Mini-Episode: Bursting Bubbles, with Jennifer Rubin

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Andy calls Washington Post columnist, Jennifer Rubin, to talk about how a conservative changed teams and reckons with the precedent of a country on the precipice. They also remember the time they were on MSNBC together and got a big surprise.

Show Notes 

Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt and Instagram @andyslavitt, and find Jennifer @JRubinBlogger on Twitter.

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[00:44] Andy Slavitt: Welcome to In the Bubble. This is Andy Slavitt recording from Chicago on my iPhone. Here visiting my mom and Zach is here as well in the other room, taking a call for me trying to figure out how to get some testing done for broader parts of the population that need it. Jennifer Rubin’s on the show today. I think you’ll enjoy this conversation. Jennifer is a very prolific columnist from the Washington Post. She is a well-known conservative who has some very interesting perspectives on Covid-19 and all the things that are going on in the country right now. You’ll also hear surprise information about my relationship with Jennifer. So enjoy. Here is our conversation with Jennifer Rubin.


[01:34] Andy Slavitt: Are you a veteran of podcasts? Do you do a lot of these? 


[01:37] Jennifer Rubin: You know, I’ve done a few. I’ve done more of them since the pandemic than before. Less TV, more podcasts.


[01:43] Andy Slavitt: Right. So let’s talk about this funny story that happened to both of us. You remember this. We were in the green room at CNN or MSNBC. We were in D.C. and we were on TV together. And we had never met. We chatted and had pleasantries and I’ve always been an admirer of yours and so it’s fun to meet you. But it was just really quickly and we walked out. And half an hour later, I get a phone call. And little did I know that you get the exact same phone call. The one person in the world who could possibly know this was like, I’m related to both of those people. And they called someone who called us and said, do you know that you guys are sort of related? 


[02:37] Jennifer Rubin: And we are. That’s exactly what happened. You are — I believe I have this right — my husband’s second cousin. Is that right? I think so. 


[02:46] Andy Slavitt: I don’t know. But I know as I told my wife, I said, Lana, you won’t believe this. Jennifer Rubin and I are distant cousins-ish. And she said, “honey, all Jews are cousins.” 


[02:58] Jennifer Rubin: Very wise. Very wise. 


[03:00] Andy Slavitt: She’s born Catholic. And so she can make these observations. So have you been able to develop a kind of pandemic routine? What’s a day in the life look like for Jennifer Rubin? Is it much different than it was before? 


[03:16] Jennifer Rubin: It’s somewhat different. More because my husband is home, my son is home from, you know, their various work and school being sort of closed off. So in that sense, it’s a lot less lonely. It’s been nice actually having them around. And I think the other pattern is that, you know, you don’t take as many breaks from your work. There’s no place else to go or things to do. So in that sense, you do find yourself becoming a bit isolated from the world. And in that sense, it’s been a strange experience, as it has been, I think, for everyone. But what I do normally, minus the trips into D.C. to do TV in the studio, most of what I do, I can do from anywhere. Because I’m on the phone, I’m on the Internet, interviewing people and researching, and then I’m writing. So I do have the benefit of being able to do most of what I do without going someplace specific. I do miss seeing the people at the Post and at MSNBC. But hopefully we’ll get back to that at some point. 


[04:22] Andy Slavitt: Yes. And what you do is write a lot. And you have opinions and you are pretty firm in those opinions. How often do you write a column or a blog post for The Washington Post? 


[04:38] Jennifer Rubin: It varies day-to-day based on the news. I try to take Shabbat off. I do just a couple of things, usually on Sunday. But normally I do three to five during the day. Yes. So I know you have the shocked look on your face. You see, I started life, or started my adult life as a lawyer. And lawyers work like 14 hours a day. So when I started journalism, I didn’t get that that wasn’t the normal pattern for writers. People would say, oh, I just knocked out this piece. Took me a couple hours. And my reaction was, what do you do the other 12 hours of the work day? So I think it’s a combination of it’s cheaper than therapy. So you can kind of get out what you have to say. And that I did learn to read fast, write fast as a lawyer. And I think a lot of those skills I’ve just directly transferred into what I do in journalism. There are a lot of us ex-lawyers, recovering lawyers who do this.


[05:42] Andy Slavitt: Well, God knows there’s enough to write about. I mean, there’s periods in our history where I can’t imagine you could write three to five things a day. When you step back and think about it, it’s feasible, we’ve had days that have had, you know, yearlong news cycles in them. 


