The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, October 23, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, October 23, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What Are the Key Takeaways from Last Night’s Debate? The Candidates Make Final Arguments

Well, the third and last presidential debate is over, but there really wasn’t a second debate, so the bookends turned out to be the first debate, and then the debate that was last night held in Nashville, Tennessee, on the campus of Belmont University. The second debate was canceled because of conflict between the Presidential Debate Commission and President Trump, and the question as to whether or not the event that had been scheduled live would be transferred to a virtual event.

But in any event, the second debate didn’t happen, and that leaves us with the first debate, which was mostly about the behavior of the candidates and in particular, the aggression of President Trump in the debate, and then the third debate last night, which is likely to be discussed mostly in terms of the fact that it wasn’t the first debate. The big news coming out of the third debate is that there really was no big news coming out of the third debate.

Now, is that good news or bad news politically? Well, in terms of civility, better news, because there was very limited interruption and aggression, for that matter, coming from either side during the course of the hour and a half debate in Nashville. But in terms of the political equation, the fact that there was no particularly big news or transformational moment is likely not particularly good news for the Trump campaign, which, at this point in this kind of campaign, is presumed to have needed a boost, perhaps even a transitional moment, a transformational moment in last night’s debate.

But the debate last night was not worthless in terms of content. For one thing, a range of issues was discussed and Americans saw two very different models of leadership demonstrated last night, two different approaches to policy. And on the one hand, it was a liberal conservative divide, it was a Democratic-Republican divide, but in other ways, it was also a continuing personality divide, and all these things are very difficult to totally separate in the political equation.

But in terms of interesting developments last night, even as President Trump sought to interject issues related to the Biden family and its business, and it is yet to be clear whether or not those will turn out to be big stories, the mainstream media turn out to be avoiding those stories, the conservative media turn out to be focusing almost entirely on those stories, and what’s at stake actually turns out to be important. So it will be important for the American people to be able to sort that out with some kind of factual basis over the course of the next, say, 10 to 12 days. That turns out to be important.

But also thinking about the debate, I was very interested in how it ended. Basically, as you look at the debate last night, moderated by Kristen Welker, one of the interesting things, given the fact that the moderators get to ask the questions, is that, once again, it appeared that these questions focused more on domestic policy than on international policy that frustrated President Trump and his campaign, and I think we can understand why, it pleased the Biden campaign, and we can understand why.

But as we got to the end of the debate, it did take an unexpected turn, and you could see the unexpected turn in particular on the face of President Trump and in the words of former Vice-President Biden, and it had to do with energy and it had to do with climate change and it had to do with what kind of policies the United States should follow going forward.

Former Vice-President Biden, who is now an advocate of his own form of climate change legislation, which is very similar to the green new deal, the former vice-president basically said, and I think this surprised just about everyone, that he actually is an advocate for ending the oil industry as soon as possible. Even as this turn came in the conversation, it was clear that the former vice-president was saying that, that should happen as quickly as possible because there will be other energy sources, but he also indicated that it would be his intention in a Biden administration to move to end subsidies for oil and to basically use federal leverage to encourage other forms of alternative energy. President Trump responded, “Oh, that’s very interesting,” hypothetically, but in reality, those so-called new forms of energy are not yet economically viable, and in some cases, also have their own climate complications.

But what was interesting last night is that the former vice-president, either by intention or by accident, actually said that it is his intention to bring about the end of the oil industry in the United States. Now, just think about that. That turns out to be actually a very big issue. Now, I don’t know anyone who has some kind of romantic relationship with oil, that is to say, who gets excited about oil and sees oil as an intrinsic good in itself. Oil isn’t an intrinsic good in itself, like, say, diamonds or gold.

Oil has value because of what it can do, and what it has done more than anything else is to fuel a massive industrial revolution and make possible what we know technologically as the modern age. And like it or not, and most of us would probably say we would wish it might be some other way, the reality is that oil right now when fossil fuels in general are the only means of meeting the energy needs of the world, and that includes not only the consumer based economy in the United States, but also the burgeoning wants and needs of the developing world.

Now, it just might be that a fundamental technological revolution is taking place in retrospect, or will take place, that will change that basic energy equation. But at this point, Americans aren’t going to turn off their air conditioners, they are not going to put their cars permanently in the garage, and our economy would not stand for it. And given the role of oil in our economy, President Trump pointed out that the United States has reached one of the major goals that was set in a bipartisan manner in previous administrations. Both Republicans and Democrats dreamed of the age when America would be energy self-sufficient and not at the whims of foreign nations for coercion or political influence or anything else, or dependency, when it comes to energy.

