David Plotz: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. Hello and welcome to the Slate Political Gabfest.
David Plotz: For August 25th, 2022. It’s the could the Democrats actually win? In addition, I am David Plotz of city cast here in Washington, D.C., joined by Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine and Yale University Law School, New Haven. Hello, Emily.
Emily Bazelon: Hello, David.
David Plotz: And surprise, surprise, mirabile a dicta. Gloria mundi. Carpe diem. Look who’s back. Look who’s here. John DICKERSON of CBS News. Hello, John. It’s so great to see you. We missed you.
John Dickerson: Oh, my gosh. I missed you guys so much, even though it was a good time away. I this is the only thing I missed.
Emily Bazelon: Oh, we’re so honored.
David Plotz: This week on the Gabfest. Has the tide turned for Democrats in the midterms? Could they hold the Senate and even the House in November? Then Leonard Leo, the most powerful American you barely heard of, now controls a $1.6 billion fund that he can deploy on behalf of conservative causes. What will he do with it? And then President Biden’s plan to forgive ten or $20,000 of federal student loans for millions of people carrying debt. Is it a good idea? Will it help people? Why are people so angry about it? Plus, we’ll have cocktail chatter.
David Plotz: We are, according to John Dickerson, ten weeks out from the midterm elections. Most of the primaries are over. This week saw Democrats hold a House seat in New York. They were expected to lose and nominate a former Republican, Charlie Crist, to challenge Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Various other things happened as well. If you are an optimistic Democrat right now, you see some combination of voter anger about the Dobbs decision sinking gas prices, Democratic legislative accomplishments, and some unsettlingly bad Republican candidates as offering hope of avoiding a wipe out in November. So, John, has the tide turned?
John Dickerson: It’s, of course, important at the beginning to say that it’s entirely possible that in in four or five weeks, we could be hosting a segment saying, well, this red wave that looked like it was going to exist is now crashing all over the country and is huge. In other words, these things are hard to read. They’re moving and there is a great deal of Republican money that is on the sidelines that is about to come in to some of these races.
John Dickerson: Having said that, the normal case for why Democrats should be unhappy are these national numbers. The president’s approval rating is low and people’s feelings about the economy are. People are bummed out about it. And even positive economic numbers haven’t seemed to change that. The two strongest arguments for why Democrats should be optimistic is that there have been five special congressional elections since the court’s jobs ruling, and in all of those, Democrats have outperformed what you would expect them to do and not only expect them to do relative to the dreary national picture at the moment, but they’ve outperformed Biden’s 2020 showing in four of those five races, which means the Democrats are doing better than kind of the natural territory would suggest. And this was particularly the case in New York 19 this last week.
John Dickerson: Pat Ryan ran a abortion focused campaign and and beat a strong Republican challenger. And so the argument is that after the referendum in Kansas, in which voters overwhelmingly voted in support of abortion rights, the question was, okay, that’s fine when abortion is on the ballot, but can candidates put abortion on the ballot and make their election spurred by this energy? And it seems, at least in the Ryan case and some of these others that may be possible.
John Dickerson: Final point is the other area of optimism for Democrats is that a lot of these Republican Senate candidates, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, are turning out to be extremely bad candidates who cannot be rescued by a whole bunch of money because money just ends up being a megaphone for their awfulness. And that’s particularly the case, it seems to be in in Pennsylvania, where Oz’s campaign half of it is going to have to get is going to run afoul of the FEC because they seem to be working for Fetterman in that they keep giving him these gifts. So, you know, again, that could change. But those are some of the reasons why Democrats at the moment are feeling optimistic.
David Plotz: Emily, if you had to desegregate this optimism, there is the enthusiasm slash anger about Dobbs. There is the legislative victories that Democrats have had, notably the Inflation Reduction Act. But the toxic burn pits, the Chips Act, various other things that I can’t even remember now. There is the declining gas prices. What do you think is making the biggest difference? Do you agree with John that it really that Dobbs is the galvanizing force or is that all these things are kind of colluding to help them?
Emily Bazelon: I kind of think that if gas prices were still high and the Democrats seemed in disarray, Dobbs wouldn’t be enough. But that because that kind of background noise well, I’m getting a thumbs up from John. That was really affirming. I really like.
David Plotz: Oh, I.
Emily Bazelon: Know. I feel like because those things are falling into place, abortion can kind of take center stage. And, I mean, I confess to being surprised about how much Democrats seem to be benefiting from this. I feel like I was just too pessimistic about whether people were really going to care about their abortion rights getting taken away. Instead, they do seem to care. It seems to be quite clarifying for suburban women in particular, in the way that the right used to be able to use abortion as this galvanizing force. Like, okay, you don’t know how to make sense of the economic promises of these two candidates.
Emily Bazelon: But here’s the thing that matters to people’s lives, and you can vote on it. I see a lot of quotes from women about that issue that seem like they are very compelled to me. And I think the other thing is that the abortion opponents have really been letting their extremities show. You know, when you’re talking about how a 11 or 13 year old who’s been raped would be better off carrying a baby to term because that’s how she’s going to heal. I think a lot of people find that profound. Alienating and radical.
Emily Bazelon: And when that’s the kind of stance that the pro-life forces are trying to defend, they’re kind of painting themselves into a corner in the way that this is what happens with social movements, right? Like they get called on their own bluff. They see that they have power. It seems like the window opens for what is possible to put forward in terms of legislation or talking points, and then that turns out to not be mainstream enough. And also, Americans just profoundly don’t seem to want the status quo to change often. And so here you have this rare example of the party that’s out of power having succeeded in making a radical change to American life and law. And voters are responding to that.