[05:58] Jennifer Rubin: Yes, it’s remarkable. And, you know things are bad when you get to the end of the day and you forgot what happened in the morning, or you think, oh, that West Point speech for Trump, that was like a month ago, right? No, it was two days ago. So the space-time continuum has definitely been interrupted, both because of the pace of things and then this weird existence with the pandemic. So I think we’re all in some kind of suspended animation and we’ve all been waiting for things to slow down. But ever since Trump was elected, of course, there’s been more news than any one person can possibly digest or even follow. And sometimes my family, of course, will say, well, did you read about X, Y and Z? I say, no. And they say, why aren’t you in this business? I can’t read it all. I can’t keep up with everything. We all have to make those decisions. You know, I’m too far behind on that story, I’m just going to have to skip it. 


[06:55] Andy Slavitt: So let’s say you were writing a column about the year 2020. And you had to take, you know, the three to five things you write every day, and you didn’t have the luxury of putting them out individually. But you were looking at this year, give us a context. What does this year remind us of? What kind of periods in our history are we going through? And what are the takeaways? What are the things you’d have people observe that are important to draw out of it? 


[07:29] Jennifer Rubin: I think this year it’s impossible to analogize to any singular year. If you took 1918, the Spanish flu, and you took 1968, a convulsive period in American history with civil rights, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the anti-war movement, and you threw in that 1929 and the crash, and you jam those three things together, you would almost get to 2020. And I say almost because up until this, we have had bad presidents, good presidents and different presidents. But we’ve never had completely unfit, verging on mentally-unstable presidents before. And when you have all of these events and you combine it with someone who is so destructive and so unable to handle the basics of the job, I think you come out with this sense of, you know, sort of dizzying dislocation.


[08:30] Jennifer Rubin: And I think one of the things I try to do for readers, or for viewers on TV, is to try to figure out what in a day, or a week, what is important and how it relates to the other pieces. To try to fit and find patterns so that we can say, well, I think this is what’s going on in a sequence of events. Sometimes you’re wrong, you’re too close to it, and you can’t really do that accurately. Sometimes you’re right and people don’t believe it. But I think the problem of developing perspective and context is hard for everyone. And I think that’s in part what The Post wants me to do. My boss, Fred Hiatt, believes that every piece should be a reported piece, which is why I bother you so often. I’m getting facts and figures and responses that our job is not only to tell everyone that I thought these great thoughts, but in some way to report, to add to the body of knowledge that’s going on. And that is actually one of the fun parts of my job. I get to talk to people like you. People like Larry Tribe, politicians, a lot of economists these days. And so in some ways, it’s made so much easier with access to various smart people who can help me kind of figure this out, and translate very confusing developments into some context. But as you know, some of these are simply cases of first impression. We’ve never had an economic crash as a result of a global pandemic. So the economists are doing the best they can. The epidemiologists are doing the best they can. The governors and the mayors are doing the best they can. 


[10:20] Jennifer Rubin: So we’re all kind of, you know, crawling in the dark, trying to find out where the whatever it is is there. And I think it at times is very confusing. It’s very frustrating and very depressing. I will say, however, that my spirits have been lifted in the last few weeks because I think my faith in the decency and the goodness of Americans has been somewhat restored. Like many people who saw Trump as a menace to our republic, we were gravely upset and frightened, disappointed, not only about his election per se, but that Americans could select such a person. And quite frankly, we started thinking ill of many of our fellow Americans. How could they do this? Didn’t they see what he is? Why do they stick with him? But what we’ve seen on the streets is really a remarkable, almost once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon by racial, by generation, multigenerational, bipartisan in many senses, certainly spanning an ideological strain. And it comes back to the central premise of America, which is that we are a credal nation. And the creed is we are one country. We the people. And that we are defined not by who we are, but our belief in equality, our belief in democracy and in the rule of law. And somewhere, after going through all the other alternatives, we seem to have stumbled upon that fundamental truth very, very late in the Trump administration. I hope it is more than a momentary convulsion, that it is something more sustainable, and that goes well beyond the criminal justice arena, as important, as crucial as that is. And that it extends to things like the repair of democracy. It extends to repairing our social contract, frankly, our civic institutions. And that we do have an opportunity to make some really, really big changes. 


