Opinion | The Republican Meltdown Shows No Sign of Cooling Off

Gail Collins: Bret, when we started our conversations, you generously agreed to stick to domestic issues. I’ve always steered away from commenting on foreign affairs because I have so very many colleagues who know so very much more about them than I do.

But I know you’re weighed down by the situation in the Middle East. I’m gonna sign off here so you can share your thoughts.

Bret Stephens: Thanks for raising the subject, Gail. And since I’ve written a column about it, I promise to keep it brief so we can talk about marginally less depressing things, like the increasingly plausible prospect of a second Trump term.

Israel occupies such a big place in the public imagination that people often forget what a small country it is. When an estimated 700 Israelis (a number that is sure to grow, out of a total population of a little over nine million) are killed in terrorist attacks, as they have been since Hamas’s rampage began Saturday morning, that’s the proportional equivalent of around 25,000 Americans. In other words, eight 9/11s.

I know some of our readers have strong feelings about Israeli policies or despise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But what we witnessed on Saturday was pure evil. Habitual critics of Israel should at least pause to mourn the hundreds of young Israelis murdered at a music festival, the mothers and young children kidnapped to Gaza to be used as human shields, the Israeli captives brutalized, the thousands of wounded and maimed civilians who were just going about their morning on sovereign Israeli territory. And the critics should also ask whether the version of Palestine embodied by Hamas, which tyrannizes its own people even as it terrorizes its neighbor, is one they can stomach.

Gail: Horrific stories like the music festival massacre make it flat-out clear how this was an abomination that has to be decried around the globe, no matter what your particular position on Palestine is.

Now, I will follow my own rule and dip back into domestic politics.

Bret: OK, and I will have lots more to say about this in my regular column this week. I also know you’re raring to talk about those charming House Republicans who ended Kevin McCarthy’s speakership last week. But first I have to ask: How do you feel about Build-the-Wall-Biden?

Gail: I knew you were going to head for the wall! Couple of thoughts here, the first being that the money was appropriated by Congress during the Trump administration for his favorite barrier and President Biden was right when he asked for it to be reallocated to a general migration-control program.

Which, of course, didn’t happen. I still hate, hate, hate the wall and all it symbolizes. But also understand why Biden didn’t want to give Republicans ammunition to claim he wasn’t trying to control the immigration problem.

Now, feel free to tell me that you differ ….

Bret: It ought to be axiomatic that you can’t have a gate without a wall. If we want more legal immigration, which we both do, we need to do more to prevent illegal immigration. It’s also a shame Biden didn’t do this two years ago when he could have traded wall-building for something truly constructive, like citizenship for Dreamers and a higher annual ceiling for the number of political refugees allowed into the United States. Now he just looks desperate and reactive and late to address a crisis he kept trying to pretend wasn’t real.

Not to mention the political gift this whole fiasco is to Donald Trump, who now has a slight lead over Biden in the polls. Aren’t you a wee bit nervous?

Gail: Impossible not to be a wee bit nervous when Trump’s one of the options. But I still think when we really get into all the multitudinous criminal and civil trials, it’s going to be very hard for the middle-of-the-road, don’t-ask-me-yet voters to pick the Trump option.

Bret: I wouldn’t get my hopes up on that front. For so many Americans, Trump’s indictments have gone from being the scandal- of the century to just so much white noise on cable TV, like all of Trump’s other scandals. The only thing millions of Americans care about is whether they are better off in 2023 than they were in 2019, the last full year under Trump that wasn’t affected by the pandemic. And the sad truth is: Many believe that they aren’t.

Gail: I will refrain from veering off into a discussion of how the Trump tax cuts caused the deficit to surge. Or mentioning the latest jobs report, which was really good.

Bret: Shame about the high gas prices, rising mortgage rates, urban decay, a border crisis and all the other stuff my liberal friends keep thinking is just some sort of American hypochondria.

Gail: It’s settled — we disagree. Time for us to get on to those embattled House Republicans. Anybody in contention for speaker of the House you actually like?