David Plotz: John, is it your sense that the voters who are voting on Dobbs are low enthusiasm, voters who become high enthusiasm, voters who are Democrats or they are kind of moderate Republican leaning women who are like, you know what, this time I just got to vote Democratic because, wow, this is such a threat. Or is it that that previously enthusiastic conservative women are like, well, we got our win and now I don’t need to come out and vote? And so it’s a downturn in in Republican vote.
John Dickerson: I think those those enthusiastic ideologues on the right are still enthusiastic. It’s just that there may not be as many of them as we may have thought. So I don’t have a clear answer to what you’re saying. I do know that the enthusiasm numbers are up for Democrats, and I know that there was a recent Pew poll that showed that among Democrats, 71% of Democrats and Democratic leaning registered voters said abortion was very important. Okay. In March, 46% said that in terms of their vote. So what Pew is showing and other polls are showing as well is that abortion is driving interest and enthusiasm and it has become a central focus for those Democratic voters. So that would that would suggest that these that this support is coming from people who are Democrats who now have a thing to focus around.
John Dickerson: The force in Democratic politics may very well be the fact that there is now a galvanizing force. In other words, there is a thing around which to rally. Before it was defused. It was, as Emily said, confused and clouded by the economic picture. Now, there there are a couple of clear things to rally around. And every time you get a moment to rally, it reminds everybody why rallying is worth doing.
John Dickerson: And I think mentioning the Inflation Reduction Act and and and burn pits, I don’t know the extent to which people are thrilled about those things other than that they are wins. They are an instance in which Democrats can look at their team and say, hey, we are succeeding. You know, we outfoxed Mitch McConnell on the Inflation Reduction Act and we got Joe Manchin to come on board and and, you know, on burn pits, we were able to get on the, you know, wallop the Republicans in a couple of news cycles where we usually don’t feel like we can do that. And that just adds to a general sense of, hey, we’re we do have, you know, something on this team. We’re not getting you know, we’re not going to lose this season. And I think that adds to a general uptick in feeling among Democrats.
David Plotz: John, you were making the point. Oh, they have these Republicans have a several really bad candidates, Herschel Walker and so-called Dr. so-called, as being two of them. And you could say, well, isn’t it great advantage to Democrats? I’m so struck that they have these candidates who are really quite terrible. And those two also, Ron Johnson is a is a real I mean, he’s a walking gaffe and a, you know, a moron to boot. Blake Masters and Kerry Lake in Arizona are both hugely problematic, not because they’re not smart, but because they’re just, like, very unappealing in certain ways. And yet all of these candidates are either ahead or within striking distance. I mean, Oz, maybe not, but Walker could win. Johnson will probably win. Masters and Lake could win. J.D. Vance will probably win.
Emily Bazelon: Masters not up in the polls, by the way. They’re all you should add. Trump selected candidates. They all were endorsed by Trump and probably wouldn’t be running. They wouldn’t be the Republican choice were it not for Trump.
John Dickerson: There are so many fascinating threads to this. Yes, as you say, they’re all Trump chosen. So Mitch McConnell’s fortunes once again hang on. The behaviors of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell may very well rescue these Trump candidates with the mountains of money that he has and that he has access to through his his network. And we’ll see how much the age old question, how much candidates matter and how much money matters. Democrats have been outraising Republicans, but there is all this money on the sidelines that Republicans have answered. Your question is, why is it close in some of these places, although it doesn’t seem to be in. Pennsylvania at the moment is because the out party has lots of advantages in in midterm election years. And Joe Biden’s approval ratings are low. And the issues that Republicans have for the previous part of the year been able to keep front and center are ones that really energize their their voters and their media structure.
John Dickerson: I would just add, throw in two different things here. One, the challenge with bad candidates in various bad states is in nationalized elections, bad candidates who say stupid things can slop over into other states. And and particularly to the extent the Democrats are energized by an antipathy towards the Republican Party, something said by an individual candidate that can excite that dislike is a real danger.
John Dickerson: The second thing is one other piece of evidence for why the red wave may be diminishing is that the generic poll, when you ask people, would you prefer a Democrat or a Republican? There was a there was a time several months ago where people picked the Republican by ten points, which I think in the ABC News poll was the greatest margin that ever had been, and that was just doom. Now Democrats are up in the generic, so that’s a real shift that adds to. Now, again, polls are are wonky, but it’s a real shift that that is a part of this case.
David Plotz: Emily, what would you hazard the Trump search has done to the dynamics of the race? Do you think it’s had an identifiable effect that we’re likely to see or to? It’s not readable. It’s viscous and an opaque right now.
Emily Bazelon: I see two things coming out of the attention to the search. And I think also the January six committee hearings get some credit for this. The first is the polls showing that they think the investigation into Trump should continue. I think people can see that there’s something strange slash bad going on and they understand that the government needs to get to the bottom of it. More people than not.
Emily Bazelon: The second thing is the poll about how Americans are prioritizing threats to democracy in a way that I have never seen before in a poll. And I don’t know if you know the answer to this, John. I was wondering if NBC, which did this poll, asked the question in a way that was just more clarifying. Like usually people are asked how much they care about election laws, and I feel like that doesn’t quite grip them. But if you’re asked directly about a threat to democracy, like maybe that’s galvanizing to me. It’s really exciting that people seem to care about this. I like to write about it and talk about it a lot, and I often worry that a lot of the public is just bored by this topic. And so if that’s changing and part of it has to do with the Mar a Lago search that I think is just sort of good news in a kind of pro-democracy sense.
