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Opinion | What We Give Thanks for and What We Say No Thanks To

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Gail Collins: Happy Thanksgiving week, Bret. Anything you’re thankful for in particular — besides your lovely family of course.

Bret Stephens: The E.M.T.s, cardiac surgeons and nurses who saved my mother’s life earlier this year will be the first people we’ll toast this Thursday, Gail.

Gail: To the lifesavers!

Bret: And I think we’ll also raise a glass to our regular readers, who seem drawn to a style of conversation that isn’t about compulsive loathing, bottomless contempt, frenzied recrimination, petty score-keeping, histrionic eye-rolling, suppurating disdain and Tucker Carlson-style smirking just because we sometimes have different political views.

How about you?

Gail: Well, gee, not gonna argue against toasting the readers. In a time when trashing folks on the web is so in, they’re so … out in a very, very fine way.

Bret: Our readers: Gluttons for emollient.

Gail: If I get to add one, I’d add teachers, especially the early childhood education community. They not only do essential work, they do it for very little applause — or money.

Bret: Absolutely. But maybe I’m detecting a subtle hint that you really want to switch the subject to the House of Representatives passing the Build Back Bigger bill?

Gail: Bret, I am now giving thanks that you remember at least part of the name of the Build Back Better bill. Which I will always think of as Not the Infrastructure Bill Even Though It Sounds Like It.

Anyhow, we are talking about the social-safety-net-stop-climate-change bill. Known to many conservatives as That Two Trillion Dollar Thing.

Bret: I gather you’re delighted with it.

Gail: I’m happy. Never bought into the idea that President Biden was elected just to not be Donald Trump. He promised during his campaign to expand government help for non-wealthy families, battle the cost of prescription drugs, increase the scope of Medicare and achieve universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Got elected, now it’s happening. Good news.

Bret: Sorry to be the perpetual Grinch, Gail, but I’ll bet you my considerable store of Zabar’s leftovers that it isn’t happening. Certainly not in anything like the size of the House bill and very possibly not at all. And I have two numbers to support my argument: 60 and 32. The first is Joe Manchin’s approval rating in West Virginia. The second is Joe Biden’s approval rating in West Virginia. If Manchin votes for the bill, about which he’s already expressed big doubts, it’s going to mean the likely end of his political career when he’s up for re-election in 2024.

Gail: This gives me another chance to point out that West Virginia gets around twice as much in federal aid as its residents pay in federal taxes.

Gee, do you think Manchin’s magical ability to hang onto that seat is connected to the federal largess he brings home?

Bret: The other pair of numbers I’m looking at is minus 12.1 and minus 11.6 percentage points. The first is the spread between Biden’s approval and disapproval ratings, the second is Kamala Harris’s. Why do you think it makes sense for the administration to double down on its policies instead of a nice Clintonian U-turn?

Gail: The negativity is mainly all about Biden’s inability to get things done. Which won’t look better if he fails to get this bill passed.

Bret: Despite what you said earlier, I don’t think Biden was elected to be a transformative president the way Reagan or Obama were, both of whom had clear electoral mandates to change America. He was elected to be a steadying presence. Biden’s failed totally so far, partly for reasons that were not under his control, like the persistence of the pandemic, and partly for reasons that were, like the bungled exit from Afghanistan.

Either way, he is misreading his mandate, and the new legislation won’t help. It’s deeply unwise to try to change the entire shape of government based on a tiebreaking vote in the Senate. It’s even more unwise to do so when prices for groceries and gas seem to be rising by the minute.

Biden is overseeing a combustible mixture of sweeping progressive social change and working-class economic distress — a formula that gave us Trump in 2016 and may give us Trump again in 2024. And all this is on top of the already hyperpolarized culture we have in this country.

Gail: Well, let’s move onto something even more depressing. I sorta hate to bring this up on a holiday week, Bret. But I have to ask you about the Rittenhouse verdict. Your thoughts?

