Opinion | The Presidential Fitness Test Is Back

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Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. Did you watch George Stephanopoulos’s post-debate interview with President Biden? Did it allay your concerns about his fitness to run for a second term?

Gail Collins: Oh, Bret, sigh. Biden certainly did prove he could have a discussion on TV without appearing to be a victim of senility. But if the goal was to demonstrate he could be a powerful presence in this sort of gig — OK, I was sort of dismayed.

It just felt … blah. Cannot imagine anybody going to work and saying “Wow, did you hear the president last night? I really loved it when he …”

Tell me how you felt.

Bret: Is there a word that combines the senses of excruciation, desolation and infuriation? It was painful to have to see an elderly man get grilled about his mental fitness. It was sad to have to think that this is what we have come to in America: a contest between Caligula Unbound and Joe Six-Hours.

But it was also enraging to watch Biden insist he has the stamina for another four years as president, which he clearly doesn’t, and that he’s the Democratic Party’s best bet to beat Donald Trump, which he surely isn’t, and that he doesn’t need to take a cognitive test, which he absolutely must. The words for this are denial, arrogance and narcissism.

The country, I think, is praying for a better option and will reward the party that gives it one.

Gail: You mean a third party? If so, prepare for my usual rant.

Bret: Not at all. I mean, a better Democratic nominee, since Republicans obviously aren’t switching horses. Anyone you’re rooting for?

Gail: We’ve been down this road before, although the discussion seems more relevant every day. I usually start with the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and we each throw out names. But you’ve got to admit the one who looks like an almost inevitable pick if Biden retires from the fray is his vice president, Kamala Harris.

Bret: Whitmer would be a strong choice. But the state Democrats most need to win in order to keep the White House is Pennsylvania, which has 19 electoral votes. That alone is an argument for choosing its governor, Josh Shapiro, who also has the benefit of being relatively young, very popular and demonstrably centrist, even if he’s only been in office 18 months.

Gail: Allow me a brief timeout to bemoan the anti-democratic structure of our democracy, which leaves average voters who happen to live in Pennsylvania with a hundred times the sway of average voters who happen to live in its neighbor New York.

Bret: What that means is that if there were more Republicans in New York or other blue states, they would be better states for liberals to live in, at least when it comes to choosing presidents. Sorry, go on ….

Gail: If there’s an open vote at the Democratic convention, I’d be happy to see Shapiro in the mix. But I do not see how the party could ignore the first female vice president, who is also Black, the daughter of immigrant parents, and who, as vice president, is already the most logical Biden successor.

Bret: If the Democrats’ goal is to stay true to their brand of identity politics, then Harris is the clear choice. But if the goal is to stop Donald Trump from retaking the White House — as I think it must be — then she’s almost the worst one, with the arguable exception of Gavin Newsom, the much-too-slick governor of California.

Gail: We’ll save Newsom for another day.

Bret: Betting Trump’s nickname for him will be Governor Nuisance. As for Harris, let me list her problems: She is wildly unpopular, with a 37 percent approval — and 51 percent disapproval — rating. She’s won only one truly competitive election in her career. Fairly or unfairly, she’s associated with the immigration issue, which Americans see as the administration’s single greatest policy fiasco. She ran a dreadful primary campaign in 2020. And I don’t think she has much appeal with the swing voters who are going to decide this election. There’s a Hillary Clinton vibe to her, and we know how that worked out in 2016.

Now tell me why I’m wrong.

Gail: Gonna ignore your warning that the first female vice president might have “a Hillary Clinton vibe.” I know you have a lot of arguments, but it’s gonna sound like a no-women-allowed rule to some people.

Bret: Just to be clear, I’d be happy to see Whitmer both as nominee and as president. I’d also be thrilled by someone like Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary. My point was about electability, not gender.

Gail: Harris was not a popular pick for vice president, but she’s done the job well. She’s become a far better campaigner than she was in 2020. And the idea that the child of immigrants is the wrong one to tackle the immigration issue is sorta un-American.

Bret: I wish I could see the Harris magic. I just … don’t. On another subject, Gail, do you think a second Trump term will be fundamentally worse and scarier than the first one? I’m inclined to think it will be frequently foolish and damaging but not catastrophic. But I’m often too optimistic.

Gail: That’s a good, if terrifying, question. Trump has, alas, a great talent for feeling the country’s temperature and going … wherever the thermometer lights up. I don’t think he particularly cares about immigration, for example. He just knows a good applause line.

Bret: Actually, I think that’s one subject he really does care about, along with his protectionist trade instincts. It’s of a piece with his zero-sum approach to everything else in life.

Gail: If he wins a second term, Trump will be one of the most powerful people on the planet for four years with no place else to go. Under our Constitution, he can’t run for a third term. He’ll be deeply, deeply aware that he’s in his 80s with not much time for a turnaround.

So I can easily imagine him doing something drastic to stay at the top. It’s what happens at the end of his term that I’d be most worried about.

You disagree?

Bret: I once had a memorable, off-the-record meeting with an American president who was in the last year of his second term. He spent some time reflecting on the surprising limits of presidential power. In theory, a president can invade a foreign country, blow up the world, deport millions of people. In practice, he can hardly determine the menu for a state dinner.

Gail: Good point.

Bret: We have a separation of powers in this country, not just between the presidency, Congress and the judiciary, but also between federal, state and local officials. Even a president with lawless instincts is hemmed in by the Constitution, courts and innumerable other institutions over which he has limited authority. After the 2020 election, the federal bench and even the military made sure to thwart Trump’s designs. Patriotic Republicans like Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump-appointed judges were all willing to say no to him. Has the country changed that much that none of this would hold true in a second Trump term, when he’s not even up for re-election?

Gail: Sounds like you can envision Trump wanting to stage some sort of coup but being thwarted by patriotic members of his own party. Perfectly plausible. And we know from his attempts to overturn the 2020 results that he doesn’t have a whole lot of talent on the coup front.

Only question is whether the country’s become so split that a rebellion is possible. Even a totally failed uprising would be cataclysmic for the country’s sense of unity, don’t you think?

Bret: Trump tried to stage a quasi-coup. It went nowhere. We had four years of his presidency. Here we are. The Republic survived Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover and some other clunkers, and we’ll survive Trump II. In fact, the more his opponents, including me, puff him up as the gravest danger ever to American democracy, the more we run the risk of imitating his tactics. The best way to defeat him is to take his proper measure.

OK, now I’ll go to my synagogue and pray I’m not deluding myself.

Gail: Two of your clunkers presided over the run-up to the Civil War and another introduced the Great Depression. Just saying. But I’ll bet God is pleased by your positive thinking.

Bret: That’s the best rejoinder ever, Gail. I’ll just pray that the Lord Almighty has that word with Joe Biden to get him to step aside. And that Democrats nominate the candidate most likely to win.

Oh, and one last thing before we go: In case people missed it last week, they should be sure to read Mario Koran’s terrific and moving account of how he became a Times writer — beginning as a 28-year-old alcoholic serving a year in a Wisconsin jail for burglary. “When the judge sentenced me, he said I exemplified ‘a waste of a human life,’” Koran writes. “He wasn’t wrong.” I won’t spoil the rest of the story. But it’s a powerful reminder that it’s at our lowest moments that things can only look up. Hope that’s true for the country as well.

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