Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I know you’re keen to handicap — figuratively, but maybe also literally — the emerging field of Republican presidential hopefuls. First Donald Trump, now Nikki Haley, and soon, possibly, her fellow Palmetto State Republican, Senator Tim Scott. That’s on top of probable runs by Ron DeSantis, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, and possibly Brian Kemp of Georgia, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Chris Christie of … New Jersey.
Who worries you the most — or repels you the least?
Gail Collins: Well gee, Bret. Have to admit I have a tad of sympathy for Mike Pence, and maybe Brian Kemp, since they at least had the backbone to stand up for the idea that, um, this is a democracy where the winners of elections … win.
Bret: With you on Kemp, who successfully fended off two election deniers: Trump and Stacey Abrams. Can’t say I feel much sympathy for Pence. You don’t get bonus points for doing the most basic part of your job, much less for standing up for democracy and the rule of law at the last possible minute.
Gail: All of them are more or less opposed to abortion and sensible gun regulation, and many of them are in favor of tax cuts for the rich that would cut back on resources for the needy. And given Haley’s first campaign week, I’d predict that as we go along, all of them will be veering off to Crazy Town in order to compete with Trump.
Hey, why are we worried about what I think? You’re in charge of Republicans. Tell me — which of these folks would you vote for against Joe Biden?
Bret: A lot will depend on who is, or isn’t, willing to bend the knee to Trump. I’m waiting for one of them to say something along the following lines:
“Donald, Republicans placed their faith in you when it seemed as if, for all of your flaws, you could still be a gust of fresh air for our party and the country. You turned out to be a Category 5 hurricane, leaving a wake of political destruction everywhere you went ….”
Gail: Loving this scenario …
Bret: “You destroyed our majority in the House of Representatives in 2018. You destroyed our hold on the White House in 2020. Your reckless, stupid, un-American and transparently false claims about the election helped cost us Georgia’s two Senate seats in 2021. Your garbage taste in primary candidates, based pretty much entirely on their willingness to suck up to you and regurgitate your lies, cost us the Senate again in the midterms along with the governorship of Arizona. You shame us with your dinner invitations to antisemites like Kanye West. And your petulant attacks on fellow Republicans — usually the ones who stand a chance of winning a general election — keep playing into the hands of Democrats.”
Gail: Keep going!
Bret: “Other than your usual lackeys, not to mention Lindsey Graham, there’s not a single Republican who has worked closely with you who has a good word to say about you in private, though some of them still flatter you in public. If, heaven forbid, you’re the Republican nominee next year, you’ll only be guaranteeing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris a second term. You’re a loser, Donald: a sore loser, a serial loser, a selfish loser. You’re the biggest loser — except, of course, when it comes to your waistline. As was once said to Neville Chamberlain after he had put Britain in mortal danger, so I say to you: ‘In the name of God, go.’”
I’ll struggle to vote for a candidate who can’t say something along these lines. If they can’t stand up to a bully in their own house, how can we expect them to stand up to Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping?
Gail: I believe I am hearing that you’re going to vote for Joe Biden.
Bret: Hmm. Hopefully not. Most of my policy instincts are pretty much in line with people like Haley, Youngkin, Christie and even DeSantis, at least on his good days. I probably just won’t vote if no Republican can pass the decency test.
Gail: Also trying to imagine the things that might happen on the Biden front that might reduce your openness to the Democratic option. Privately thinking: presidential health problems and Kamala Harris. But too early to talk about that now.
Bret: Is it? OK, go on ….
Gail: If we’re going to talk health, let’s go back to Senator John Fetterman, now hospitalized with depression. It seems at this point as if breaking in as a new senator and recovering from a stroke is too much of a to-do list. I remember recently, when we were on this topic, you were way more worried than I was about his condition. Did you have some advance knowledge he was in trouble or just a well-educated guess?
