Opinion

Speaker, Speaker, What Do You See? I See MAGA Looking at Me.

Bret Stephens: Gail, remember “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” the unforgettable Lionel Shriver novel about a woman whose son murders his classmates? Maybe someone should write the sequel: “We Need To Talk About What They Did to Kevin.”

Gail Collins: A book-length disquisition on Kevin McCarthy, Bret? I dunno. Always thought his strongest suit was that he was too boring to hate. But now that he’s apparently promised the Republican right wing everything but permission to bring pet ocelots to the House floor, I can see it.

Bret: Too boring to hate or too pathetic to despise? I’ve begun to think of McCarthy almost as a literary archetype, like one of those figures in a Joseph Conrad novel whose follies make them weak and whose weakness leads them to folly.

Gail: Love your literary allusions. But let’s pretend you’re in charge of the Republican Party — tell me what you think of him in general.

Bret: A few honorable exceptions aside, the G.O.P. is basically split between reptiles and invertebrates. McCarthy is the ultimate invertebrate. He went to Mar-a-Lago just a short while after Jan. 6 to kiss the ring of the guy who incited the mob that, by McCarthy’s own admission, wanted to kill him. He hated Liz Cheney because of her backbone. But he quailed before Marjorie Taylor Greene because she has a forked tongue. He gave away the powers and prerogatives of the office of speaker in order to gain the office, which is like a slug abandoning its shell and thinking it won’t be stepped on. A better man would have told the Freedom Caucus holdouts to shove it. Instead, as a friend of mine put it, McCarthy decided to become the Squeaker of the House.

Gail: OK, Kevin is House Squeaker forever.

Bret: If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the whole spectacle has shown voters what they get for voting for this Republican Party.

Gail: Hey, you’re still in charge of Republicans. Now that they’re sort of in command, do you have hopes they’ll make progress on your priorities, like controlling government spending? Without, um, failing to make the nation’s debt payments …

Bret: Buried in the noise about McCarthy’s humiliation is that his opponents had some reasonable demands. One of them was to give members of Congress a minimum of 72 hours to read the legislation they were voting on. Another was to limit bills to a single subject. The idea is to do away with the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spending packages that Congress has lately become way too fond of.

Gail: Yeah, I can buy into that one.

Bret: On the other hand, the idea that this Republican clown show is going to accomplish anything significant — particularly since doing so would require them to work with a Democratic president and Senate — is roughly the equivalent of Vladimir Putin leaving the vocation of vile despot to become a … cannabis entrepreneur. Not going to happen.

So what do Democrats do?

Gail: Well, one plus is that we don’t have to worry about the Republican House passing some terrible, nutty legislation since the Senate is there to put a halt to it. Interesting how much better obstruction looks when your party is doing the obstructing ….

Bret: It’s almost — almost — enough to be grateful to people like Herschel Walker and Blake Masters for being such deliriously awful candidates.

Gail: When it comes to positive action, like keeping the government running, I’d like to think the moderate Dems and the moderate Republicans could get together and come to some agreement on the basics. Do you think there’s a chance?

Bret: What was the name of that Bret Easton Ellis novel? “Less Than Zero.” Bipartisanship became a four-letter word for most Republicans sometime around 2012. If we can avoid another useless government shutdown, I’ll consider it a minor miracle.

On the other hand, all this is good for Democrats. In our last conversation, I predicted that McCarthy wouldn’t win the speakership and that Joe Biden would decide against a second term. I was wrong on the first. Now I’m beginning to think I was also wrong on the second, in part because Republicans are in such manifest disarray. What is your spidey-sense telling you?

Gail: Yeah, Biden knows 80 is old for another run, but the chance to take on Donald Trump again is probably going to be irresistible.

Bret: Assuming it’s going to be Trump, which, increasingly, I doubt.

Gail: You really think it’s going to be Ron DeSantis? My theory is that if the field opens up at all, there’ll be a swarm of Republican hopefuls, dividing the Trump opposition.

Bret: It’ll be DeSantis or you can serve me a platter of crow. Never mind that Trump still managed to seal the deal for McCarthy’s speakership by winning over a few of the last holdouts. It still took him 15 ballots.