John Dickerson: Really interesting question. I think it’s the right one and I don’t know what the answer is. Certainly the success of the January six hearings and that same NBC poll, I think had 57% said they still wanted more investigation and to go on. Remember, the theory was the Republicans were saying, oh, you Democrats are talking about things that the country doesn’t care about and you’re not paying attention to the things they care about. And that’s going to doom you. At least that poll and the enthusiasm it seems to have garnered among Democrats would suggest that that thinking was wrong.
John Dickerson: There has been some interesting response to the FBI move on on more Mar-A-Lago and what now is being reported, the 700 documents that Donald Trump kept after his presidency. There’s a rallying around Trump money going to his various organizations and and kind of a rallying not necessarily to him, but rallying against those who are against him. But does any of that translate to Republican candidates? There is a weak relationship between support for Donald Trump and support for Donald Trump’s candidates or party candidates in his party. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. People might rally around Trump, but forget to rally around the Republicans when it comes time for November. And that could be another thing that’s diminishing this wave.
David Plotz: Slate Plus members, you get bonus segments here on the Gabfest and on other Slate podcasts. And of course, you also get unlimited reading on the Slate site. You get no ads on any podcasts. You get member exclusive episodes from summer slate, shows like Slow Burn. And our bonus segment today for you will be about. Gavin Newsom, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to veto a bill that would have legalized safe injection sites in California cities. We’re in. Talk about his political move there and also just the politics of safe injection sites.
David Plotz: Barry Syed, a 90 year old electronics magnate, gave the most extraordinary political contribution in American history, arguably earlier this year. Syed donated his electronic device manufacturing company Tripp Light, to a new conservative nonprofit organization called the Marble Freedom Foundation. The foundation immediately sold Tripp Light to an Irish company for $1.6 billion, a kind of funky little piece of jujitsu that allowed Syed and the Foundation, the Marble Freedom Foundation, to avoid paying any taxes on the sale. This move gives Leonard Leo, who is the trustee of the Marble Freedom Foundation, the largest pot of money to deploy in American political history. So, Emily, who is Leonard Leo? How did he become Leonard? Leo And what is he trying to accomplish?
Emily Bazelon: Leonard Leo is the most important person in the Federalist Society. His exact title is irrelevant. Sometimes he’s not actually technically working for the Federalist Society anymore. Like if he’s advising a Republican administration, he is the linchpin of the success that conservatives have had in taking over the courts. He has handpicked Supreme Court nominees for President Trump. He is extremely good at the kind of line of law and politics that goes into judicial appointments and supremely confident as a vetter of nominees and has had just enormous power in Washington.
Emily Bazelon: He also personally holds deeply conservative views, especially on abortion. He has had two children who were born with spina bifida, and that seems to deeply inform his opposition to abortion. And he’s very Catholic also. So you have this person who has very strong convictions and has been extremely good at executing them in the legal world. And now he is empowered to have vast sums of money to try to transfer that expertise into a more directly political sphere.
David Plotz: What is it that Leonard Leo does that makes him effective? You know, he’s just a person. He’s not he’s not a judge. He’s not a lawyer. He himself does not have followers. But he is a lawyer. But he’s not he’s not famous for being a lawyer. Like, what is it that he has done to make this conveyor belt of justices work, to build a network of people who can, you know, carry out activist activities and be effective?
Emily Bazelon: I think more than anyone else, he created this very strong, effective network for the right in the legal profession. So he came in. The Federalist Society was formed in the early eighties. It was originally a kind of law school project. And the idea, which was really smart, was to create a pipeline of smart, conservative law students to, you know, really like boost them and what they were doing in what felt to them, like this kind of not hostile, strong, but like alien, liberal dominated law school environment. So you kind of create this sphere in which conservative law students are going to feel like they all meet each other and feel good about what they’re doing.
Emily Bazelon: Leo comes in and he takes over the lawyer network, part of the Federalist Society. So these are the folks who’ve already graduated. They’re in the profession and they’re the Federalist Society at the time wasn’t doing anything to really capture their interest. The Federalist Society, under Leo’s tutelage, becomes the place where the whole conservative legal profession comes together, and they have this big annual conference in D.C. It is totally the place to like, see and be seen. If you are a conservative up and coming law professor or lawyer or law clerk, judge, wannabe, etc. and more than CNBC is the place to like go talk and and listen. So they’re all just mingling together and they’re enough of a cohesive community over time that they can really start having each other’s back, supporting each other, pulling each other up the ranks.
Emily Bazelon: I finally seem to have answered David’s question the way he was hoping for. And so that just is this very effective pipeline, and you don’t have the same thing among liberals. Now, you could argue that, like mainstream law schools are that pipeline, right, because they are dominated by liberals. But the sort of sense of like this cohesiveness, this allyship, this like being on the same team, very strong in Glenn Leo’s world and of his making.
David Plotz: It’s not like the conservative movement has been underfunded. You have the Koch brothers, you have Sheldon Adelson. You have a lot of rich people. I don’t think there’s ever been somebody like there’s ever been a pope of political action, though. There’s never been somebody who’s sitting on quite the the amount of money that Leo is now sitting on. What what are the ways that he might spend that money, John? And that might be new or that we might. What causes might emerge that we hadn’t even been aware of or that were bubbling under that might now get real attention? Or both of you can answer that.
John Dickerson: I don’t know the specific account to which he will write his first check, but I do know one of his talents is that is the long game and the and as Emily mentioned earlier, building not just getting people on the Supreme Court, but building a pipeline and. Many generations long. It’s not just those top judges that the Federalist Society is, you know, it’s all the judges in the lower courts, which is the farm team for the Supreme Court. So I think you can imagine money going towards that which is taking on not only the issues of the day, but building a structure for conservative dominance in statehouses and in the next generations.
