This Is Why Politicians Like to Change the Subject

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. You know I’m no fan of Kevin McCarthy’s. But the House speaker did succeed in getting a bill through Congress with a debt-ceiling increase, and now the Biden administration needs 60 votes in the Senate — meaning 51 Democrats and independents plus 9 Republicans — to get the limit increase to the president’s desk for a signature.

So, shouldn’t Joe, you know, negotiate?

Gail Collins: Bret, with your strong feelings about fiscal responsibility, you of all people should be offended by McCarthy’s ploy. The debt ceiling needs to be raised in order to avoid an unprecedented, messy, horrible moment when the country’s credit goes bad and economic collapse spreads around the globe.

Everybody knows that has to be done. But McCarthy now wants to use it as a hostage — attaching his wish-list of spending cuts (weaken the I.R.S.!) and prosecuting the G.O.P. war on environmentalism.

Bret: I don’t think anyone wants Uncle Sam to default on his debts — except, well, the nuttier Republicans who hold the balance of power in the House. McCarthy had to pass a bill that could garner their support. That’s just political reality, and we can’t wish it away.

Gail: President Biden’s right, though. We have to go ahead and do the thing we have to do. It’s the government equivalent of paying the mortgage. Then we can fight about regular spending, like a family debating whether to get a second car.

Bret: Biden’s budget request was the largest in history — $6.8 trillion — which is far more than the $3.7 trillion President Barack Obama asked for just 10 years ago. Is that the right thing to do? We’ve got a federal debt that surpasses $30 trillion. Democrats show little interest in fiscal restraint, but they have maximum appetite for tax increases they know all Republicans will oppose. So of course the G.O.P. is going to play hardball. It’s not much different from the mid-1980s, when Biden, as a senator, linked his own support for an increase in the debt ceiling with a freeze on federal spending.

But here’s a question, Gail: Let’s say you got your way and Republicans magically agreed to a “clean” raising of the debt ceiling. What sort of spending cuts would you endorse?

Gail: Bret, as you know, my top priority for fixing government finances is to get the rich to pay their fair share of Social Security taxes.

Bret: Don’t usually think of a tax increase as a spending cut, but go on.

Gail: Right now, the Social Security tax cap is so low that anybody who’s made a million dollars or more this year has already maxed out. You and I are getting taxed right now, but Elon Musk isn’t.

Bret: Give the guy a break: He’s been busy blowing up rockets, launchpads, Twitter, the S.E.C., not to mention his reputation ….

Gail: On the spending-cut side, while I concede we’ll inevitably spend a ton on defense, there are plenty of obvious saving targets. For instance, military bases that exist only because some powerful House or Senate member is defending them.

Bret: If it were up to me, I’d do away with nearly all agriculture subsidies, starting with biofuels, which are environmentally destructive and contribute to global food scarcity by diverting corn and sugar and soybean fields for fuel production. I’d get rid of the Department of Education, which was not Jimmy Carter’s best idea and which has presided over 43 years of persistent and worsening educational failure in this country. I’d eliminate the National Flood Insurance Program; we are encouraging people to build irresponsibly in the face of climate change.

Gail: Want to jump in and agree about the flood insurance. But go on …

Bret: I’d stop subsidizing rich people who want to buy Teslas. Electric vehicles can compete in the market on their own merits. I’d terminate the Space Force; the Air Force was doing just fine before Donald Trump decided to add another layer of Pentagon bureaucracy. I’d claw back unspent Covid funds. The pandemic is over; we’ve spent enough. I’d … I’m really getting into this, aren’t I?

Gail: I’m with you on Covid funds and the Space Force. But we do need to encourage the production and sale of electric vehicles. If we have to spend money to push back on global warming, so be it.

Bret: Switching gears, Gail, our colleague Tom Friedman wrote a powerful column last week making the case that Biden needs to think hard about the wisdom of keeping Kamala Harris on the ticket. I gather you think that that ship has already sailed?

Gail: Tom is a great columnist and great friend — he once took me on a tour of Israel and the West Bank that was one of the most enlightening weeks of my life.

Bret: Oy vey!

Gail: And a year or two ago, I would definitely have agreed with him about Harris. But I’ve come around to believing that she’s grown in the job despite being saddled with a lousy agenda early on. (Kamala, would you please go solve the Mexican border situation?) Lately she’s been the administration’s fierce advocate for abortion rights.

Practical bottom line — you have here a Black woman who’s been, at minimum, a perfectly adequate vice president. I just can’t see any way Biden could toss her off the ticket. Even if there’s a good chance at his age that he’ll die in office. Which is, of course, not a train of thought he wants to take us on.

Your opinion?

Bret: Remember all those independents who might have voted for John McCain in 2008 save for Sarah Palin? Well, Kamala Harris is gonna be another deal breaker for some of those same independents.

Gail: One of the happier factoids of the world today is that a huge proportion of it has forgotten who Sarah Palin even is. What’s worse than being both terrible and forgettable?

But go on about Kamala …

Bret: Her approval rating is the lowest for any vice president in the last 30 years at this point in the administration — and that includes Mike Pence and Dick Cheney. It’s an open secret in Washington that she runs the most dysfunctional office of any major office holder. Nobody thought she’d “solve” the Mexican border situation, but it would have been nice if she showed a basic command of facts. Because of Biden’s age, the chances of her taking the top job are substantial, and many voters will judge the Biden-Harris ticket on how confident they feel about Harris. How would I feel about President Harris dealing with a nuclear crisis in Korea or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or another global financial crisis? Not good.

Democrats need to get over their fear of offending her. There are plenty of qualified replacements.

Gail: We used to be in agreement here, but I do think she’s grown in the job. And when it comes to being terrified about somebody dealing with a nuclear crisis — how would you feel about, say, Ron DeSantis? Or of course Donald Trump?

Bret: You’re sort of making my point. If you think, as Tom and I do, that she’s a major political liability for Biden, it’s that much more of an incentive to get a stronger running mate. Surely the U.N. secretary general can be cajoled into early retirement so Harris can get an office with a nice view of the East River?

Gail: You just brought me back to an old fantasy about finding a job for Biden so great it would tempt him to leave office after one term. Guess secretary general wouldn’t do it. But I do keep wishing he’d announced last week that he wasn’t running again. He has plenty of major accomplishments to point to, and the nation would have a good long time to watch and appraise the many promising Democratic candidates to replace him. Including his vice president.

Bret: Frank Bruni was really on the money on this subject: There really is no better job than the presidency. The perks, the pomp and the power are all irresistible, particularly to guys like Biden who have been chasing the office their whole adult lives and now finally have it. We were fools to imagine he might be tempted not to run again — even though he’s tempting fate, and second terms rarely exceed the quality of first terms.

Gail: OK, Bret — that’s enough politics for today. Always count on you to finish with something more profound.

Bret: One of the delights of our conversation, Gail, is being able to point our readers toward some of the very best work of our colleagues. This week, they really shouldn’t miss Mike Baker’s beautifully written, heartbreaking story about Craig Coyner, a brilliant public defender who served as mayor of Bend, Ore., in the 1980s — only to die there earlier this year as a homeless man, broken by mental illness.

We all need stories that uplift us. But we also need those that remind us of the adage that “there but for the grace of God go I.” May Coyner’s memory be for a blessing.