[12:38] Jennifer Rubin: If, God willing, the election goes, as I hope it does, and that the people who win are able to take this newfound coalition and this opportunity for real systematic change and be able to move the ball. You don’t get many of these opportunities in the life of an individual or a country, where the tectonic plates are moving just enough that you can really shake things up, that you can really do something different. You don’t have to simply do some incremental change the way it’s always been. And, you know, I look at an area, for example, something that you’re certainly involved in. A year ago, would you have thought that paid leave, or paid sick leave, would have been within the realm of possibility in America? I don’t think so. Definitely not. And now we’re having conversations about whether to extend that. We’re having conversations about policing that we never would have had, that would have been greeted with a host of objections from federalism to constitutional issues to all sorts of issues. And there’s an opportunity now to simply not do things the way we’ve always done. And you just want to kind of bottle it and sustain it and hope it doesn’t dissipate simply by the passage of time. 


[14:01] Andy Slavitt: We have to recognize that this is sort of first-draft-of-history time. And our observations today are, as you say, all based on very incomplete information. There are big chunks of this virus we don’t understand. That when we do in five years or 10 years, we will look back with a certain amount of distinction. Things like your writings, I think people will look back and you’ll look back and others and scholars will look back in 15, 20 years and, you know, try to understand what were people feeling and understanding and absorbing. And it is chaotic. And I think even though it feels chaotic, I hope people understand that that’s what it does feel like when you’re going through — if we were going through the American Revolution or the Civil War or the Great Depression, we would not know how any of those things were going to turn out. We would not know what was next. We would know it felt deeply uncertain. With the benefit of hindsight, those were monumental events for us. And right now, we have the benefit or the misfortune, depending how you look at it, of going through that right now. 


[15:12] Jennifer Rubin: Even more surprising is how we got to this moment. It wasn’t like Americans didn’t know at some level how deformed, how degraded, how fundamentally unfair and indecent our criminal justice system was. We’ve had, as we now hear more often, a long litany of these. Some of these on camera and some of these not. But I do maintain that the visual image of that sustained period of time was akin — the only thing I can think of was to seeing Bull Connor’s dogs attack the African-American children in the civil rights movement. It so, as they say in the court, shocked the conscience that it made possible people to momentarily kind of rethink what they were doing. And I think when you put that on top of the pandemic, and then the president’s response — which actually, in a bizarre way, I think, forged this unity in the country. He was on the other side, but really forged this revulsion — 


[16:22] Andy Slavitt: Are you talking about his walk to the church with his shoulders high, holding the Bible that his daughter gave him, and the pepper spraying to get people out of the way?


[16:33] Jennifer Rubin: Yes. The Battle of Lafayette Park, which will probably be one of the more infamous moments. My good friend Matt Bennett from Third Way has been the only person who has been relieved. And that’s because he was the aide responsible for the infamous image of Michael Dukakis riding in the tank with the helmet. So he is now off the hook. He is no longer responsible for the worst visual image of a president in American history. 

[18:47] Andy Slavitt: You’ve made your feelings about Trump known. Do you ever worry about preaching to the choir? Do you ever worry about only writing for people that already agree with you and that are further cementing their views and giving them more evidence? People will know before they read what you’ve written by the headline or just by the byline that it’s not going to be positive to the president. So are you OK with that? On a macro level, how do we talk to each other if that’s the case?


[19:20] Jennifer Rubin: Well, I came to this point in an unusual way. If you go back five or six years, I was a sort of run-of-the-mill neocon and thought that John McCain would’ve made a fine president. Mitt Romney would have made a fine president. I was never a movement conservative, as they say. But I considered a lot of the principles, which are a really 19th century liberalism, with a small L, to be very valuable and an important counterpoint to other political views and tendencies in America. The notion of incremental change. The notion of unintended consequences. Concerns about the misuse of power. Attempting to bolster the rule of law. American leadership in the world. These were all things that I believed in deeply, and I still do. The irony is that I didn’t change in these fundamental ways. The political landscape was flipped on its head because Trump took every belief that the Republican Party once had, more or less, and threw it out the window. And 90 percent of the party followed him like zombies off the cliff. And I think because of this personal journey, this ideological journey that I’ve made, I think I can talk to persuadable conservatives, persuadable centrists, in a way perhaps some lifelong progressives cannot. Reminding them of the principles of their party, reminding them how contradictory these Republicans sound as they are really just catering to Trump and looking over their shoulders. I’ll give a very concrete example, we’re recording this on the day that the Supreme Court issued really a stunning case, essentially finding that Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, its reference to gender includes LGBTQ Americans. Stunning result, 6-3 in an opinion authored by Neil Gorsuch. And what I did was attempt to explain to people who thought, why would you have a conservative nominated by Trump reach this result? And trying to explain to them really what intellectually honest textualism looks like.

