Monday, 10 May 2021

Opinion | Joe Biden Was No One’s Idea of a Historic Figure

Bret Stephens: Well, Gail, that was some speech last week from President Franklin Baines Biden.

Gail Collins: Bret, is that supposed to be an insult? I’ll bet if Joe Biden learns you’ve compared him to Franklin Roosevelt, he’ll feel pretty chipper.

Bret: No insult. Just an apt historical comparison.

Gail: And he probably wouldn’t mind being thought of as a guy with L.B.J.’s domestic chops either. Remember the civil rights bill and the Voting Rights Act?

Bret: What I was mainly thinking about was the Great Society and the war on poverty. I don’t think they worked out quite as well as planned.

Gail: Well, Lyndon would want civil and voting rights in his Great Society basket.

Bret: Here is where I state for the record that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the greatest legislative achievements of the past 100 years.

Gail: And then what about Medicare and Head Start? Even Sesame Street came out of that shower of federal funding.

Bret: And here is where I endear myself to exactly none of our readers by opining that Head Start has been a costly failure and that Oscar the Grouch is the Sesame Street character to whom I most relate.

I won’t say anything about Medicare because my mom reads these conversations, and she already thinks I’m a half-wit.

Gail: Well, since we fought about early childhood education last week, I’ll give you a pass on Head Start. For now. Yes, there definitely were chunks of the war on poverty that didn’t work all that well. And most of said chunks died off or were somehow altered.

Which may be a hint about our immediate future. Biden’s plans are dramatic and aggressive, with a lot of great ideas. But not all of them will become law. It’s a good idea to give the folks in Congress some stuff to kill — makes them feel more, um, muscular.

Bret: I guess I have two big quarrels with what Biden is doing. The first is political. This is not the presidency that Biden voters like me thought we were going to get. I realize many Democrats could not care less but they should remember that if about 45,000 voters in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia had gone the other way, the Electoral College would have been tied, and we might well be sitting here tearing our hair out over whatever the re-elected Trump administration was doing, perish the thought. So swing voters count and this lurch to the left may not be going over too well with them.

Gail: Hey, voters like you thought they were gonna get rid of Donald Trump. That worked.

Sorry, go ahead.

Bret: The second is just ideological. I’m against big government. Countries in which the state’s share of the overall economy gets too large tend to be states with high levels of unemployment, especially among young people, and declining levels of competitiveness, both when it comes to large industries that get protected from competition and small businesses that are saddled by high taxes and overregulation. Point is, much as I like to visit Europe, I don’t want us to become Europe.

Gail: We can have more extensive health care and early childhood education without becoming France. Although truly, there could be worse things.

Bret: J’adore la France, mais pas l’État en France. I hope I got that right.

Gail: Here’s my scenario for the future: Congress passes part of the Biden plan. Squabbling abounds and then we move on to the next election cycle, in which the public will get to decide whether it wants to support the current administration or rally around … Ted Cruz. Or the governor of Florida.

Bret: Gail, you know that whenever you mention the name of the junior senator from Texas, I think: Eddie Haskell wasn’t that unctuous. Veruca Salt wasn’t that obnoxious. Sherman McCoy wasn’t that full of himself. Uriah Heep wasn’t that sycophantic. Heathcliff wasn’t that twisted. Dorian Gray wasn’t that self-absorbed. Elmer Gantry wasn’t that hypocritical. Willie Stark wasn’t that corrosively ambitious. Faust wasn’t that morally compromised. Lady Macbeth wasn’t that sinister. Iago wasn’t that conniving. Richard III wasn’t that malicious. Mr. Wickham wasn’t that dishonorable. Gollum wasn’t that oleaginous. Norman Bates wasn’t that disturbing. Inspector Clouseau wasn’t that ridiculous.

Sorry, what were we talking about?

Gail: Wow. Ted Cruz does make you … upset. Do you have any faves in the assembling Republican mob of wannabe nominees?

Bret: The guy I’d like to see as the nominee is Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. But by far the most potent challenger to Biden — or whoever is the Democratic nominee in 2024, since I suspect it won’t be Biden — is the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. He’s got a Trumpy vibe but a first-class brain. And he knows how to get liberals to slip on their own banana peels, as he did after “60 Minutes” accused him without enough evidence of a pay-to-play scheme. It’s a potent political mix.

