Bret Stephens: Gail, we are conversing on the eve of the Iowa caucuses — not yet knowing who came in second but not in much doubt about who’ll come in first. I’m trying to remember the last time the Republican winner went on to win the nomination: Ted Cruz in 2016? Rick Santorum in 2012? Mike Huckabee in 2008?
Losers all. Assuming Donald Trump wins, that might even be a good omen.
Gail Collins: And don’t forget, Trump won Iowa in 2020, when he was an incumbent president looking for a second term; that didn’t turn out all that well for him, either.
Bret: Not that I’m rooting for him to win in Iowa. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Gail: I like the way we’re starting out! Now tell me how you think the other Republicans are doing. Especially your fave, Nikki Haley.
Bret: Her zinger in the debate with Ron DeSantis — “You’re so desperate. You’re just so desperate” — could be turned into a country music hit by Miranda Lambert. Or maybe Carly Simon: “You’re so desperate, you probably think this race is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you?”
Bret: I just fear that in the battle between Haley and DeSantis, they’re canceling each other out, like matter and antimatter. As our colleague Frank Bruni pointed out in his terrific essay last week, that just clears the path for the Donald.
Gail: Whenever a candidate boasts, like DeSantis, that he’s visited all 99 counties in Iowa, you hear a shriek of desperation mixed in with the bragging. But I’m not gonna totally give up hope for Haley until we see what happens in New Hampshire.
Bret: I think we both know that Trump will be the Republican nominee. The whole question is how to stop him from winning in November. And I just don’t think that whatever President Biden is or isn’t doing is working. You can’t tell people it’s morning in America when more than three-quarters of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
Gail: Bret, do you think the country’s on the wrong track? The economy’s doing well — plenty of jobs and inflation finally coming under control. When I hear people moaning about Biden, it’s always his age or his bumbling demeanor. Which is a lot better than crazed, multiply indicted and mean.
Bret: Yes. I think the country is in decline.
Here’s what I mean. If you have school-age children, you know that public schools are noticeably worse now than they were four years ago and that students are struggling psychologically and educationally.
Gail: Gonna ask you to give the systems more time to recover from the crippling effects of the pandemic. Then I promise we’ll have an education wrestling match before the election.
Bret: If you are paying a mortgage or renting, you know rates and rents are much higher and haven’t come down. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you are still dealing with prices for ordinary goods that are mostly much higher than four years ago, even if prices aren’t rising as fast as they were last year.
Gail: Lately, food price increases have slowed quite a bit. Gas prices are down, and the infamous eggs are actually somewhat cheaper than at their peak, although I know that’s the kind of good news that makes people want to jump off a grocery store roof.
But go on.
Bret: If you are financing a car or some other purchase, you know rates are much higher than before.
Gail: I hate it when people answer questions about the economy by beginning with “The Fed.” But if you want to complain about loan prices, you really have to focus on those folks.
Bret: If you live anywhere between San Diego and Seattle, you know that homelessness and addiction and urban decay are much worse than before.
If you live near the southern border or even in Chicago and New York, you are dealing with never-before-seen levels of mass migration that the administration spent three years all but pretending wasn’t happening.
Gail: Never want to downplay concern over violence, but remember, the national homicide rate dropped 13 percent last year. In many cities, crime is way, way more under control than it was during the pandemic.
And when it comes to migration — jeepers, Bret, tell the House Republicans to stop ranting and try to make a deal on border security.
Bret: Longer discussion. But wait: I’m still ranting!
Gail: Hey, it’s a new year. Rant in peace.
Bret: If you are in the Army, Navy or Air Force, you know your service is dealing with a serious recruitment crisis even as the world is becoming much more hostile. If you are a Jewish student at an elite university, you’re tucking your Star of David under your shirt for fear of being harassed or called names by so-called progressive students who too often turn out to be antisemitic.
And if you’re just a normal person of center-left or center-right views, you are looking at a Republican Party poised to nominate a candidate you find frightening while the Democrats are poised to nominate one you fear is feeble.
And all of this is happening not because of a recession but despite the fact that the economy is doing remarkably well. What happens when that goes south, too — as eventually and inevitably it will?
Gail: The controversy over antisemitism is too traumatic for us to tackle in this mass-worry session. So I’ll just point out that we’re ending with you noting that the economy is doing “remarkably well” — which, wow, Bret — you’ve somehow turned into another worry.
Bret: I come from a line of Lithuanian rabbis. We get paid to worry.
Gail: Your cosmic vision is that while Trump is a disaster, Biden isn’t anywhere close to good. That’s where we part company.
Bret: Would it shock you if I praised Biden — the guy I voted for in 2020 and will vote for again, assuming he’s on the ballot?
He’s a patriot, not a malignant narcissist. He’s dignified, calm and calming, more like noise-canceling headphones than a noise machine. He has been stalwart in his defense of Volodymyr Zelensky, not of Vladimir Putin. He’s been canny in standing up for Taiwan, not in telling us just how brilliant Xi Jinping is. He’s built bridges with Vietnam as well as between Japan and Korea instead of burning bridges with all our allies. And he’s been magnificent in his moral and material support for Israel. He represents the quiet majority of the Democratic Party — the moderate majority. His investment in infrastructure may someday be remembered on a par with Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate System. I’m not a fan of Biden’s giant spending packages, which I think helped cause inflation and the interest-rate hikes needed to tame it. But I can’t argue with low unemployment and strong growth.
Bret: Unfortunately, he’s also made some big mistakes, from the way he left Afghanistan to the absurdly wasteful Covid relief funds. But his biggest mistake is his decision to run again. Imagine some future historian summing up the Biden presidency this way: “Our long national nightmare wasn’t over; it was merely an intermission.”
Gail: Oh, gosh, that’s gonna haunt me for the rest of the year.
Let’s move on to Congress. Right now it’s wrestling with an obviously has-to-happen package to keep the government running.
Bret: Not surprised to see the Freedom Caucus try to do to Mike Johnson, the House speaker, exactly what it did to Kevin McCarthy. And Paul Ryan. And John Boehner. A revolution that keeps devouring its own. But I’m pleasantly surprised to see Johnson refuse to go along with it and work with Democrats to keep the government running. Now if only we could get a border deal so we could give Ukraine the support it needs, we might be getting somewhere.
Gail: No arguments here. But hey, while subzero Iowa is having its caucuses, the TV world is having the Emmy Awards. Any programs you’d like to applaud?
Bret: I’d like to hear your picks.
Gail: Because you just spend your free time reading, right?
Bret: Yes, I’m one of those people. Also, I don’t play golf, drink beer or feel one way or the other about Bill Belichick. If I weren’t me, I’d probably hate me.
Gail: OK, I admit I do watch TV at night. Don’t think I’d be a good Emmy voter; my favorites are streaming “The Sopranos” and “30 Rock.” But I’m a fan of Steve Martin and Martin Short, so here’s rooting for “Only Murders in the Building.”
Bret: Be sure to watch them in the Jiminy Glick sketch. Getting back to politics: Do you think Biden was right not to fire Lloyd Austin for not telling the White House that he was in the hospital?
Gail: Well, our colleague Helene Cooper had a great piece that made it a bit easier for me to understand why Austin, given his background as a Black man who climbed to the top in the military, was so reticent about personal matters. But it still doesn’t excuse his failure to inform the White House. Seems like it’s time for a quiet recovery period followed by a resignation.
Bret: We agree again. Don’t you just hate that?