Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Opinion | The Republican Presidential Plot Is Thickening

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. It looks like we’ll be getting two new campaign launches soon in the race for the Republican presidential nomination: Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Any free advice you want to offer them on how they can beat you-know-who?

Gail Collins: Gee, Bret, I guess they could both could use a little help being faster on their feet when they’re surrounded by curious reporters. But it’s not like I’m rooting for either of them. I’ve already told you — with multitudinous qualifications — that if I was locked up in a room and forced to choose between DeSantis and Trump, I’d beat my head against the wall and then pick The Donald.

Bret: Gail! No! Nononono.

You’re reminding me of the old “Bad Idea Jeans” skit from “Saturday Night Live,” in which a bunch of middle-aged guys bat around some really, really terrible brainstorms: “Well, he’s an ex-freebase addict and he’s trying to turn his life around, and he needs a place to stay for a couple of months ….”

What about Tim Scott?

Gail: Scott hasn’t been a serious enough possibility for me to worry about. Give me a little more time to judge what looks like it will be a growing throng.

You’re the one who’s in charge of Republicans. Nikki Haley was your fave — is she showing any serious promise? Who’s next on your list?

Bret: Scott has a $22 million campaign war chest, which alone makes him a potentially serious contender. He speaks the Reaganesque language of hope, which is a nice contrast to the vituperative and vengeful styles of Don and Ron. He’s got an inspiring, up-from-poverty life story that will resonate with a lot of voters. He has the potential to attract minority voters to the G.O.P., and, as importantly, appeal to middle-of-the road voters who might be persuaded to cast a ballot for a Republican provided they won’t feel guilty or embarrassed by it.

All he needs is to work on his answers to those pesky questions about his position on abortion. As for DeSantis, he needs to stop coming across as a colossal, monomaniacal, humorless, lecturesome and tedious jerk, the Ted Cruz of this campaign season.

Gail: Well, your recipe for Scott certainly does seem more doable. Sorta depressing though, that we judge potential candidates for the highest office in the land by their ability to raise money, a lot of it from special interests. Sure there are folks out there planning to send Tim $10 online, but we’re basically talking about big money donors.

Bret: Sorry, but is it any different than Democrats? Didn’t President Biden just headline a $25,000-a-plate fund-raiser at the home of a former Blackstone exec? Our standards have become so debased in the last few years that I’m grateful for anything that passes as politics-as-usual.

Gail: Sigh. Moving on — I guess we should talk about the debt limit negotiations. Any deep thoughts?

Bret: Not sure if they’re deep, but the Republican insistence on capping spending at 2022 levels is going to cripple military spending in the very decade in which we face serious strategic competition. I’m all for budget discipline, but the G.O.P.’s rediscovery of fiscal purity is fundamentally at odds with its tough-on-China stance. It also reminds me of the composer Oscar Levant’s quip: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

Gail: I always love your quotes but fitting in Oscar Levant may be a new high.

Bret: All joking aside, I think the Biden administration would be smart to make a few concessions on spending, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it will help pin the blame on Republicans in the event we end up in default and possibly recession. Your thoughts?

Gail: Biden’s clearly ready to go there. What we’re watching is a dance to see who gets the most credit for avoiding default while avoiding super-outrage from the base.

Bret: Big problem here is that too much of the Republican base is basically unappeasable. They’d rather put the nation’s finances in a wooden barrel and send it hurtling over Niagara Falls than be accused of compromising with Democrats.

Gail: One of the Republicans’ big yelling points has been a stricter requirement that able-bodied people who get federal aid should do some kind of work for it.

Most people aren’t against that in theory, but the enforcement is a big, potentially expensive, pain that could lead to deserving people getting cut off by bureaucratic snafus, and causing big trouble for some single mothers. Without any real turnaround in the status quo.

I find it deeply irritating, but I’m kinda reconciled to the idea that something will happen. You’re a big supporter, right?

Bret: The work requirements of the 1996 welfare reform bill were one of the best achievements of the decade — and helped make Bill Clinton a two-term president. Even if enforcement is difficult, it’s politically, financially and morally preferable to subsidizing indolence.

Switching subjects, Gail, Democrats were enraged when DeSantis and the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, started busing migrants north to New York City and other self-declared sanctuary cities. Now the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, is declaring a crisis and busing some of those same migrants out of the city, often to the consternation of nearby smaller cities like Newburgh that are straining under the weight of the new arrivals. Are you ready to denounce Adams?

Gail: Not quite the same thing, Bret. States like Texas have a permanent relationship with countries across the border — it’s part of their economy. In times like this, the rest of the country should offer support — from good border enforcement to services for the needy. And of course to accept these folks if they come to our states of their own volition.

Bret: Not quite sure why some states should bear a heavier share of the immigration burden just because they happen to be next to Mexico, particularly when immigration enforcement is primarily a federal responsibility. I think we in the nonborder states have so far sort of failed to appreciate the scale of the crisis and the burden it has imposed on border towns.

Gail: We know Texas has been mass-shipping immigrants to places like New York to make a political score, not solve a problem.

Bret: Well, both are possible.

Gail: Adams isn’t the best-organized mayor in history, but I don’t think even a great administrator could have successfully coped with all of this. There just aren’t enough places in the city for these people to go. And Gov. Kathy Hochul had big plans for expanding housing around the state, which were killed off by nonurban lawmakers.

It’s true some of the smaller cities have also been flooded with needy newcomers. But there are plenty of wealthier suburban and rural communities who could do a lot more. Having spent part of my career covering state government for suburban papers, I can tell you there’s nothing that a lot of those towns hate/fear/oppose more than programs that bring in lower-income would-be residents.

Bret: As a matter of moral conviction, I believe we ought to be welcoming to strangers. And I’m mindful that my mother arrived in this country as a refugee, albeit one who waited year after year for a U.S. visa.

But as a matter of politics, the Biden administration’s performance has been disastrous. In the next New York City budget, emergency migrant aid is projected to cost more than the city’s Fire Department. Every government has a far greater responsibility toward its own citizens — especially the neediest — than it does to people who arrive here in violation of the law. And if President Biden doesn’t get an effective handle on the border, he’s going to turn the entire country against immigrants in a way that will permanently damage our spirit of openness.

Gail: This is going to require a lot more arguing in the future.

Bret: We’ll put it aside for now. In the meantime, the most profound, meaningful and soul-rending article in The Times for as long as I can remember is our colleague Sarah Wildman’s essay about the loss of her daughter Orli, at age 14. Where there are no words, Sarah found the words:

Recently, several people quietly told me that she had helped them in some way, inspired them or helped them with their pain. If she could continue to engage, to be concerned beyond herself, they could, too. Her instinct was always to assist, to write to the kid on the other side of the country struggling with chemo-related hair loss, to find out if a friend’s sibling headed to the hospital needed advice on how to navigate hospital time, to see if a newly diagnosed child wanted tips on making life in cancer care more bearable, or even to encourage someone going through a divorce to dance. And so, even when I’m crushed with grief, Orli continues to teach me. Some of the lessons are basic but worth repeating: It matters to reach out, over and over, even in minor ways. It matters to visit. It matters to care.

May Orli’s memory always be for a blessing.

Gail: Bret, this one is so moving I have to throw in one last comment: Agreed, agreed.

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