Now, do we take seriously the concerns about the environment and the understanding that fossil fuels, we can hope, will one day be superseded by some other form of energy? Yes, we take that seriously. And energy companies and the millions of people who are either employees of, or investors in those businesses, are also wanting to be a part of whatever that new energy economy will be. And that gets to a basic function of markets, and this is something that really wasn’t addressed last night but should have been. Markets, when they are genuinely free markets, offer incentives to those who can come up with a new value. Anyone who can come up with a technology or a means of energy that will provide greater value than fossil fuels will win the day. And that’s just the bottom line.

But looking at the possibility of going from a dependency upon fossil fuels to something that isn’t yet viable, well, that’s something that can be established as a goal, but to announce it in terms of public policy and a presidential campaign in 2020, using the language that the former vice-president used last night, I’ll admit it was surprising.

It was also frustrating as an observer of the debate last night that certain categories just aren’t explained to the American people. And so you had President Trump accusing the former vice-president, Joe Biden, of believing in something like socialized medicine. Biden then retorted that he doesn’t believe in socialized medicine and he’s not trying to end private insurance, but rather he is trying to offer a public option.

But that’s where neither side actually explained, honestly, what that means. And what it means is this, if indeed Joe Biden is elected president of the United States and having a Democratic Congress, in all likelihood, match to what might be a Democratic Senate goes forward with what he himself now calls Bidencare, then the American people would be presented with a public option, that would be an insurance or healthcare delivery system that would be linked to some kind of form of insurance that would be subsidized by the government.

If it’s not subsidized by the government, it, by default, isn’t a public option. But if it is a public option and it is subsidized by the government, then you don’t actually have to eliminate, by any force of law, all private insurance systems. They will simply wither away, because if you have another system that is underwritten or subsidized by tax money, then, well, we go back to that market reality. In that market, private insurance would simply disappear. And thus Joe Biden could say last night, no, I’m not for socialized medicine, but what would be the inevitable result would be socialized medicine. Neither side seemed to be either willing or able to define the issues clearly.

But in terms of the third dimension of the debate, and that is the personality and character side, leadership style, it was clear that one of the main goals of the former Vice-President Joe Biden was simply to declare himself not Donald Trump. But the Donald Trump who showed up last night was not exactly the Donald Trump who showed up in the first debate. It’s also clear that President Trump, who is used to a rather bombastic style of debating, was frustrated last night, both by the questions that were asked and not asked, and by the fact that microphones were muted, meaning that there really wasn’t as much of an exchange.

Now, when you’re talking about the first debate, you could argue, there really wasn’t much of an exchange anyway. It was basically just yelling at, and sometimes, very dismissive comments, to be honest, coming primarily from President Trump, but to some degree, also from Joe Biden.

But last night, it was almost as if it was the exact opposite situation, given the format last night, just about the time and exchange between the two candidates became interesting, the moderator moved it to a new question. And at least for many, that left the entire event frustrating because just about the time they got to something that would really be helpful to the voters, well, the debate moved on.

But of course, even as we’re talking about this, we realize that these debates aren’t, in any classic sense, a debate. They are a form of performance art and they serve a political purpose. There is an exchange of ideas. There is some kind of impact on the political system and the electoral dynamic. How that turns out? Well, it is likely that in 2020, the debates will probably not have a huge impact.

But even as we can be pretty sure that is the case when it comes to the debate last night, it won’t turn out to be a game changer and both sides probably recognize that, it is also the case that in the aftermath of any American general election, there is almost endless speculation, almost an autopsy on the election, trying to figure out what did and didn’t matter, and even if these so-called experts can figure out what did and didn’t matter.

Part II

Biden Says Courts Are “Getting Out of Whack” — The Left Won’t Be Satisfied by Biden’s Proposed Commission

But looking at the election and what’s at stake in the election, the biggest news yesterday turns out not to be the third debate, that’s where the press gave most attention, but rather to what was released ahead of time, concerning an interview that Joe Biden did with the CBS program, 60 Minutes, that will be broadcast on Sunday night. The headline in The Washington Post is this, “Biden, Squeezed on the Supreme Court, Promises a Commission to Consider Changes.” CBS basically teased the story on Thursday, indicating that in the CBS 60 Minutes program on Sunday night, the former vice-president and current Democratic presidential nominee will argue that the current court system, in particular, the Supreme Court of the United States is “getting out of whack.” He will do something that isn’t exactly packing the court, that is caving to the leftist demands of his party to change the composition of the Supreme Court out of frustration of a now conservative majority on the court, but what he is doing, we just need to say right now, is likely to lead to exactly that.

Biden says in the interview, “The last thing we need is to turn the Supreme Court into just a political football and whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want. Presidents come and go,” he said, “Supreme Court Justices stay for generations.” Fascinating that he would say that since it is not conservatives, but rather liberals who turned the court into this kind of political football. It was a progressivist majority on the court that decided to take the court into territory in which it was basically serving as a super legislature and handing down moral dictates for the rest of the country.

