Sunday, May 26

Opinion | Biden Has a Week He Would Like to Forget

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. It was a no good, very bad week for the “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who happens to be the 46th president. If you were his closest friend, what advice would you give him?

Gail Collins: Oh, gosh, Bret. We’re talking, of course, about the report a Justice Department special counsel filed on President Biden’s handling of classified material — the same kind of material Donald Trump left piled around the toilet.

Bret: I used to joke that Trump’s behavior gave new meaning to the term “anal retentive.” Maybe we can start describing Biden as mnemonically challenged.

Gail: While Trump’s behavior with classified documents was inexcusable, Biden’s was a lot less serious — inadvertently leaving stuff in the garage. But the counsel who cleared Biden of any serious misbehavior — a Republican — did seem to feel compelled to add that Biden’s excuse was “diminished faculties in advancing age.”

Bret: Hang on. Robert Hur, the special counsel, might be a Republican, but he was appointed to his job by Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general. And Hur’s report found evidence that Biden willfully retained classified documents and even shared some of them with a ghostwriter, something that caused a huge uproar last year when it turned out that Trump was sharing his own classified docs with a writer.

Gail: I repeat: Biden made a mistake by not carefully curating those documents, but it doesn’t rank up there with stashing them all around the guest bathroom.

Bret: That’s probably right as a legal matter, but it’s hugely damaging as a political one.

Gail: Let’s talk about the big argument. You’ve been adamant about Biden’s incapacity to serve another four-year term. Unlike you, I think he’s been a very good president. But I must admit I’m worried about stretching things into his mid-80s.

Bret: I’ve always tried to give Biden all the credit I can, especially on the foreign-policy issues I really care about. But Hur’s report helped confirm what many of us watching the president have long feared: He’s lost more than just a step. And it raises the question of why we should give four more years to someone who, sad as it is to say, may not have four more years to give. So, just to circle back: What’s your advice?

Gail: Since the last election, we’ve been talking a lot about whether Biden should run again. I always hoped he’d settle for just one term, but my feeling has gotten much more intense. There’s plenty of good talent on the Democratic side; he really, really should open the door and let the party pick a successor.

If he doesn’t, how do we avoid another — agghh — Biden-Trump election?

Bret: Well, Nikki Haley probably isn’t going to stop Trump, but maybe a conviction in one of his many criminal cases could, though I’m not holding my breath.

As for Biden, if he wants the country to believe his “memory is fine,” as he said Thursday night when he stormed out to the mics after Hur’s report was released, he needs to really prove it. That means submitting to a comprehensive, independent medical exam, with full diagnostic transparency. It means offering himself for town halls and interviews — lots of them. If he’s not prepared to do this, he and the first lady need to draw a wise conclusion. The country will honor a president who bowed to Father Time. It won’t look so fondly on another Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Dianne Feinstein, if you know what I mean.

Gail: As someone who so admired Ginsburg throughout her career, I was crushed to see her ruining so much: stripping Barack Obama of the chance to replace her and just hanging on into the Trump administration because she couldn’t bear to admit it was time to retire.

Don’t know that Senator Feinstein was in the same league when it came to achievement, although she was certainly at the top of the crop of old-age deniers.

Let’s cheer up and go back to your theory that Biden won’t get the nomination again. Describe the plot.

Bret: I think it’s going to take a few things. First, a sharp drop in Biden’s poll numbers that scares the bejesus out of liberal elites. Second, more wise Democratic men and women willing to say what I’ve been saying since, oh, 2021. Third, Jill Biden giving some serious thought to what she thinks her husband’s mental state will be in, say, three years. And fourth, Democrats not betting on the hope that the legal system will finally get Trump and save them from themselves.

Anything else?

Gail: I guess we just keep yelping: Mr. President, many of us think you’ve been doing a terrific job and don’t want you to go down in history as anything but a fine executive who saved the nation from Trump. Please, please don’t mess it up with another run. If you announce you aren’t running, there’s still time for Democrats to choose your successor this summer in Chicago.

