Did Biden Just School the Republicans or His Own Party?

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. Depending on whom you ask, Joe Biden’s decision to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loans is either the Democrats’ political masterstroke or a major political gift to Republicans. What’s your take?

Gail Collins: Well, Bret, allow me to take the middle road. Gee, I really do enjoy saying that. Makes me feel so … judicious.

Politically, I think it’s more a winner than not. Tens of millions of people who have college debt in their family are going to be grateful; almost everybody else has other things to focus on. I doubt anybody who started last week liking Joe Biden’s agenda is suddenly going to turn on the Democrats.

Bret: I wonder. This just seems to me like yet another case of Democrats getting on the wrong side of working-class America. Most Americans don’t have a bachelor’s degree, sometimes because they couldn’t afford it. Most Americans who did go to college either have paid their loans off or are paying them off. Now they have been turned into chumps for living within their means — while paying, through their taxes, for those who didn’t.

Expect Republicans to run on this in the fall the way Democrats are running on abortion rights. What do you think of the decision on the merits?

Gail: Policy-wise, I just wish it was tied to some serious reforms of the current system that helped create all that debt in the first place.

Bret: Agree. One-time student loan forgiveness isn’t going to get educational costs under control. If anything, it will create a moral hazard in which people take out student loans they may not be able to afford in the expectation of future loan forgiveness. What’s your reform proposal?

Gail: First and foremost, a deep dive into for-profit schools. Many of them are total scams, and even the ones that aren’t often charge more for programs people can get elsewhere.

Bret: I’d add that there are plenty of nonprofit schools also charging way too much for dubious degrees.

Gail: After that, a serious look at overall price tags. The fact that loans are so easy to get has encouraged even very fine schools to charge too-high tuition in order to get money for programs that feed the ego of the administration more than the quality of the education.

And then … well, hey. Your turn.

Bret: It wouldn’t hurt, either, if colleges and universities started cutting down sharply on the army of administrators they’ve hired in recent years, who contribute a lot to fiscal and bureaucratic bloat and therefore to overall costs.

Gail: Watch out administrators — if Bret and I are in accord, you’ve probably got a problem.

Bret: Longer term, we should help steer teenagers away from the idea that four-year college is their one-and-only ticket to prosperity, status and success. We should shift our funding toward community colleges, vocational schools and a wide range of adult-education programs. I’m also sympathetic to the idea of expanding opportunities for shorter enlistment times for young people who want to join any branch of the armed forces. It could help fund their future education, and it would make them more disciplined students when they do.

Gail: While we’re being hard-nosed about what we want students to get out of college, I feel obliged to point out that some of the less practical aspects of higher education can be terrific experiences. I went to graduate school and got a master’s degree in government, which I don’t think has ever once convinced a potential employer I was a superior candidate. But I had a great time, met some fascinating people, including my future husband and learned a lot.

I paid for it through on-campus jobs, some of which you could argue amounted to a kind of public financing. Not saying this should be a universal goal. But when I’m cheerleading for the most practical possible approach to higher education, I feel obliged to toss it in.

Bret: True and fair. Liberal-arts education is great when students are engaged and teaching quality is high. Wish that were more often the case.

On another subject, Gail, any takeaways from the release of the redacted affidavit on the Mar-a-Lago search?

Gail: Have to admit I was disappointed by all those redactions — I was hoping for something that looked a little larger. More dramatic. More specific. More … something. How about you?

Bret: Here’s my hunch: Donald Trump has only a vague idea of what’s in all of these documents. The notion that he read through boxes and boxes containing hundreds of documents with classification markings and chose to take these particular items strikes me as … unlikely.

Gail: Yeah, I hear he’s currently way too engrossed in rereading the collected works of Tolstoy.

Bret: Right. He’s so upset by Anna Karenina’s suicide that he hasn’t been able to focus on anything.

What is very much like Trump is that, as soon as the administration sought to recover the boxes, he saw an opportunity to set up a test of strength against Biden — one that would stoke the paranoia of his supporters, rally wavering Republicans to his side and set up the Justice Department to fall on its face barring some spectacular disclosure.