Emily Bazelon: I also think that it’s going to be professionalizing. You know, his critics would call it election subversion. He would call it preventing fraud at the voting booth and beyond. So in 2020, you see this like kind of team of hapless bad news bears come forward to try to persuade the country that president, former President Trump won the election. And so you have Giuliani with his like ridiculous press conference wherever that place was. You have Sidney Powell, four seasons, total landscaping. John is.
John Dickerson: The location.
Emily Bazelon: Thank you. Thank you. Yes, the Lenox.
John Dickerson: Landscaping wasn’t partial. It was total.
Emily Bazelon: Total. That makes all the difference. You have Sidney Powell racing around with, you know, theories that have since gotten her in trouble in various courts. John Eastman is, who’s at the Claremont Institute, is like, I guess, the most supposedly reputable voice in all of this. But he’s under investigation, too, from the Justice Department right now. So I think if it is possible to put forward a theory that could hold up to get things ready so that if evidence were to emerge that you could seize on of fraud or irregularity, that it is presented in a way that the courts could actually countenance it. Right. You have more Trump appointed judges. If you could actually put forward some kind of complaint in a swing state, that would be like, hey, they really maybe did mess this up. I think that’s what Leo is going to prioritize. And he has this thing already called the Honest Elections Project, which has started to work on that.
John Dickerson: There’s another way in which a seasoned team, team of lawyers aimed at a another thing you can name them, that is the regulatory state. And one of the things that the Trump team did that was successful in part because it was run by Karl Rove and others, was prepare using lawyers, many of whom had been at the tops of these agencies under George W Bush, to put together legal challenges and put together the administrative rulings for the minute the new president came in. So you could imagine having a seasoned team that writes those regulatory rulings and then have a seasoned set of lawyers who immediately defends them if they get challenged, so that on day one, a new Republican president can go through all the agencies, knows exactly what to cut out. And then the secondary function is that they have a team of lawyers who can then defend that as various, you know, liberal groups try to undo those new new regulation.
David Plotz: Arguing before judges who were who.
Emily Bazelon: Are in place now.
David Plotz: Lubricated into office by.
John Dickerson: Who are more poised to hear these arguments because they’ve been. Yeah. So you’re essentially building an external structure to the entire structure of government.
David Plotz: When you listen to conservatives talk about this Barry side gift that they mentioned, the Gates Foundation and George Soros, how is what this this the Marble Freedom Foundation, how is it different than Soros or the Gates Foundation or the Ford Foundation?
Emily Bazelon: You know, Open Society, Gates, Ford, they do some work in politics, but they also hold themselves apart from politics. I mean, Soros the least because he personally has given to a lot of races. But that’s separate from the work of these foundations which, you know, see themselves as doing work on justice, on public health, on all kinds of related issues. This could be much more explicitly focused on politics. I mean, we’ll see. It’s supposed to still be a social welfare organization. Talk about Orwellian names for groups we let meddle with our elections. But, you know, I think it will figure out how to be very effective for right wing goals.
David Plotz: Do you think there are a lot of other people like this who we will we will see. I mean, we’re gonna have a whole crop of rich baby boomers who are dying, but do you think there are lots of other people sitting out there waiting to donate fortunes for political causes that we don’t even know about?
Emily Bazelon: That is a great question. I mean, look, whether you’re on the right or the left, whether you’re talking about side or Soros, there is something really troubling about people just having so much influence based on money. I mean, talk about the idea that money equals speech. These people are talking very, very loudly and with impact, presumably on the American electorate.
David Plotz: I would rather money be spent on political action, political causes, social welfare causes that people believe in then than this kind of true villainy of inherited wealth.
Emily Bazelon: I don’t know if I agree with that at all, because it just gives a few individual people potentially enormous sway over our political system. I think I’d rather have them have their like private trust funds, even if that’s corrupt.
David Plotz: President Biden is proposing to forgive billions of dollars in student loans, federal student loans made to Americans. He’s going to forgive $10,000 for people who earn less than $125,000 a year and another $10,000 in loans if you are a Pell Grant recipient. He’s also going to max out the what percentage of your income you would pay to to service your undergraduate loans. It’s a proposal. No one has gotten their loans forgiven yet. There will undoubtedly be fascinating legal challenges, which will probably meet her frosty reception from some Federalist Society allied judges.
David Plotz: But in general, what is interesting about this proposal or new about this proposal, John?
John Dickerson: Many things are interesting about it. I mean, there’s the the policy of it and the possible ramifications of the policy and what effects it may have. And and the question of fairness. Then there’s the politics of it, which is let’s imagine that the policy is not so great. Doesn’t matter. This is a great fight for Democrats to have because they would like to make the case we’re helping out people at the lower end of the middle class scale. And and that’s what we’re all about. And you’re all about creating tax breaks for wealthy people. And so it it puts Democrats on kind of safer turf in an election year.
John Dickerson: And then there’s the question of how it was done and whether a president with by unilateral action can do something like this or whether that whether President Biden, while you may agree with what he is actually doing, is behaving in the worst tradition of executive overreach and that this is something that should be thought through and debated in Congress where those questions of of equity and fairness are better managed in in the system. So those are sort of three of the things.
David Plotz: What are the legal obstacles to Biden doing this? Emily, I’m not clear.
Emily Bazelon: I mean, honestly, I am not sure who even has standing to sue. This is debt that the government is owed. I am not sure what the theory is that the executive branch cannot cancel. But Dad. I mean, obviously someone’s got to come up with the theory and there’s going to be a lawsuit, but it doesn’t look all that vulnerable to me.
