Gail Collins: Hey Bret, good to be conversing again. Heck of a lot going on. Before we get to the border or the budget, though, let me admit I’m shallow and start with the Trump town hall on CNN.
Bret Stephens: Not shallow, Gail. But you are depressing me.
Gail: Trump lost your Republican vote a long time ago, but if you were still on the fence, was there anything on display that evening that would have had an impact?
Bret: I’m not exactly a reliable gauge of how today’s Republicans think: In November, I wrote a column called “Donald Trump Is Finally Finished,” which I may have to spend the rest of my life living down.
That said, I would guess that if you’re the sort of voter who liked 80-proof Trump, you’re gonna love 120-proof Trump. And that’s what he was in that CNN town hall: more mendacious, more shameless, more unapologetic, more aggressive, nastier. But also undeniably vigorous, particularly when compared with Joe Biden. My guess is the town hall will consolidate his lead as the Republican front-runner.
Your take? Should CNN have given him the platform?
Gail: Don’t see any reason CNN shouldn’t have done the interview. Except that it reduces pressure on Trump to show up for any Republican primary debates. Which he naturally wants to avoid, given his ineptitude when it comes to actual policy questions.
Bret: I’m of two minds. The media has a responsibility to cover the Republican front-runner, and I thought Kaitlan Collins, the CNN moderator, handled the responsibility about as well as anyone could have. Yet nonstop media attention is the oxygen on which Trump thrives. The more attention we give him — which is what we are doing right now — the stronger he gets.
Gail: About the impact: Yeah, if you liked Trump before, you wouldn’t be deterred by his willingness to let the nation default, or his being “inclined” to pardon a lot of the Jan. 6 rioters.
Really would like to hear an everybody-in primary debate, though. Without Trump, I guess the only suspense would be whether Ron DeSantis is capable of being … not terrible.
Bret: Well, as much as I dislike DeSantis for his views on abortion and Ukraine and free speech, I also have to ask whether I’d prefer him to Trump as the Republican nominee. And there the answer is a resounding yes, much as I’d much prefer a peptic ulcer to stomach cancer.
Gail: I’m still not inclined to pick DeSantis over — pretty much anybody. Yeah, Trump is worse when it comes to personal morality, and DeSantis probably wouldn’t be as divisive in the sense of not being exciting enough to really rile up the base.
But his position on social issues like abortion is scary: He truly believes in imposing his extremist convictions on the country.
Bret: True, but Trump believes in imposing his despotic convictions on the country.
I also think it’s imperative that Democrats — and I don’t mean Robert Kennedy Jr. — start thinking about challenging Biden in the primary. That Washington Post-ABC poll showing Biden with a 36 percent approval rating and running 6 points behind Trump should scare the bejeezus out of Democrats — and that’s before we wind up in a recession or a full-scale banking crisis or a shooting war with China (or all three).
Gail: Real-life fact is that no Democrat with the standing to potentially win a primary would challenge a sitting president. Especially one like Biden whose performance is … not bad. He’s had some real achievements, particularly in the super-important battle against global warming. Overall yes, he’s unexciting, and these days incapable of forcing the House Republicans to do anything really constructive. But his standards and character are high.
Bret: As you know, I will vote for him over Trump or DeSantis. But Democrats overstate his achievements and underestimate his unpopularity at their own — actually, our own — peril.
Gail: We both were wishing he’d announce he wasn’t running and open the door for other promising candidates to jump in. But since it’s not gonna happen … it’s not gonna happen.
Bret: Probably right. Next subject: Your thoughts about the budget negotiations?
Gail: I have faith that there’s not going to be a crushing default — that in a total crisis the Fed will figure out something. But when it comes to the bottom line I’m on the side of Joe Biden. (Surprise!) You do not use the country’s credit standing to stage a stupid battle about cutting funds for the poor.
Bret: Well, by the same token, you do not use the country’s credit standing to insist that no spending cuts should even be countenanced and that able-bodied single adults should not have to find work as a condition of obtaining government benefits.
Gail: The Republicans are attacking the status quo, not some new program the Democrats are trying to push through. And I’ve always been wary of the must-work stuff because all the paperwork, even in our technological era, makes it so easy for people to get cut off for no reason except bureaucratic confusion.
Bret: The conservative in me hates subsidizing indolence, especially when jobs are abundant. Welfare should go to those who truly need it, not people who just can’t be bothered to work.
