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Opinion | Biden-Trump, the Sequel, Has Quite a Few Plot Twists

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. A recent CNN poll shows that 20 percent of Democrats favor Robert F. Kennedy Jr., for the party’s nomination, 8 percent want Marianne Williamson and another 8 percent want someone else. That’s 36 percent saying they aren’t thrilled with the presumptive nominee. Do you think this is some kind of polling fluke or an ominous political sign for Joe Biden?

Gail Collins: Bret, it’s more than a year until the presidential conventions. All the Democrats know that Joe Biden is going to be their nominee. Some, like me, think he’s been doing a terrific job. Others find him pretty boring.

Bret: Or “walking the trail of so-so,” as my youngest likes to say.

Gail: I am absolutely sure that a lot of the people raising their hands for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Marianne Williamson have no idea who either of them actually is. Obviously, they recognize the Kennedy name, but I’ll bet most don’t know about his new career as an anti-vaxxer.

Do you disagree?

Bret: I do. Neither of them is an unknown quantity. R.F.K. Jr. has been a public figure for decades, and there are plenty of dark corners of America where his anti-vax views and penchant for conspiracy theories resonate. Williamson touched a nerve — or summoned a spirit — as the “dark psychic force” lady from the last Democratic primary.

Gail: By the fall, Democrats may be bored enough to want a conversation about dark psychic forces, but I think we deserve a summer break.

Bret: Only 60 percent of Democrats say they support Biden. By contrast, well over 86 percent of Republicans supported Donald Trump in June of 2019, according to an earlier CNN poll. And the RealClearPolitics average of polls gives both Trump and Ron DeSantis an edge over the president, which is bad now when the economy is relatively strong but will be politically catastrophic for him if the economy dips into recession. Democrats are placing a very big bet on a stumbling incumbent; that sound you hear is me paging Roy Cooper, Jared Polis and Gretchen Whitmer.

Gail: Sigh. Bret, we both agreed long ago that we hoped Biden wouldn’t run for another term, leaving the door open for all the interesting Democratic prospects to get in the race.

But it didn’t happen and it isn’t going to happen. And we’re stuck with a choice between Joe Biden and — a bunch of terrible Republicans.

Bret: I’m still not convinced that that’s the choice we are — or need to be — stuck with: Lyndon Johnson didn’t drop out of the race until March 1968. Where is Eugene McCarthy when you need him?

Gail: Biden’s doing very well — got a bunch of big initiatives passed this term; worked out a budget deal last week.

Bret: Gail, who do you think gained — or suffered — the most, politically speaking, from the budget deal, Biden or Kevin McCarthy, the House speaker?

Gail: Well. Biden is really having a stellar run. McCarthy was in serious danger of being tossed out of his job by members of his own party. So at least in terms of averting personal disaster, McCarthy had a pretty big win.

Bret: True, and he managed to bring most of his caucus along with him. Then again, most of the “savings” McCarthy claims to have achieved with the deal achieved were basically notional.

Gail: In terms of overall results, the Democrats did best. Even though I am very, very irritated about the cut in funding to the I.R.S.

Bret, doesn’t it bother you that the Republicans just don’t want the tax collectors to have enough money to do their jobs?

Bret: The best solution for the I.R.S. would be something like a universal 18 percent income tax for everyone, calculable on a single sheet of paper, with zero deductions or exemptions. Throwing money at the agency will do more to compound its problems than solve them.

Gail: Interesting theory that’s not gonna happen. Right now, when you have folks at an agency that’s long been underfunded, trying to ride herd on businesses and wealthy individuals who have ever-more-complicated strategies for thwarting them, I don’t think the answer is to sniff and say “Try harder.” The only thing we can be sure that the I.R.S. cut will give us is lower federal revenue from people who like avoiding taxes.

Bret: Which sorta makes my point for a simplified tax code, not another $80 billion for the agency.

In the meantime, Gail, the Trump-DeSantis battle of the put-downs is heating up. And Chris Christie may be getting in the race. Your thoughts on the G.O.P.’s Palio di Siena?

Gail: Palio di Siena is an Italian horse race that’s known for being very crowded and very colorful, right?