Bret: I second Gail’s motion and move for viable Democratic alternatives to start making plans.

Gail: Moving on to a crisis of a different order: What about Congress? I doubt the Republicans in the House could get their minuscule majority together to vote for a coffee break.

Bret: Or a bathroom break. This is a caucus that’s gotten quite good at soiling itself in public view.

Gail: Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, has been working for ages on a bipartisan deal to support Ukraine. The Republicans told him it had to come with policy changes to get tougher at the border. The two sides negotiated. They actually came up with a deal. “We met every day for months,” Murphy said in a mournful statement, “every single day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

And of course, Trump squashed it. The only real reason being that he didn’t want Biden getting credit for fixing the problem.

Do you think there’s any chance of another go-round?

Bret: Not while the cult of Trump is in charge of the party of Lincoln.

You know that I’ve been hard on the Biden administration for its neglect of the border and the wishful thinking that the problem would somehow resolve itself. But the cynicism of the Republicans — getting all they could ask for and then turning it down because they’d rather have a crisis than a solution — is pretty breathtaking. Nearly any Democrat other than Biden could really turn this into a good campaign issue against the G.O.P.’s “do nothing” Congress, to borrow Truman’s famous line.

Speaking of the cult of Trump, can I switch the subject to Tucker Carlson?

Gail: Well, I can’t stop you.

Bret: As you know, America’s No. 1 bringer of successful defamation suits was in Moscow to “interview” — I say “interview” because the word I have in mind is unprintable here — America’s No. 1 enemy. There wasn’t a single tough question about Vladimir Putin’s record of atrocities in Ukraine or his repression in Russia or the forcible separation of more than 19,000 Ukrainian children from their parents. Would you describe this as journalism?

Gail: Bret, I generally don’t converse about foreign affairs, in recognition of my colleagues’ far more spectacular understanding of that whole world. But hard to imagine two people I’d have less desire to hear share thoughts in a fireside chat than Carlson and Putin. And it does open up a question I’ve always wanted to ask you: Why is the political right so hostile to Ukraine? It seems like the kind of freedom-fighting, Western-tilting country they’re supposed to adore.

Bret: Our colleague David French offered what I think is the smartest answer to your question in a recent column. It comes down to this: general nuttiness connected to sundry Hillary Clinton and Hunter Biden conspiracy theories, plus a belief that Putin (a former K.G.B. agent) somehow represents manly Christian values in the face of effeminate wokeness, plus a kind of George Costanza “do the opposite” mentality in which whatever Biden is for, they must be against.

Gail: The perfect analysis.

Bret: The urgent question for me is whether the full Congress actually manages to pass an aid bill for Ukraine and Israel. But maybe it’s foolish of me to believe that a country that’s losing its mind can hope to lead the world.

So what gives you hope?

Gail: I think the country-losing-its-mind saga began with the internet — people learning to use a revolutionary new method of communication. It’s wonderful in many ways, but it makes it very, very easy for nut cases and folks desperately seeking attention to combine with sane but searching newcomers to create the scary insanity that’s a big part of Trumpism.

That’ll evolve, I hope. There’s still a decent strain of rationality at work in Congress — unfortunately right now everything Republican is under the thumb of our ex-president, who’s made it clear he doesn’t want to see any problems solved under Biden’s watch.

I’m still hitching my hopes to an end to Trump’s dominance on the right. Might not happen, but all those court cases can make a difference. And while Trump has a much more forceful public presence than Biden, he has a huge capacity for saying or doing something stupid that will turn the tide. This is the man who celebrated Super Bowl weekend by saying Russia could “do whatever the hell they want” to European countries that were behind on their NATO payments.

Bret: From your lips to God’s ears, as they say. In the meantime, I’m going to start looking for real estate. In the Falklands. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.