Gail: Also, I think this must-work discussion has to begin with quality child care for every low-income family that needs it. Very bottom bottom line is that kids come first.
About the budget — I guess Congress could just decide there just shouldn’t be a debt ceiling. After all, we went more than 125 years without one. Is that something you think they should rally around?
Bret: The debt ceiling reminds me a bit of the Doomsday machine in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” In theory, it’s supposed to encourage restraint and responsibility. In practice, it’s likely to destroy the world. I’d be interested to see the administration test the theory that the 14th Amendment, which says that the public debt of the United States “shall not be questioned,” makes the debt ceiling unconstitutional, although I doubt they could win that case in court.
The other crisis, Gail, is happening at the southern border. Looking back, anything the administration might have done to avert it?
Gail: Not gonna be silly enough to claim the Biden folks have been completely on top of the whole situation.
Bret: Our awesome veep ….
Gail: But it looks like we’ll finally be getting a lot of new federal workers to deal with the people who show up at the border.
And the Biden administration is working on it. The Trump administration was totally useless on the problem.
Bret: Not useless but definitely cruel. But what voters will remember is that under Trump, we didn’t have this scale of a crisis.
Gail: Not sure the scale is really going to be that overwhelming as the year moves on. And I still have to note that I hate, really hate, your idea of finishing that wall.
Bret: A wall won’t stop all illegal immigration. But it can help deter the most dangerous and reckless border crossings, which have left thousands of migrants dead. It should be part of an overall immigration compromise that includes automatic citizenship for Dreamers and more permissive rules for legal immigration through normal consular channels in the migrants’ home countries. Right now we have the worst of both worlds: a totally chaotic border that makes a bipartisan legislative compromise a political nonstarter.
Gail: Bret, these people have a lot of reasons for coming — including seeking asylum from government oppression. But most of them are coming for jobs, and as you’ve always pointed out, our economy really needs the workers. In New York, we’ve gotten a ton of newcomers. They’re having a terrible time, particularly with housing, but employers, especially in the service industries, are desperate for their help. We just need to work out a system to make it possible.
Bret: Sadly, as our news-side colleague Hannah Dreier chronicled last month, many recent border crossers are children working in conditions worthy of Dickens or Dreiser. Seeing mothers with young children strapped to their backs while hawking candies at traffic stops was something I was accustomed to in my hometown of Mexico City. It’s jarring to encounter them at road intersections and on subway platforms in New York City. If Biden doesn’t get a handle on this, it could cost him the election and lead to an ugly public backlash that will make Trump’s immigration policy seem tame.
Speaking of subways, Gail, your thoughts on the killing of Jordan Neely?
Gail: We’re talking about a former Michael Jackson impersonator who used to entertain subway passengers, but had deteriorated into a homeless man who was mentally ill and sometimes scary.
Bret: Very scary. He was a person who had previously been arrested more than 30 times. He had punched an elderly woman in the face. He had exposed himself and peed inside of a subway car. He had walked out on a residential treatment program. There was a warrant for his arrest at the time of his death — but cops probably wouldn’t have found out about it because a group sued to stop the police from detaining people solely to check for arrest warrants. He was the sort of guy who makes the subway frightening for a lot of passengers, particularly women. People ought to know these facts before rushing to judgment.
Gail: Neely was acting out and frightening people on the day he died. Daniel Penny, the former Marine who tackled him, was trying to stop an unnerving incident from happening. But he used chokehold force in a way that killed Neely.
I can’t absolve Penny. But the big problem here is that the low-or-no-income mentally ill need more services than they’re getting in New York or pretty much anywhere.
Bret: Obviously, I don’t support vigilantism. But that’s what you get when police are hampered from maintaining public order. The answer is to give the police the authorities and resources they need to deal with someone like Neely before a tragedy occurs.
Gail, this is too grim a note on which to end — and we haven’t even touched on George Santos’s indictment.
Gail: Now there’s a high note!
Bret: Before we go, I want to put in a word for Sam Roberts’s obituary for Mike Pride, a former editor of The Concord Monitor, who died last month in Florida at 76, and whom we both knew through his stewardship of the Pulitzer Prizes. Mike showed that you can often make the greatest difference as a newsman by writing about issues that are near to people’s everyday lives. He reminded us that local journalism matters. And that it’s at least one thing that deserves to be made great again.
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