Bret: David French had a lovely line on the case in a recent essay in The Atlantic: “The law allows even a foolish man to defend himself, even if his own foolishness put him in harm’s way.” Obviously Kyle Rittenhouse should not have been out that night, much less waltzing around with a rifle. But it also seems clear from the trial that much of what the world thought it knew about him — that he was some kind of out-of-town white supremacist who had crossed state lines with a gun and was looking for trouble — was false.

What’s your view?

Gail: I can understand the way it went, given the absolute mess that Wisconsin’s gun laws seem to be. But I wish I believed it would be a call to state legislatures — and Congress — to fix the system so that toting guns around in public is flat-out illegal. For anybody.

Bret: Something like 43 states allow people to carry around guns in most places. And depending on how it goes with a case being decided this term by the Supreme Court, that number may soon be 50. Personally, I’d argue that if you’re too young to buy a beer you’re surely too young to parade around with a gun, unless you’re in the military or the National Guard.

Gail: The two things that totally depress me are realizing that our politicians aren’t going to stop fawning over the gun-rights lobby and knowing that Rittenhouse is going to become even more of a right-wing hero who’ll probably be given a medal at the next Republican convention.

Bret: He’s no hero. But I also think this case is a good reminder of why America needs responsible and effective policing, particularly during violent urban protests or riots: When law enforcement fails to protect lives and property, vigilantes spring up.

Gail: Back for a minute to the House vote on Biden’s non-infrastructure bill: I presume that you listened to every word of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s more than eight-hour speech against it, right? What were your takeaways?

Bret: Yeah, sure, right after I performed a root canal on myself while watching “Ishtar” dubbed in Finnish.

OK, I didn’t actually see the speech, but I did read The Times’s priceless account of it. My favorite detail: “Representative Madison Cawthorn, a hard-line Republican from North Carolina, sat behind him, stuffing his lip with chewing tobacco and spitting in a cup. Mr. McCarthy, for his part, sustained himself with peppermint candies, unwrapped one by one by aides.”

Gail: Do you think that was in their original job descriptions?

Bret: How much do you look forward to having him as Speaker, Gail?

Gail: Aaauuughh. I’m not the most pessimistic Democrat when it comes to future expectations, but I have to admit the chances of the party hanging onto the House and Senate are not … super.

My greatest source of optimism is what seems like a flood of terrible Republican candidates, many of them already endorsed by Trump despite minor defects like allegations of spousal assault.

I know you have some extremely responsible, forward-looking Republican contenders you can point to, but it seems like there are only about six of them. Do you disagree?

Bret: Unfortunately, you’re pretty much right. John Stuart Mill once described the Tories of his day as “the stupider party,” and the er in “stupider” seems to describe today’s G.O.P. pretty nicely. It isn’t out of the question that Republicans could trip themselves up on the way to a Congressional majority because all of the most Trumpy candidates win the primaries and then lose in the general election.

On the other hand, Republicans will benefit mightily from the latest round of gerrymanders. Also, Glenn Youngkin in Virginia showed how a Republican candidate can distance himself just enough from Trump to win back more moderate voters, while not so much as to alienate the Trump die-hards. Which is another way of saying that I think you’ll be dealing with Speaker McCarthy and Leader McConnell in the next Congress.

Gail: And both of them are the opposite of bipartisan, unless there’s a chunk of money for back-home roadbuilding up for grabs.

OK, gonna block all this out until after the holidays.

Bret: So, remind me again, what else will you be giving thanks for this Thanksgiving?

Gail: Don’t know if I ever told you, but we have a tradition of having a group of old friends over every year for the holiday dinner. This is something we started in college — one of this year’s guests, who is 32, was born into it. So it’s partly an annual reunion and a chance to be grateful for longtime pals.

As well, of course, for the relative newcomers. So when it comes to thanks, I’ll be including another year of conversing with you, Bret. And looking forward to carrying on into 2022 and beyond.

Bret: As am I. And here’s to you.



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