In Politics, There Are Worse Things Than Wishful Thinking

Bret Stephens: Gail, my attention these past few weeks has been devoted almost entirely to outrages and tragedies in the Middle East. But I couldn’t help smiling for a second when Nikki Haley called Vivek Ramaswamy “scum” at last week’s G.O.P. debate, after he raised the subject of her daughter’s use of TikTok.

Aside from the deep truth of the remark — I wouldn’t have faulted her if she had thwacked him — it also made me think there’s life in this primary, yet. Your thoughts on the G.O.P. race?

Gail Collins: So glad to be back conversing every week, Bret. And you must be pleased that Haley, your Republican fave, was generally judged the winner of that debate.

Bret: As she was of the first two debates.

Gail: Not hard to make Ramaswamy look bad, but she certainly did a great job of it.

Bret: Ramaswamy is like the human equivalent of HAL 9000 with an addiction to Red Bull.

Gail: But what’s this going to do for her? Can you really imagine a path to the presidential nomination here?

Bret: There was a great story last week in The Times by Natasha Frost, about an Australian man who freed himself from the jaws of a saltwater crocodile by biting its eyelid. Which is only believable because, well, it’s Australia. That’s about the situation in which the G.O.P. contenders find themselves with respect to Donald Trump.

I know it’s a long-shot, but at some point there will be just one person left standing against Trump, and I bet it will be Haley. She’s not just the best debater. She also comes across as the most tough-minded and well-rounded, given her experience both as a governor and a U.N. ambassador. She’s in second place in New Hampshire and in her home state of South Carolina, and her numbers have been moving up. As formidable as Trump’s own numbers look, it won’t be lost on centrist-minded G.O.P. voters that he’ll be campaigning while on bail.

Now you’ll tell me that’s wishful thinking ….

Gail: Hey, in our current political climate, there are worse things than wishful thinking. And we do have a likely Republican nominee who’s under indictment for virtually every nonviolent crime on the books except double parking.

One thing I was wondering, looking at the debaters: Trump is going to have to find a new vice-presidential nominee. I keep thinking Tim Scott is campaigning hard for that job, although now he has suspended his campaign. You’ve got better Republican insight — see anybody on the stage you could imagine on Trump’s ticket?

Bret: Good question. Trump will want someone with Mike Pence’s servility, minus the fidelity to the Constitution. Somehow I don’t think Scott fits that bill. I’m thinking of someone with more MAGA appeal, like Arizona’s Kari Lake or Ohio’s J.D. Vance.

Gail: Ewww. Well then, I guess Scott’s sudden girlfriend reveal won’t do the trick.

Bret: Only if the engagement were to Lauren Boebert.

Gail: Last week’s election was a very, very good time for the Democrats. Big wins in Kentucky and Virginia, not to mention Ohio. I know a lot of it was attached to the very strong public support for abortion rights, but I can’t help but feel it was also a general Republican fizzle. You agree?

Bret: It was a great antidote to that depressing Times/Siena poll, showing Biden’s political weakness against Trump in crucial swing states, which we talked about last week. My read on the results is this: Democrats win when they run with centrist candidates, like Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, who ran as a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Also, Republicans remain deeply vulnerable, mainly thanks to their abortion extremism. That second fact should, well, abort Ron DeSantis’s campaign. The first fact suggests Democrats can win and win big — with a younger candidate, from a purple state, with a record of governing from the center.

Speaking of which, any feelings about Joe Manchin’s decision not to run for re-election? Are you going to miss him?

Gail: Well, I’m gonna miss having a Democratic senator from West Virginia. Never found any of his standing-on-my-own-shutting-all-progress-down antics to be all that endearing.

Bret: Loved them. Democrats won’t easily hold the Senate without him.

Gail: What worries me is the possibility that Manchin’s going to run as a third-party candidate for president. As our readers know, I hate, hate, hate the idea of people who could never win a major party nomination jumping into the general election on their own lines. It has a terrific potential to mess things up. Speaking also to you, Jill Stein, another new entrant, via the Green Party. And Bret, to your pal Joe Lieberman’s shenanigans with No Labels.

