Opinion | Kevin McCarthy Surprised Us All


Gail Collins: I didn’t think I’d be saying this, Bret, but we’ve dodged a shutdown. It’s a stupendous moment for Kevin McCarthy. Now if he gets tossed out as House speaker by the right wing, he’ll go down in history as the guy who sacrificed his career for the common good. As opposed to the best-possible previous scenario: the boring career pol who was too scared to keep the government running.

What’s your reaction?

Bret Stephens: Cutting billions in funding for Ukraine was a shame, but I’m guessing the aid will be restored to Kyiv pretty soon. Otherwise, it’s a vast relief that the government will stay open. And, of course, watching someone like Matt Gaetz get politically humiliated is always pleasing.

Gail: And there was Gaetz, on cue, announcing Sunday that he would try to remove McCarthy from the speakership. Lord knows it’s been a long trek, listening to the Republicans’ constant yelping about deficit spending. Is it fair to point out that the national debt rose $7.8 trillion during the Trump administration?

Bret Stephens: Not fair at all, Gail. Everything that happened when Trump was president was so perfect, so beautiful.

OK, I’m kidding. One of my many laments about Trump is that he spent like a sailor on land and governed like a drunk at sea. I wish this would count against him with G.O.P. primary voters, but the truth is that the average Republican isn’t all that eager to really slash government spending, even if they say they don’t like the government. I think Trump intuitively understood this, which is why attacks from Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley aren’t making a dent in Trump’s poll numbers.

Which reminds me: Your thoughts on last week’s Republican presidential debate? Whom did you dislike the least?

Gail: I suspect this is a setup to get me to praise your fave, Nikki Haley.

Bret: Not a setup. An … invitation.

Gail: And hey, I can’t argue that she wasn’t the sanest of the group. Along with Chris Christie, the Republican Republicans love to hate.

Haley lightly criticized Trump’s performance as president, and after the debate was over, he called her a “birdbrain.”

You know, I have this tiny hope that the New Hampshire Republican voters will exercise a little independence and give her the top primary vote and an early lift. But kinda worried Christie will be in there too, dividing the sanity caucus.

Bret: A great point. Christie should get out now and throw his support behind Haley. The only reason he got in the race in the first place was to chuck spears at Trump. It hit the wrong Donald — Duck not Trump — and now all Christie is doing is dividing the anti-Trump field. I also wish Mike Pence would recognize reality and tuck back into bed with his wife of 38 years. That would give Haley a fighting chance to further destroy Vivek Ramaswamy and replace DeSantis as the most plausible Republican alternative to Trump. But I have to admit, my hopes of Trump not being the nominee are dwindling fast.

Gail: OK, New Hampshire Republicans, are you listening? Counting on you for a primary miracle.

Bret: Speaking of Trump crushing his opponents, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw that Washington Post-ABC News poll last week, giving Trump a 10-point lead over Joe Biden in a head-to-head matchup. I realize it might be an outlier, but I don’t understand why no serious Democrat is willing to challenge Biden for the nomination. Help me out here.

Gail: The poll, if accurate, is a cry of crankiness from middle-of-the-roaders who wanted a more exciting candidate. Still, the only reason for a loyal Democrat to oppose Biden’s nomination is that he’s too old. I think he’s been a darned good president. And while I do wish he had stepped aside, I’m certainly not going to have any trouble whatsoever arguing he’s the better option.

This is when I get to point out that Trump is 77 and in worse physical condition than Biden. And has been saying some very weird things lately — even for him.

Bret: Biden’s main problem isn’t that he’s too old. There are plenty of sharp, fit and healthy 80-year-olds. His problem is that he looks and sounds feeble. Trump may be awful and insane and nearly as old as Biden, but one thing he isn’t is low energy. And even if you think Biden is the best president since F.D.R., or Abe Lincoln for that matter, he’s got a 41.5 percent approval rating, a vice president who’s even more unpopular than he is, and major political liabilities on immigration, crime and inflation. Also now Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is hinting that he’ll run as a third-party candidate in the general election, which would be on top of Biden’s Cornel West problem.

