Gail Collins: Bret, September is one of my favorite months, and I’ve always kinda wished Congress would stay out on vacation longer. They tend to be a leaky cloud on the horizon.
Let’s start with — oh God, the impeachment inquiry. You’re in charge of the Republicans, no matter how you feel about Donald Trump. Give me your take.
Bret Stephens: Gail, if this impeachment inquiry were any more premature, it would be a teenage boy.
Gail: I’m stealing that line.
Bret: I say that as someone who thinks that Hunter Biden’s business dealings — with his family’s alleged shell companies and his shady foreign partners and curiously high-priced artwork — stink to heaven. I also think we in the press need to dig deeper and harder into what his father knew about what his son was up to, whether Joe knowingly lent his name to the enterprise, and who, if anyone, in the wider Biden family benefited from Hunter’s activities. And it’s no excuse to say the Trumps did worse. Innocence isn’t established by arguing that the other guy is a bigger crook.
But, as our colleague David French astutely pointed out last week, “Where is the blue dress?” Every modern impeachment inquiry, from Richard Nixon and the missing 18½ minutes of tape to Bill Clinton and his, er, DNA sample, to Trump’s phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky and then the Jan. 6 riot, started from smoking-gun evidence of wrongdoing. What we have here, at most, is secondhand smoke.
Gail: Thirdhand, maybe. Hunter Biden broke the law when he filled out a false gun-purchase form, denying he had a drug use problem. That’s bad. He should be punished, but it certainly doesn’t have to be by doing time in the slammer.
Bret: Agree. It would probably be enough to sentence Hunter to watch 100 hours of Josh Hawley questioning Senate witnesses. But that might vanquish his hard-earned sobriety.
Gail: When you try to connect Hunter’s stupid misdeeds to his father, to argue it’s a reason to throw the duly elected president of the United States out of office — it’s like me demanding new antismoking laws in Manhattan because a guy in Canton, Ohio, is puffing on a cigar downtown.
But we’re pretty much in concert on this, I think. Next what-about-the-Republicans inquiry: the budget. Is Kevin McCarthy leading — or not-leading — us into a government shutdown?
Bret: I love the way McCarthy keeps getting kicked around by the ultra-MAGAites: It’s the most poetic bit of justice since Mr. Bumble, the sadist, married Mrs. Corney, the bigger sadist, in “Oliver Twist.”
Gail: Yipee! A Dickens reference to Kevin McCarthy. Not as if we had great expectations for his speakership.
Bret: Touché. My guess is that we’ll avoid a shutdown with a continuing resolution that funds the government past the end of the month. And I’m sure we’ll find a way to fund the Defense Department, too. The longer-term question is how McCarthy can manage a Republican circus in which Donald Trump is the ringmaster, Matt Gaetz cracks the whip, and Marjorie Taylor Greene is in charge of the clowns.
And speaking of cracking the whip: Your thoughts on the autoworkers’ strike?
Gail: You know, I’ve been out on strike a few times — mostly it worked out and got everybody to a decent settlement. Although once, long ago, it did cause the publisher of a small paper I was working on to just pull the plug.
Bret: Uh oh.
Gail: I’m generally on the union side in these things. Organized labor has been a key to the growth of a solid middle- and working-class America. But the U.A.W.’s lack of support for President Biden’s effort to move us to electric cars has definitely cooled me.
Bret: Won’t surprise you that it’s the part of the strike I find most interesting: It shows the growing gap between the Democrats’ environmental commitments and the interests of working-class voters.
Gail: Presuming you’re hanging with management?
Bret: Er, yep.
I don’t blame workers for wanting hefty raises: Inflation has really eaten away at purchasing power. But the U.A.W. wants to more than double the Big Three’s labor costs, to about $150 an hour from around $65 now, which is unsustainable against nonunionized competitors like Toyota, where it’s closer to $55. The union also wants to go back to the same kind of defined-benefit pension plan that practically bankrupted the Big Three a generation ago.
I’m wondering about the politics of this, too. The administration is standing with the unions, though I’m not sure a long strike helps them as opposed to, say, Trump.
