New York Times Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens Talk Politics, Borders, and Putin

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “The Midterms Aren’t the Only Thing That’s Looming”:

Gail Collins: Bret, let me throw you what I suspect is a softball. What did you think of Joe Biden’s move to pardon people with federal marijuana convictions?

Bret Stephens: Some of my conservative friends think it sends a soft-on-crime message, but I’m OK with it. It doesn’t actually let anyone out of jail, since nobody is in federal prison today solely for simple possession of weed. But it lifts a burden on roughly 6,500 people whose employment and housing chances are harmed by their past convictions.

I just wish Biden’s admirable softheartedness on this score were matched by some greater hardheadedness when it comes to dealing with other forms of lawbreaking. Like the migrant crisis about which Eric Adams just declared a state of emergency ….

Gail: If your answer is a national rally against certain governors from Florida and Texas who enjoy putting confused and frightened people on planes and buses and shipping them north, I’m in.

But I have a feeling you’re thinking of something a little more border-focused. Let’s have at it. You first. And while we’re at it, let’s please discuss what to do about the Dreamers who were brought here as children, grew up in America, and are now living here as law-abiding adults in the only country they’ve ever really known.

The Dreamers need a clear road to citizenship, but there’ve been a bunch of court cases that have complicated things. A recent ruling shut out anybody who hasn’t already made an application and unless Congress acts to create a formal program, their fate is going to depend on the Supreme Court, God help them.

Bret: I’m in favor of full citizenship, immediately, for all Dreamers.

Gail: Bracing for the “But … ”

Bret: But I’m completely against the insanity of what we’ve got now, which is a vice president claiming we have a “secure border” when we obviously don’t, and a White House that won’t recognize the scale of the crisis at the very moment when much of Latin America is in a state of collapse, and a creaking system that didn’t work well in the first place is now on the verge of collapse. I know too many Republicans have shamefully rejected the idea that we are a nation of immigrants, but too many Democrats seem to be rejecting that idea that we are also a nation of laws.

Gail: The current system is definitely a mess and my two immediate proposals are 1) Dramatically beef up American presence at the border for everything from patrol officers to health care workers. 2) Read our colleague Julie Turkewitz’s great in-person reporting on one group of Venezuelans making the trek.

Bret: Agree on both points, and I won’t rehash my arguments for a border wall.

I would just suggest our more liberal readers read another superb report by The Times’s Jennifer Medina from Brownsville, Texas, which was published in February. I can’t do it justice with a summary, so let me quote: “Democrats are destroying a Latino culture built around God, family and patriotism, dozens of Hispanic voters and candidates in South Texas said in interviews. The Trump-era anti-immigrant rhetoric of being tough on the border and building the wall has not repelled these voters from the Republican Party or struck them as anti-Hispanic bigotry. Instead, it has drawn them in.”

Gail: The country needs to be reminded we’re talking about people whose goals and needs are the same as the venerable immigrants who’ve come here throughout our history. And that we’re desperately in need of more immigrants to shore up an aging population.

Bret: Totally. Let’s just not give the far-right a winning issue in the process.

Gail: In an ideal world — or even a rational one — Congress would put together a smart, humane system for quickly processing people who show up at the border, but that’s never going to happen as long as one party insists on making everything about the border a nasty, frequently racist election issue.

Bret: First, Democrats have to show they’re serious about border security. But, speaking about unseriousness, can we talk about Herschel Walker?

Gail: I know I’m acknowledging a character defect but I love to talk about Herschel Walker.

Bret: He’s so absolutely awful, so completely catastrophic, so epically embarrassing, so hilariously hypocritical, so incandescently idiotic, so stratospherically scandalous, so volcanically vomitous, that he may actually serve a purpose.

Walker’s revelatory candidacy is to today’s G.O.P. what the odor of rancid chicken is to the chicken itself: It warns you to steer clear. This should have been the Republican’s race to lose, simply because Georgia still elects conservatives, it’s a midterm election, the Republican governor is probably going to be re-elected, and there’s an unpopular Democratic incumbent in the White House. Instead, Walker’s candidacy looks like a cross between the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl, squandering a 28-3 lead, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, minus the finesse.

Ugh. Now watch him win.

Gail: Well, he’d be voting with your side in the Senate. That wouldn’t make it worth something?

Bret: My side? Noooooooooo. As the old Polish proverb has it: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It’s really a shame because the country could really use a serious conservative party right now. The economy looks iffy, inflation is raging, gas prices are going back up, and the president is telling people that we’re as close to Armageddon as we’ve been since the Cuban missile crisis.

Speaking of which, did you find Biden’s Cuban missile riff at a Democratic fund-raiser reassuring because he sounds experienced, or terrifying because he would speak so casually about it?

Gail: Bret, you know I try to avoid foreign affairs, but we’re basically talking about Biden showing how very seriously he takes the idea of Russia messing, even in the supposedly most controlled way, with nuclear weapons in his fight with Ukraine.

I’m sorta OK with our president being very, very, very clear that Putin can’t be thinking along this line. Putin’s obviously in a corner when it comes to Ukraine, and I’m sure he’s feeling tempted to do something desperate.

Bret: If I had to place a few bets, the first would be that Putin is very likely to use tactical nuclear weapons, especially if his army starts to crumble around the southern city of Kherson. The second bet is that using the weapons will not change the dynamic on the battlefield. Instead, it will make things worse for Putin as the West responds by seizing Russia’s foreign reserves, providing Ukraine with much more powerful weaponry, even deploying NATO warplanes to patrol Ukrainian air space. My third bet is that this will lead to a palace coup in Moscow. And my fourth is that Putin will be replaced by someone even worse, like the awful spymaster Nikolai Patrushev.

All that said, I’d also bet that Democrats will hold the Senate, 50-50. What’s your money on?

Gail: Ditto, entirely because the Republicans have so many bad candidates. It ought to be their time — the public is twitchy because of inflation, etc.

Bret: And every bad candidate was handpicked and promoted by you-know-who.

Gail: Boy, there are a lot of awful nominees there. Not just our friend Herschel. In New Hampshire, the Republican nominee, Don Bolduc, and Arizona’s Blake Masters are both nightmares for their party.

You know one interesting thing, though, Bret — Bolduc and Masters both ran for the nomination with the Trumpian claim that Biden didn’t really win the presidency. And now they’re backpedaling like crazy.

Bret: Backpedaling from crazy, too.

Gail: Is this a sign of national sanity on the rise, or something less … inspiring?

Bret: Less inspiring, I’d say. It really points to the deep cynicism at work in today’s G.O.P. Our new colleague, Carlos Lozada, really put his finger on it a few weeks ago in his wonderful debut column. He called it “the joke” — that is, the Trumpian notion that you can tell lie after lie in politics because you’ve adopted the quasi-comical, quasi-nihilistic premise that truth is whatever you can get away with.

And that’s the same premise that Vladimir Putin has adopted, along with so many other dictators in history. Which is why I was so pleased to see a human rights proponent in Belarus and human rights organizations in Ukraine and Russia win the Nobel Peace Prize last week. The great Czech writer Milan Kundera once wrote that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

I think that struggle is as much at stake in the battles in Ukraine as it is in the fight over the meaning of Jan. 6.

Gail: On the plus side, we have tons of candidates, reform groups and reporters on our side, trying to keep memory alive.

Gail Collins is an Opinion columnist, is 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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