So my bottom line is that the Justice Department had better come up with something very damning, not just a charge relating to mishandling classified documents. If it doesn’t, it will be the fourth or fifth time in six years that the F.B.I. has meddled in politics only to cause irreparable damage to its own reputation.

Gail: Congratulations, you’ve flung me into depression. I do agree with you that the story on Trump’s end is less likely a sinister plot than messy grabbiness, perhaps along with a reasonable paranoia that given the number of things he’s done wrong, there’d be evidence of something bad somewhere.

Bret: I’ve always maintained that, with Trump, there are no deep, dark secrets: His absolute awfulness always stares you squarely in the face, like a baboon’s backside.

Gail: Short-term, this saga is just giving ammunition to the right. But I can’t envision a whole lot of people switching their allegiance to Trump because of it.

Bret: Not among people who never voted for him. What worries me for now is that he’ll recapture wavering Republicans who were nearly done with him.

Gail: Republicans who race to the polls because they’re outraged by the F.B.I.’s Mar-a-Lago adventure are going to be a fraction of the number of folks who’ll want to register their very strong feelings on behalf of abortion rights.

Bret: We’ll see.

Gail: But let me poke you on another federal agency that conservatives tend to find … problematic. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act includes about $80 billion to update the I.R.S. I think it’s a great idea, given its current pathetic state. Overworked agents sitting around stapling papers together aren’t going to be able to win a lot of battles with high-end accountants and lawyers protecting their rich clients from an audit.

But as I’m sure you know, a lot of Republicans are howling about what the dreaded Ted Cruz calls a “shadow army” of I.R.S. agents. What’s your take?

Bret: I recently read that the I.R.S. answers just 10 percent of calls. So if the money goes to making the agency more responsive to distressed taxpayers, I’m fine with it. My worry is that the agency will initiate lots of audits against people who don’t have the benefit of fancy accountants and lawyers and who are at the mercy of an agency that has almost limitless power and not much accountability.

Gail, we’re getting to the end of summer, and some of our readers may be looking for a final book recommendation before Labor Day. I know you’re working on a memoir, but are there any books you’d suggest?

Gail: The last time we talked books I said I was enjoying the novel “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Now you’re giving me a chance to share a letter I got from a reader, John Burgess, saying he’d put in a request for it at his local library, He continued:

“The day I picked it up, my son tested positive for Covid. Now I am sequestered in my house (my son lives with me), reading about a Russian noble who was imprisoned in the Metropol hotel in Moscow in 1922. The setting could hardly be more perfect!”

See — you never can tell when a novel you read is going to parachute into your real life.

On the nonfiction front, I just happily finished “Thank You for Your Servitude” by our former colleague Mark Leibovich, one of the latest in what looks like a banner year for retrospectives on the Trump presidency.

How about you?

Bret: I spent part of the summer reading books by friends. I devoured Jamie Kirchick’s riveting “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” a landmark that deserves companion histories for London, Paris and other capitals. I was deeply moved by “When Magic Failed,” the posthumous memoir of Fouad Ajami, with its heartbreaking depictions of village and city life in his native Lebanon. I read an advanced copy of Lionel Shriver’s forthcoming nonfiction collection, “Abominations,” appropriately subtitled “Selected Essays From a Career of Courting Self-Destruction,” which should be mandatory reading for college freshmen. And I finally got around, albeit 20 years late, to my old friend Mindy Lewis’s stunning memoir, “Life Inside,” centered on her institutionalization as a teenager in the late 1960s in a psychiatric hospital in New York. It deserves to be reissued in this new era of mental-health crisis among younger people.

Gail: I knew your summer list would be high-quality and longer than mine. I like the idea that my excuse is that I’m writing a book, so there’s not much time for reading. But maybe if I stopped watching “Sopranos” reruns before bed …

Bret: Can’t wait for your book. We’ve been revisiting some favorite French farces. Highly recommend “Le Dîner de Cons” and “Le Placard.”

Gail: Next week we’ll be off, celebrating Labor Day with our readers, Bret. Then it’s on to September and the midterm election home stretch. Lord knows what’s going to happen, but it’s nice to know that whatever it is, I’ll get to talk about it with you.

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