New York Times Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens Talk About Tomorrow’s Elections

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “We Don’t Know What Will Happen Tuesday but We Do Know How We’ll Feel About It”:

Gail Collins: OK, Bret — it’s elections week! Tell me the one outcome you’re most hoping to see and the one you’re most dreading.

Bret Stephens: The idea of Herschel Walker being elected a United States senator is the political equivalent of E.L. James, the author of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature: the preposterous elevation of the former equals the total debasement of the latter.

On the other hand, and despite my reservations about him, I’m rooting for Lee Zeldin for New York governor. Our state is overtaxed, underpoliced and chronically misgoverned, and I’d like to see it the other way around. And a Republican victory in New York might finally jolt the Democratic Party into getting serious about crime and urban decay.

Gail: Zeldin is awful. There are New York Republicans you could imagine running the state well, and there are New York Republicans who will inevitably create a mess of political polarization and stalled services. Mr. Z is definitely in that category.

Bret: I would be more inclined to agree with you about the overly Trumpy Zeldin — until I consider his opponent, the uninspired, ethically challenged and insipid Kathy Hochul.

Gail: In my rooting-for category, I’m going to bring up Senator Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire — just so I can mention her dreadful opponent, Don Bolduc. He’s long been known as an opponent of legal protections for transgender people. Last week, he claimed schools were giving out litter boxes to support kids who identify as cats. Which is, um … not true.

Who’s your most-to-be-avoided?

Bret: I’m with you on Hassan, a conscientious and bipartisan legislator. Who — I am amazed to say — might lose on Tuesday. As for my most-to-be-avoided? I’d have to go with Arizona’s Blake Masters. He gives me the sense of being the love child of Ayn Rand and Hans Gruber, the Alan Rickman character in “Die Hard.”

Gail: I adore it when you get mean about people like ol’ Blake.

Bret: Actually, that’s probably unfair to Gruber, who had a twinkle-in-the-eye panache that made his villainy interesting and often funny. Masters is neither interesting nor funny, and his only talent seems to consist in sucking up to rich guys.

Gail: You would be referring to Peter Thiel, billionaire co-founder of PayPal and backer of rancid Republicans.

Bret: And Donald Trump — assuming he’s actually rich. Let me ask you a different question: Is there any Republican in this whole election cycle you might see yourself supporting?

Gail: This goes back to the question I’ve been wrestling with since the world watched that Fetterman-Oz debate.

There are plenty of decent Republicans running for Senate, and some who are smarter than their Democratic opponents. And at least one Republican who can out-debate a Democrat who’s recovering from a stroke. But they all share one thing — they’d immediately vote to put their party in power.

Bret: They do tend to do that.

Gail: And that’s the crucial question this season — which party will be in charge? Right now the partisan rift is so deep you really have to decide which side you want to run the show and let that be your guide.

Does that make sense to you?

Bret: Yes and no. I powerfully sympathize with the impulse to oppose everyone who belongs to the party of Trump. But the idea of voting for your own side, no matter how lousy the candidate, also explains how Republicans talk themselves into voting for Trump, Walker, Bolduc, Masters and the rest of the evil clown parade. Parties should not be rewarded by voters when they sink to the lowest common denominator.

But … predictions! Any upsets you see coming?

Gail: When I worry about election results my thoughts almost always turn to Arizona, land of the you-never-can-tell voter. You’ve got Senator Mark Kelly neck-and-neck with Blake Masters. The only positive thing I can think of to say about Masters is that he hasn’t yet expressed any deep concern about litter boxes in public schools.

But the most terrifying Arizona race is for governor, where Kari Lake, a former TV anchor and current election denier, appears to be leading Katie Hobbs, the responsible but sorta boring secretary of state. Do not want to imagine the vote-counting crisis there in 2024 if Lake wins.

Bret: I’m going to venture that Lake is going to win handily and that Masters will win by a hair.

Part of my overall prediction that Democrats will wake up on Wednesday morning with a powerful impulse to move to Canada or Belgium to take advantage of their permissive assisted-suicide programs.

Gail: And what would your own reaction be? I know you theoretically support the Republican Senate agenda, but I’ve noticed you find a lot of the Republican senators kinda … repulsive.

Bret: Again, very mixed feelings. Seeing the Republican Party go from bad to worse is depressing and scary. But as long as Joe Biden is president they won’t be able to do much except embarrass themselves.

If there’s one saving grace for me here, it’s the faint hope that a Republican majority in at least one house of Congress will pump the brakes on spending. Our gross national debt is $31 trillion and rising. And it’s going to cost more to service as interest rates rise.

Gail: I’m touched to hear you express such confidence that the Republicans we’ve seen on the hustings this year are going to be able to come up with a smart plan to completely redo government spending.

Bret: Fair point.

Gail: But I do feel obliged to offer at least one suggestion. The best way to tackle debt issues is not to cancel Covid relief or stop fixing the nation’s infrastructure. Tax the folks who can afford it, like those pharmaceutical billionaires who’ve done so very well off the pandemic.

Bret: Not sure these billionaires could pay off so many trillions in debt, even if we confiscated every penny they have.

Gail: It would be a start, and I suspect that even under a very serious new tax plan they’d be left with enough coins in their pockets to allow them to soldier on.

But speaking of good/bad government spending plans, what do you think about recent Republican calls to cut back on Social Security and Medicare entitlements?

Bret: The devil is in the details. Regarding Social Security, it was designed in the 1930s, when the typical life expectancy was around 60. It’s now around 76. The program is predicted to be insolvent in about 13 years if we do nothing to change it. My basic view is that we should honor our promises to those now benefiting from Social Security, pare back the promises to younger workers and eliminate them completely for those who haven’t yet spent decades paying into them.

Gail: I say leave Social Security alone. It was meant to help protect Americans who reach retirement age, give them a reliable cushion to make their old age comfortable or at least bearable. Can’t do much better than that.

The fact that it’s seen as a plan for everybody — not just a program to aid the poor — gives it a special survivability. And on the fairness end, wealthy folk who don’t need it will give a good chunk back when it’s taxed as part of their income.

Bret: True, but it’s still going broke.

Gail: Of course I’m not crazy enough to say the government can never touch Social Security if its finances get truly shaky. I just want to be sure whoever’s doing the fixing is dedicated to protecting the basic concept.

And Medicare — oh gosh, Bret, let’s save Medicare for next week. It can be our postelection calming mechanism.

Bret: Gail, I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but any thoughts on the news that Trump is very likely to declare his candidacy for president later this month?

Gail: Now that was the immediate postelection conversation I was yearning to avoid. Of course we knew it was going to happen, but, gee, don’t you think he could have let us have the holidays off?

Bret: I know very little about what goes on in Trump’s mind, but I think we can safely say that giving either of us a break isn’t high on his list of priorities.

The silver lining here is that if Democrats take the kind of electoral drubbing I suspect they will on Tuesday, it should help concentrate their minds. Time for President Biden to give up on the idea — or fantasy, really — that he’s going to run for re-election and devote his time to saving Ukrainians, Iranians and Taiwanese from tyranny as the centerpiece of his presidential legacy.

Gail: I’m with you in the Joe-Don’t-Run camp.

Bret: Time also for party strategists to start thinking a whole lot harder about how they lost the working-class vote and how they can recapture it. Time, finally, for Democratic politicians to focus on middle-class fears about crime, education and inflation, not progressive obsessions with social justice and language policing.

Who knows? Maybe that’s just the wake-up call we all need if we’re going to keep Trump in Mar-a-Lago.

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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