Opinion | Here’s Looking at You, Hunter Biden

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Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I know we’ll want to talk about the Hunter Biden trial. But I’d like to give kudos to The Times’s Edgar Sandoval for his terrific report last week from the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. The long and short of it is that Texan Latinos, once reliably Democratic, are turning against Joe Biden on account of the border chaos.

Do you think the president’s executive order all-but banning asylum applications will turn that around? Or does it merely confirm that the administration sat on its hands for more than three years while the crisis got worse?

Gail Collins: Bret, there are parts of Texas that are the natural first destinations for people crossing the border illegally. Whatever their ethnicity, residents are likely to feel unnerved by a flood of strangers with no homes and no jobs coming into their towns and hiding in terror from the government.

That’s a crisis, but I think you’ve agreed with me in the past that overall, the influx of immigrants has been terrific for the national economy. We desperately need them for jobs in agriculture, and if they had the legal right to work, they’d create a boom in places like New York that are stuck right now trying to house newcomers who often can’t even give their real names.

Bret: Not so sure. Between them, New York and Chicago are spending billions in tax dollars to handle the influx. San Diego has been hit by a wave of “burglary tourism” by crime groups coming across the border. Public schools are having to enroll thousands of migrant children when many of these schools face tight budgets. Unscrupulous employers are abusing migrant workers, many of them underage. And right-wing populists, from Brussels to Mar-a-Lago, are profiting from it politically.

I’m all for immigration, so long as it’s lawful and brings in people we know and want and doesn’t come at the expense of people already living here. What we have now is just another Biden own goal, kinda like his stalwart defense of his son Hunter. Or am I getting this one all wrong?

Gail: I knew it wouldn’t be long before we got to Hunter.

Bret: Rhymes with “punter.” Sorry, go on ….

Gail: Here’s my interpretation: You have a troubled guy who was two years old when his mother and sister were killed in a car crash in which he and his brother Beau were critically injured. Who was completely wrecked when Beau died of cancer nine years ago at age 46.

Hunter was a tortured drug addict, then he came around and quit, taking the ever-popular celebrity role of working the whole thing out in a well-publicized autobiography. It’s easy to be cynical about some parts of this — hey, maybe a lot of it. But I can’t conceive that the American public expects Joe to be anything but a sad, supportive dad.

Bret: I respect the president for being a loving father. I respect Hunter for apparently getting clean. I know that addiction is an agony that deserves compassion for everyone it touches.

But here’s what I don’t respect. No matter what happened before, Hunter could have spared his family the trial by taking a plea deal. He could have spared his brother’s widow, Hallie, the humiliation of acknowledging from the witness stand that she and Hunter had smoked crack together when they were lovers. He could have spared his daughter Naomi the legal jeopardy of testifying under oath to his sobriety when her own contemporaneous texts suggest he wasn’t there yet. He could have spared his dad the need to continue to defend his son. And he could have spared the administration the hypocrisy of demanding tougher gun laws while defending Hunter’s flagrant violation of them as a legal nothing burger.

And again, it’s all a gift to La Panza Naranja. Who, by the way, continues to lead in every battleground state, his conviction on 34 felony counts notwithstanding.

Gail: OK, Bret, I acknowledge your Hunter-from-hell approach can be pretty compelling. But almost nobody cares about what actually happens to him, right? The big question in all this is the impact it has on his father. And I am absolutely sure the American people expect a dad to stand by his son. In private. While vowing, as he did already, that if Hunter is convicted he won’t attempt a pardon.

Bret: That’s good. And smart. But remember that however this case turns out, Hunter will go on trial again in September on tax-evasion charges. And the net effect, politically, will be to neutralize Biden’s advantage over Donald Trump on the ethical issues. Not because that’s fair, but because a lot of disengaged voters will conclude that both candidates have ethical liabilities so they may as well vote for the guy whose record and policies they prefer.

Which, I’m afraid, is gonna be Trump ….

Gail: Trump, the guy whose vision of the economy is all about tax cuts for the rich? Who won’t protect abortion — or even contraception — rights? Whose history with women is so disgusting it’s easy to understand why Melania stays at home on the proverbial back porch?

Bret: Yes, that guy.

Gail: I have many, many worries about this election, but no doubt whatsoever that Biden’s the superior candidate. And that, with any luck, he’ll be re-elected. When push comes to shove, American voters will prefer the guy who hasn’t been convicted of dozens of fiscal felonies.

Bret: You’ve put me in mind of H.L. Mencken’s famous line that “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” And that, I’m afraid, is what’s going to happen here.

Can I give you my theory of why I think Trump is going to win?

Gail: I know you’re going to ruin my day, but go ahead.

Bret: Trump is telling a story about America that is truer to the way swing-state voters experience their lives than the story Biden is telling. The president is saying that it’s Morning in America. His predecessor says it’s Darkness at Noon. If you’re a wage-earning middle- or working-class American who hasn’t benefited much from the stock market boom but was walloped by high inflation in 2022 and high interest rates today, Trump’s description seems about right. Throw in the fact that the outside world — whether at the Southern border or in the Middle East or Ukraine — feels much more threatening today than it did five years ago, and Trump’s message, combined with his truculence, resonates even louder.

In a nutshell, what these voters are saying is, “Give us Genghis, not Grandpa.”

Gail: Sigh. The old-man thing is the Biden curse, I totally admit. But soon, when we get into the heart of the campaign, people will be reminded in TV ads every day that Trump is a guy who’s been found liable for sexual abuse, who’s vowed to be a dictator on “day one,” who broke the law to pay off a nasty private deal …. They’re just going to remember there are worse things than having an 80-plus-year-old squint at cue cards.

Admit it. Deep in your heart you think the American people will come around.

Bret: I wish. I think most Americans don’t think Biden will be able to serve out a full second term given his obviously declining faculties. So this election will also be a referendum on the prospect of a Kamala Harris presidency, and she’s got a 38 percent approval rating versus 50 percent disapproval. If Democrats are serious about defeating Trump instead of just sliding into the abyss, they’d take her off the ticket. But I know that’s unlikely.

Switching subjects, Gail, I was really saddened to learn of the death in a plane crash of Bill Anders, the astronaut who snapped the famous “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8. Any thoughts on the effect of that picture?

Gail: You know I grew up in the antiwar, Watergate era when nobody I hung out with wanted to identify with anything having to do with the government. So I’m sorry to say we didn’t really get into the wonder of the early space program.

Bret: I was obsessed with the Apollo program as a kid, and I can still name every man who walked on the moon: Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Bean, Shepard, Mitchell, Scott, Irwin, Young, Duke, Schmitt and Cernan. But none of that would have been possible without Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders — three Americans who taught the world that the reason we explore is to discover ourselves, and that the most important word in life is “perspective.”

Gail: Now I’m remembering the Joni Mitchell song about that picture:

And you couldn’t see a city

On that marbled bowling ball

Or a forest or a highway

Or me here least of all

After that, I’ll return all poetry quotations to you. Thanks for bringing it up.

Bret: Joni’s impossible to beat. She gets the last word.

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