Opinion | What’s a Little Disagreement Among Factions?

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I have a new grand theory of politics: The Stupid Party is whichever party happens to be in power. Fair?

Gail Collins: Bret, why do I think you have something specific in mind? Could it be … the Biden agenda? Preceded by … the Trump agenda? And, if my memory is correct, back in the day you didn’t think the Obama agenda was all that great either.

Bret: Well, I’m rooting for Biden to succeed, which wasn’t quite the way I felt about his immediate predecessor.

My point about the Stupid Party is that Democrats could have had a popular legislative win with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Instead, the Sandernistas in Congress effectively vetoed it for the sake of social spending that they aren’t likely to get. Now they’ve got nothing and may very likely end up with nothing — a classic case of two birds in the bush instead of one in hand. And Biden is going along with it! It’s political malpractice.

Now please tell me what I’m missing ….

Gail: If this is the point where I’m supposed to explain the canny strategy on the Democratic side, well …

Obviously, things are a mess. The fate of their Senate majority is tied to the will of two deeply unattractive Democratic rebels. Both are presenting themselves as brave, low-tax populists, but Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona seems to be involved with a heck of a lot of special interests who don’t want to suffer for the common good.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for Joe Manchin, the other holdout on the Biden agenda. He does, after all, represent West Virginia, a state that went for Trump by 39 points. Maybe I could even buy into his man-of-the-people persona if this particular man wasn’t reportedly profiting from millions of dollars in coal company stocks.

Bret: So this is where I get to sing my personal love song to Manchin and Sinema, who are doing their constituents, their party and our country a service that should be a model to politicians everywhere.

They have the guts to say no to their own party — something I also admire in principled Republican dissenters like Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse. Sinema and Manchin have offered a middle ground on spending only to be turned down by the real obstructionists on the far left. They’re not willing to pretend that trillions of dollars in spending won’t have budgetary and economic consequences. And, yeah, they’re being responsive to their voters, who want more common sense from Washington and less progressive wish fulfillment.

Gail: I also haven’t noticed you cheering for the Democratic populists in the House who are bucking their party in an attempt to save — or at least demonstrate support for — the Biden social programs Manchin and Sinema want to torpedo.

Bret: Well, Manchin was prepared to accept $1.5 trillion in social programs on top of $1 trillion in infrastructure. In the Great Beforetime — say, 2019 — that used to be considered a lot of money.

Also, if you don’t like Manchin as a conservative Democrat you’ll like him even less as a populist Republican. Which, as you know, has been known to happen. Remember Ben Nighthorse Campbell?

Gail: Ah yes, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the answer to what happens when lawmakers switch parties looking for the perfect fit. That is, they become extremely successful lobbyists.

Bret: And thorns in the side of the party they leave behind ….

Gail: Let me admit, Bret, that the Democrats are in a terrible mess. I’m embarrassed they’re having such a political meltdown trying to work this out.

Bret: Playing my tiny violin …

Gail: However, let me add that nothing they’re doing is anywhere near as awful as Mitch McConnell’s refusal to support raising the debt limit.

Raising the debt limit is traditionally a bipartisan deal — who isn’t in favor of our government paying its bills? Or keeping the international economy from collapse?

Bret: Minority leader playing his political cards well? Sorry, go on.

Gail: Yeah, by pretending that Biden didn’t inherit the current debt from the Trump administration. I know you’re far from a Mitch fan, but admit this is the worst ever or at least one of the worst.

Bret: You’re not going to get me to defend what passes for Republican ethics, but that doesn’t excuse Democratic incompetence. They still control Congress and can raise the ceiling on their own.

Gail: Imagine there’s a huge earthquake coming that Congress can stop if they work together. But the Republicans just toss up their hands and say: “Hey, we’re not helping you with this one.”

The Republicans are being repulsive, the way they’re playing political games with the world’s finances. And just to be fair, I will admit that the ineptitude of the Democrats is also demoralizing.

Bret: Speaking of competence, when will the Biden administration come up with an effective and coherent approach to immigration?

Gail: The only cheerful answer I can offer is that it’ll certainly be better than Donald Trump’s obsession with a certain Mexican wall.

At a minimum, Biden needs a multipronged attack: First, speed up the process by which we accept people as legal residents. From the folks who were brought here without the right paperwork as kids to refugees from repressive regimes like the one that’s back in power in Afghanistan. Second, staff up the agencies that process appeals from people who show up at the border. And third, there has to be an immediate reform of law enforcement at the Mexican border. More well-trained officers and fewer of them on horses.

How about you?

Bret: Believe it or not, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. It still boggles my mind that we could only cut visa-processing wait times for our Afghan interpreters from about two years to one before the curtain came down. And our inability to extend citizenship to the Dreamers who arrived here as children without documentation is one of the worst moral and legislative failures of our time.

Gail: Amen.

Bret: Where we disagree is on border enforcement. We need to deter people from trying to cross the southern border illegally. And the best way to do it, I’m sorry to say, is to build a wall along much of it. It won’t stop everyone, but it will reduce the incentive for migrants to make dangerous border crossings. It will also shut up right-wing populists who want to blame the Biden administration for being indifferent to the crisis at the border.

Gail: OK, kneeling down, hands over ears, going “Noooooooo!” Realize that does not suggest a depth of survey research.

Bret: Ha! I actually felt the same way as you do until the last year or so, when I reluctantly came around to being pro-wall. I still think there’s a grand immigration bargain to be struck here between Democrats and Republicans: full funding for a border wall in exchange for immediate citizenship for Dreamers and a path to citizenship for every undocumented immigrant except those with a criminal record.

Gail: Is that on the table? If any bipartisan group of Senators wants to give it a shot, I’d be ready to listen. Grumpily, maybe, but still open to discussion.

Bret: I think you could get some pro-business Republicans to come around. Aside from the humanitarian and moral case for immigration, the country also needs more workers.

Gail: I remember the days of yore when you’d see deals like that being proposed. That was so long ago, right? At the time I tended to scoff at the compromisers as sellouts, but obviously if I had been able to travel through time and take a peep at the future, I’d have been way more appreciative.

Bret: Betcha might have thought differently of a Mitt Romney presidency if you’d had an inkling that it would avert the Trumpastrophe.

Gail: Remember John McCain giving a thumbs down to the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act? Still gives me chills thinking about it. There used to be lots of high morality bipartisan dramas — sagas like the Republican Senate leader, Everett Dirksen, joining with the Democratic leader, Mike Mansfield, to end a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Do you think we’ll ever go back — or forward — to that kind of era again?

Bret: Love that you mention Everett “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon we’re talking about real money” Dirksen. Sounds like we could use a voice like his again in our own policy debates.

I’d like to think we’ll get back to an era in which bipartisan compromises are possible. All of our systems seem to gear us toward division, whether they’re algorithms that reinforce our biases rather than expose us to different points of view, or gerrymandered districts that force our representatives to cater to the extremes rather than voters closer to the center. But there’s also an unseen hunger for reason and moderation and learning how to get along and even enjoy our differences.

Kinda like the conversation we try to model here. And our social gatherings — which reminds me that I have a nice Gavi for us to share at our next get together.

Gail: Well, as long as we’re dividing it in a truly egalitarian manner .…

Bret: Yep, even Stephens.

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