David Plotz: They’re definitely going to find that someone has standing. I can’t wait to hear the the Rube Goldberg contrivances that will allow someone to claim standing because they’re going to it’ll be that interest rates are likely to be, you know, 1/100 of a percent higher. And therefore, someone’s loan costs are going to be, you know, one 100% higher because the federal government has cancelled this debt, that sort of summit. So someone’s going to claim injury.
Emily Bazelon: Yeah. I mean, I just want to say that is not how standing has worked in the past. You have to have a concrete harm that can be redressed, etc.. It will be fascinating to watch conservative judges try to, you know, distort and expand the doctrine of standing, which they used to be in favor of narrowing when it was liberal interest groups who were trying to stand for the trees.
David Plotz: Oh, well, it is weird, don’t you think? I mean, I feel like we had a discussion recently about a case in which no one had standing. No one was able to bring the case because they said no one had standing maybe with one of these abortion cases. It is weird that the president could take an action which would have a gigantic effect on millions of people and cost the Treasury on paper tens of hundreds of billions of dollars. And that that it was no one could review it. No one could say anything about it. No one could do anything about it. No one could, could, could offer any kind of opposition to it or challenge it. That does seem like amazing.
Emily Bazelon: I mean, I guess so. Except you really want the courts deciding this. I mean, it is amazing, but like.
John Dickerson: No, but you would wouldn’t the courts decide that this is just beyond the power of an individual president? This is better.
Emily Bazelon: Right? But, yeah, I don’t know. I’m not super offended by it. For whatever reason. Maybe it’s hypocritical of me. I wonder what you guys think about this, like, sort of middle ground that Biden has landed on, right? I mean, there were progressive groups pushing for much greater levels of cancellation of debt, in part, I think, because there’s so many college educated Democrats right now and they are like really burdened by debt. I mean, we heard from people when we talked about this on a past episode. People really feel like they are under water and it’s not their fault and education is way too expensive.
Emily Bazelon: On the other hand, it is essentially like giving a tax break to people who, you know, Biden went up to 125,000 per individual. If you go higher, you start more and more benefiting higher income people. I kind of like this 10,000 and in some cases $20,000 cap because I think it will concentrate the debt relief on the people who have some community college but didn’t graduate. I have helped people pay off debt in those situations. It sucks. It’s like you tried to go to college. It just didn’t really work out. You have this like fewer, several thousand. And kind of dragging on you.
David Plotz: And growing and growing because of interest.
Emily Bazelon: Growing and growing because of interest. And you can’t really get on top of it. So I like the idea that it’s, you know, targeted in this way and not some giant debt relief. But I think a lot of progressives will say it’s not far enough. And I was interested also that Tim Ryan, who’s running for Senate for the Democrats in Ohio, came out against it.
John Dickerson: Well, there’s there is some evidence that that debt, college debt is not a proxy for whether you’re low income. In other words, there are students from high income and low income families who are just as likely to take on debt for the for their early parts of their career. So that that essentially is not as targeted as they would like to make it seem, because it’s going to it has the potential go to students from high income families.
David Plotz: That is true. Sure. And there will be some unworthy beneficiaries, as there are unworthy beneficiaries of every program. But as Emily said, like these small amounts, this five, ten, 15, K, especially if you’ve never completed college, is a that’s a devastating amount of debt. And there there studies that suggest that the people who in a way end up in the worst who have the worst economic impacts from college debt are ones with these relatively small tranches of debt because they just they don’t earn enough to get on top of it. The number just they can never reduce it and and they can’t bankruptcy them selves out of it. And so it’s a way of helping a pretty large number of people who are in quite a lot of trouble with a relatively small, targeted bit of aid. So I think it’s a it’s a very wise kind of targeting.
Emily Bazelon: I mean, the other thing about those people is they’re often like 18 or 19 year olds, right? They’re like signing their names to a loan with little time when they’re still young and haven’t necessarily thought about the stuff that could go wrong.
David Plotz: I want to I want to push back against one of the criticisms which which just so irritates me. Neither of you has made it, but it’s so infuriating from the these people who are like, I didn’t take on debt or I worked my way through college or or, you know, this is you, you idiot. You’ve got your puppetry degree or your masters master’s degree in cultural studies, you moron. Like, of course you should. You should have to pay for that.
David Plotz: And there’s this argument that Heather McGhee, who, you know, guest hosted the other day and to, you know, has this wonderful, wonderful book the some of us makes about funding for universities and funding for colleges in this country, and points out that colleges, public colleges have gotten more and more expensive, in part because there’s just been this withdrawal of public funding as as black and brown students entered those schools.
David Plotz: And so the people who went to college 30, 50, 60 years ago to the public universities of this country and even to the private ones, were paying just tiny sums of money relative to those of us, those of those people who are going today as a proportion of income, as a proportion of GDP, as a proportion of anything, what you had to pay for a public university back in the day was just minjee tiny. I mean, just ask a parent what their parent what their tuition was. And so the idea that, oh, well, I worked my way through, you know, University of Michigan back in 1962. So you should, of course, have to pay your debt from from Saginaw Community College today. It’s just not the same thing. Like, you weren’t paying the same thing. And it’s just it’s a it’s a sanctimonious, irritating old fogey boomer ism. That is infuriating, though.
John Dickerson: The fulcrum of your point connects to one of the criticisms that does seem both more valid, but also it’s a question of timing, which is the argument is that this only exacerbates the inflation of higher ed and doesn’t address it and that that problem, so the theory goes, would be better addressed if you had loan forgiveness as a part of some larger reform that would try to get at that bigger problem of the drivers behind the high cost of education.
