A Conversation Between New York Times Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens: “We are not running out of hypocrisy anytime soon”

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “We Are Not Running Out of Hypocrisy Anytime Soon”:

Gail Collins: Bret, I rely on you for the inside story on what Republicans are thinking even when you disagree with them.

Two issues of the moment: vaccinations and gun safety. I have to admit I was a tad surprised that some members of Congress had been trying to slow down critical votes on matters like keeping the government running in order to stage a rebellion against vaccination requirements.

Bret: I doubt Mitch McConnell would allow a government shutdown — he’s made that clear. Since the days of Speaker Newt Gingrich, it’s been a tried-and-true formula for helping Democrats recover from electoral defeat by making the Republican Party look about as attractive as, well, Newt Gingrich.

Gail: You’re probably correct. Not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed for the loss of such a juicy issue.

Bret: It’s the story of American politics: One party rescues the other from its mistakes by making even bigger mistakes.

Gail: Moving on to Question 2: The loony right is trying to spread nutty rumors that vaccination might make you sterile. Is the sane right doing enough to push back?

Bret: Nutty rumors? Are you referring to recent research by the Aaron Rodgers Institute of Reproductive Sciences, by any chance? I haven’t seen much conservative pushback there, though it’s worth noting that much vaccine nuttiness comes from people like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who isn’t exactly a Republican, and lots of people in the woo-woo land of alternative medicine, which isn’t usually associated with rock-ribbed conservatives….

Gail: On guns we’ve got another heartbreaking mass shooting at a school, this time in Michigan. For a lot of people, it shows how important it is to have laws that require gun owners to store their weapons at home in secure places where underage family members or underage anyone can’t get their hands on them. But I’m not seeing Republican leaders call for that kind of very basic, obvious reform.

Bret: Gail, this latest tragedy is a reminder, as the N.R.A. used to say, that people kill people — and that it’s a lot easier to kill people when people with unmistakable signs of serious mental illness have access to a gun in an unlocked drawer, along with plenty of ammunition. In a sane world, this shooting would, at a minimum, lead to stronger safe-storage laws, though Republicans in Michigan let just such a law wither without a vote this year. How a party that claims to prize the immanent value of human life when it comes to a zygote can be so ambivalent about safeguarding the lives of innocent teenagers at school is simply beyond me.

Gail: I knew you’d be standing tall on that one. I’m sure many, many schools are thinking about how to respond to all this. Clearly, they’ve been practicing what to do when a student starts spreading bullets around the classroom, but not so much on how to identify those potentially dangerous kids and deal with their potentially nut-case parents.

Bret: But speaking of zygotes, any thoughts on the Supreme Court’s deliberations in the Mississippi abortion case?

Gail: Well, it sure doesn’t look good for freedom of choice. At best, it sounds as if the majority will pare back — maybe drastically — the latest date at which all women would be guaranteed the right to end an unwanted pregnancy.

Bret: The court will probably do itself a lot of institutional harm if it overturns Roe v. Wade. It’s been settled law for nearly 50 years, and legal precedent deserves a lot of respect, especially from self-described conservatives, and especially when the precedent in question has done so much to shape the expectations and opportunities of our personal lives, and not just for women.

On the other hand, if the court overturns Roe outright or pares it back so that Mississippi can ban nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, it will probably do a lot to galvanize the abortion-rights movement in Congress and state legislatures. The pro-choice movement might eventually come to appreciate that it was a mistake to rely so heavily on the court system to secure abortion rights rather than through the normal democratic process.

Gail: Don’t think basic civil rights should be up for a vote. It’s also some awful kind of irony that we’re watching the court prepare to chip away at a woman’s right to abort a fetus while our politicians refuse to do much of anything to protect a child’s right to go to school without being gunned down by a classmate.

Meanwhile, the news is jammed with stories about new, encroaching coronavirus infections. Do me a favor, Bret, and turn our conversation to something cheery.

Bret: I guess I’ll refrain from mentioning that the supply-chain situation has gotten so out of hand that there’s even a cream-cheese shortage at New York City bagel shops, which is like one of the 10 biblical plagues as reimagined by Mel Brooks.