[21:49] Jennifer Rubin: He looked at the language. He did some logical thinking about the import of what the words on the page meant. And he was able to reach a result that was not simply a result that one would achieve by putting, you know, the jersey on your back or looking to the supporters who preferred your nomination. But I think the ability to explain how you get to that result, and why I think that’s not only the correct result, but if anyone still believes in anything approaching conservatism, the right result, is something that not all people who I think have been on the left for most of their lives can do. And some things that they simply accept that that’s the right result sometimes need more explaining for people who haven’t been there. 


[22:45] Jennifer Rubin: So I think it’s at times like that that I can perhaps fill in the blanks. And in doing that, hold some of these people to account. I mean, there was nothing more horrifying that I can think of in my political life, prior to the recent murder of George Floyd, than the impeachment. And seeing every one of those Republicans, most of whom knew better, lining up to make excuse after excuse for a president who had betrayed his country. And I think the ability to go back and to look at what these people used to think and used to say and holding them to account for their behavior now is a function that we in the what we loosely call the Never-Trumper world can do with a clarity that perhaps others don’t have. And I think that’s in some ways a useful task. And it not only is for those persuadable Republicans or ex-Republicans, but for those people who say, Jennifer, I thought you were conservative, why are you opposed to Trump? Or I thought, you know, liked John McCain. Why are you opposing what Trump is doing? So it’s an attempt to clarify an intellectually consistent line of thought, which explains why so many of us, many of my dearest ex-Republicans now felt so abandoned and betrayed by a party that repudiated many of these beliefs.


[24:20] Andy Slavitt: Would you agree that none of you Never-Trumpers have really brought people with you? As you said, 90 percent of the party stuck with the president, even though he brought a different set of values, principles and political beliefs, isolationism and protectionism. Yet 90 percent stuck. Are you surprised that the group of you very, very influential and smart center-right thinkers didn’t have more of a following? 


[24:49] Jennifer Rubin: I think we have to define what the following is. We were entirely unsuccessful in shaming elected Republicans into doing the right thing, or to challenging Trump. But I think what you’ve seen is that the Republican Party as we know it, is smaller than it used to be. That the people who feel betrayed, uncomfortable, disappointed, we have been successful in peeling off. They’re no longer Republicans. So they don’t identify as Republicans. They may show up as Independents. They may show up as Democrats. And when you look at an election like 2018 where people say, well, the suburbs really shifted to the Democrat Party. A lot of those people were suburban, college-educated people who made that same journey with us. And whether they were registered as Republicans or not, most of them had voted for Republicans for most of their adult life. And they have been peeled off. I think their consciousness, if you will, has been raised. And I also do think that there is a value to twisting the knife and pecking at someone’s consciousness. We’re here. We are not going to let you get away with this intellectual dishonesty and this moral abomination. We are watching.

[26:18] Andy Slavitt: Very important point. A couple of years ago, I got named to the Politico 50, which I don’t even know what it is. It’s 50 people who are influential political thinkers. And they sent me a bunch of questions that they were going to publish from all of the people. And I figured, OK, I have to sound smart because I’ve been named to something that I have had no business being named to. So, one of the questions was what era of history does this period remind us of? And I was like, okay, everybody is going to say 1968 or 1972 or 1939 or something like that. So I looked for, you know, admittedly I was shopping answers for the smartest answer I could find. That would be different than no one else would say. But I seriously studied this, too. And what I ended up actually saying was that it was reminiscent — and I said this quite hopefully — of the pre-Enlightenment period. Prior to women getting the vote, prior to the Federal Reserve being established. And my thesis was that it would be the post-Trump world, the reaction to this period, that would end up defining us in history as much as the period itself. And so I give you that preamble as a way of asking you, look ahead at this period of time where you’ve got a post-Trump world, it’s a post-pandemic world. It’s a post-George Floyd world. It is a post another depression, millions of people are out of work world. And we react. Because the systems are about feedback and responding to feedback. And so a lot of things will be different than would have otherwise happened. And as we close, I’m just wondering if you could reflect, because you’re such a keen social observer and political observer, and the way you write with passion about this country, maybe talk a little bit about what you think the post Trump World looks like. 


[28:32] Jennifer Rubin: I’m torn between a great fear that once in power, even if Democrats are able to take the Senate, which I think they may well do, the House and the presidency, that through infighting or dissension, that they will miss an opportunity of a lifetime. You know, it’s funny, we who are ex-Republicans have been desperately trying to help the Democrats not blow this. We were some of the earliest supporters of Biden because we feel like we really got to get this, we’ve seen you guys blow it before and we know how this is done. 


