Gail Collins and Bret Stephens: “Can anyone save the GOP?”

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “Can Anyone Save the G.O.P.”:

Gail Collins: Hey, Bret, the new jobs report looked pretty good. Would you say Joe Biden is starting off the Winter Olympics season with a triple salchow?

Bret Stephens: Gail, I’m having trouble imagining the president in a sparkly ice-skating unitard.

Gail: You’re right, don’t want to go there.

Bret: The jobs report is definitely good news. But people won’t feel happy about the economy while inflation keeps eating away at their paychecks and interest rates start rising. Which, if Larry Summers is right, is what we are likely to get for at least another year as demand keeps outpacing supply and the Fed tightens monetary policy. Neither is going to help the president or his party in the midterms.

On the other hand, seeing what the G.O.P. just did to Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, maybe Americans will conclude that a Democratic Party that doesn’t understand governance is still preferable to a Republican Party that doesn’t understand democracy.

Gail: A party that just declared the Jan. 6 mob was engaged in “legitimate political discourse.” What can sane conservatives like you do to bring the Republican Party back?

Bret: Trying to rescue the Republican Party from the moral pit into which it has thrown itself is like trying to revive a corpse by blowing tobacco smoke up its bottom.

Gail: Eew.

Bret: Apparently it was a thing in the 18th century. Think of it as the hydroxychloroquine of its day.

Anyway, I know you really hate this idea, but the only solution is to start a new party or maybe even two. I’ve made the case before that America needs a Liberal Party — “liberal” in the old-fashioned sense of believing in free expression, free enterprise, free living and a free world. But the truth is that America could also use a proper Conservative Party, in the true sense of the word “conservative”: Burkean in its belief in the importance of manners, morals and gradual change; Arnoldian in its respect for high culture; Smithian not just in its devotion to free markets but also in its belief in the cultivation of moral sympathies. Trump’s Republican Party is the antithesis of all that. In fact, what they’re doing right now to Kinzinger and Cheney is just another version of the “cancel culture” that the Fox News crowd likes to rail against when it comes to campus politics.

Gail: So interesting that third parties have become one of our main points of intense disagreement in 2022.

Starting a new party would be way easier than trying to defeat the Trumpian maniacs in Republican primaries and state conventions all around the country. But then what do you have? One of our two major parties doomed to permanent craziness.

Suppose the third option catches on? It’d probably attract moderate Democrats too. All sounds great. But in the next election, there’d be a Trumpian Republican, maybe a progressive-wing Democrat and — well, you pick the guy for your middle.

Bret: Retired admirals William McRaven and Jim Stavridis. Former mayors Mike Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and the former governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo. Educational leaders Eva Moskowitz and Danielle Allen. There’s a good, sound, pragmatic, electable middle.

Gail: And when everybody goes out to vote for the next president, the sane electorate would be divided, and the crazy Trumpian person wins.

Bret: That might happen anyway, with Biden flailing politically and Republicans looking forward to big midterm gains. It’s a scenario that would be easier to avoid if Democrats made it easier for a center-right guy like me to join their ranks. Any chance of replacing Chuck Schumer with Joe Manchin as Senate majority leader?

Gail: Oh, good Lord. But thanks for opening a door — I’ve been meaning to find a way to defend Chuck Schumer.

Bret: In person he’s a very sweet guy.

Gail: Here’s the thing. The Senate majority leader is not supposed to be a glamorous public figure. Mitch McConnell. His whole public persona is about stopping Democratic presidents from doing anything.

Bret: You’ve got to admit Mitch is more effective in the minority than Chuck is in the majority.

Gail: Well, this Senate-stopping stuff is way, way easier than actually making something happen.

Schumer has worked like crazy — for decades, really, to build Democratic majorities in Congress. Now he needs to get important legislation passed in a Senate where a single publicity-obsessed Democrat can kill a plan. I’m not sure even the greatest deal makers of Senate history could do a much better job than he’s doing.