Gail: That does it. Returning to fetal position under the bed.

Bret: To be totally frank, Gail, I’m struggling to see good news these days, except for a hope that the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus might end up proving more transmissible but less deadly than past variants. The result could be that it will, in essence, vaccinate the unvaccinated world by infecting them, and help bring the most deadly part of the pandemic to an end. But that might just be my wishful thinking getting ahead of the facts.

Gail: Um, suspect you’re a tad overoptimistic.

Bret: What about you? Anything cheering you up? Maybe Vladimir Putin promising that Russia will go carbon neutral by 2060?

Gail: OK, I’ll give you a couple of quick cheery thoughts. I sort of hate the Giving Tuesday flood of emails, but they did remind me of how many of our fellow Americans are out every day volunteering for good causes — everything from visiting the elderly sick to caring for abandoned animals.

Bret: It’s one of the marvels of America. As you know, Gail, I grew up in Mexico City, where — at least at the time — there just wasn’t the same culture of philanthropy and volunteering as there is in the United States. People of means tended to measure their worth more by what they had than by what they gave. In fact, one of the many, many reasons I despised our former president was the way in which he stinted his own foundation.

Gail: My second cheery thought is that America’s kids are so concerned about climate change. If we screw everything up, I have faith they’ll at least be ready to rush in with a rescue squad.

Bret: Idealism is great unless it sours into fatalism. Or if it demands more than people are willing to give. I worry that the current young generation of Greta Thunbergs is merely going to spawn the next generation of cynics and reactionaries. It reminds me of the great Philip Larkin poem, “This Be the Verse”:

They mess you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

For the record, Larkin used an, um, slightly different version of the phrase “mess you up.” Anyway ….

Gail: OK, that is a truly non-cheery poem. Try to repress it.

You know, the holidays tend to be happy-making. A lot of folks go shopping for a tree, look forward to family visits. And in between get-togethers, at least one member of my household of two will point out that there are a ton of good games to watch. That’s the one thing I love about professional sports. Even if darkness descends, there’s a little ray of cheer here when the Patriots win.

Bret: We’re just wrapping up Hanukkah. It’s the miraculous story of Super Bowl XLVI, when the underdog Giants beat the overconfident Patriots the way the Jews beat the Seleucids — assisted by miracle.

Gail: See, there’s always a little sunshine …

Bret: Oh, that reminds me of one thing I am feeling optimistic about. We’re about to get a better mayor in New York, Eric Adams, who, unlike his dumb-as-he-is-tall predecessor, understands that the city won’t thrive until people feel safe, which in turn requires a police force that isn’t afraid to do its job and enforce the law.

Gail: Yeah, the de Blasio departure alone deserves a holiday toast or two.

Bret: My hope is that his election represents a definite turning away from the kind of progressive governance that’s done so much damage in cities like Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, and that has also done a lot of damage to the Democratic Party’s reputation. If Adams succeeds, he’s going to be a force to reckon with in American politics. Are your hopes high?

Gail: Sure! We’re about to enter a new year, and the rule is that optimism reigns at least until the second week in January.

But seriously, I think we can celebrate Eric Adams without trashing progressive government. Not when there’s such a long list of conservative mayors, governors and police departments that have made things much worse for their people.

Bret: You may just have a point.

Gail: One last thought, on the passing of Bob Dole. He was hardly a pal but I did follow him around when he was running — haplessly — for president. I didn’t agree with a whole lot of his agenda but I was sort of touched by his … reasonableness. Never got the feeling he was just marching to his own tune and presuming everybody else was out of key.

Bret: Bob Dole would say “Bob Dole thanks you for your kindness, Gail.” He represented an era of political collegiality that I miss.

Gail: So many Republicans now that we Democrats can’t imagine sitting down with for a drink or friendly chat.

Present company most definitely excluded.

Bret: Except I’m not a Republican anymore! But I’m always up for a drink.

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist and a former member of the editorial board, and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007.

Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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