Gail: I’m sure there’s a big gap between the ideal contract goals they espouse in public and their real-life targets. But the bottom line is that when profits are raising management pay spectacularly, workers also deserve an unusually nice, substantial raise.
If there’s a long strike, which I doubt there will be, we’ll come back to it — this really is one of our most fundamental differences. But in the meantime: Mitt Romney. He’s retiring. What are your thoughts?
Bret: You and I both have guilty consciences for being so hard on the guy back when he was running for president.
Now, I think of him as the last good Republican. He was right about the threat posed by Russia back in 2012, when so many Democrats mocked him for it. He was the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial and one of only seven Republicans who voted for conviction in the second impeachment.
Gail: Mitt Romney was a good governor in Massachusetts, where he proved a cost-conscious Republican could still build a much-needed state health care program. He’s been a fine senator who proved it’s possible for a Republican to have backbone in the age of Trump.
Those were the arenas he was meant to star in. Sadly, as a presidential candidate, he was terrible. Suddenly retro: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” And very, very boring. It predates your arrival at The Times, but you may remember that I made a thing out of mentioning, every time I wrote about Romney, that he once drove to Canada with the family dog on the roof of the car.
Bret: May remember, Gail?
Gail: It was just a game I’d worked up to rebel against the deep, deep dullness of his candidacy. Still getting pictures of dogs on car roofs from readers after all these years.
But that shouldn’t be his political legacy. Mitt, I apologize.
Bret: Me too, Mitt. And in choosing to retire from politics when he’s still fit in order to make way for the next generation, Romney’s showing that he’s right about life — in the sense that it’s good to bow out with grace.
Gail: Bet I know what’s coming next.
Bret: Wish I could say the same thing about Joe Biden. Which reminds me to ask your thoughts about David Ignatius’s column in The Washington Post that everyone in the chattering classes is talking about, particularly this line: “If he and Harris campaign together in 2024, I think Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement — which was stopping Trump.”
Gail: You and I both bemoaned Biden’s decision to run again. We wanted him to announce his planned retirement early so all the other Democratic options — many attractive possibilities from Congress and state government — could get out there and introduce themselves to the country.
Didn’t happen. And Biden, alas, isn’t going to listen to critics unless he suffers some unexpected medical issue.
Bret: That “unexpected medical issue” is the palpable sense of feebleness in Biden’s public performances. Not a good look for a guy who wants to spend five more years in the world’s most important job.
Gail: But I’m not sure Biden’s age gives the race to Trump. And as I’ve pointed out a billion times, Trump will be 78 if he runs against Biden, and in way worse physical shape. Although he has now started to brag about his long-life genes.
Bret: His awful dad lived to 93. I’ll assume his mom was a saint, and she died at 88.
Gail: As to Kamala Harris, she’s certainly been improving during her vice presidency. I’d be happy to see her run as a candidate for president — up against a bunch of other smart, super-achieving Democrats.
Bret: I suspect a lot of people would feel a lot better about voting for Biden next year if they had rock-solid confidence in his veep. Like Harris or not, her unfavorable ratings among voters is close to 56 percent, which makes her a huge drag on an already vulnerable ticket. I know a lot of Democrats feel Biden needs a minority woman as a running mate, so why not swap her out for someone like Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Hispanic governor of New Mexico, or Mellody Hobson, the superstar businesswoman, or Val Demings, the former congresswoman from Florida? I also think Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, would also be a great veep choice, even if she isn’t a minority woman, because she’s just incredibly talented. Remember that F.D.R. tossed out Henry Wallace for Harry Truman in 1944. That’s the historical analogy Biden ought to be thinking of now.
Gail: Does sound very attractive. But Bret, you know that sort of thing isn’t done anymore. You don’t dump your loyal, hard-working vice president. Who also happens to be of Jamaican and Indian descent. Swapping for another minority woman just seems … tacky.
If Biden bowed out, it’d be perfectly reasonable for all those other good candidates to jump in. But as things stand they are, sigh, as they are.
Bret: I’ll grant you the tacky part. But I can think of something a lot worse: Donald Trump back in the White House. When those are the stakes, being tacky seems a small price to pay for national self-preservation.
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