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Opinion | Joe Biden Has Something Else He’d Like to Transform

Gail Collins: President Biden has a big speech coming up this week, Bret. Before we delve deep — or, hey, maybe at least deepish — can I use it as an excuse to talk for a minute about Walter Mondale?

Bret Stephens: Can our readers handle the excitement?

Gail: He told me once that long after he’d retired from politics, he ran into George McGovern, and the two of them had a vigorous conversation about how really, really, really awful it is to lose a presidential election.

But I think the loss that may have haunted him most was the defeat of a national early childhood education program. He championed that cause for decades.

Bret: Gail, I shouldn’t be glib: God rest Fritz Mondale’s soul. Obviously a very decent and honorable public servant, even if (or, maybe, because) his political views sat about 179 degrees opposite mine.

Gail: Way back in 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led a fight to fund high quality pre-K education beginning at age 3 for every child whose family wanted it. Plus after-school programs for kids with working parents. Passed the Senate 63-17. And then Richard Nixon vetoed it. The end.

Bret: We were fighting godless communism, Gail. Sorry, go on.

Gail: Now here we are, a half-century later, and Biden is about to ask Congress to do pretty much the same thing. How do you feel about it?

Bret: I remember sitting through an interminable parental session years ago at one “high quality,” highly expensive, private preschool in Lower Manhattan. There was a somewhat fraught exchange on the green snot-yellow snot dichotomy, along with discussions of various pedagogical methodologies, as if admission to Harvard depended on it. My wife and I sent our kiddos elsewhere.

Gail: Would have liked to have been eavesdropping on that one.

Bret: There was also the uber-earnest parent who asked about the pre-K “science curriculum.” I briefly considered murder.

What I guess I’m saying is that I think the importance of super-duper pre-K is probably overstated. I suspect that the middle school years are much more important, educationally and developmentally speaking, though they seem to be forgotten territory in terms of educational policy. I also think the main problem that afflicts American education is mediocre teaching and excessive bureaucracy, not insufficient funding.

Now you’re going to tell me why I’m wrong ….

Gail: Oh wow, we are in such disagreement! This is so exciting — I can’t remember the last time the conversation was so polarized.

First of all, you’re ignoring the fact that many, many families simply need someplace safe to send their children when the adults are at work. Also the fact that when it comes to kids from lower-income homes, studies show that their chances of succeeding in school go way up if they start early.

Bret: Not ignoring it. I’m not against subsidized pre-K. It’s good for kids, assuming it meets basic standards, and obviously it’s important for working parents. I just think that good enough is just fine when it comes to preschool and that the evidence that programs like Head Start produce lasting academic benefits is mixed at best.

Gail: This is one area where I’ve almost always had agreement with smart, sensible conservatives.

Bret: Let me get David Brooks on the phone.

Gail: Quality pre-K is good for most kids, critical for many. Did I mention that 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5?

Bret: Personally, I’m hoping to get to the 50 percent mark by 50.

Gail: And you and your wife Corinna apparently thought pre-K was important, since you eventually sent the children to a different school.

Bret: True. And a very fair point. This is a subject on which I’m obviously shooting from the hip, so I’ll stop while I’m behind. Can we change the subject to, um, Crimea? Bitcoin? Anything?

Gail: How about — masks? This may be a point of agreement, but I am really tired of wearing a mask when I walk the dog at 9 p.m.

Bret: So here’s a subject that will get me into even deeper trouble ….

Gail: My neighborhood jumped into the mask moment fast, possibly because it seemed like something that would drive Donald Trump crazy. And I was proud of everyone for being so responsible. Now the situation’s evolved. I fully understand why none of them — including me — wants to be the unmasked civil disobedience pioneer. But I also hate walking around not being able to recognize my neighbors because all our faces are covered.

