America Is Breaking Our Hearts

Gail Collins: Bret, I have a lot to ask you about government spending and deficits and … all that stuff. But first, we really need to talk about all the recent mass shootings and what to do about them, right?

Bret Stephens: In Britain or Germany these sorts of mass shootings are, at most, once-every-other-year events. Over here, hardly a day goes by without something like this happening. And the horror doesn’t just lie in the carnage. It’s that we’ve become accustomed to it. Dostoyevsky wrote, “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!” That’s the state of our nation.

Gail: I wondered whether I should even bring the matter up yet again. But we can’t just give up and shrug in silence.

Bret: You know I’m in favor of repealing the Second Amendment, not for the sake of banning guns but for making it much harder for just anyone to own them. Otherwise, in a country with more firearms than people, I doubt that ordinary gun control can make a real difference. Your thoughts?

Gail: Do love the fact that I converse with a conservative who wants to repeal the Second Amendment. Sign me up.

Bret: Don’t get your hopes up that I’m speaking for other conservatives.

Gail: It may seem crazy in the face of all this carnage, but I’ve always wondered if we could change the argument to gun pride — that people shouldn’t be allowed to own guns until they prove they can shoot. Just hit a reasonably sized target. Obviously you don’t need a good aim to fire an assault rifle into a church or movie theater, but if we could just come to a consensus on requiring competence, that might be a first step toward rational firearm regulations.

Bret: I would design the test differently. Start with a 100-question test on gun use, safety and legal requirements, with a passing grade of 90. Next, a psychological fitness test, conducted in person by trained personnel. Then heavy liability insurance requirements for gun store owners. Oh, and a drug test for purchasers. Anything to hinder disturbed young men, who are most frequently the culprits in the worst of these mass shootings, from getting their hands on rapid-fire weapons.

After that, gun owners can boast to their friends that not only can they shoot, but also that they’re smart, sane, solvent and sober. But you wanted to discuss … government spending.

Gail: That’s the issue of the moment, right? Congress has to do something about raising the debt ceiling or the economy will collapse somewhere down the line. Or at least that’s the theory.

Republicans want to tie the raising of said ceiling to major league cuts in spending. No matter how much Kevin McCarthy swears that won’t involve cuts to Social Security or Medicare, it’s almost impossible to imagine they aren’t on the table. What’s your recommendation?

Bret: Well, the Republicans’ current strategy has all the intelligence of Foghorn Leghorn, the Looney Tunes rooster: They’re trying to play a game of chicken with the Biden administration when, deep down, they know they’re the ones who are going to chicken out. It would be economically destructive and politically suicidal to let the federal government default on its debt. So we will probably go through this terrifying charade until a handful of swing-district Republicans break ranks and vote with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling.

Gail: I do like that last scenario you mentioned. But don’t you think the bottom line is problematic, too? If Congress cuts spending to balance the budget as some Republicans have suggested, it could mean big cuts to very popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Bret: Other than trying to find ways to slow the rate of spending growth, I can’t imagine there would be cuts to either program. They’re popular with Republican voters, too, after all. And there’s no way anything is going to happen except on a bipartisan basis. Any suggestions for fixes that don’t involve large tax increases?

Gail: Well, some people may regard this as a tax increase, but I want to propose some tax fairness. For some reason, Social Security payroll taxation stops at about $160,000. So a person making a million dollars a year doesn’t pay anything on about $840,000.

Let’s get rid of that ceiling, Bret. What do you say?

Bret: I wouldn’t object to raising the cap provided Democrats would be willing to push up the retirement age by four or five years. As for Medicare reform, my guess is it will never happen. Instead, I’m betting that in 20 years we’re going to have a terrible but “free” single-payer system for part of the population and an excellent but expensive universe of private providers. As for actual budget cuts, maybe we could end stupid subsidies like the one for ethanol production. But that one is way too popular with farm-state Republicans.

Different subject, Gail: Memphis.

Gail: Bret, I spent a lot of my early career — way back in the ’70s — hanging out with the chief of police in New Haven, Ed Morrone, who was just so smart. He told my husband Dan, who was a police reporter then, that the most important job of a cop was “to keep people who hate one another apart.”

Bret: Oh, it’s like figuring out the seating arrangement at Thanksgiving. Sorry, go on.

Gail: In those days, that made so much sense. But in Memphis, the people doing the hating were the police themselves, who apparently got mad because a driver they had targeted for some reason made them run until they were out of breath and then started crying for his mother while they began beating him up.

Now we have a dead young man, a bereaved family and a city in turmoil. Every well-run law enforcement organization in the country is going to have to cope with a new level of suspicion. Those cops have ruined their own reputations, deeply wounded community relations, and I am confident they’re going to pay for their terrible misdeeds after criminal trials.

Your thoughts?

Bret: I was moved by Tyre Nichols’s mom, RowVaughn Wells, when she said she’d pray for the police officers who killed her son, along with their families. It’s a spirit of compassion and dignity the city desperately needs now.

Gail: Not just the city, the whole country.

Bret: That said, I’m also reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions, either about this case or from it. Memphis has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country, and the city desperately needs competent and effective policing. Police brutality obviously remains a serious challenge throughout the country. But so do reports of de-policing, in which cops retreat to their precinct stations because they don’t want to be out on their beats, or the equally dangerous trend of demoralized and demonized police departments that have led to serious staffing shortages across the country.

Gail, at the end of our conversation last week — sometime after I’d committed the mortal sin of endorsing gas over electric stoves — we promised readers that we would discuss who, among Democrats, would be the best candidate to face Ron DeSantis should he become the G.O.P.’s presidential nominee. Give me some names.

Gail: Well gee, I was looking forward to another discussion about kitchen stoves, but OK.

Bret: Of all the ways I’ve irritated our readers over the years, who knew that my ignorance of induction cooktops would be the worst?

Gail: We both wish Joe Biden would retire and open the door for someone younger, but it sure doesn’t look likely. If he runs, Governor DeSantis, who’s 44, would be a daily reminder that Biden is in his 80s.

Bret: If it gets to that, Biden had better hope that Donald Trump brings back Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party to split the conservative vote. Because otherwise, President DeSantis it shall be.

Gail: Age isn’t a problem for most of the Democrats who’d be likely to succeed Biden as nominee. And there’s a raft of promising possibilities people are talking about — a half-dozen governors, several senators and a couple of members of Biden’s administration.

Some of the names I like hearing are Senator Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, and Josh Shapiro, the newly ensconced governor of Pennsylvania. Kamala Harris, you will note, is not on my list.

Bret: I noticed.

Gail: The public needs a chance to look all these people over in a serious, long-term way. Which would happen if Biden announced he isn’t running again. Please, Mr. President …

Bret: One other strong contender I’d like to mention: Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary and former governor of Rhode Island. She would be the best candidate in a general election because of her strong centrist appeal — and the best president, too. And people ought to start keeping an eye on Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland, even though it is probably much too soon for him — or Josh Shapiro, for that matter — to start considering a presidential bid.

Gail: Yeah, I guess it’s only fair that people who get elected governor should put in a year or two before they start running for higher office.

Bret: Before we go, Gail, I was saddened to read about Victor Navasky’s death this month at 90. I probably disagree with 99 percent of what gets published in The Nation, the magazine he led for so many years. But he was a happy warrior for his causes, wrongheaded as some of them were (like championing the innocence of Alger Hiss). But I’ll take a cheerful opponent over a sour fellow-traveler any day.

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Source: Elections -


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