John Dickerson: So the high cost of education is something that still a problem doesn’t get addressed here and may in fact, according to the critics, which we should note, are both the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and the editorial board of The Washington Post, who aren’t often on the same sides of issues. That’s one of the criticisms that they that they levy in addition to the deficit, one which is that the White House made a lot of successful arguments about how the Inflation Reduction Act was going to reduce the deficit. And that was good. This measure would undo, at least according to the Committee for Responsible Budget and others, the Penn Wharton analysis as well, basically on does the deficit reduction of the IRA.
David Plotz: I think just in closing, I want to make a couple of points. One is that if you are a Democrat and you wanted to target your voters, college loan relief is a pretty good way to target your voters and benefit your voters as opposed to Republican voters. This this divide, Democrats are much more likely to go to college, much more likely to be younger. And so giving. Targeted loan relief. That seems aimed at that is aimed at that group. Seems like a specific way to help your voters in the way that a lot of the Trump tax cuts were designed to help people who voted for Trump. I would note.
John Dickerson: Can I say two things, which is, one, there’s also a criticism that this doesn’t help people who who don’t go to college at all and that those are those that group of Americans really needs relief. And then the second thing is, though, let’s imagine you don’t like this policy for a variety of different reasons. It does seem to me that this, at least relative to the cultural dog whistle foolishness that gets to be a part of campaigns, that this does tee up an argument that hopefully will continue for the next 75 days or however many are in it, which is in a country where you have to share resources. What’s the best way to chop up those resources and who should they go to and what should they go towards?
John Dickerson: And what is fairness mean? I mean, these are kind of basic questions of of politics. But in midterm elections, you often have both sides ginning up their bases, talking about two totally different things. This, it seems to me, has a chance to put everybody on the same topic and discuss something that is at least pretty darn fundamental to the major basic questions of governing. So even that even if you don’t like the policy, it yeah, I see it’s possibly very attractive as a way to have a really fundamental debate about what government should be doing.
David Plotz: All right. Let’s go to cocktail chatter when you, John DICKERSON, are back. You’re back at work now. So you’re now at the end of a workday. And at the end of the workday, what does one need? One needs a cocktail and we need someone to chatter with. So what are you going to chatter with Beloved and Dickerson about at the end of your workday?
John Dickerson: My chatter is I have a very frivolous one and then one that’s slightly less so. And so there is there is a website called bullshit generator dot com and it has perfectly put its finger on the creation of buzzwords. So if you’re going to re intermediate turnkey web readiness or facilitate seamless eco commerce or innovate leading edge partnerships while iterating extensible niches, these are the kinds of things you can learn about on this website.
John Dickerson: And then the second thing is, I, for a piece I’m working on for Sunday morning, spend some time with John Grinspan, who’s a historian at the Smithsonian, but he’s the curator of the division of Political and Military History. And there is an exhibit at the Smithsonian that is basically a live whistle stop exhibit. It’s an exhibit on American democracy, but it is full of different parts of American campaigns going back to the very beginning and includes one of the first voting machines, which came along at this fascinating time where Americans were trying to regularize and systematize and squeeze out the rascals from politics by creating voting machines, which has obviously some contemporary resonances given our current moment. They also have one of the original log cabins from the 1840 campaign, which were carried around in different political races. So if you are interested in political history through that lens, it’s amazing.
John Dickerson: But in the interview I got to do with John, we went into the back room. They call the Smithsonian, you know, America’s attic. And we were in the attic of the attic, which included I looked over and you’ll appreciate this, Emily. And in this blue box, it just says John Jay’s wrote, Oh, so the first chief justice of the his robe is just sitting over there. And then and then John showed me the teacup, which was the last vessel from which Abraham Lincoln drank on his last night. Anyway, it was an extraordinary thing. The piece will be on Sunday morning in a couple of weeks.
David Plotz: Emily, what’s your chatter?
Emily Bazelon: I’m going to get thrown out of any cocktail party I go to for this, but I cannot let past the release of this memo about why former Attorney General Bill Barr decided that the Mueller investigation had not produced evidence of any crimes. So obviously, the conclusion that Barr reached is old news. You may remember that he kind of made this very quick announcement and spoke instead of having Mueller speak for the investigation. Now, this also was predicated on the fact that Mueller didn’t reach any conclusions one way or the other because he wasn’t sure where he thought that the government couldn’t prosecute a sitting president anyway.
Emily Bazelon: But all of that said, we don’t haven’t known until now what the legal reasoning behind bars conclusion was. And now we have that and it just looks so bad. It comes from two Trump senior Justice Department officials, Stephen Engle and Ed O’Callaghan. And you know, I mean, for example, there was the whole issue of Trump dangling a pardon in front of Paul Manafort. The former campaign chairman. And the idea was like maybe by doing that, he stopped Manafort from saying things that would have been damning and would have shown that he obstructed justice or committed some other crime.
Emily Bazelon: And this legal memo to Barr doesn’t use the word pardon. It just says like, oh, Trump was worried about, you know, praising or condemning witnesses because maybe that that itself could be some way that would show that Trump just wanted to make sure that they weren’t going to lie and make up stuff about him. I mean, the idea that you would talk about this episode without confronting the offer of a pardon just seems really derelict to me.
