Gail Collins and Bret Stephens Ask: Is Trump the Democrats’ Secret Weapon?

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

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I was moved by Ketanji Brown Jackson’s remarks last week after her Senate confirmation: “In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court.” What a ringing affirmation of what’s possible in the United States. And how depressing that only three Republican senators could bring themselves to vote for her, if only on the principle that every president deserves to get qualified nominees confirmed. Whatever happened to acknowledging the possibility that we can respect and admire people with whom we also disagree?

Gail Collins: Bret, every time we converse I get to experience that.

Bret: Ditto.

Gail: But you know what our politics have become. There are a lot of people to blame for the death of bipartisanship in judicial selection, but I’ll never forget Mitch McConnell refusing to bring multiple Barack Obama nominees up for a vote.

Bret: I’ll resist the urge to dwell on Harry Reid’s filibustering of George W. Bush’s nominees. The larger question is how we go forward. I don’t think we can endure as a republic if no president of either party can even appoint judges or staff the executive branch unless he has a Senate majority, too. Your thoughts?

Gail: I tend to resist the we-can’t-survive-this predictions — we’ve survived a heck of a lot, after all.

Bret: Fair point. We defeated Germany twice. What’s one Ted Cruz, more or less?

Gail: But this kind of perpetual partisanship certainly isn’t good for the country. I guess the world will be looking toward Alaska to see how the regular public is reacting — of the three Senate Republicans who voted to confirm Judge Jackson, Lisa Murkowski is the only one up for re-election this year.

Bret: Murkowski also faces a primary challenge from a Donald Trump-endorsed Republican opponent, meaning that she showed real political courage in voting for Jackson. More than can be said for a bunch of G.O.P. senators who are retiring at the end of the year and could have usefully demonstrated some principle and independence.

Gail: Murkowski aside, I suspect the Republican candidates this fall are going to be running on a generally Trumpist line, which will make things worse. Do you disagree?

Bret: Not clear yet. Our news-side colleagues Shane Goldmacher and Jonathan Martin reported last month that some of the primary candidates Trump originally preferred — like the Senate candidate Mo Brooks in Alabama and the gubernatorial candidate David Perdue in Georgia — aren’t doing well in the polls. Trump is also getting crosswise with Republican incumbents in the governor’s office like Doug Ducey in Arizona and Pete Ricketts in Nebraska by opposing their favored candidates, or at least favoring ones they don’t like. If anything, Trump may turn out to be the Democrats’ secret weapon this fall by dividing the party or backing candidates who can’t win in the general election. That’s how Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were able to win their Georgia Senate races the last time around.

Gail: I noticed Trump went ahead and withdrew his support for Brooks, claiming he was outraged that Brooks said it was time to stop obsessing about the 2020 election and move on.

Bret: Trump is like John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty character from “Fawlty Towers,” except in reverse: You must mention the war. Or at least the “stolen election.”

Gail: Still, I bet Trump could have managed to overlook it if Brooks wasn’t also running way behind in the polls.

Bret: We’ll see. Right now, the generic polling leans Republican, but it could change if the Supreme Court votes to overturn Roe v. Wade. It could change even further if Ukraine manages to defeat Russia with American help. What else do the Democrats need?

Gail: The Democrats need to run on ways to make the country better. One is reducing health care costs, which would include cracking down on waste and government funding for expensive drugs like insulin. Another is reducing the deficit with a tax on the very rich.

Bret: The administration seems to be taking your advice on both points, though I’m not sure it will help them all that much by November. I’d like to see them get ahead of a couple of looming surges that will play into G.O.P. hands: the expected migrant surge at the border; the big cost-of-living surge; and the next Covid surge. The last one is actually tied to the first: The administration can help moderate Democrats by extending something called Title 42 to expedite migrant expulsions as a health-emergency measure. As for inflation, how about a sales-tax holiday for necessities and other basic goods for the next 12 months?

Gail: Here’s a proposed deal: a sales tax holiday for basics combined with a tax increase for the rich.

Bret: I always oppose tax hikes, but that isn’t the worst bargain. How about the immigration issue? The administration doesn’t seem to know its own mind, according to a fascinating piece last weekend in The Times.

Gail: Well, another way to think about it is that the administration knows there’s no good answer. Any immigration policy is going to be unpopular with one side or the other — except Biden’s very, very much appreciated halt to building that stupid Trump wall.

Bret: A wall I have reluctantly come around to concluding should be built, even as we do more to increase legal immigration.

Gail: Oh wow, Bret, you’ve gone over to the wall! Better than going over the wall I guess, but still …

Bret: Bet some of our readers are thinking, “Both things are possible.”

A wall won’t stop people from coming here legally and then overstaying their visas. But it will save some of the most vulnerable migrants from taking terrible risks to cross the border while denying right-wing nativists one of their most potent political issues.

Gail: And serve as a great symbol to the rest of the world that the days we celebrated our country as a nation of immigrants is long gone. Sigh.

Bret: We are and should remain a nation of immigrants. Just lawfully arrived.

Gail: It’s certainly important not to encourage illegal immigration. But it’s equally important — actually more important — to raise the number of immigrants we’re bringing into the country. Given the very low birthrate in America, we’ve got to attract all the willing workers we can.

Bret: Totally agree on this. Countries that stagnate demographically will eventually stagnate economically. Our Hispanic population is incredibly talented, energetic and diverse, we’ve got plenty of room to grow, and we’re blessed to have Mexico — the country where I grew up — as a neighbor. Anyone who doubts me on this score should consider what it’s like for Ukraine to have Russia as a neighbor.

The case I’d make to the administration is to set out three principles for immigration: that it should be lawful, that it should be safe and that it should be compassionate. They need to take care of the first point to guarantee the other two.

Gail: No problem there, but there’s a long leap from a commitment to lawful, compassionate immigration and — oh, Lord, that wall. Sorry, still flummoxed. Let’s move on.

Bret: The other big domestic story last week was the failure of the Justice Department to win its case against four men accused of conspiring to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. What do you make of it?

Gail: Basically you’ve got a bunch of dopey right-wing guys venting about Governor Whitmer’s Covid restrictions and talking about kidnapping her. And some genuine question as to whether they’d have done anything more than posture over lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings if an F.B.I. informant hadn’t become one of their leaders.

Bret: It’s a thin line between, um, entrapment and hate, to adapt an old lyric.

Gail: This kind of case always poses the question of how far our investigators can go in exposing anti-government nut jobs. Imagine what it’s like to spend months — sometimes years! — pretending to be best pals with paranoid idiots.

Bret: My wife and kids know the feeling.

Gail: Sooner or later you may be tempted to push things along — and then maybe create a crime that would never have happened otherwise.

I’m not an expert in this case, but I do appreciate how very careful the country needs to be in overseeing law enforcement.

Any final thoughts on your end?

Bret: Given how high-profile this case was, it’s a real black eye for the government and particularly the F.B.I. Bamboozling foolish people into potentially criminal behavior and then prosecuting them for it in a highly politicized way is the sort of thing that fuels precisely the kind of conspiracy thinking that these people were prey to in the first place.

Gail: Meanwhile, I’ve been sort of obsessing about what would happen if Russian psycho-hackers managed to figure out a way to take our power grid offline. Imagining what that’d be like gives me the kind of chills I got as a kid in Catholic school when the nuns would spend hours warning us that the end of the world could arrive any day. Then we were supposed to go home and practice hiding in the basement with our parents.

Bret: The good news is the Russians haven’t even been able to manage taking out the power grid in Ukraine, so they might have a harder time against us. Perhaps the end of the world isn’t nigh, after all?

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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