Bret: You’re asking me to pick my poison. I’d say Steve Scalise, the majority leader who once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage,” is still better than Jim Jordan, but that’s because almost everyone is better than Jim Jordan, the former wrestling coach. Republicans don’t have particularly good experiences with former wrestling coaches who become speakers of the House.

Admit it: You’re sorta enjoying this G.O.P. meltdown, right?

Gail: At the moment, absolutely. Once again, this is a Trump creation. He was the one who engineered the nomination of so many awful House candidates that the Republicans couldn’t get the usual post-presidential election surge in the out-party’s seats. They’re not even a majority if you subtract the total loons, like our friend Matt Gaetz.

But I’m not looking forward to a government shutdown, and I doubt these guys will be able to get the votes together to avoid one next month.

Bret: We are in agreement. All the clichés about lunatics running the asylum, letting the foxes in the henhouse, picking the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, and really futile and stupid gestures apply. A government shutdown will accomplish exactly nothing for Republicans except make them seem like the party of total dysfunction — which, of course, is what they are. Not exactly a winning political slogan.

Gail: Can you make dysfunction a slogan? Maybe: Vote for This — Total Dys!

Bret: Our colleague Michelle Goldberg got it right last week when she said that centrist Republicans would have been smart to team up with Democrats to elect a unity candidate as speaker, someone like Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican. But of course that would have meant putting country over party, a slogan that John McCain ran for president on but hardly exists today as a meaningful concept.

Gail: You know, my first real covering-a-presidential-race was the one in 2000, and McCain was my focus. I followed him around on his early trips to New Hampshire. He’d drive to a town and talk to some small veterans’ gathering or student club or — anybody who’d ask him. And his obsession was campaign finance reform.

It was pretty wonderful to watch up close. Later, he got a bill passed that improved the regulations. Can’t think of a current Republican candidate who is super-focused on driving out big-money donors.

Bret: I thought McCain was wrong about campaign finance reform; he would often be the first to admit that he was wrong about a lot of stuff. But politics was more fun, more functional, more humane and more honorable when his way of doing business ruled Congress than it is with the current gang of ideological gangsters.

Gail: So true.

Bret: Speaking of our political malfunctions, our colleague Alex Kingsbury had a really thoughtful Opinion audio short talking about how violent Trump’s rhetoric has become. Trump had suggested that Gen. Mark Milley had behaved treasonously and said shoplifters deserved to be executed. One point Alex makes is that a second Trump term would very likely be much worse than the first. Do you agree or do you think it will be the same Spiro Agnew-Inspector Clouseau mash-up we had last time?

Gail: You know, a basic rule of Trumpism is that he always gets worse. Alex’s piece is smart, and his prediction is deeply depressing.

Bret: The scary scenario is that Trump 2.0 makes no concessions to the normal conservatives who populated the first administration: people like Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster and Scott Gottlieb. So imagine Stephen Miller as secretary of homeland security, Tucker Carlson as secretary of state, Sean Hannity as director of national intelligence and Vivek Ramaswamy as vice president. This could be an administration that would pull the United States out of NATO, defund Ukraine, invade Mexico and invite Vladimir Putin for skeet shooting at Camp David.

Gail: As I’ve pointed out before, this is one reason people watch football.

Bret: Just wait until Steve Bannon somehow becomes N.F.L. commissioner during the second Trump term.

Gail: One last issue: I know you’re not in favor of bringing up global warming when it’s time to admire the leaves, but whenever the weather gets bad now, I worry that it’s a hint of more dire things to come. This winter, if it’s colder than usual I’ll be miserable because it’s … cold. But now I can’t really feel totally chipper if it’s warm, either.

Bret: I really am concerned with the climate. But, hey, we may as well enjoy some nice fall weather while we still can.

Gail: You totally win that thought. Look for the good moments whenever you can.

Here at the end, you generally conclude with a poem or a nod to a great piece you read. Particularly eager to hear it this week.

Bret: Did you know that one of Shakespeare’s sonnets touches on climate change? Here is another gem my dad had the good sense to make me memorize:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-ras’d
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

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