Emily Bazelon: And then can I add one small thing to my chatter, which is that the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which is an organization in Washington that tries to make the lives of people with mental health challenges better. It’s named for my grandfather, and it’s looking for a new legal director. This is like a great job in which you get to make lots of decisions about how to litigate on behalf of people with mental health challenges. So if you know someone or you might be a candidate for this excellent job, shoot a line to the Bazelon Center or send me an email and I’ll make sure to connect you Emily Bazelon at gmail.com.
David Plotz: I’ll write my chatter and do three really fast. Chatters. Number one strongly recommend New York Times feature on people who are unrelated but look alike and how they share DNA article itself. Find the photos, which is photos by Francois Brunel. Incredible photos. Number one, that was number one. Number two, Korn. It’s the best. That is all.
David Plotz: My third quick tattoo is. So when I was a high school senior, I worked for the summer at the Outer Circle Movie Theater in Washington, D.C. and the movies that played that summer were Jaws four terrible movie, My Life of the Dog, great movie and La Bamba. And so I ended up singing La Bamba like 17 times, which you may remember is the Ritchie Valens story.
David Plotz: And the other day, for no particular reason, I just, like, looked up the La Bamba soundtrack on Spotify. Holy moly, that is amazing. If you want a chance to listen, this is a great, like, eighties re-imagining of early sixties, late fifties music. It’s incredible. Los Lobos does all of Ritchie Valens with songs like La Bamba. Come on, Let’s Go, We Belong Together. Marshall Crenshaw does Buddy Holly, Brian Setzer does. Eddie Cochran, Summertime Blues. Bo Diddley does himself. It’s amazing. Amazing. Check it out. Listeners, you have chatters, too. You have identified works of culture songs, historical episodes that you want to share that are wonderful, strange and worthy of discussion at your cocktail party. And this week’s Listener Chatter comes from Rebecca Vernon.
Speaker 4: Hi, this is Rebecca in Washington, D.C.. My cocktail chatter this week is about an opinion piece in The Washington Post by Serena Miller about her middle school classes, successful effort to exonerate a woman convicted in the Salem Witch Trials. A special shout out goes to Miller’s teacher, Carrie Lapeer, for teaching her students and readers of The Post a lesson in much more than history.
David Plotz: Great story. Strongly recommend you should share your chart of her births by emailing us at Gabfest at Slate.com or tweeting them to us at at Slate. Gabfest.
David Plotz: That is our show for today. The Gabfest is produced by Shaina Roth. A researcher is Bridgette Dunlap. Our theme music is by They Might Be Giants. Ben Richmond is senior director for podcast ops and Alicia montgomery is the VP of Audio for Slate. Please follow us on Twitter at Slate, Gabfest. And as I said to each other, to us there for Emily Bazelon and John DICKERSON. Oh, it’s so nice to have John back and snuggling and snuggling and David Plotz. We’ll talk to you next week.
David Plotz: Hello, Slate. Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom this week vetoed a bill passed by his state legislature that would have allowed supervised drug injection sites in San Francisco, L.A. and other California cities. Newsom claimed that while he supports harm reduction measures for to deal with an incredible overdose, opiate driven overdose epidemic that we have in this country, the California bill wasn’t structured enough and there was the possibility of huge numbers of sites opening without enough kind of direction and order around them. The supervised injection site issue is incredible. Like there are about 100 such sites operating around the world, very few in the U.S.. New York City opened the first U.S. one just less than a year ago, and their plans in a bunch of other states. Rhode Island has legalized injection sites but hasn’t actually opened.
Emily Bazelon: Philadelphia tried and got sued by the Bush administration.
David Plotz: And Rhode Island has has has not been legalized, but hasn’t managed to open any because no one wants them near them. So Emily like what what what are what are these injection sites and how do they work and what’s the theory behind them?
Emily Bazelon: So these are places where people who are using drugs can go for things like clean needles and HIV tests and other public health measures. And, you know, presumably they help people.
David Plotz: And can shoot and can then inject drugs.
Emily Bazelon: And can inject drugs. There are safe injection sites. Yes. People are using drugs on site and it’s supposed to be a safer harm reduction way to be using drugs and the sort of hope and there are some evidence for this, although it’s not definitive, is that there are going to be more people whose lives kind of settle down enough that then they’ll be able to take advantage of the offers for treatment and help that are available at these sites.
Emily Bazelon: So it’s a very it’s about harm reduction. It’s basically saying that there are people who are addicted to drugs for whom punishment and an immediate punishment or an immediate offer of treatment, if there is really one available, are not going to do it and they need some kind of other help. And we just should be clear eyed about the situation and try to make sure that they’re not going to die and also try to reduce the crime that comes with drug use when it’s like out on the street. And it’s has to do with like buying all that stuff that the bad disorder, this is supposed to be an effort to address it, but it’s also not punitive.
Emily Bazelon: And American’s usual way of thinking about drug policy is that a you don’t want it anywhere near your neighborhood people using and be that like there’s something fundamentally to blame here and that that’s why we tend to use the criminal justice system for dealing with this. This is a different alternative. It’s been much more popular in other countries. There is a pretty well-known site in British Columbia in Vancouver that’s been operating successfully for a long time.
John Dickerson: Successfully, including the studies that have shown that not only is it successful with respect to those who go there, but that it hasn’t led to one of the big fears, which is crime around the area and, you know, general chaos as a result of making it a magnet for drug users who also carry with them other challenges. And, you know, I mean, the worry is that it would lead to prostitution and open air drug markets and all kinds of other stuff that it hasn’t, apparently, according to the studies in Vancouver.