[29:12] Jennifer Rubin: But in all seriousness, I think if Joe Biden, who perhaps is exactly the right person ironically at the right time, is able to maintain his footing, is able to remain in what you can loosely call the center-left or even the center, and capitalize on some new consensus that he can elevate and really improve I think how government operates in the country. And maybe how our society functions. I think there is a much greater willingness now for the public, because the pandemic, because of the economic crash, because of the murder of George Floyd, to embrace a more activist government, a more effective government. And I think the ability to translate these distinct problems into government solutions that people think actually improve their lives is a remarkable moment. And where I analogize it to, frankly, is the New Deal. FDR had this catastrophe. In our case, in some ways, a man-made catastrophe. And he basically said, I have to preserve American capitalism and American democracy. But to do it, I’m going to radically have to change the way people relate to the federal government and the things the federal government does. And I think that’s, if possible, maybe the post Trump era is sort of like the New Deal. And the lesson of the New Deal is some of it didn’t work. Some of it fell by the wayside. But a whole bunch of stuff actually did. And a whole bunch of stuff actually fundamentally changed the way we think about government. Whether it is care for the elderly, whether it’s public works, whether it was insurance for the banks. That there’s a moment in which the public is ready to embrace something that is a little bolder, a little bit more daring, a little bit more, if you will, progressive than they otherwise would be. And when you can break through what people see are left-right issues and make them cultural issues, moral issues, it’s just wrong for African-Americans to be treated this way. Then you go beyond the normal politics and you can, I think, achieve things that you might not have been able to do. The Republicans would be screaming “states rights! You can’t tell the local police what to do!” They’re still screaming that. but I think we’ll be very ineffective in getting that done because this new consensus has emerged. I would hope that we’re able to do it in ways that can kind of keep as much of this coalition together as possible. It won’t last forever and it won’t last beyond perhaps the first budget. 


[32:14] Jennifer Rubin: But I think moving, in many ways as Biden has suggested, expanding the ACA rather than kind of starting anew. Expanding on climate change initiatives that he undertook under the Obama administration. That ability to kind of size up and branch out with ideas and things that actually do work I think is a monumental opportunity. And I will say there’s one significant issue that Trump opened in my eyes, and perhaps Americans as a whole did, and that is that extreme economic inequality is incompatible with democracy. You cannot have such great concentrations of wealth coexisting with abject want and misery and expect everyone to buy into a pluralist democracy. So even if you don’t think the highest calling of economic policy is equality, it is a necessity that we start thinking seriously about issues of fairness, about issues of equality, about issues of polarization. And that, I think, has largely been a result of seeing what an authoritarian kook can manipulate when given the opportunity. And that we can’t allow a society to continue that’s ripe for the next Donald Trump, who may be less crazy and more skilled, frankly, at manipulating and dominating American society.


[33:50] Andy Slavitt: This podcast is called In the Bubble, and I cannot tell whether this episode is going to be called changing bubbles, enlarging bubbles or unequal bubbles. But I think you are someone who did something very difficult, which is sort of question the bubble you were in. And we all live in these bubbles. And argue and criticize passionately in a way that if I were pressed with a gun to my head, I would say, because how much you love this country. And all of us in our bubbles can recognize that just making it better and really proactively, constructively criticizing, which in some cases means a reasoned argument, in some cases means stamping your feet and saying “this is wrong. This is really wrong. This is not who we are” is a great sign of love. So between that and introducing Zach to his new cousin who didn’t know we had, we discovered we were cousins by being on TV together, it’s been wonderful to have you on to talk with you. 


[35:04] Jennifer Rubin: It was an absolute joy, cousin. 


[35:09] Andy Slavitt: Thanks, Jennifer. Appreciate the conversation. And thank you all for listening in. We have another podcast coming up on Wednesday. It’s a big one. It is with Governor Gretchen Whitmer from Michigan. And Michigan is on the improving side of the curve. And she’s going to talk about what it was like going through the nightmare of Covid in the state of Michigan, her relationship with the president, and going to ask her advice for the states that are going through the case growth today. We’re also going to talk about what it would be like to vote during a pandemic. So listen in on Wednesday. Until then, thanks for listening. 


[35:53] Andy Slavitt: In the Bubble is a production of Lemonada Media. Niccole Galteland is our producer and Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. Zach Slavitt is our co-producer and my co-host. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me on social media at @ASlavitt on Twitter, @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends, but tell them at a distance. For now, stay safe. Share some joy. We’ll get through this together. And #StayHome.


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