Bret: Schumer could help things by naming every significant piece of legislation after Manchin: the Joe Manchin Build Back Better Bill, the Joe Manchin Universal Pre-K Bill and so on. Instead of treating him like a pariah, make him a hero, get his vote and reap the benefits.

Gail: Well, you know, it’s sorta irritating when you have a superrich senator who made a fortune in the coal industry trying to sabotage climate change legislation.

But it’s interesting that so much ire is focused on Manchin when Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has been throwing up the same roadblocks. Her motives seem to be all about protecting rich investors from taxation.

Bret: Honestly, I’d love to see some more appreciation for purple-state legislators, from both parties. People like Sinema don’t have the luxury of ideological purity. She represents a state that has barely started to tip blue and could easily go back to being red if Democrats get too carried away with their most progressive ambitions.

You don’t agree?

Gail: Sure, but there’s a balancing act. Maybe the average swing voter in Arizona hates anything that raises taxes, even if it’s just on the rich. But I can’t believe there’s a general public intensity about protecting the filibuster. Choose your battles.

So, let’s drop partisan politics and go a little more cosmic here: Do you feel we’re living in a post-Covid world? Or as close as we’re going to get? I don’t see what more Biden can do to promote vaccination and Covid testing. And the political opposition is so nuts, it’s not very likely there’s going to be any give there.

Bret: My friend Karl Rove just lost his sister to Covid, which he wrote about in a beautiful column in The Wall Street Journal. It is a reminder that many of us might be “done with Covid” but Covid isn’t done with us.

Gail: True, I was overoptimistic-izing.

Bret: That said, the idea that we can ever hope to make the disease go away through lockdowns, social distancing, masking policies and even vaccines has absolutely failed. And the effects of pandemic restrictions — in the form of personal isolation, school closures, drug overdoses and political radicalization — are almost becoming as damaging as the pandemic itself. My feeling is that the best thing that Biden can do is publicly declare that the national emergency is over, that the restrictions are finished and that people who are at increased risk will be given the legal leeway they need to take necessary precautions.

Your thoughts?

Gail: Well, you know I’m in favor of a return to public life. We’ve been to two movies in real theaters over the past few weeks, and I loved actually watching films with other people rather than just from the couch. Even though we had to wear masks through the whole experience. Would love to see that part go away. Maybe gradually.

Bret: Unless you’re wearing an N95 or equivalent mask, a lot of the masking we have been doing has been farcical and may well have been counterproductive — by giving people a false sense of safety.

Gail: I know the social distancing rules are very hard on the theater owners, but as a consumer, I do appreciate knowing that if I go to a movie or play or concert, there’s going to be some space between people.

And the vaccine — not sure Biden can do anything more, short of having resisters tackled on the streets. But sane conservative commentators have a special duty to encourage their viewers and readers to do the right thing. And lace into the anti-vax folk.

Bret: My feelings about anti-vaxxers are roughly the equivalent of my feelings toward most daredevils: If they want to take risks, don’t expect us to feel sorry for them for suffering the consequences.

Last question: Any strong feelings about the Joe Rogan/Neil Young dust-up on Spotify?

Gail: Well, I was particularly fascinated by the estimates that Rogan had a $100 million exclusivity contract with Spotify. Gee.

Bret: We need to start a podcast, Gail. Pronto.

Gail: This is the next step in our adaptation to a whole new world of communication. Rogan is worth a fortune because he can lure a ton of right-wing guests and other fans to do their sometimes very loony chatting on Spotify. Including very strong anti-vaccine opinions.

But now we’re seeing that a popular singer who thinks that kind of propaganda is a serious health hazard can push back. And it raises the question: Are tech platforms responsible for what they host?

Maybe a topic for a future conversation.

Bret: The line of the week for me came from our news-side colleague Matthew Rosenberg, who tweeted: “Joe Rogan is what he is. We in the media might want to spend more time thinking about why so many people trust him instead of us.”

Looks like we’ve got our subject cut out for us for next week, Gail.

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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