Gail: Thank you for giving me a chance to howl about third-party candidates. Who have no possibility of winning but every possibility of screwing up the majority’s right to choose.

Bret: I suppose that, in theory, Kennedy could subtract a lot of votes from Trump, since both of them draw from the same well of looney-tune conspiracy theories. But my guess is that, as a Democrat, Biden would be the bigger loser from an independent Kennedy campaign. And if West persists in running, drawing progressive and Black voters away from Biden, then the chances of a Trump victory grow even larger.

Gail: But we were talking about President Joe …

Bret: If you see Biden jumping out of the political hole he’s in, please tell me how.

Gail: Just being sane, not under multitudinous indictments or facing a stupendous financial collapse is … going to help. This is not going to be one of those sunny remember-when election victories like Barack Obama’s or I guess for Republicans, Ronald Reagan’s. But given the Donald’s multiple upcoming trials, I think it’ll be a wow-what-a-crazy-year episode that ends with the majority rationally rejecting the worst possible option.

Bret: If a second Trump administration is the national nightmare you and I think it will be, then Democrats need a better political strategy than getting angry at third-party candidates while hoping that Trump goes to jail before he returns to the White House. The passing of California’s Dianne Feinstein is a sad event, and there’s a lot to celebrate in her long and distinguished career, but it was hubris on her part to run for re-election in 2018, just like it was hubris for Ruth Bader Ginsburg not to step down while Obama was still president. Although, in Feinstein’s defense, at least she could be reasonably sure that a Democratic governor would choose her successor.

Gail: Yeah, when you’ve got a great job in the spotlight, it’s hard to just let it go.

Bret: Which maybe explains the guy in the White House. Sorry, go on.

Gail: I thought Feinstein should have resigned when she became incapacitated. And Ginsburg diminished a great legacy by hanging onto her job when she was sick and close to death, thereby paving the way for Trump to complete his takeover of the Supreme Court.

We have to celebrate the people who surrender the spotlight voluntarily, like Nancy Pelosi, who is still serving the country as a member of Congress, but gave up her party’s House leadership to let the next generation be in the center of attention.

Hey — a positive thought! Any good news you want to share?

Bret: I don’t know if this is good news per se, but I was delighted to hear Mark Milley, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismiss Trump as a “wannabe dictator” after his former boss suggested the general’s actions with regard to China would have once been punishable by death. Milley emphasized the military’s fidelity to the Constitution, which is yet another reminder that Democrats should put aside their 50 years of misgivings about the Defense Department and embrace its vital role in defending democracy at home and abroad.

Hoping for agreement …

Gail: Total agreement about the Defense Department having a vital role. Not so much about the Defense Department having an efficient operation. Way too much waste, which mostly comes from members of Congress lobbying to keep job-creating military facilities in their districts, and pressure to pick up wasteful contracts because they’re supported by, um, members of Congress.

Bret: I’ll make a modest bet that, in another few years, Democrats will be the strong-on-defense party, just as they were in the days of Jack Kennedy. It’s part of the great ideological switcheroo taking place right now between the parties: Republicans sound a lot like Democrats of yesteryear — working-class values, quasi-isolationist in their foreign policy, indifferent to the moral character of their leaders — while Democrats have become the party of college-educated managerial types who want to stand up to Russia and uphold moral integrity in political leadership.

Gail: Well, we’ll see. At least we’re ending on a consensus of sorts: that Trump is going to be doing something awful soon. Granted, that’s not the toughest prediction to make. So before we go, give me one of your great quotes to celebrate the arrival of October …

Bret: Not really a celebration, but a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem I love:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

I memorized it many years ago, thanks to my teacher and friend, Dr. Peter Bach. He, better than anyone, knows its meaning.


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