There Wasn’t Much to Love About 2023

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. This is our last conversation for the year, so let me first wish you and Dan a Merry Christmas.

Gail: Thanks, Bret. And the best of course to you and Corinna and your kids.

Bret: As much as I’ve loved our exchanges, I can’t say I’ve loved the year. From Donald Trump’s political resurrection, to Congress failing to come together to help Ukraine, to America’s premier university presidents being unable to say that calling for the genocide of Jews violates campus policies, to this latest ludicrous impeachment inquiry, to the clown show that made Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House and then the clown show that brought him down, to Vivek Ramaswamy merely opening his mouth, it feels like the year in which America slipped into terminal decline.

Gail Collins: Hey, let’s go for something a little less drastic. I admit any year in which all the most positive stories seemed to involve Taylor Swift wasn’t exactly great for politics. But looking back I see some bright spots.

Bret: I’m all ears.

Gail: Even though people can’t wrap their heads around it, the economy’s really improved. Lots of jobs available. The unemployment rate is, gee, nearly the lowest since I was in grad school. Biden’s battle against global warming has been showing signs of progress. Electric car sales, for example, are up. Solar is energy booming.

Bret: Much of it lining the pockets of Elon Musk, 2023’s third-biggest blowhard.

Gail: Representative George Santos is gone — so deeply gone he’s joined Rudy Giuliani in the world of cameo video sales. And while it’s hard for America to find issues on which a strong majority can get together, I’ll bet one is the conviction that Vivek Ramaswamy is the most irritating presidential candidate in recent world history.

Bret: Your point about the remarkable resilience of the American economy is a good one, and maybe it will even help Joe Biden politically as inflation finally cools off and interest rates start to fall. He’ll need that, since right now more than 60 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy.

Biden might just get another political assist if the Supreme Court, in its supreme unwisdom, fails to overturn a lower court decision to sharply restrict the distribution of abortion pills, which will almost surely energize a lot of independent voters to stick with him. There’s a bitter sort of irony in thinking that the only thing that might save abortion rights in America for the long term is their restriction in the short term.

Gail: The struggle over abortion rights is one of the most fascinating political stories of our era. It seems to be getting a very strong, very positive response from a wide swath of the public. Not just limited to liberals or Democrats.

Bret: Even conservatives like me shudder to think of what happens in this country if we turn the clock back 60 years on reproductive rights.

Gail: The most recent controversies are going to bring even more voters into the abortion-rights camp. We had the story of the court blocking an abortion for a young woman in Texas, who wanted to have a baby, then learned the fetus she was carrying would almost certainly not survive — and that following through with the delivery might make it impossible for her to have children in the future. Hard to get a more sympathetic saga.

Bret: Remarkable how people who claim to believe in the sanctity of life are willing to wreck lives to get what they want.

Gail: And the abortion pills work so early in a pregnancy … opposition is pretty much limited to people with a religious conviction against ending pregnancy at all.

I’m very sure a majority of the Supreme Court justices don’t want to have to deal with this issue. They’re conservative, but not totally crazy.

Bret: Very sure? I can see John Roberts, the chief justice, and Neil Gorsuch, the most libertarian of the justices, joining the three liberals in overturning the appeals court. But it’s going to be uncomfortably close.

Gail: Fingers crossed.

Bret: Returning to my preferred tale of woe, Gail, homelessness in America just rose to its highest recorded rate. Levels of illegal immigration continued to rise this year to stratospheric levels, despite Biden’s repeated promises to get the border under control. Both problems contribute to a palpable sense that things are not under control. And I don’t quite understand why Democrats don’t want to move more aggressively on these fronts, since they are big liabilities for the party.

You’re in charge of the Dems: What’s up with that?

Gail: Hmmph. I clearly remember recently that when something strange was going on in the House, I mentioned that you were in charge of Republicans and you protested. So don’t stick all the Democrats on me.

Bret: Turnabout is fair play!

Gail: OK, we’re talking about two issues here. I blame much of the housing crisis on suburban zoning laws that make it hard to build a lot of affordable homes for working families. Not that it’s all that easy to get large apartment complexes for the non-rich built in cities, either.

To really tackle housing on a national scale, we’d need new programs coming from Congress, where the Republican House majority is hard pressed to work efficiently enough to brew coffee.

Bret: The question isn’t whether House Republicans can brew coffee, Gail. It’s about what the president knew about Hunter’s coffee brewing — and when he knew it.