But now that the court has a conservative majority, liberals, who had been accustomed to having the courts under their direction, have been increasingly frustrated, calling for a reorganization of the courts, indeed, calling for adding additional justices so that a Democratic president could add liberal justices to eventually outnumber the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Now here’s the problem, and just about every major media sources noted this, if Biden goes on and says, “Yes, I will pack the court,” he will please the energy in his own party, but he will scare off swing voters.

But he needs those swing voters and even as the campaigns are coming to a close, it is clear that though he is ahead in most polls, former Vice-President Biden wants desperately to gain or to hold on to those swing voters. Those swing voters are not ready to join the agenda of the left wing of the Democratic party, that’s the wing that’s increasingly in control, but on the other hand, Biden desperately needs even more than he needs swing voters, he needs the base of his own party, a very liberal base now, to turn out with enthusiasm to vote.

If the base doesn’t turn out, swing voters won’t win the election for him. But if he does get his base out, and remember, when you at least look at the popular vote, Democrats have a larger base than Republicans, well, if he also gets many of the swing states, he could have a very big victory on election day, whether or not we know it on election day.

On the other hand, even as President Trump is behind in most of the polls, if he should gain these swing states, then he could conceivably put together another electoral college majority. He needs 270 votes. And if you look at these swing states, a swing in his direction could give him that electoral college victory.

But as we’re looking at the actual proposal that on Sunday night will be made by Joe Biden, it comes down to establishing a commission that he said would be given 180 days to consider the issue and bring recommendations. He said it would include Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. So, what’s the complaint? What’s the concern? Well, the concern is this. For one thing, you are now giving a commission authority to review the entire federal judiciary. You’re giving that commission 180 days.

Now, wait just a minute. Is that too long or is that too short? Well, you’re going to do anything major, it’s far too short, but if you’re going to do something minor, it’s far too long. But one issue keep in mind just in terms of leadership and political reality is that if you do create a commission in this kind of political context, and let’s just face it, the former vice-president is sending all the signals that, regardless of the representation on this commission, this commission is basically going to end up where the Democratic party wants it to end up.

The fact is that when you establish a commission like this, it will virtually never come back and say, let’s leave things as they are. That’s just not politically plausible, either when it comes to the Biden administration or to just the system’s reality of what it means to establish a commission. You establish a commission, they’re going to do something.

But another aspect of this that ought to be interesting to us is that even in the initial news coverage about what amounts to advance word about an interview that’s going to take place on television broadcast on Sunday night, the interesting thing is how many in the mainstream media have already said that this won’t be enough for his own party. For instance, the headline in the Los Angeles Times was this, Biden’s Answer to Court Packing Question is a Commission Spurring Fire From the Left. By the way, just going back to the point that the commission will not recommend doing nothing, remember that in his comments about establishing the commission, Biden says that the court system is getting out of whack. So, if the president naming the commission says it’s getting out of whack, the commission can’t come back and say, “No, it’s not.”

The main news coverage in The Washington Post includes this explanation, “The commission’s proposal is the latest example of Biden’s political style, particularly, his tendency to respond to pressure from the left without going as far as it wants. Some liberal groups,” says the post, “want a Democratic Congress to add as many as four seats to the court and have Biden fill them all, creating an instant liberal majority.” Now what’s so fascinating about that and alarming, frankly, is the fact that the mainstream media can report just two sentences like that as if we should just take that as axiomatic of American politics in 2020. It’s not. It is an extremely radical proposal, but reporting it like this makes it appear far less radical than it actually is. The structure of nine seats for the Supreme Court has existed now for over 160 years. It has survived two World Wars, it has survived a great depression and numerous recessions, it has survived numerous partisan changes in Congress and in the White House.

So, you can understand just how radical it is that in 2020, one major party nominee is now going so far as to at least say the system’s out of whack and so I’m going to name a commission to tell us what we ought to do.

Summarizing what those on the left think about this, Columbia University law professor, David Pozen, said, “I worry about the timeline of commission. It’s not clear what remains to be studied. There are in the academic literature quite a menu of possible reforms.” We really don’t need to study this, the law professor is saying, we know what to do. We just need to do it.

Part III

Amy Coney Barrett’s Nomination to the Supreme Court Advances from Judiciary Committee to Full Senate

Next, the judiciary committee of the United States Senate, with only Republicans present, voted unanimously to forward President Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the full Senate, and action before the full Senate is likely to take place on Sunday and Monday. No one knows at this point exactly how long that process may take on Monday, but Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has now acted in such a way that the issue will go to the floor of the Senate and given the Republican majority there and the strength of support for Judge Barrett, it is likely that at least by some time on Tuesday of next week, Judge Barrett should be confirmed as the newest justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Thus, next week, we’re going to look at some fascinating issues that have arisen just in recent days, and no doubt, will erupt over the course of the next several days to come concerning Judge Barrett’s nomination.