Bret: Yes! This is a subject that drives me nuts. The weight of scientific evidence suggests the risk of getting Covid while walking outdoors is very, very low, at least if you’re not in some kind of crowd. And yet many state and local governments — along with an army of busybodies — insist on it because there is still a theoretical risk, which might also be said of being crushed by falling jet engine debris or attacked by a rabid bobcat.

Gail: I’m not sure those comparisons work unless your town had an epidemic of jet-part showers. Or was invaded last year by a pack of bobcats on a regular basis.

Sorry, go on.

Bret: You must have missed the bobcat attack video that went viral last week. Anyway, it irks me when people who otherwise insist they are “following the science” suddenly choose to ignore the science because their gut tells them that they should be wearing a mask when they don’t need to, or because they like to parade their virtue. I also note that there are 13 states that have lifted mask restrictions and most have not seen major upticks in Covid infections.

Since we are on the subject, what’s your feeling about vaccine passports?

Gail: Well, our government doesn’t seem to have any plans to require them. I can understand why private businesses might want their work force to have proof of inoculation. Or if I was going on — God protect me — a cruise ship, I’d want to be confident the other passengers had been vaccinated.

You?

Bret: I get the argument for them. Israel, which has done better than most countries when it comes to Covid, has used them to return to more-or-less normal life.

But I still find the whole idea pretty creepy. People who have valid ethical or religious or medical reasons for not getting vaccinated should not be barred from any kind of public accommodation for exercising a fundamental right of conscience. Nor should people be penalized when they might not have easy access to a vaccine. Obviously I hope as many people as possible get vaccinated, but we should respect the rights of those who don’t, whatever we feel about their reasoning.

Also, if people still need additional reasons never to board a cruise ship, well there you have it.

Gail: I must have told you that once, not long after college, I had a summer job working for an advertising company, and as a reward for good work, their client the cruise company gave me a special reward of a weekend Cruise to Nowhere. The boat made circles on Long Island Sound while we were supposed to savor the buffet and shuffleboard contests.

Bret: Memo to Dante Alighieri: There was a 10th circle of hell, and Gail Collins survived it.

Gail: So that turned me against fun on the ocean forever. But about the present. Do you think your crankiness about early childhood education is just part of a general post-Trump reaction against government? I mean, you were really sort of a Biden enthusiast for a few minutes.

Bret: The president is governing much further to the left than his campaign led anyone to expect. I think that’s going to hurt him, just as Bill Clinton’s sharp turn to the left in his first two years nearly sank his presidency and ushered in the Gingrich Revolution. Again, I’m all for childhood education, but the feds were already spending tens of billions on it before Biden came to office. More government does not always equal better government.

Gail: Well, obviously. But I’m pretty confident that in general more early childhood education is a very good thing.

Bret: That being said, it’s nice to have ideological differences with a Biden presidency as opposed to moral differences with the Trump one.

Gail: I was wondering about how the lack of Trump terribleness affected your overall view. Now that he’s gone, do you still find Biden admirable, or are you realizing it was only his non-Trumpedness you liked?

Bret: Admirable, definitely: I often admire those with whom I argue, present company included. And one thing the Trumpastrophe cured me of forever is allegiance to the Republican Party. On the other hand, much of what I disliked about Trump from the beginning were some of his statist instincts, and my views there haven’t changed.

Gail: Biden’s been a powerhouse when it comes to a big, ambitious agenda. But I wonder if the nation’s really noticed since we were so deep in the controversy over George Floyd’s death and police brutality. Do you think we’re a better nation for having gotten through the Chauvin trial?

Bret: Well, thankfully the jury reached the right verdict, even if it can never repair the harm that Derek Chauvin did. And I hope it serves as a deterrent against police abuses in the future. But since my conservatism inclines me to be a pessimist about human nature, I somewhat doubt it.

Gail: Hey, the pandemic’s declining, the weather’s improving and I’m going for hope. But I’m prepared for the possibility that in a few months you’ll be saying: I told you so.

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