The Political Warheads Just Keep Exploding

Gail Collins: Welcome back from your trip to Greenland, Bret. Dying to hear your impressions. Was it beautiful? Was it … melting?

Bret Stephens: Greenland is a bit like a James Joyce novel: formidable and largely impenetrable. And the ice is definitely melting up there — which I’ll get to in the long feature I’m writing about the trip.

Gail: Been looking forward to that since you left.

Bret: But we’ve missed so much since our last conversation! The Joe Biden comeback. The Mar-a-Lago blowback. The Liz Cheney takedown. Where should we start?

Gail: Let’s begin with Biden. I’ll admit that the Inflation Reduction Act was perhaps not the perfect name for his bill, but what a moment for his presidency! First time the country’s ever taken a big, serious step toward combating global warming. And for once, I can imagine future generations looking back on what we’ve done and cheering.

Bret: I agree that the bill is misnamed. It probably would have been better called the West Virginia Special Perks Act, after all the goodies Joe Manchin stuffed into it for his home state, or the Elon Musk Additional Enrichment Act, given all the tax rebates for buying electric vehicles. On top of that, I doubt that history will look back on the legislation as some kind of turning point in addressing climate change, given that China emits more than twice the carbon dioxide that the United States does.

But Biden — or maybe I should say Chuck Schumer — has certainly rallied his party and given it a sense of accomplishment before the midterms. On the other hand, there’s the raid on Mar-a-Lago, which struck me as really, really ill-advised. Tell me I’m wrong.

Gail: Well, I sorta hated that it created so many headlines during a week when Biden should have been getting all the attention for his accomplishments. And I know Donald Trump is getting a lot of sympathy from his fans. But, hey, if he’s been sitting on top of secret documents, possibly including some having to do with, um, nuclear weaponry, I want the country to know about it.

Bret: We obviously have to withhold judgment till we know more, but color me skeptical on the claim about nuclear weaponry.

Gail: Understood. But while I am not yet quite prepared to envision our former president somehow selling our secrets to foreign governments, in this case it’s not so totally inconceivable that you wouldn’t want the feds to move quickly.

Bret: Gail, do you remember the line from “Raising Arizona,” when Nicolas Cage says to Holly Hunter, “There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right, and never the twain shall meet”? That seems like a pretty good description of Merrick Garland’s predicament.

Gail: Love it when you do those quotes.

Bret: On one hand, Trump continued to prevaricate and resist repeated requests to return the documents, in flagrant disregard for the rule of law. On the other, as a result of the search he’s consolidated support among Republicans who seemed to be drifting away just a few weeks ago. He’s turned the media spotlight away from Biden and back to himself. He’s created a new field of theories and conspiracies about what the government was really after.

In short, Garland gave Trump precisely what he wanted. And if the Justice Department can’t show that Trump was hiding something truly sensitive or explosive — like, proof that he was in direct personal contact with the Oath Keepers before Jan. 6 — I fear Garland’s going to emerge the loser from this encounter.

Gail: When in doubt, my all-purpose rule in understanding things Trump is to follow the stupendous Maggie Haberman, one of our great White House correspondents. Her analysis covers several possible explanations for the document-piling, all of them based on general stupidity. Maybe he wanted them as extremely high-end mementos. Maybe it’s his habit of hoarding papers. Or just his cosmic view of the world, that “everything he touches belongs to him,” as a lawyer Maggie talked to put it.

Bret: With Trump, the line between the shambolic and the sinister is often blurred. His entire being is like Inspector Clouseau doing an impression of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” or maybe vice versa.

Gail: But whatever the motive, we can’t allow him to set this kind of precedent for handling presidential documents.

Bret: I’m all for returning government documents to their rightful place, but if this helps return Trump to the White House I’d say it’s a bad bargain.

Gail: We’ll see what happens next. Meanwhile, there’s another big political saga underway. Liz Cheney lost her primary, as everybody expected. What’s next for her?

