan understood when he inherited Jimmy Carter's inflation. If you want to fix the supply-demand imbalance, you got to increase the supply side. And this administration is doing everything opposite of what you would need to do to get that under control.

Peter Robinson: Although the first thing Ronald Reagan did was accept a recession. He backed Paul Volcker, when Volcker jammed on the brakes on the money supply.

Kim Strassel: That's right.

Peter Robinson: And interest rates went through this ... All right. By the way, really quickly because I want to get to journalism and have some fun with it, prediction on the Build Back Better Bill? I see that Joe Manchin's approval ratings in West Virginia are roughly double those of Joe Biden. Is Build Back Better going to make it through the Senate or is that bill dead? Ross, what do you think?

Ross Douthat: I think it's more likely to be dead than Democrats think right now. But I guess I still give it a 60% chance of something passing.

Peter Robinson: Kim?

Kim Strassel: Yeah. Well, unless you can climb into Joe Manchin's head, you can't give an accurate prediction here but I think-

Peter Robinson: It does come down to him.

Kim Strassel: Yeah, yeah, the double whammy of that inflation report that we just had, but also that CBO score, sorry to be inside baseball. But that Congressional Budget Office score that was finally honest about the real cost of this thing, if you were to extend out those provisions. Those are the two things Joe Manchin cares about. And they can't have helped this situation.

Peter Robinson: All right, last questions. From 1979 to 1989, get in mind that one decade, this country went from stagflation and the national humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis to an economic boom and victory in the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall, one decade. Is this country capable of another such act of self-renewal? Ross?

Ross Douthat: I mean, sure.

Peter Robinson: Does it need-

Ross Douthat: In theory? Yes, yes. And there are things and work in American life that are positive signs. The fact that we developed vaccines for COVID in record time, the fact that our billionaires are engaging in a kind of space race is a good positive sign for the United States of America. So, I wouldn't close the door on that kind of renewal. The place where I would be most optimistic is in sort of certain areas of technology, where I think a lot of people think we're on the cusp of some real transformations that could drive a lot of economic growth. So, those are reasons for optimism. To be pessimistic, America in 1980 was a much younger country than we are today. Our political system was less polarized. It was possible for Ronald Reagan to get elected and get a lot of Democrats to vote for his legislation. And honestly, I think overall, the effect of the internet on American social life and political life has been largely negative. And I don't know what the fix is for that. And it makes me somewhat pessimistic about that part of the American future right now.

Peter Robinson: And Kim, I saved you for a second so that you could bring us up.

Kim Strassel: Going to the perpetual optimist, yes, absolutely. Of course, we are. You know why? Because we didn't five years ago. I mean, maybe not to that stunning of a degree, but whatever you thought of Donald Trump, his personal behavior, and I understand why Ross had real issues. I had issues with a lot of his behavior in office. He put together an extraordinary administration of cabinet officials, most of whom, by the way, were recruited by Mike Pence, who would have been deeply ensconced in the policy world for many years. And people forget this, by the end of the Trump administration's first year, the federal register, which is that list of all the rules and regulations in Washington, was down to the size it had been when Bill Clinton was last in office. I mean, that's just a remarkable statistic. So, it shows it can be done. Tax reform, all the policies that you saw across that, and look at those numbers that we had on the employment right before COVID hit. It was working. Things were getting better for a lot of people. So, it's a question of policy. I agree that there are cultural aspects that make it a little harder. There's polarization divided. We have new technology. But we also have a habit of saying, "Oh, well, things have never been worse or more challenging now than ever before." And in fact, we have had even more challenging times in America's history, too. So, I think this country has again and again proving its ability to triumph in the face of a lot of challenges. And I'm not convinced that we're in any way done doing that yet.

Peter Robinson: Last question, last question.

Kim Strassel: I thought the last one was the last one.

Ross Douthat: That was the last. That was the last.

Peter Robinson: No, I told a lie. This is really the last question. Now, I want to end it on journalism because I've got two of the most brilliant journalists in the country and both of you started as babies. A month ago, I visited Hanover, New Hampshire, my alma mater, Dartmouth College, and I spent an evening with the kids on the staff of the Dartmouth Review, the conservative, more or less conservative student newspaper. So, this is two and a half dozen kids. And in the course of the conversation, I said, "How many of you want to go into journalism?" Zero, not a single hand went up. Now, what do you say to kids about, well, actually, you ought to think about this. Kim? [crosstalk 01:04:34] not say that. Do you just say, "Go make money in tech?"

Kim Strassel: No, I mean, I guess it's what your ambitions are. Look, I think if it is your ambition to go make money in tech, then obviously, follow your ambition. But if you are politically oriented or issue oriented, or you care deeply about civics and the country, that is traditionally often what pulled people into journalism to the idea that you would make a difference. Now over the years, I think that unfortunately, our journalism programs have come to define making a difference as liberal causes, go be a journalist and you can save the planet or save the environment or write injustice or go after the police department. But there used to be a day when simply journalism was seen as an outlet to get truth out there, in a way that was fundamental to the workings of the American society. And that still is the case. And in fact, there's even more opportunity these days, because ... And then the other thing, too, is this is your chance to go. And I understand why many people might not want to go into a profession that is held in such low regard by so many Americans. But this is, in fact, your opportunity to change that by being a good journalist and showing it can still be done.

Peter Robinson: Ross?

Ross Douthat: I think the reality is that what a lot of people see in journalism is a combination of well, just a basic reality that it's an industry in decline. And that is actually true. That in the press, we like to joke that the only industry worse is becoming an English PhD. So, definitely, definitely don't do that. But yeah, I mean, what journalism has become is a place where there are fewer comfortable jobs available than there used to be. And that's just the truth. And there's no point I think in telling students or people interested in the profession otherwise. That said, it's also, and in certain ways more than ever, a place where, if you have distinctive ideas, and distinctive talents, and are willing to sort of be eccentric and do strange things, and go places where other people aren't willing to go and talk to people that other people aren't willing to talk to, you can be incredibly good at it and have an amazing life and career. So, if you're looking for a placid life and a way to sort of do some good and write stories, and so on, there is less opportunity than there used to be. But if you're the kind of person who would only be satisfied being a journalist, you definitely should become a journalist because there's still a lot of great work to be done.

Peter Robinson: Kim Strassel of The Wall Street Journal and Ross Douthat of The New York Times, two people who hold a couple of the few remaining truly comfortable seats in American journalism and who amazingly enough are so good that they actually deserve them. Kim and Ross, thank you very much, and Merry Christmas.

Kim Strassel: Merry Christmas.

Ross Douthat: Merry Christmas.

Kim Strassel: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.