Gail: Oh please, let’s skip the nonissue of Hunter Biden today.

Bret: About the coffee: I was kidding. About housing: I don’t pretend to be an expert, but my impression is that the homelessness crisis has a lot to do with the opioid, meth and mental-health crises. I’m all for easing zoning laws, but I doubt we’ll make much headway until we find a way to address our catastrophic drug and mental-health problems, which often reinforce each other. Reversing misbegotten efforts to decriminalize hard drugs in places like Oregon, as well as a terrible Ninth Circuit ruling that made it difficult for cities to enforce ordinances against public camping, would do some good.

Gail: Too bad we’re not doing the negotiations. I can envision possible trade-offs.

The border is definitely a huge problem, but the Republicans are just using it as an excuse not to do anything the Biden administration proposes on any issue. While there have been some modest administration reforms, really getting the border situation under control requires bipartisan agreement that these House Republicans will never, ever allow.

Bret: I’ve always been in favor of comprehensive and liberal immigration reform, but we didn’t have this scale of crisis when any of Biden’s recent predecessors were in office. The problem started when the administration came to office determined to be the un-Trump — and doing so at precisely the moment when much of Latin America was falling apart. Biden then spent two years in denial about the crisis until Democratic mayors in cities like New York or the governor of Massachusetts started crying foul. And the solution, I’m afraid, is to effectively militarize the border until would-be migrants get the message that the only way into the United States is through legal channels.

Gail: Have a feeling we’ll be arguing about this throughout 2024. Meantime, give me some thoughts on Republican presidential politics. (Not that you’re in charge of the Republicans or anything.)

Bret: If only!

Gail: Next time we converse, the Iowa Republican caucus will be right around the corner, followed by the New Hampshire primary.

The only candidate who seems to have a sliver of a chance of embarrassing Trump is Nikki Haley. She’s been picking up steam in New Hampshire and some people think she might actually be able to win there if Chris Christie dropped out of the race. Think you could talk him into it?

Bret: Well, hope springs eternal — or at least until Super Tuesday. If Christie dropped out of the race tomorrow and threw his political weight behind Haley, she might have a chance of edging out Ron DeSantis for second place in Iowa, behind Trump, which would at least give her a symbolic victory. Ditto for New Hampshire, where the combined Haley-Christie vote, according to polls, stands at about 32 percent compared with Trump’s 44 — almost a contest! But the biggest problem Haley faces is that, while she would probably trounce Biden in a general election, it now looks like Trump will win, too, which defeats the argument among Republicans that the 45th president is unelectable as the 47th.

Gail: Awful but electable, the Donald Trump story.

Bret: In short, the only thing that can turn things around for Republicans is Biden stepping down. Which, as you’ve correctly been telling me these past months, ain’t likely to happen. How very, very depressing …

Gail: Yeah, we’ve been wishing for ages that Biden would make the smart, generous move and announce he’s not running for re-election. Now, with the primaries right around the corner, it’s almost too late for him to change his mind anyway. Sigh.

Bret: Gnash teeth. Beat breast. Wail.

Gail: Well, the one thing I think we can count on is a non-boring new year. It’s true the Republican presidential primaries could be really dreary, but I refuse to believe that a man who’s under indictment for a jillion different offenses is just going to coast to victory.

And we’ll have lots of House and Senate races to argue about. For instance, did you see that in Arizona …

No, I’m gonna stop and hold that thought for the new year. This one’s been hard enough.

Bret, one of my favorite things is waiting, every week, for you to end the conversation with some great piece of prose or poetry. Let’s have one more for the holidays.

Bret: Well, the most delightful piece of prose that I’ve read in The Times in the last few days is Jonathan Kandell’s obituary for Sanche Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont, better known in this country as the journalist Ted Morgan (an anagram for “de Gramont”). The son of a French aristocrat, Morgan chose to become an American, led a life of adventure as a soldier and journalist, and even won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting when he covered the death of the opera baritone Leonard Warren, who died at the Met in 1960 while singing Verdi’s aria, “Urna fatale del mio destino” — “the fatal urn of my destiny.”

“There was an awesome moment as the singer fell,” Morgan reported. “The rest of the cast remained paralyzed. Finally someone in the capacity audience called out, ‘For God’s sake, bring down the curtain!’”

And that’s my wish, Gail, for 2023.

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