Opinion | Remember When Kevin McCarthy Had ‘Had It’ With Trump?

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Gail Collins: Bret, I hate to begin with border immigration issues. Asking people “What do you think about Title 42?” isn’t generally the perfect conversation opener.

Bret Stephens: It sounds like the title of a discarded Joseph Heller manuscript. But of course you’re referring to a once-obscure provision from the 1944 Public Health Service Act, which the Trump administration used at the advent of the pandemic to enforce rapid expulsions of migrants at the border.

Gail: I knew you’d have a perfect ID for Title 42. And now the question is whether to keep that policy in place, for Covid-checking purposes.

Bret: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thinks it’s no longer necessary and will let it expire on May 23. This will very likely contribute to another giant surge in illegal migration — and another giant headache for vulnerable Democrats in the midterms. A bipartisan group of senators has urged Biden to extend the deadline.

Gail: Well, Joe Biden has to figure out some way to handle immigration requests, particularly at the southern border. What would you tell him to do?

Bret: I’m the son of a refugee and a fan of a liberal immigration policy. I’d build the wall to deter dangerous border crossings and to deny the issue to nativists, but I would also vastly widen the avenues to legal immigration, give immediate citizenship to every Dreamer, and offer immediate amnesty with a path to citizenship to every undocumented worker in the United States, provided they don’t have a felony record.

Gail: With you on part 2, but no wall! It sends such a terrible message — welcoming Ukrainian refugees while walling off the folks to the south.

Bret: We should welcome immigrants from everywhere. But I’m having trouble understanding why the administration is simultaneously trying to extend mask mandates, on grounds that we may be at the cusp of yet another Covid wave, while ending Title 42 enforcement. It seems inconsistent, not to mention politically inept. The headwinds Democrats face in the midterms will turn into a hurricane if the administration can’t align its policies with the political priorities of its vulnerable centrists.

Gail: OK, you’ve lured me over to a much simpler issue. Masks! We both hate them so much, but are you sure it’s time to get rid of them entirely? You fly a lot — how would you react to walking onto a plane full of naked faces?

Bret: Just did. To Chicago and back. It was absolutely wonderful. About half the passengers and crew still wore masks, which obviously is their right, and half of us didn’t, which ought to be ours.

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I became an anti-masker over the course of the pandemic. I wore masks wherever required, but the entire effort increasingly seemed feckless and performative, especially after the Omicron variant hit. Also, controlling, intrusive, divisive and sometimes damaging to oral, dermatological, psychological and developmental health, particularly for young children. The administration really needs to let this one go, I think. What’s your view?

Gail: When this whole thing began, I was really proud to note that almost everybody in my neighborhood started masking immediately. Just the kind of team spirit that people don’t appreciate is a part of New York.

Bret: Well, parts of New York.

Gail: But lately if I walk into a store and notice half the people are maskless, I follow suit and feel kinda liberated. There may be places and occupations where requiring masks is still a good idea, but in general I want to declare communal victory and move on.

Bret: We agree. In the meantime, maybe the administration can do more to facilitate and expand access to antiviral drugs like Pfizer’s Paxlovid, which is how we will ultimately move forward.

Gail: And we have to always keep in mind the very substantial number of immunocompromised folks who need to be both protected and totally included in our post-Covid world. Our colleague Sarah Wildman wrote a great piece about it earlier this month.

Now, let’s talk about that well-known maskaphobe, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. He’s now gone to war against — Disney World? Revoking Disney’s special powers to control everything from road building to utilities in its Magic Kingdom.

Bret: Wait, aren’t liberals usually against giant corporations getting special carve-outs from the government and becoming powers unto themselves, as Disney is in Florida?

Gail: I was going to get to that — honest. In theory, I’d be very suspicious of a huge corporation getting the right to basically be its own special county. But I’m pretty sure anything DeSantis’s Florida does would wind up being worse for everyone.

Do you disagree? And then I’ve got another tax question for you.

Bret: I don’t know much about the financial issues for Disney, but I also see the whole controversy as mainly a play by DeSantis to pick a fight that resonates with Republican primary voters. This is the Florida governor “owning” a corporate opponent over a cultural issue where the voters are mainly on his side. Whatever else there is to say about it, it’s smart politics, and Democrats need to realize they’re dealing with a formidable opponent.

And taxes?

Gail: Well, Senator Rick Scott, also of Florida, unveiled a plan to “rescue America” by requiring everybody — even the extremely poor — to pay taxes, and putting a five-year statute of limitations on federal programs including — I presume — Medicare and Social Security.

Scott is both the head of the Republican senatorial campaign effort and the richest guy in the Senate. Just mentioning.

Bret: So here goes: I basically agree with Scott. Everyone should have a stake in the system by paying federal income tax — and not just the payroll tax — even if the figure is small, except those in the bottom quintile of the income range. I also favor sharply lowering taxes overall on income and raising them for capital gains. Social Security is on its way to insolvency by 2033, according to the government’s own reports. Medicare may be in even deeper financial trouble. We need to start thinking about how we replace them.

OK, Gail, fire at will ….

Gail: Rocket’s red glare! Totally ready to refinance Social Security or Medicare with the money basically taken out of high-income earners and corporations. I know there are three or four people who think Social Security should be eliminated for the high end …

Bret: I’m one of those four people.

Gail: But one of the powerful forces in that particular program is that you know it’s for everyone. Part of our culture. When you get to a certain age we as a people are going to take care of your very bottom line. Everyone will be part of it, no matter how high or low their future income is.

Same basic feeling on Medicare, but it should be monitored very carefully by the government for waste or fraud.

Take it away …

Bret: Social Security was established at a time when life expectancy was much lower and when the pool of working-age people was much larger relative to the pool of beneficiaries. So demographic forces require reform. For those of us who have 401(k)s or I.R.A.s, Social Security will only make a marginal difference in our retirement income. Those of us fortunate enough to be at the upper end of the income ladder should forgo it entirely in order to make the program well-funded for the truly needy.

Gail: Turn Social Security into a program that only goes to poor people and you certainly enable the next Senator Scott. Like I said, its power is that we’re all in this one together.

Bret: As for health care, we ultimately need to move either toward socialized medicine in which costs are controlled from the top down, or a truly private market in which costs are managed through competition, price transparency and the elimination of third-party payers. Obviously I favor the latter …

Gail: Give me an example of a country with that exclusively private market.

Bret: That I know of? None, sadly. And even in my Milton Friedmanite utopia, I would never eliminate health programs for the truly needy, like Medicaid.

Gail, we shouldn’t end this conversation without getting to our favorite person in the whole world, Kevin McCarthy. Any thoughts on this profile of courage after we learned that he wanted Trump to resign after Jan. 6?

Gail: I think all the non-insane Republicans were in shock after their president egged on a mob to attack the Capitol. And a bunch must have told one another this had to be the end for him. Then backtracked when it became clear the party base had no problem with it whatsoever.

Bret: Like a drinker’s fleeting moment of clarity — before he orders another double.

Gail: McCarthy denied having told House Republican leaders he was going to advise Trump to resign. But then their phone call turned out to be — hehehe — caught on tape.

Now Bret, you’re responsible for the non-insane Republicans. Think McCarthy’s toast?

Bret: Non-insane republican? You must mean Emmanuel Macron.

Regarding the other Republicans: Ever since Trump’s “Access Hollywood” scandal in 2016, getting caught on tape hasn’t exactly been a net negative for today’s morally situational, factually alternative, democratically optional, logically challenged, comically unintentional G.O.P. In fact it’s become a stepping stone for higher office. Kevin McCarthy toast? He’s your next speaker of the House.

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