Bret: I got the sense from her concession speech that she plans to run for president. If she does so as a Republican there’s no hope: the nomination will almost certainly go either to Trump or Ron DeSantis.

But I can imagine her at the top of a third-party ticket, maybe with a centrist Democrat as her running mate.

Gail: Yeah, a centrist Democrat who endorses Republican fiscal policies and opposes gun control. I can admire her without ever imagining I’d support her presidential ticket.

Bret: I’d vote for it, though its likeliest effect would be to elect the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be. Do you think Biden’s legislative accomplishments make it more or less likely that he’ll seek the nomination?

Gail: I worry that any positive news will further encourage Biden to run again. As you know, I think that’s a bad idea. I’m not a supporter of ageism, God knows, but starting a presidential term at 82 doesn’t really seem like a great plan.

Bret: Plus, I can’t remember a recent president who had a smooth second term. Nixon: Watergate. Reagan: Iran-contra. Clinton: Lewinsky. George W. Bush: Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. Obama: the rise of ISIS and Democratic loss of the Senate. What does Biden think he can expect?

On a different subject, Gail, there was also the attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life. Your thoughts?

Gail: Well, I was certainly … against it.

Bret: Good to know!

Gail: Sorry, I shouldn’t be glib when it comes to such a terrible moment. Having something like this happen in a place like the Chautauqua Institution — a venerable retreat in western New York where people go to relax and ponder a few deep thoughts before returning to their normal work slog — is awful.

Bret: Several commentators have written eloquently about the broader meaning of the attack. It puts the lie to the increasingly prevalent notion that words can be a form of violence, which is sometimes used to justify curbs on free speech. The truth is that words are the antithesis of, and the best alternative to, violence, which is why the protection of free speech is so essential for fruitful democratic life.

Gail: Which made the attack both depressing and very unexpected. As compared to, say, the Liz Cheney primary loss, which was a real downer even though everybody knew it was going to happen.

Bret: True, although the scale of the defeat surprised me. Then again, we’ve also had some surprises on the upside. Like the good people of Kansas rising overwhelmingly to keep the right to an abortion in their constitution.

Gail: If you feel down, think of Kansas. Who’d have thought that would be our slogan of the year?

Bret: Years ago, Tom Frank wrote a book called “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Apparently the answer is: nothing much.

Gail: We’ve got some big primary elections coming up on Tuesday. One of them is right in my very own Congressional district, where two major Democratic House figures, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, have been redistricted into competition. Each is an important committee chair. And a third candidate, 38-year-old attorney Suraj Patel, keeps pointing out that they are both in their mid-70s. Do you have a favorite?

Bret: None of the above. The only New York City representative I admire is Ritchie Torres, and he’s in the Bronx. Who do you favor in that race?

Gail: I’ve decided Nadler has a longer history of taking smart, tough, stands on important issues and he’s got my vote. Now, your turn: give me a reading on the other big contest Tuesday — in Florida. Representative Charlie Crist, a former governor, and Nikki Fried, the state agricultural commissioner, are fighting to become the Democrat who takes on Florida’s current governor this fall.

Bret: Fried, mainly because I know enough about Crist as a former Republican to dislike his politics.

Gail: DeSantis is constantly talked about as a possible Republican alternative to Trump in 2024. How would you feel about him as a presidential prospect?

Bret: There is plenty not to like about DeSantis. But the facts are that Florida is thriving, he’s a fairly conventional conservative and he’s the one primary contender who can deny Trump the G.O.P. nomination, which is my central priority. I’d personally prefer someone like Nikki Haley, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Zing me back about this next week. But before you do, be sure to read our colleague Roger Cohen’s beautiful portrait of the Ukrainian city of Odesa, to which many of my coreligionists trace their roots. It’s a portrait of grace under pressure and a place worth fighting for. And since I criticize Biden all the time, let me finish by saying he deserves great credit for helping Ukrainians do just that.

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