David Plotz: One of the things I find appealing about the the safe injection sites and I admit I’m ambivalent about them, but is this is this point that it treats users like human beings and it’s not like scum, not like they have to be in the shadows. Like it gives like one of the most important things you can do is give people dignity. Like give people a certain amount of dignity so that they that makes it more likely that they are going to participate in society. They’re going to get their lives more orderly, participate in treatment. And so if you if you if you make life really hard for people who are already suffering, they it’s just going to exacerbate it. And whereas if you say like, yeah, you’re yes, you know, you’ve got you’ve got some challenges like we all do and let’s try to address them and and, you know, your be a person of parts and a person of complexity and depth and let’s let’s work with that. Someone is much more likely to to respond to that than they are to the punitive measures.
Emily Bazelon: So why are you ambivalent?
David Plotz: Well, I’m I’m not I guess I’m not ambivalent, but I do think there’s a real difficulty in finding places to put them, because most neighborhoods just do not want to have these near them. Right.
Emily Bazelon: But is that because they’re really a threat or because people just assume they are? I don’t know. I mean, like, there’s the problem of concentrating all your services for people who are down and out in one part of your city and like. That’s usually a poor neighborhood and it can be too much like I’m sympathetic to that. That is like an issue where I live. Making sure that you’re thinking in a kind of civic minded and equitable way about where our services go. On the other hand, the notion that a drug treatment center well, I know this is not the same thing, but the notion that a safe injection site is like bad and going to bring down the neighborhood, I just don’t think we have any evidence for that. You know, like think about methadone clinics that are not that different. That’s not a I mean, at least where I live, like the methadone clinics are not associated with higher crime and disorder.
John Dickerson: I think it depends. And I guess this is what Gavin Newsom was. Well, this is what he said his stated concerns were. Obviously, people think that there’s a political element here and we should talk about that. But is that I did in some of the reading, there were, you know, some of those safe injection sites that were open only 12 hours or something that that there’s a if it’s not if the execution is weak, if there’s not if they’re not open all the time, if you don’t have it fully staffed, if you don’t. And that and that. That’s where the gap can come. Is that is that sufficient resources and talent aren’t put behind it and that that that would be a problem that in their perfect conception, it’s it’s good, but that it’s hard in a city to create a perfect conception.
Emily Bazelon: Yeah, I mean, that totally makes sense. I am pretty skeptical that that was really what was driving Newsom’s decision here. I think he wants to run for president. He just doesn’t want this like rattling around after him. But yeah, sure, you have to do it in a thoughtful way. And you know what else are often not open 24 hours a day, which causes problems are homeless shelters like homeless shelters generally kick people out at like seven or 730 in the morning, which is always seemed just crazy to me. Like they should be places where people can get help for the whole day and night.
John Dickerson: I was struck in reading about this that a person overdoses in New York City every 4 hours. Yes.
David Plotz: Amazing.
John Dickerson: I mean, that’s part of what dies.
David Plotz: Of an overdose, right?
John Dickerson: Yeah. Does anybody. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Yeah. Dies of an overdose. And that’s that’s the thing is when people think about this as a solution, you know, opiate, I guess between 20 and 21, the number of deaths from drug overdoses went up 30, 40%. I mean, that this is a crisis of of the moment which require, you know, obviously the old ways aren’t working. So it does suggest some new approach would be required. And that statistic about New York really struck me.
David Plotz: Yeah. I mean, the number of people who die of overdose in this country is. Mind blowingly huge and just it’s so depressing and it’s gone up. I think it’s more it was more than a hundred thousand last year, I think.
Emily Bazelon: And it causes such enormous grief and just trauma for families. It’s often young people.
David Plotz: Right. Right. It’s not. And I mean, COVID is it’s obviously this tragedy on a massive scale. COVID tends to kill people who are older. But this is 100,000 deaths. And it’s you know, it’s it’s up it’s up from sort of like 60. But the idea that we were tolerating tolerating 60,000 deaths a year of young people to these drugs is shocking. And I and of course, of course, like safe injection sites are one way of tackling this. But it also has to do with the fact that there is these these drugs are so potent and fentanyl and in particular is now kind of gotten its way into the American bloodstream. And I don’t know. I mean, obviously, any this is a kind of any and all solutions should be tried. But goodness, it is. I don’t know. It’s so depressing. It’s so depressing.
David Plotz: Well, one other note, which is just like a tiny note, is that I looked at the pictures of the New York safe injection site. It’s really depressing. I would.
Emily Bazelon: Not. Why? Like, it’s sterile.
David Plotz: It’s so sterile. It’s all metal tables and, like. And it’s. It’s a sterile booth. It’s not like, oh, here’s a comfortable couch you can sit on.
Emily Bazelon: It’ll be interesting to know why that was like. Was that just to save money or because there’s something sort of we can’t make it too nice? Or was that actually like a more intentional set of architectural design decisions? I don’t know. I just want to add that I have found harm reduction to be a really important way of thinking about all kinds of social ills. And there is something, I suppose you could argue sort of like dispiriting about it, because it’s not about some great triumphant solving of a problem. But I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m getting old. I just feel like it’s also a big relief to be like, okay, there is something we can do. And no, it’s not everything. But it also could just make people whose lives who are in misery like a little bit better. Can we please try that?
David Plotz: Now, I find as a CEO of a company, this is such a trivial example. But one of the things I’m always thinking about is not how do we do something perfectly, but like what is a way to do something just slightly better than the shitty way we’re doing it? And if you can just do something just slightly better in the city where you’re doing it, it’s like, okay, that’s an improvement. And you know, you don’t have to go from a hundred thousand deaths to no death in a year, but can you go from 100000 to 99000 or 90,000? How about that? Like, why don’t we try for that? All right. By sight. Plus.