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Opinion | Trump Is in His Element

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I know we’ll get around to talking about Donald Trump’s big South Carolina primary win, but first I want to pick your brain about Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. It isn’t happening till next week, but I’m guessing the White House speechwriters are working hard on it now.

Any advice on what the president should say and how he should say it?

Gail Collins: Let’s presume he’s going to tell the country how well things are going in the economy, the progress he’s made on priorities like improving America’s infrastructure and getting relief to folks who are drowning in student debt.

Bret: Will quarrel with you in a minute. Go on ….

Gail: Then at some point he’ll turn to foreign affairs. You know that’s not my subject, but even a spectator like me could guess that the evils of Russia will be paired with Donald Trump’s claim that the United States shouldn’t protect any NATO country that doesn’t spend a certain amount on defense.

Biden’s already laced into that one once, but he was so … vigorous that I’m hoping for a repeat.

OK, your turn.

Bret: A lot of Americans are looking at a Trump-Biden rematch as a case of the morally unfit versus the mentally unfit. So the most important thing Biden has to do with this speech is dispel the perception that he’s tipping into senility. If he stumbles even a little, it’s going to cost him a lot.

Next thing he needs to do is acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis at the border and blame Republicans for rejecting the bipartisan Senate bill to help address the crisis — a cynical MAGA maneuver intended solely to keep the crisis alive for Trump’s political benefit. Finally, declare that he’s ordering many thousands of troops to the border, with authority to detain migrants. It would remind people who’s president and take the issue straight out of the G.O.P.’s hands.

Gail: Lord, I forgot about the border. Just blocked it out, I guess. We can fight about that later. Go on with your topics for Biden.

Bret: On Ukraine, I was disappointed by the fairly ineffectual sanctions the administration announced last week as retaliation for Aleksei Navalny’s cruel death in a Siberian prison. I’m hoping that Biden is waiting for the State of the Union to declare that he’s going to seize frozen Russian assets held by the United States and give the money to Ukraine for the purpose of buying U.S. weapons. The alternative is to allow Ukraine to lose the war on account of House Republicans’ craven deference to Trump. It’s un-American, and Biden should challenge them directly. Republicans are to Russia today what the Western far left was to the Soviet Union a generation ago: fellow travelers, apologists and naifs.

And about those student loans …

Gail: Ah yes, always a point of conflict for us. There obviously has to be a rational student loan program that encourages the generally-very-young borrowers to be smart about what kind of deal they buy into. Wasn’t the case early on, and a lot of innocent people got trapped in huge debt, while flooding the schools with money that was too often used for unnecessary expansion. They deserve some help to salvage their already half-ruined careers and lives.

Bret: Not to sound like Mother Superior at the orgy, but for a president to unilaterally forgive $138 billion debt is flat-out unconstitutional. Congressional control of the purse strings is basic to our system, and all-but defying a Supreme Court ruling, as Biden boasted of doing last week, is a real road to hell: Just imagine how Trump might use the precedent if he gets back in the White House.

Also, while the president surely thinks he’s currying favor with younger people whose votes he desperately needs, he’s also alienating a lot of working-class, non-college educated voters who see this as another huge giveaway to imprudent borrowers. So: bad policy and bad politics. But now you’ll tell me why I’m wrong ….

Gail: The folks who are getting the greatest benefit from Biden’s forgiveness plan are the ones who most deserve it — low-to-middle-income former students who went to community colleges. They believed the national mantra that college would lead to a good job, but many emerged shackled in debt, while qualified for careers that didn’t pay all that well.

There are people out there who’ve spent decades saddled with these obligations, and barely able to meet the interest payments. After a certain number of years, they deserve an escape route.

Bret: And what about all of those people who took out loans and dutifully repaid them over many years? Or those who wisely decided against saddling themselves with debt in the first place by skipping college? In effect, they’re being penalized for their diligence and foresight. And I don’t even want to think about how this loan forgiveness creates a moral hazard when it comes to other types of debt.

But, hey, we said we’d talk about South Carolina. You probably don’t lie awake thinking about Nikki Haley’s best interests, but is she wise, politically speaking, to keep this contest going any further?

Gail: Well, when you lose your home state, it’s probably a message to pack your bags and go for a nice long vacation. On the other hand, Haley was never going to win anyway, and running through primaries is a commendable way to focus voters’ attention on Trump’s terrible flaws. As well, of course, as a diverting way to spend the spring.

Bret: The smart advice or the honorable advice?

Gail: You know I’m going to demand both.

Bret: Well, the smart advice, politically speaking, is for her to end her campaign, endorse Trump, sedulously kiss up to him and his voters and hope to win his — and their — blessing for a 2028 bid.

The honorable advice is for her to come to terms with the fact that she may never be president, but she can become a leader of a principled conservative movement that rejects demagoguery, supports the rule of law, champions free people, free speech, free trade and free markets — and bides its time until the Republican Party is de-zombified and wants to return to its former self. That means campaigning for a while longer, maybe even to the convention.

And speaking of zombies, did I mention I spent 40 minutes on Friday watching a Trump rally?

Gail: The one where he kept talking about the size of the audience?

Bret: Size is a theme with him.

I watched the rally with my mother, who found it reminiscent of the style of the Mussolini regime under which she was born in wartime Italy. She was referring to the incoherence, the bombast, the grandiosity, the extravagant lies, the demonization, the xenophobia, the bogus nods to religiosity and patriotism, the references to himself with the royal “we,” the condescending sops to his toadies, the ecstatic gaze of the people arranged behind him on the stage. But there’s also an undeniably comic aspect, too, especially when he riffed about how he had taken the moniker “crooked” from Hillary Clinton (who is now “Beautiful Hillary”) and given it to Biden, who used to be “Sleepy” (and probably still is). I admit I sorta giggled, against my better judgment. The whole thing was sorta like, “Il Duce, Live at the Comedy Cellar.”

It’s … scarily effective. If his opponents are Biden and Kamala Harris, I fear he wins.

Gail: Funny, I watched his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday and found myself nodding off. I guess I’ve just seen his act too often. I usually try to keep alert by counting the number of times he quotes somebody calling him “Sir,” but this time it just didn’t work.

Still, it’s totally wrong to get sleepy when somebody’s telling the audience “the only thing standing between you and obliteration is me.”

Bret: It’s the sort of thing you’d expect a cult leader to say right before he passes out the Kool-Aid.

Gail: I can’t argue with you about his talent for whipping up a crowd when he’s in the mood. But it’s way, way, way too early to give up hope. Lord knows what’s going to happen between now and November.

Bret: Truer words never spoken. What do you think is likelier: Biden drops out of the race after some awful stumble? Or Trump gets convicted of a felony? Both, of course, are possible.

Gail: Wow, imagine an election without either of the Two Inevitables. If Trump gets convicted of a felony, he’d appeal and that could lead to a very interesting nominating convention. He’d never give up for the good of the party, even if he was being led away in shackles.

Hmm. Really liking that image.

Bret: Just remember James Michael Curley, the Boston mayor who ran for his fourth term while under federal indictment, went to prison for a few months, had his sentence commuted by President Harry Truman, returned to a hero’s welcome, and served out the rest of his mayoral term. That could be Trump, too.

Gail: They made a movie about Curley called “The Last Hurrah,” right? Great Spencer Tracy flick. Wish Trump was at the last … something.

Biden is of course a much saner guy, although clearly one without the ability to acknowledge the limits of mortality. If the Democrats managed to rally against his nomination at the convention, he’d concede, I’m sure, but hard to imagine which one particular Democrat could organize such a rally.

Bret: Anyone, anyone, anyone who can stop Trump — I’m for.

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