Gail: DeSantis is king of the cruise line minions. He’s fighting federal regulations of boats going out of Florida ports. Sorry, that’s just my thing.

Bret: I probably shouldn’t say this, but I sorta think that anyone who would actually step on a cruise ship of their own accord right now does so at their own risk and deserves whatever might happen to them once aboard.

Gail: I can understand your argument about Ben Sasse, but I’m pretty confident he has no hope whatsoever of getting the nomination. Just because of all the things you like about him.

Bret: Sadly true. He’s the least Trumpy Republican in the Senate, except for Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski. He voted to convict Trump after his second impeachment. He’s also genuinely thoughtful, decent, politically courageous, knowledgeable on policy, and philosophically sound. Hence: No chance.

Gail: I know this is an unfair question but … in the dark of the night, what chances do you think there are you’ll wind up supporting Joe Biden for re-election? Just because of the alternative.

Bret: Well, if it’s Joe or Ted, I’d vote for … Ted. Kidding! I’d sooner vote for a moldering anchovy pizza.

Gail: Whew.

Bret: Otherwise, though, I’m going to be hard pressed to vote for Biden unless he shifts sharply toward the center. Which gets me back to what we were discussing earlier. I hope his spending and taxing proposals get defeated, sort of in the way that Bill Clinton got hammered in his first two years. Then, if Republicans regain control of at least one chamber of Congress, there can be some bipartisan progress, particularly on immigration reform and a coherent China policy.

Gail: And I’ll be sullenly commenting from the sidelines.

Bret: A similar thing happened with Clinton, who got re-elected after he showed he could get stuff done — in his case, ending “welfare as we know it.”

Gail: And raising taxes on the wealthy ….

Bret: That part I liked less.

Gail: I can’t say I loved all of Clinton’s domestic agenda, but I do enjoy pointing out that he eliminated the budget deficit, something no Republican has managed to do since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Don’t know that we’ve talked much about deficit spending. Do you think it’s a bad thing?

Bret: Within reason, not really. It depends on whether the spending is worth it, as it was when we outspent the Soviet Union militarily in the 1980s to accelerate its economic collapse. And it depends whether the spending enhances economic growth, as some infrastructure spending might, or retards it, especially if the government creates incentives not to work.

Switching subjects, it looks like Gavin Newsom is going to be facing a recall vote. Could California ever again elect a Republican for statewide office?

Gail: Maybe if some hitherto undiscovered moderate Republican with liberal social views and an extremely glamorous profile pops up. Otherwise I would say, um, no.

Bret: Conan the Septuagenarian is out of the question?

Gail: When last seen, Arnold Schwarzenegger was making news with his complaint that the Oscars were boring. Doesn’t suggest a lust for tough campaigning.

Bret: Wouldn’t know about the Oscars. I was part of the record-breaking non-audience.

Gail: Newsom hasn’t been a bad governor at all, although his story is an excellent reminder to all blue state politicians that it’s a bad plan to go to a dinner party at a fancy French restaurant during the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

Bret: He should remember to be seen doing the laundry, not dining at the French Laundry.

Gail: Advice for the ages.

Bret: But I think it’s also a reminder that complacency is always a bad idea for a politician. Newsom and Andrew Cuomo were lauded as heroes a year ago; now they are pariahs. It’s also a reminder that the political wheel inevitably turns. California used to be the land of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson; it may be so again.

I guess the point is that no political struggle is ever completely lost, or completely won. You have to keep fighting — hopefully only metaphorically speaking.

Gail: Amen on the last point. Save your ammunition for the issues.

Watching Biden’s speech the other night, I was happily thinking there’d probably never been a president who could make a dramatic agenda sound more boring. And I realized that I’m still in the no-drama-please stage of Trump recovery.

Bret: We disagree! I liked his delivery. It was very — Joe.

Gail: I swear not to spend this entire presidency bragging about his snooze-inducing deportment. But if the Republicans keep romancing guys like Cruz and DeSantis, I can’t promise I won’t ever bring it up.

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