Gail Collins and Bret Stephens: “Welcome to the ‘Well, Now What?’ Stage of the Story”

From a New York Times conversation between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “Welcome to the ‘Well, Now What?” Stage of the Story”:

Gail Collins: Bret, I suspect that even some diligent readers roll their eyes and turn the proverbial page when the subject of the filibuster comes up.

Bret Stephens: In the thrills department it ranks somewhere between budget reconciliation and a continuing resolution.

Gail: Yet here we are. Looks like Joe Biden’s voting rights package is doomed because he can’t get 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster. I’m inclined to sigh deeply and then change the subject, but duty prevails.

Bret: It’s another depressing sign of Team Biden’s political incompetence. How did they think it was a good idea for the president to go to Georgia to give his blistering speech on voting rights without first checking with Kyrsten Sinema that she’d be willing to modify the filibuster in order to have a chance of passing the bill? And then there was the speech itself, which struck me as … misjudged. Your thoughts?

Gail: If you mean, was it poorly delivered — well, after all these years we know that’s the Biden Way. He can rise above, as he did with the speech about the Jan. 6 uprising, but it’s not gonna happen a whole lot.

Bret: I meant Biden’s suggestion that anyone who disagreed with him was on the side of Jefferson Davis, George Wallace and Bull Connor. The increasingly casual habit of calling people racist when they disagree with a policy position is the stuff I’ve come to expect from Twitter, not a president who bills himself as a unifier. And again, it’s political malpractice, at least if the aim is to do more than just sound off to impress the progressive base.

Gail: I don’t see anything wrong with expressing anger about the way some states operate their elections. Making it very tough to vote by mail. Requiring citizens to register at least 30 days before the actual election, like Mississippi does. Can’t tell me the goal isn’t to restrict the number of voters, particularly new voters who won’t necessarily feel super welcome at the polls.

Bret: A lot of the allegedly restrictive voting laws in red states are actually the same or better than they are in some of the blue states. For instance, Georgia has 17 days of early voting. New Jersey has nine. Georgia allows anyone to vote by mail. Absent a pandemic, New York only allows it if you’re out of town or have a prescribed excuse.

Even if there are aspects of these laws that could be improved, I don’t see how this adds up to Jim Crow 2.0, as the president seems to think. He’d do better working to fix the Electoral Count Act, or make it a felony — if it isn’t one already — to pressure state officials to meddle with the vote, the way Donald Trump did with Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger when he asked him to “find 11,780 votes.”

Gail: Well we are in total agreement about the Electoral Count Act of 1887. Back to Kyrsten Sinema for a minute — nothing is going to induce her to do anything that would threaten the filibuster, also known as the Rule That Makes Senator Sinema Marginally Relevant.

Bret: You won’t be surprised to learn that I like the newest Arizona maverick more and more. Everyone hates the filibuster until it’s their turn to be in the Senate minority, at which point it becomes a vital institutional safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. I take it you don’t agree.

Gail: Well, I’d like to go back to the days when you could only keep the filibuster going by actually continuing to stand up and talk. Instead of just going home to dinner.

That’d be a demonstration of real commitment, rather than just a desire to get points as an independent before the next election in your swing state.

Bret: Yeah, but then you’d have to do stuff like watch Ted Cruz filibuster by reading “Green Eggs and Ham” from the well of the Senate, which violates the Eighth Amendment proscription on cruel and unusual punishments, not to mention the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Gail: I kinda like the idea of Ted swaying wearily back and forth as he reads on and on, while his colleagues yell “Go back to Cancún!”

Bret: Ha! Gail, I was really struck by our colleague David Brooks’s column last week. He cataloged all the ways in which socially destructive behavior has been on the rise: reckless driving, hate crimes, drug overdoses, homicides, you name it. Obviously the pandemic has a lot to do with this, but there’s got to be more at work here. Any ideas?

Gail: You know my theory that the internet has changed human relations in a way that we can’t compare to anything since the Postal Service started bringing people letters and newspapers from far away.

The pandemic is obviously making everybody crazy. But the overall, long-term loony politics also has to do with the outside world in which folks can now communicate in so many new and frequently awful ways.

What do you think?

Bret: Fully agree. Social media has created the phenomenon of Together Alone, to borrow the name of an old Crowded House album. Only it’s the wrong kind of togetherness and the wrong kind of aloneness.

Gail: Explain.

Bret: The old togetherness taught people how to negotiate differences in communities they hadn’t chosen for themselves. And the old aloneness often entailed long periods of engaged solitude, like reading a novel or gardening or building a model ship. But the new togetherness allows us to select the communities to which we belong, mostly with people who like what we like, hate what we hate, and never challenge our assumptions. And the new aloneness often means scrolling among endless internet distractions without ever focusing on anything in particular. The result is that we now live in a world where people know neither how to be together nor how to be alone. It’s the ultimate recipe for unhappiness and bad behavior.

Anyway, that’s my theory, probably full of holes. But speaking of Together Alone, what’s your view of Kamala Harris’s place in the administration?

Gail: Well, I love the Together Alone thought.

And maybe Harris would count as Alone Together. She’s physically present for a lot of things where she doesn’t really have a role.

Bret: In many ways it’s the way the vice presidency used to be — an office that John Nance Garner, F.D.R.’s first veep, described as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Except he used a slightly more pungent word than spit.

Gail: Have to admit Harris has never knocked me over as a potential president. And as veep she’s stuck between assignments that nobody could possibly do, like solving the Mexican border crisis, and things she’s just bad at, like some of the inside-the-administration jobs her staff doesn’t seem capable of mastering. A group that is roiled by consistent turnover, by the way.

Tell me your thoughts.

Bret: Someone told me — it might have been you — that Harris is warm and funny in person. But she’s a lousy politician, and it showed when she flamed out of the Democratic primary before the Iowa caucus. Fixing the border is not mission impossible. It requires a mix of tough-minded security provisions of the sort past Democratic administrations were willing to put into place; ambitious legislative proposals to create broader avenues for legal immigration; a willingness to accept “Remain in Mexico” as an interim policy provided we help the Mexican government ensure humane conditions for migrants; and long-term security and economic assistance for troubled Latin American states.

Gail: We could have an argument about some of your details, but it seems sort of silly to pick a fight over the administration’s position on Mexico when there doesn’t always seem to be one.

Bret: In the meantime, I hope other Democrats are thinking hard about who the party should nominate in 2024, because I don’t see Biden running or Harris replacing him. Any early favorites?

Gail: Still watching the field. There are plenty of possible women, like Senator Amy Klobuchar. And I have to admit I’ve always had a soft spot for Pete Buttigieg, the current secretary of transportation. He was an appealing candidate for president before, and with all that road-building money, he has a great job for making friends. On the downside, when I first quickly answered your question in my mind, I envisioned Buttigieg but gave him the name of the recently deceased director Peter Bogdanovich. So the former Mayor Pete’s maybe got a way to go on name recognition.

Bret: Same problem on my end. I’m impressed by Gina Raimondo, the Commerce secretary and former Rhode Island governor. But the name that first popped into my head was Gina Lollobrigida.

Gail: Before we go, tell me how you’re holding up in the super-cold weather. Have to admit thinking about another eight or 10 weeks of winter is a little depressing. Even Covid would be easier to deal with if we could go for a sunny walk. Any tips on adjusting to the long cold future?

Bret: I hear that A.O.C. thinks that Florida is a terrific spot for a winter getaway, whatever the Covid risks. Good for her for taking a holiday from the neighborhood. Speaking for myself, I remain in a New York state of mind.

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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