NYTimes Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens Talk About “Politicians Everywhere All at Once”

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “Politicians Everywhere All at Once”:

Bret Stephens: President Biden will give his State of the Union address on Tuesday. I’m going to watch it as a professional obligation. But to be honest, I’m about as excited about it as I am for the Oscars, at least in its more recent incarnation. I just hope Lauren Boebert doesn’t go after Biden the way Will Smith went for Chris Rock.

Is it crazy that I think we could dispense with the tradition altogether and go back to written messages delivered “from time to time,” as the Constitution puts it?

Gail Collins: Oh, Bret, don’t be cynical. Remember waiting for the Donald Trump State of the Unions? No complaints about boredom then, since people were always waiting expectantly to see if he’d say something crazy.

Bret: Well, you’re kinda making my point. And the switch from Trump to Biden isn’t exactly an upgrade in the rhetorical thrills department.

Gail: OK, Biden isn’t an exciting orator. And now he’s stuck with that Chinese balloon distraction. But still, he’s got some things to celebrate with the economy going well, don’t you think? A cheerful State of the Union would definitely be more interesting than the Oscars. I warn you that before we’re done today, I’m gonna ask you what you think should win best picture.

Bret: Other than the “Top Gun” sequel?

About the State of the Union: Biden can look back at a year of some significant legislative and foreign policy accomplishments. But given the reality of a Republican House, what does he do next? Are there bipartisan compromises to propose?

Gail: Guess Biden is discovering there’s no bipartisan G.O.P. to compromise with. I’m sure — or at least I can imagine — that Kevin McCarthy would be happy to come up with a deal to avoid default by simply raising the debt limit. But hard to imagine he could corral the crazy segment of his caucus, which wants to show off its muscles by forcing some serious cuts in spending.

Bret: You may be right. Then again, it only takes a few moderate Republicans to break ranks and vote with Democrats to raise the ceiling. In a crunch, I could see that.

Gail: You’re my interpreter of conservative spending dogma — what’s going to happen? What should happen?

Bret: I won’t make any predictions because they’re bound to be proved wrong. What should happen? I like a proposal made by Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator — and Democrat turned Republican — in The Wall Street Journal: Raise the debt ceiling but “claw back unspent funds” from the $6 trillion in pandemic-related spending, which he and his co-writer, Michael Solon, believe could save $255 billion in 2023-24. That seems like a compromise a lot of Americans could get behind. What do you think?

Gail: First, I’d like to see those pandemic funds directed to research, continued free testing in high-risk areas and short-term support for service industries like restaurants and hotels that haven’t recovered from a huge pandemic whack in business.

Bret: That doesn’t sound like much of a compromise on the spending side.

Gail: But maybe there’s a little give there. If the Republicans are willing to offer up some cost savings from their favorite programs — like military spending — I could imagine the Democrats compromising a bit on the pandemic funding. Have to admit $6 trillion is a sizable amount to spend.

Bret: Doubt there will be any cuts in defense budgets in an era of rampaging Russians and Chinese spy balloons. But a good way for Democrats to test Republican seriousness on spending could be to insist on cuts in farm subsidies, which, of course, aren’t likely to happen, either. So we’ll probably end up, at the last possible second, with a clean debt-ceiling raise — but, as the great Rick Bragg might say, only when it’s “all over but the shoutin’.”

Gail: Now let me stoop to pure politics, Bret. Nikki Haley is set to announce that she’s running for the Republican presidential nomination. Besides being the former governor of South Carolina, she was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Remember the time she called Jared a “hidden genius”? Any thoughts?

Bret: I think she’s the best of the Republican field by a mile — and I don’t just mean Trump. She was a good U.N. ambassador and understands foreign policy. She was a reasonable governor of South Carolina and is a moderate in today’s field of Republicans. She has an inspiring personal story as the daughter of Indian immigrants. She was among the first Republicans to put some distance between herself and Trump after Jan. 6. She connects with audiences. What’s not to like?

Gail: Well, all that time she claimed she wouldn’t run against Trump. Her longstanding opposition to abortion rights. But she would probably be the strongest woman to enter the Republican presidential field since … wow, do you think I’ll get to revisit Margaret Chase Smith?