Bret: Maybe a little bit of advance knowledge, plus personal experience. My father had a cerebral hemorrhage when he was 53, the same age Fetterman is now. He recovered physically but, like many survivors of brain injuries, suffered a crushing depression that was out of character with his sunny temperament. The book that helped him get through it was William Styron’s memoir of his own depression, “Darkness Visible.” The good news for my dad, who lived for 21 years after the hemorrhage, was that the darkness eventually lifted and he went on to better years, as I sincerely hope will be the case for the senator.
Gail: Of course. Also hoping this will publicize the importance of getting professional treatment when depression strikes.
Bret: Gail, returning to the Biden presidency again, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office just reported that the federal government will take on nearly $19 trillion in new debt over the next decade. Doesn’t that, er, alarm you?
Gail: Sure, and I hear it as a clarion call for tax reform — raising rates on the people who can afford to pay more. Don’t see any reason, for instance, that someone making a million dollars a year is only paying Social Security tax on the first $160,200.
I suspect you’re hearing a somewhat different trumpet.
Bret: Just a tad different!
First thing, we need to turbocharge economic growth so that the debt will be a smaller fraction of the overall economy. Top of my list would be immigration reform to ease labor shortages and regulatory reform to make life easier for small businesses, like doing away with needless permitting requirements. Second, spending restraint, particularly when it comes to dumb subsidies like the ones for ethanol or tax credits for buying Teslas. Third, entitlement reform by way of gradually pushing up the retirement age for today’s younger workers.
What am I missing — I mean, other than one or two screws?
Gail: Bret, I have never accused you of a screw shortage, although there are some issues on which I’ve suggested some tightening might be nice.
Bret: My mother says the same.
Gail: We’re in agreement on opening the door to more immigration, so let’s move on to the rest, one by one.
Reducing permit requirements for new businesses — you’d certainly be able to come up with some examples of overregulation there, but I’ll bet if somebody decides your neighborhood would be a good place to open a distillery in an old warehouse, you’d want to make sure there were some serious controls in place.
Bret: Only for quality ingredients, flavor, complexity, age and smoothness.
Gail: Tax credits for electric vehicles help move the country away from carbon-emitting gas guzzlers, and that’s great for the environment. Yeah, I wish it didn’t mean more money for Elon Musk, but if we want to eliminate all laws that benefit irritating rich guys, there’d be a lot of better places to start.
Bret: On your earlier point, Gail, do you know you are supposed to complete a 250-hour training program to become a licensed manicurist in New York? That’s the kind of enterprise-defeating regulation I had in mind. As for electric vehicles, I can’t wait for someone to start fully tallying the environmental impact of, say, the lithium mines needed to produce their batteries. There’s just no such thing as “clean” energy.
Gail: Of course you’re right that nothing is easy and we’re going to have to come back to energy issues a lot. But in the meantime, your suggestion for entitlement reform: It’s basically about raising the age for Social Security eligibility, right? Currently 67 for most workers, although you can qualify for a more modest package at 62. There’s nothing magic about 67, but I can think of a lot of jobs that’d be tough for people that age to keep doing.
Gail: Looking out my window right now I see a bunch of guys climbing around the 12th story outside wall of an apartment building, refurbishing the stones and concrete so nothing falls down and bops a pedestrian. I’m sure some people in their late-60s would be great at the job, but I wouldn’t want them forced to take it on.
Bret: Agree, and there’s no reason we can’t put together a reform of Social Security that allows people who make their living in physically demanding jobs to retire on the earlier side. It’s those of us who sit at desks most of the day whom I mainly have in mind.
By the way, Gail, before we go, I can’t fail to mention the exceptional reporting by our news-side colleagues Jeremy Peters and Katie Robertson. It concerns the lawsuit against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems, and what it has uncovered — namely, that people like Tucker Carlson and other talking heads at the network knew perfectly well that Trump’s claims of a stolen election were bunk, but tried their damnedest to sow doubts about the election anyway. There’s a word for that: vile. There ought to be a circle in hell for it, too.
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