Gail: But about Biden — if he did drop out, Democrats would have to figure out what to do about Kamala Harris. A woman, a minority, with the classic presidential training job. Yet a lot of people haven’t found her all that impressive as a potential leader.

My vote would be for him to announce he’s not running instantly, and let all the other potential heirs go for it.

Bret: How do you solve a problem like Kamala? My initial hope was that she’d grow into the job. That hasn’t seemed to happen. My second hope was that Biden would give her a task in which she’d shine. Didn’t happen either. My third hope was that Biden would ask her to fill Stephen Breyer’s seat on the Supreme Court, and then nominate Gina Raimondo or Pete Buttigieg to the vice presidency, setting either of them up to be the front-runner in ’24 or ’28. Whoops again. Now Dems are saddled with their own version of Dan Quayle, minus the gravitas.

Gail: Not fair to compare her to Dan Quayle. But otherwise OK with your plan. Go on.

Bret: I also think Biden should announce he isn’t going to run, both on account of his age and the prospect of running against someone like DeSantis. But the argument is harder to make given the midterm results, Republican chaos, the sense that he’s defied the skeptics to pass a lot of legislation, and the increasingly likely prospect that Ukraine will prevail over Russia this year and give him a truly historic geopolitical win.

I just hope that, if he does run, he switches veeps. It would … reassure the nation.

Gail: So happy to hear you’re on a Biden fan track. Does that apply to his new plan for the Mexican border, too?

Bret: Not a Biden fan, exactly, though I do root for a successful presidency on general principle. As for the border plan, the good news is that he finally seems to be recognizing the scale of the problem and promising tougher enforcement. It’s also good that he’s doing more for political refugees from oppressive countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Gail: And next …

Bret: The right step now is to start pushing for realistic bipartisan immigration reform that gives Republicans more money for border wall construction and security in exchange for automatic citizenship for Dreamers, an expanded and renewable guest-worker visa that helps bring undocumented workers out of the shadows, and a big increase in the “extraordinary ability” EB-1 visas for our future Andy Groves and Albert Einsteins. What do you think?

Gail: I was waiting for you to get to the border wall itself. Which we disagree about. Terrible symbol, awful to try to maintain, and not always effective.

Bret: All true, except that it paves the way for a good legislative compromise and can save lives if it deters dangerous border crossings.

Gail: Moneywise, the border states deserve increased federal aid to handle their challenges. A good chunk should go to early childhood education, which would not only help the new arrivals but also local children born into non-English-speaking families.

The aid should also go to states like New York that are getting busloads of new immigrants — some from those Arizona and Texas busing plots, but a good number just because they’re the newcomers’ choice destination.

I believe there was a bipartisan plan hatched in the House that included citizenship for Dreamers — an obvious reform that, amazingly, we haven’t yet achieved. But bipartisan plans aren’t doing real well right now.

Bret: It’s still worth a shot. I’m sorry Biden didn’t invest the kind of political capital into immigration reform that he did into the infrastructure and climate change bills. And if Republicans wind up voting down funding for a border wall out of spite for Dreamers, I can’t see how that helps Republicans or hurts Democrats. Supporting them seems like smart politics at the very minimum.

Before we go, Gail, one more point of note: We just passed the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. I was happy to see Biden honor the heroes of that day at a White House ceremony. Also happy to see the Justice Department continue to prosecute hundreds of cases. And appalled to watch Brazil’s right-wing loons try to imitate the Jan. 6 insurrectionists by storming their own parliament. Any suggestions for going forward?

Gail: Well, what we really need to see is an effort by Republicans. Some of whom were endangered themselves during the attack, but virtually none of whom have shown any interest in revisiting that awful moment — only one member of the party showed up for that ceremony.

Now that Kevin McCarthy has his job in hand, let’s see him call for a bipartisan committee to come up with some suggestions. Ha ha ha.

Sorry — don’t want to end on a snippy note.

Bret: Not snippy at all. Truthful. We could start by requiring a civics course for all incoming members of Congress. Maybe some of them might learn that their first duty is to the Constitution, not to themselves.

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