Already, there’s some very interesting moves, even as the confirmation of Judge Barrett is almost assured, very interesting moves coming from the left trying to discredit Judge Barrett for being caught in the act of actually applying Christian convictions to her role, for instance, as a trustee in a school.

We’ll be looking at that next week. It’s ominous for what this tells us, not just about the opposition that Judge Barrett is faced, but the opposition that any Christian or Christian school is likely to face on these issues going forward.

Part IV

Economic Inequality and “Super Cities” — As Economic Activity Moves to Lead Cities, Secularization and Moral Change Follow

But finally, as the week comes to an end, there is a lot of discussion in the United States, less, as a matter of fact, in the course of this election than many would have predicted, on the issue of income and equality. And there’s a lot of discussion about racial disparities and other disparities, about the changes in the economy and forms of employment, there are all kinds of issues there, and about economic insecurity, all of that is very much a part of the national debate, and it will be back in recurring waves.

And Christians understand, these are not morally insignificant issues. Christians are committed that the most people will experience the most flourishing. That’s what we hope for. We want to create the conditions, the moral and political and economic conditions, to allow for the maximum flourishing of humanity.

And between liberals and conservatives, there’s a genuine debate. And that debate comes down to what are the conditions? What are the policies? What are the economic mechanisms? What kind of market would allow for the greatest possible flourishing? We’ll talk more about that in days to come as well.

But what’s not often discussed is something that turns out not only to be of importance economically, but also culturally and morally. Just think about also the political map, think about how we talk about the fact that the closer you get to a campus, the closer you get to a city, the closer you get to a coast, the more morally progressive and the more liberal the society becomes. You can look at that on a partisan map, Republican conservative, it’s also true that the closer you get to a city, a campus or a coast, the more secular the culture becomes.

But along now comes The Washington Post with a headline that actually reveals a story with a blockbuster in it, and it’s not getting much attention at all. Hamza Shaban reports for The Washington Post a headline story, “Not Even a Pandemic Can Break Rich Cities’ Grip on the U.S. Economy.” Very interesting. So, before COVID-19 and during COVID-19, and as this article makes clear, in all likelihood, after COVID-19, the economic inequality to which this article points is actually not among individuals, not even among states, but simply among cities.

And the facts brought forward are absolutely shocking. Shaban reports, “For many Americans, the disorienting rush of the coronavirus pandemic prompted a re-evaluation of major life choices, such as where to live, and broader questions on whether the pandemic would diminish the dynamism and allure of New York and other superstar cities like it.”

The article continues, “This elite class of American city, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the district,” that means D.C., “is made up of densely populated economic powerhouses with deep reserves of talent and wealth, but without an office to report to, their high cost of living becomes harder to justify, especially as technology and necessity of open pathways to work pretty much anywhere.”

Now, listen closely to the next paragraph, “The intense clustering of professionals and industries such as aerospace and software development underscores the self-reinforcing ecosystems of world-class research universities,” such as those found in Boston, “and sprawling corporate hubs in Seattle. Of the 250,000 technology jobs created from 2005 to 2017, roughly 90% flow to just five cities.”

Did you catch that? We’re talking about the major economic transformation of our economy and culture towards a high technology culture. You’re talking about aerospace, software development, and now we are told that 90% of all of the new jobs created in those industries between 2005 and 2017, 90% went to just five cities.

Now here’s something else. It turns out that in several of those cities, including, most importantly, New York and San Francisco, not only is there an inequality as you look amongst American cities, but those particular cities have the highest rates of income inequality. By the time you work your way through this fairly long, but quite important article neglected in mainstream conversation, it turns out that the take-home is that these superstar cities, numbered between five and 10, are almost assuredly going to maintain their superstar status because that’s where the action is, in aerospace, computer software development, and allied fields of high technology. That’s where the action is so that’s where these professionals will be.

And that’s just not an accident, and it’s important to us to recognize that those also turn out to be not only engines of economic activity, but engines of moral change and engines of secularization. And that leaves us with one further thought that we at least ought to have very much in mind. The cities that are left out are actually trying to emulate these superstar cities. And if they do emulate them, it won’t just be in terms of jobs and economics. It will also be in terms of culture and morality and secularization.

There isn’t a pastor emission strategist. There’s not a church leader or intelligent Christian who shouldn’t be thinking about these things because the impact will not only be as you think about the economic map of the United States, but about how churches thrive and survive in many of these areas as well, or don’t.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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