Gail Collins and Bret Stephens: Washington Is Getting Extra Serious and Extra Silly

From the weekly conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens:

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I think many Americans would give President Biden reasonably high marks for his handling of the war in Ukraine so far. His speech in Poland, in which he said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” may have been provocative, and it might have his advisers scrambling to soften it, but it was right, and the right message to send about what should become of Vladimir Putin’s foul regime.

Yet Biden still reminds me of George H.W. Bush, who handled the big foreign policy crises of his day with aplomb but wound up as a one-termer. What do you think of the comparison?

Gail Collins: Hey, isn’t it interesting to recall that when Bush was fighting to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, the big American ally was Russia? Those were the days. Just noticed that a Gallup poll found that right after the war, Bush had an 89 percent approval rating.

Bret: Bush had the advantage of not having to face down a nuclear-armed adversary — thanks to an Israeli strike on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor a decade earlier.

Gail: And yet he got defeated for a second term by Bill Clinton. We could discuss the possibility of Biden suffering a similar fate — perceptions of a bad economy trump strong foreign policy. Except that Clinton’s genius was in portraying himself as a Democrat who normal Republicans didn’t have to fear. Very, very doubtful the next Republican presidential nominee is going to be able to turn that trick.

Do you really think Biden would be walloped if people actually had to compare him to Trump, one on one, presuming the two of them ran again?

Bret: I continue to have a hard time believing that Biden intends to run again, when he’s 81. I also don’t think Trump’s going to run — he’s damaged himself more deeply than he probably realizes with his imbecile praise of Putin and his continued election denialism.

Gail: This scenario presumes Trump bows to reality.

Bret: Fair point.

Assuming your hypothetical turns out to be right, I’d probably place a small bet on Trump winning a rematch, awful as that is. I know Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were able to turn their presidencies around after difficult starts. But both men were naturally gifted political figures in a way Biden just isn’t. Both men were in touch with the center of American politics in a way Biden should be, but isn’t, because he steered too far to the left in his first year. And both men were sailing into calmer seas, economically speaking, as they prepared their re-election campaigns, whereas I don’t see inflation being tamed except at the price of a very steep recession.

Would you bet on Biden in a rematch?

Gail: Yeah, but I don’t think Biden is going to run. Although he’d be crazy to formally announce this soon and turn the bulk of his presidency into a lame-duck limp.

Bret: Don’t agree that he should wait to announce, but that’s an argument for another time.

Gail: And I don’t think his problem is steering too far to the left. His problem is that he doesn’t — never did have — that political genius for selling the country, or even his supporters, on a big message.

Bret: Give ’em hell, Harry, he is not. But it looks like he’s trying with his plan to tax the very rich. Which … well, what do you think of it?

Gail: Ah Bret, our most reliable, perpetual disagreement. Yeah, given the fact that the richest Americans are now paying an effective tax rate around 8 percent, I would say a minimum of 20 percent on households worth more than $100 million is not a burden.

Bret: Probably won’t get past the Senate, may be ruled an unconstitutional wealth tax by the Supreme Court, and is reminiscent of the Alternative Minimum Tax, which was supposed to hit only a handful of high-flyers in the 1970s but wound up taxing far less wealthy people. But the proposal could still be … popular. Anything else you’d like to see him do?

Gail: I’d also be happy to see him lead a quest to control prescription drug prices: Let Medicare negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry and cap the cost of certain medications, like insulin. It’d be a debate people could really get into.

Bret: I think job No. 1 for Biden is to make sure Putin experiences unmistakable defeat in Ukraine. A stalemated truce in which Russia steals more of Ukraine’s coastline, ports, and energy riches will only entice Putin to create further crises so that he can “solve” them in exchange for Western concessions. I also think we should accept more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees; we should welcome as many who want to come here with open arms.

Gail: We should talk more about the refugees long term, but of course the immediate challenge is to support them in every way possible.

Bret: If Romania can take in more than half a million refugees, we can take in at least as many.

Gail: Not going to argue, but right now back to domestic matters …

Bret: Biden’s other big task is doing what he can to ease the burden of inflation. We both know that’s mainly a job for the Fed. But the government can still ease all kinds of regulatory burdens that constrict supply chains, like employing members of the National Guards to make up for the trucker shortage. I’m also in favor of the proposal from Maggie Hassan and Mark Kelly — both Democratic senators — to suspend the federal tax on gasoline for the rest of the year, though I would only reinstate it once the price of gasoline falls below $3.50 a gallon, no matter whether that happens before November or after. Gas taxes are really regressive once you stop to think of the bite they take out of the pockets of working-class people who drive back and forth to work.

Gail: Short-term gas price relief would be great, as long as it’s combined with long-term plans to fight climate change with energy-efficient cars and more mass transit. Although I know the latter tends to cause many conservative conservatives to shudder.

On a completely different but totally fascinating topic: Ginni Thomas. Wife of a Supreme Court justice and now revealed as a very aggressive, deeply crazy activist in the Trump-really-won sideshow.

Should we worry about her? Is she dangerous or just astonishingly weird?

Bret: Depends on whether you think that being a fever-swamp conservative is dangerous, weird or just the depressing new normal. “All of the above” is also a possibility. Mrs. Thomas attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6. She urged the Trump team to feature Sidney Powell, the lawyer with bizarro theories about voting machine fraud. And she wrote Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, some texts right after the election was called for Biden, telling him to “stand firm” against “the greatest Heist in our History.”

All of which says to me that I’m glad I’m not the one who gets to hang with Ginni Thomas, but de gustibus non est disputandum, as they used to say. Do you think her behavior should require Clarence Thomas to recuse himself in some cases?

Gail: If they get an overturn-the-election case, or even anything relating to the Jan. 6 riots, I would say he’d either have to recuse or be impeached. Otherwise it’s hard to imagine enough pressure building. But I’d be happy to hear I’m wrong. What do you think?

Bret: He’d have to recuse himself in those kinds of cases, because the appearance of a conflict of interest is now overwhelming. That said, if every public official were on the hook for nutty things done or said by spouses or family members, it would probably have unintended consequences nobody would like. For instance: Hunter Biden.

Gail: I will refrain from dipping back into our Hunter Biden argument except to point out that some experts think he’s getting a reasonable price for his artwork these days. Lips sealed …

Bret: But speaking of the Supreme Court, did you watch the Senate hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson? How do you think she did?

Gail: Better than great.

Bret: Agree. I don’t think her confirmation is in any doubt, especially now that Joe Manchin has come out in her favor, but I enjoyed watching her politely making mincemeat of Ted Cruz, who is a one-man reminder of why sentient people hate politicians. If Republicans were wiser, they’d register their disagreements with some of her positions but vote to confirm her on the principle that she’s fully qualified to serve on the high court. But … they won’t.

Gail: Also watching the dreaded Marsha Blackburn asking Jackson to define “woman.” Glad we agree that Republicans aren’t wise.

Bret: In the meantime, Gail, it looks like we have a new superinfectious sub-variant of Covid to keep us awake at night. Forget Omicron, now we’ve got Omigod.

Gail: I’m going with Dr. Fauci’s theory that it’s not something to get frazzled about. Unless, of course, you haven’t been vaccinated, in which case there’s probably not any point in having a conversation.

But I am appalled that Congress didn’t approve the $15.6 billion Biden wanted for tests, treatments and research on vaccines for new variants. If I’m going to side with the throw-away-masks crowd, I’m also going to side with the fund-the-support-system gang.

Bret: If we’re going to start thinking of Covid as a relatively normal illness, maybe we need to stop treating it like a national emergency. What do you say we argue about this another day?

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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