Bret: To say nothing of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West. Both of whom, I think, are bigger political threats to Biden than they would be to the Republican nominee. But none of them would be anything but an afterthought if Biden weren’t such a weak candidate.

On the other hand, we have Trump and his trials. Do you think any of these many cases against him are going to do any lasting political damage?

Gail: Really wondering. On the one hand, good Lord — 91 felony counts and a civil suit in New York that might just wipe out any semblance of proof that he really has the money he always claims to have. Who could possibly win an election with that kind of record?

Bret: Well, Trump could.

I haven’t delved too deeply into the particulars of the civil suit filed by Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, but I have my doubts about the strength of a case that rests on the theory that it’s unlawful for a real-estate developer to overstate the value of his assets. The market value of any asset is only determined at the point of sale, and real estate is often a classic “Veblen good,” in which demand increases as the price goes up.

Gail: None of this can possibly be a surprise to his die-hard supporters, and they’re still with him. They just see it all as persecution. But once the campaign is really underway and voters keep hearing Biden ads reminding them Trump is a crooked underachiever, do you think the swing voters could keep ignoring it?

Bret: Hillary Clinton ran on precisely that in 2016. She lost because she came across as the entitled representative of a self-dealing system, and he won because he came across as a disrupter of that system. That’s exactly the scenario Democrats risk repeating now.

Would you mind if we switched to a more local topic? Wondering what you think of the mounting legal jeopardy of your mayor, Eric Adams.

Gail: Well Bret, New Yorkers are not unaccustomed to seeing our mayors skating around some corruption pond. But I have to admit this one is pretty mind-boggling. We’re engulfed in a crisis over the enormous influx of migrants, and now we’re engulfed with stories about Adams’s relationships with Turkish leaders … who are, surprise surprise, into Manhattan real estate.

Bret: The question that always hovered over Adams’s mayoralty was whether it would send him to greater heights or to jail.

Gail: And meanwhile the F.B.I. raided the home of his chief campaign fund-raiser, Brianna Suggs. We will be hearing a lot more about this, I’m sure. But the immediate reaction was — she’s 25 and she’s his chief campaign fund-raiser?

Bret: Ageism. Just terrible.

Gail: My prediction: More trouble to come. Your thoughts?

Bret: Sounds bad for Adams, for which I’m sorry since I still think that he was the best of the lot in the last mayoral election. But it’s also worth remembering that the F.B.I. has a very mixed record of going after prominent political figures. Remember when Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman, was going to be charged with sex trafficking? Gaetz is an otherwise despicable person, but that case was a travesty and ultimately collapsed. Or the way the F.B.I. went after Ted Stevens, the Alaska senator, destroying his political career shortly before his death? That was another travesty, in which prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence and engaged in “reckless professional misconduct,” according to a Justice Department report. The F.B.I. was just as bad in its investigations of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Which is all to say: Innocent until proven guilty.

Gail: Yipes, I’m not going to argue that one. Did you note that one of the City Council winners here in New York is Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, who spent nearly seven years in jail for a sexual assault that he didn’t commit?

Bret: I hadn’t. I need to start paying attention to New York City politics. They’re getting interesting again.

Gail: Now looking forward, what’s your bet on Congress achieving its very basic-minimal job of passing a budget before we’re … budget-less? Think the dreaded new House speaker, Mike Johnson, can make the grade?

Bret: Burn-it-all-down conservatism is much easier to practice from the bleachers than from the field. Johnson will have to come up with a budget, he’ll have to learn how to compromise, and he’ll have to learn, like Kevin McCarthy before him, that the price of being a political grown-up is bending to realities that don’t bend toward you.

Most of us learn that lesson pretty early in life. Speaker Johnson is only 51, so he still has time.

Gail: Ah, if only we didn’t have to be stuck in his classes ….

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