Opinion | This Is No Way to Run a Democracy


Bret Stephens: Hi Gail. So it turns out that Joe Biden really did win Arizona last year. Are you … shocked?

Gail Collins: Pass the champagne, Bret. We’ll drink a toast to the fact that recount-wise, it’s been easy to find excuses to celebrate.

Arizona’s recheck showed Biden actually getting a few more votes than originally tallied. And some of the state’s Republican leaders nodded their approval — one called it “encouraging.” Despite one little cyclone of outrage spotted over Mar-a-Lago.

Did you start out here because it’s the only good news in the country right now? If so, appreciate the effort.

Bret: The truly bad news is that even this modestly good news is actually awful news.

Gail: Ah, welcome to our world.

Bret: What I mean is that this Republican-ordered, Republican-financed audit of ballots in Maricopa County, which is Arizona’s largest, won’t make any difference to Donald Trump’s true believers. There was a similar audit of votes in Michigan that finished earlier this year, also overseen by Republicans, which proved that Biden won that state, too, and it also didn’t have the slightest effect on the two-thirds of Republicans who, as of August, thought the election was rigged.

Gail: Congratulations — you’ve convinced me to be depressed again.

Bret: It reminds me of a line from Huck Finn: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” That sums up Trump’s political strategy, and if the Biden presidency continues to stumble the way it’s been stumbling, it might just work.

Gail: We talked last week about Biden’s proposed budget, and, perusing the reader comments, I noticed many, many responses to your suggestion that it doesn’t include enough military spending.

Think you really hit a nerve on that one?

Bret: Can’t wait for reader reaction to my “Free Martin Shkreli” campaign.

Gail: Wow, Martin Shkreli — the criminal ex-hedge fund manager who raised the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent. Love the way you bring up blasts from the not-so-distant past. How do people sign up for this fan club?

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Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?

Bret: Oh, they can just wire their nonrefundable donation to my Cayman Islands bank account and I’ll text them the secret password.

Kidding! But you are giving me a chance to praise Biden for his deal to work with Australia to build new nuclear-powered submarines as a counterbalance to China’s growing naval power. French wounded pride aside, it was the kind of smart, sober and strategic move that many of us had hoped to see in a Biden administration but has mostly been missing so far.

Gail: Can’t let the subject pass without taking this opportunity to point out that the Pentagon wastes a stupendous amount of money on glorioso projects we don’t need. And to drop the name of the F-35, a disastrous and never-ending attempt to build a new fighter plane. The Defense Department will still be screwing around with that one when your kids have grown up, reproduced and begun worrying about how to pay for their retirement.

Bret: Pretty much every time the Air Force upgrades its inventory, which inevitably costs huge sums of money whatever plane we buy, critics complain that the stuff is too expensive and doesn’t work. This was the line about the F-15 jet back in the 1970s, until it proved to be the best fighter-bomber in history.

Anyway, what were we discussing?

Gail: OK, thanks for that little breather. Readers, feel free to retort.

Moving on, I believe you were complaining about our current president’s budget negotiations?

Bret: What the country really needs is some sort of Biden-Get-Your-Groove-Back campaign. Any ideas?

Gail: I’m wondering how this whole debt limit thing will work out. Mitch McConnell is leading a Republican revolt against cooperating on raising the debt ceiling — after Trump, of course, sent the red ink exploding.

That’s so stupendously irresponsible I can imagine a market collapse that would be entirely the fault of the G.O.P. So awful that I pray it won’t happen even if it does turn Biden into the responsible hero of the saga.

Bret: Republicans have a history of shooting themselves in the foot by playing chicken with the debt ceiling, if I may mix my metaphors. But in this case Democrats have majorities in both houses of Congress, meaning they can raise it on their own in a separate bill. McConnell’s calculation is that Democrats will lose politically in the midterms by endorsing a debt ceiling number that’ll probably be north of $30 trillion.

Gail: Yeah, heaven forbid you pass up a chance to score political points just because it could wreck the economy.

Bret: We’ll still get the debt ceiling raised, one way or another: This is just the usual hardball that both parties play.

Biden still has to do a lot more to reset his presidency than complain about Republican meanies, which does about as much good as a Maine lobsterman complaining about fog. He was elected on the promise of being a competent, calming, unifying force, not a one-term F.D.R. Someone should tell Ron Klain that.

Gail: OK, dictate your memo …

Bret: Biden has to do three things, pronto. First, he needs to put the $3.5 trillion spending bill in the freezer and get the popular $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed immediately. It would also be good to appoint an infrastructure czar from the private sector, someone like Mark Cuban, to make sure the money doesn’t get held up in red tape and is spent efficiently and rapidly.

Second, he has to get a handle on the immigration crisis. We need a policy that tightens controls over illegal migration while creating humane, generous and orderly pathways to entry and citizenship. “A high wall with a big gate,” as our colleague Tom Friedman puts it.

Finally, he needs to help Kamala Harris become a better vice president. Right now she’s floundering, and if she’s the heir apparent then the Dems will be in deep doo-doo in 2024.

Gail: Sad to admit Kamala Harris still doesn’t seem to have hit her stride. Although now that Dan Quayle is being portrayed as a wise adviser during the postelection Republican chaos, I can imagine her eventually moving up to Nobel Peace Prize territory.

Bret: You say potato, I spell potatoe.

Gail: On another topic entirely, did you notice that Senator Chuck Grassley has announced that he’s going to run for re-election at 88? I don’t mind having a 78-year-old president, but there does seem to be a limit.

Bret: Well, you can’t fault him for lacking optimism. Robert Byrd was 92 when he traded the Senate for the graveyard, and Strom Thurmond was 100 when he left the Senate, so maybe Grassley figures he’s got a record to beat.

I guess I’m of two minds on this one. A lot of people are living productive lives well into their 80s, and if Grassley feels fit to serve again, then he’s something of a role model. On the other hand, whatever happened to enjoying the great-grandchildren and letting the next generation have its chance? Eager to know your thoughts.

Gail: Should acknowledge first that Dianne Feinstein is 88 and has filed some paperwork that may indicate another run. But it’s just not a good plan, and if she pursues it I fear she’ll give 90-year-old working people a bad name.

Bret: “You Give Geriatrics a Bad Name” is a Bon Jovi hit in the making.

Gail: I don’t have any problem with people pursuing legislative careers into their very later years. In our modern world we’re going to see more and more people working into their 80s or even 90s — if the birthrate doesn’t pick up, the economy will demand it.

But my suspicion about Grassley is that he’s going to run on his reputation and name recognition, get himself re-elected and then retire, leaving the Republican governor to appoint a replacement. That’s … cheating. Giving old candidates a bad name.

Bret: Given the increasingly red-leaning direction of Iowa politics, I don’t know how much of a difference it’ll make. My main concern is that the Democrats can’t let themselves get trounced in the midterms by shifting too far to the left or stumbling through another self-inflicted debacle like the handling of the Afghanistan exit. The central goal of the Biden administration should be simple: Don’t let Trump back in the White House again.

Gail: Well yeah. Plus expand early childhood education, make college degrees possible-to-pay-for, improve medical services for the housebound sick and a few other things, much of it funded with taxes on the rich.

We have such a nice time conversing about the terribleness of Trump, Bret. But we’ve got different visions of what a no-Trump world should look like.

Which is what makes conversing with you so much fun.

Bret: Here’s hoping for lots of arguments in a Trump-free, Covid-free world.



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