Bret: Gail, you know how you now regret giving Mitt Romney (and his dog Seamus) such a hard time, considering what the party came up with next? I bet Haley is the one Republican you’d more or less be all right with as president.

Gail: Most of all, her entry has me wondering how many other candidates we’ll see lining up here. Never thought Ron DeSantis could beat Trump one on one, but if we’ve got a whole bunch of people in the Republican race, it might give DeSantis time to become more of a household name — and maybe even less of a doltish-sounding campaigner.

Bret: What Republicans most want for 2024 is to win. And I think they realize that nominating Trump is a ticket to failure.

That said, the problem for Republicans is that as more of them jump into the fray, they make Trump relatively stronger simply by carving up the anti-Trump vote in the G.O.P.’s winner-take-all primaries. I can see a scenario in which Trump maintains a steady base of support at around 35 percent, and then Haley, DeSantis, Pious Pence and Pompous Pompeo — and yes, I’m giving Trump ideas for nicknames here — carve up the remaining 65 percent.

Gail: And Dippy DeSantis? Doofus DeSantis?

Bret: Ron DeSantos?

Can we pivot to Democrats for a moment here, Gail? It looks like the party is about to change its primary calendar, so that it would start with South Carolina, then move to New Hampshire and Nevada, then Georgia and then Michigan. Do you think this is an improvement?

Gail: I do feel sorta sad for Iowa — being the tip-off was so important to the people there. But they screwed up their caucus system in 2020, and it’s pretty clear their time is over.

Bret: I’m guessing that a lot of reporters with memories of freezing Januaries in Ames or Storm Lake aren’t too sorry for the change.

Gail: New Hampshire is great at running primaries, and I have fond memories of many winter days in Concord — but truly, it does make sense to let states with more diverse populations have their turn at going early. And I’m sure Joe Biden hasn’t forgotten for a nanosecond that it was Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina’s endorsement that put him over the top in the nomination race. So yeah, I think it’s a good plan. How about you?

Bret: My guess is that it makes no real difference what order the states go in. Biden came in fourth place in Iowa last time and still won. Bernie Sanders won in New Hampshire in 2016 and still lost. Not sure what switching the order achieves in the long run. In the end, the parties tend to get the nominees they want.

Which, by the way, increasingly looks like it will be Biden on the Democratic side. We’ve talked about this so often before, but it just seems to me the worst idea. Do you think he might at least switch out Kamala Harris for another vice-presidential nominee? I think it might … reassure some voters.

Gail: Yeah, we are in agreement here, but I’m sorry to say we’re both going to be disappointed. Biden is very clearly planning to run, and there’s no way in the world he won’t keep Harris.

Bret: Well, there goes my vote, at least assuming it’s not Trump on the other side. The chances that Biden couldn’t complete a second term are too great. And she’s shown no evidence of growing in office or being qualified to take over.

Gail: Let me be clear that if Biden were, say, 65, I’d be in total support of another run at the White House. He’s not an inspiring president, but he’s been a good one.

However, he’d be 86 at the end of his second term and that’s just too old. Not too old to be in public service — have to admit Jimmy Carter’s activism has slowed down lately, but hey, he’s 98. It’d be great if Biden moved on to new projects.

But he won’t do that, and he’d never get rid of Harris. As someone who’s very, very eager to see a woman elected president, I still dread the idea that she’ll become an automatic heir apparent.

Bret: When people observe that Harris hasn’t exactly wowed as veep, there’s usually someone who says that opposition to her is on account of her color or gender. So let me note that I just endorsed an Indian woman as a potential president, just as I supported the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.

Gail: You did indeed.

Bret: The problem with Harris is that she was a bad senator — she missed 30.2 percent of her roll call votes, compared with an average of 2.4 percent for her peers. She was a terrible presidential candidate, whose campaign fell apart before even reaching the Iowa caucuses. As vice president, she has had no apparent accomplishments other than saying dumb and untrue things — like when she told NBC’s Chuck Todd that “we have a secure border.” In Washington she’s mostly famous for running a dysfunctional office with frequent staff turnover. So, do I want her a heartbeat away from a president who is the oldest in history? As Bill Maher likes to say, “Sorry, not sorry.”

As for my Oscar pick, I’m going to have to go with “Tár.”

Gail: Well, we’re in the cheerful disagreement business, so put me down for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” At least my title’s the longest.

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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