Bret: Also, loud, insane, scary and deadly for horses. Though maybe the better analogy for the way the Republican primary campaign is shaping up is Pamplona’s running of the bulls.

Gail: Well, the Republican field is definitely getting … bigger. Colorful may take a little more work. (This week it looks like we will also be welcoming Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota to the field!)

Bret: I’m probably going to destroy my credibility right now by confessing that I neither knew of the announcement nor the man until you just mentioned him. Sorry, Bismarck!

Gail: I say, the more the merrier. Chris Christie would be a fine addition when it comes to making things more interesting, and I’d really love to hear him in a debate with, say, DeSantis. On the down side, he has about as much chance of winning the nomination as I would of winning that Siena horse race.

Bret: Hehe.

Gail: You’re in charge of the Republicans here — give me a rundown of where we are.

Bret: Well, to your point about “the more the merrier,” my fear is that, as more Republicans jump into the race, it just makes it easier for Trump to clear the field.

On the other hand, I think that Christie has a very clear idea of what he wants to do in the race: Namely, to be a torpedo aimed straight at the S.S. Trump — maybe as a form of penance for his endorsement of Trump seven years ago. Christie helped sink Marco Rubio’s candidacy at the New Hampshire debate in 2016 and he wants to do the same to The Donald in this election cycle. The former New Jersey governor is a gifted speaker, so I can only hope he succeeds.

Gail: Blessings to you, Chris Christie. Unless that means pushing DeSantis permanently to the top. I know it’s weird but I’ve admitted to you I’d actually prefer Trump if that awful option is the choice.

Bret: We’ve argued about this before. I can only refer you to a point made by Frank Bruni in his terrific column on this point: “I’d be distraught during a DeSantis presidency and depressed during a Pence one. But at least I might recognize the America on the far side of it.”

Gail: Frank is of course great. Now about the current field — you’d like Chris Christie as a debater, but how about as an actual nominee. Your favorite of the week?

Bret: Christie is everything a Democrat could reasonably want in a Republican: gregarious, pragmatic, competent, highly intelligent, capable of reaching across the aisle and most definitely not a hater. I doubt he has any kind of realistic shot at the nomination, but I also know that he’s too much of a realist to think he has a realistic shot, either. His job is to demolish Trump so that Republicans can finally get past the former president. My guess is he’d like the job of attorney general in a DeSantis administration.

Enough about Republicans, Gail. What else is tickling your mind these days?

Gail: Don’t suppose you want to talk about basketball playoffs, huh?

Bret: Shame about the Celtics.

Gail: Sigh. Well, I’ve been interested in watching the evolution of the abortion debate — even DeSantis seems to be a little wary about waving his dreadful six-week-ban around.

Bret: Too little too late, but yes: Even he seems to realize that the ban doesn’t go over too well with a lot of people who might lean Republican, including otherwise conservative women. The most I can say about it is that it’s very on brand for the Florida governor: abrasive, abusive and arrogant.

Gail: Hey, we really can’t get away from the Republicans, can we? And the Democrats keep disappearing. Bret, did anybody besides the immediate Biden family notice that the president gave a speech to the nation on the budget deal?

Bret: In 100 years, historians might be calling this the Rodney Dangerfield presidency: “I don’t get no respect!” But, honestly, I find it a little painful to watch Biden speak and I suspect a lot of people feel the same way.

Gail: Painful like listening to a favorite uncle put the guests to sleep at Thanksgiving. Which is not like listening to a dreadful first cousin once removed terrify all the other relatives with a rant about family members he hates.

Bret: Fair point!

Gail: Bret, since we’re closing on the topic of unfortunate speeches, let me cheer you up by mentioning a really fine one. This is the part of our conversation when you usually wrap things up by describing something you’ve just read that you want to recommend. But today I get to do the finale — haha — and my choice is your address to the graduates at the University of Chicago about freedom of expression. It was terrific.

And the focus on civilized disagreement reminded me of how lucky I am to get to have a discussion like this with you every week.

Bret: I feel just the same way. It was good to have a chance to go back to my alma mater and pay tribute to Robert Zimmer, its former president, who died last month — a role model as a leader, thinker, friend and man.

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