Gail Collins and Bret Stephens: “It was the kind of thing we might have expected of Trump but we elected Biden not to do”

From a  conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “The President Needs a Turnaround”:

Bret Stephens: Gail, that was one long presidential news conference last week. If Joe Biden wanted to show he has stamina, I guess he proved it. Otherwise, how did you think it went?

Gail Collins: Bret, I really, really wish I could give three cheers and a few fireworks here, but I have to admit it … could have been better.

Bret: It reminded me of the scene in some old movie where the car takes the wrong turn on a foggy night. It could have used some background music, like the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” Let’s hope the next song won’t be “The End.”

Gail: As you know, I try to steer clear of foreign policy, but I was shocked that the president didn’t seem to have a good answer on the Russia-Ukraine issue.

Bret: It was exactly the kind of thing we might have expected of Donald Trump but that we elected Biden not to do — mindless verbal blundering leading to potentially catastrophic real-world consequences, like Dean Acheson’s infamous Korea gaffe, when he omitted South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia in a speech just a few months before the North invaded in 1950. I hate to think of Vladimir Putin pondering just what kind of “minor” invasion of Ukraine will serve his interests best.

My bigger beef with Biden’s presser is that he didn’t seem to grasp the need to reboot his presidency. Contrary to what the president is suggesting, his administration isn’t suffering from a failure to communicate, “Cool Hand Luke”-style. It’s suffering from a failure to execute, in part because it set unrealistic legislative goals, in part because it screwed up the delivery. It’s why the president needs a new team, starting with the chief of staff position.

Gail: You’re referring to Ron Klain — who is either a Biden old hand with the drive and connections to help muscle the infrastructure bill through Congress or the out-of-touch liberal who persuaded the president to go for a way-too-ambitious social agenda.

Klain deserves sympathy for his goals — and plight. Still, I’m kinda heartless on this front. Biden needs a turnaround, and if a high-profile internal shake-up will make the country feel as if it’s opening a new chapter, let’s go for it — whether Klain is the real problem or not.

Your nomination for a replacement would be …

Bret: Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, who I think could be to a Biden White House what Leon Panetta was to Clinton’s or Howard Baker to Reagan’s. Another name that comes to mind would be Evan Bayh, the former senator from Indiana and another Midwestern Democrat with moderate instincts whose experience Biden would respect.

Gail: You’ve mentioned Daschle before. But give me details on your thinking.

Bret: Biden needs someone who is more of a peer than a subordinate. He needs someone who can check his worst impulses, above all his cocksureness. He needs someone who can do some Clintonian triangulation by picking a few popular fights with the far left while going to war with the Josh Hawleys of the far right. He needs someone who can help struggling Democratic incumbents in the midterms. Above all, Biden needs someone who can get clear legislative wins.

Gail: Sounds good so far …

Bret: Three yards and a cloud of dust moves the football a heck of a lot further than one missed Hail Mary pass after another, which is the way the administration has operated since the summer.

Gail: Bret, this is generally the point where you tell the administration to stop thinking about universal early childhood education or clamping down on the prescription drug industry.

Are we there now?

Bret: Maybe the president should settle on one or two progressive policy goals, not a dozen of them. The alternative is a Republican Congress in a year and a Republican president in three years. How does President DeSantis sound to you?

Gail: Well, you can guess. Totally apart from his right-wing agenda, we’re talking about a guy who’s crusaded against vaccine mandates while refusing to say whether he’s been boosted himself.

But let me ask you the same question. I know you’d never vote for Donald Trump even if the Democrats nominated Felix the Cat. But what about Ron DeSantis? Is he on the Trump level for you? Slightly better? Even worse?

Bret: The litmus test for me is whether a Republican will clearly denounce Trump for Jan. 6 and the whole big-lie election meshugas. DeSantis seems to have pressed the mute button on that score, which pretty much loses me at hello. The anti-vaccine-mandate attitude bothers me less: I have my own doubts about the wisdom and efficacy of a mandate.

Gail: Always good to hear you say something I disagree with.

Bret: About the next election, if the fourth year of the Biden administration resembles the first, particularly when it comes to inflation, I’ll be hard-pressed to vote for him. And so, I suspect, will many of the people who supported him last time.

Which brings me to my latest hobby horse, which is to get Biden to announce early that he won’t run again so other Democrats can start exploring a run. Critics of the idea think it turns him into a lame duck, but I think it would look statesmanlike and actually strengthen his hand. Am I wrong?

Gail: I’ve been thinking about that, and at this point I’d say yeah, you’re wrong. If he officially announces he’s out this early in the game, it’ll kick off a two-and-a-half-year campaign for the nomination. In the age of the internet that’s just … too long.

As far as strengthening Biden’s hand, I just don’t see it. We’re talking more than 35 months of lame duck.

Bret: Isn’t every re-elected president an automatic lame duck, because they can’t run for a third term? Biden can still get a lot done in 35 months, without sitting on the rest of the Democratic Party like a wet blanket on a cold day. And we can all stop pretending that we’re totally OK with the idea of an 86-year-old president, which is what Biden would be at the end of a second term.

Gail: Yeah, I see your point. But I don’t see why he should do an official announcement yet. If you don’t have to be a lame duck, why volunteer to hobble when you waddle?

Bret: A line for the ages, Gail. But how much longer will voters put up with his twaddle?…

Gail: Putting down a marker to return to that subject, repeatedly.

Meanwhile, I know it’s early in the game but I want to get back to your drawing the line at voting for a Biden re-election. Not that I think it’s a good idea for him to run — but we have to discuss my conviction that voting for some third-party candidate, or leaving a race blank on the ballot, is always a bad idea.

Bret: I like having choices as a voter. I’d never vote for Trump or a Trumpian, but if the Democrats can’t get their act together and learn how to govern, Felix the Cat sounds like the right write-in candidate for me.

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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