Bret Stephens: Katie Barr the door, Gail! That was quite a public rebuke of Donald Trump from Attorney General Bill Barr, who said the president’s incessant tweeting was making his job “impossible.”
Do you think this means Barr has finally drawn a line in the sand with his boss? Or was it just political theater to improve his standing within the Justice Department, after four career prosecutors resigned from the case in disgust when higher-ups in the department intervened to recommend a more lenient sentence for Roger Stone?
Gail Collins: Will it surprise you that I’m going for political theater, Bret? Complaining about the president’s tweeting habits is the one thing people in his thrall feel they can do to create the semi-illusion of independence without actually doing anything … independent. I believe Mitch McConnell was in the too-many-tweets camp recently, too.
How about you? And I liked your Katie joke. Whenever I hear that song now, I’ll think of Bill Barr hiding in his office, with a bunch of law books piled up against the door.
Bret: I’m where you are. Barr’s complaint seems to be that Trump’s tweets deny him the opportunity to pretend that he’s acting out of conviction, not dictation. In other words, they expose what anyone who has been paying attention to his department — including the 2,000-plus former Department of Justice officials who have called for him to step down — has known all along: This is the least politically independent attorney general since John Mitchell ran the department in Richard Nixon’s first term. Bill Barr makes Jeff Sessions look principled.
Gail: “Makes Jeff Sessions look principled.” A nightmare epithet for any attorney general. Or human being.
Bret: That said, I’m betting President Leave-No-Grudge-Behind will find a way to make Barr’s job even more impossible. It happened to Sessions, to former chief of staff Reince Priebus, to former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, to former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, to former secretary of defense Jim Mattis, to former chief of staff John Kelly, to former secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, to former national security adviser John Bolton.
Gail: Here lie the reputations of everybody who had a decent one before they went to work for Donald Trump. Plus some who’ll just have to settle for “semi-disgraced former member of the Trump administration.”
Bret: If Barr thinks his name won’t eventually land on this list, I have a portrait of Anne Boleyn to sell him.
But we’ve got another caucus coming up, this time in Nevada. In early December, the front-runners were Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Not anymore. To what do you attribute the abrupt collapse in their support?
Gail: Different stories. Biden started out running as Barack Obama’s vice president and of course that got a lot of traction — might still win him South Carolina. But the longer he campaigned the more he reverted to the guy who’s running for president for the third time and has yet to ever win a single primary. Ever. Or even come in third.
Bret: My heart goes out to Biden, not least because he’s the sort of man who is more decent than he is clever, in an era which desperately needs a return to decency. That said, if he doesn’t win decisively in South Carolina he owes it to the party’s moderates to bow out graciously and immediately.
Gail: Elizabeth Warren, as I’m sure you remember, is my favorite. But she’s run up against The Bern. One of them was going to have to take over the left side of the field and he’s shoving her out.
Lots of reasons, but I do suspect gender is one of them.
Bret: I’m sure you’re right on that score, which is quite a comment on the gender biases of the party’s left lane. But Warren also hurt herself in a bunch of ways, above all when she went after Pete Buttigieg at a December debate for holding a fund-raiser in a wine cave. His retort, noting that he was the only candidate in the stage who wasn’t a millionaire or billionaire and warning her about “issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” was devastating. It exposed an ideological opportunism and factual slipperiness that left her exposed from both the left and right within the Democratic Party’s electorate.
Gail: Warren has been righteously pursuing the cause of campaign finance reform — relying on small donors and trying to cut down on the influence of big-money donors with big-money interest in the federal government. One of the wine cave owners, I believe, was mixed up in the S&L bailout.
And she didn’t start the fight with Buttigieg — he jumped in and announced that her criticism of candidates who take large chunks of money from billionaires was directed at him. After which it would have been hard for Warren to fail to mention the fabled wine caves.
Not that I personally would turn down a chance to hang out in a cavern full of $900 cabernets.
Bret: Me neither. I doubt she’ll recover, though this race has been full of surprises.
Speaking of which: Mike Bloomberg. Judging by the harshness of the latest attacks on him, his political fortunes seem to be rising. How far might he go?
Gail: I dunno, Bret. Bloomberg would of course not be on anybody’s radar if he wasn’t a multi-multi-billionaire spending his own cash on a flood of campaign ads.
But here we are. His big plus — besides the cash — is that he’s a new face in a race that feels as if it’s been going on since the Eisenhower administration. His big minus is that he’s got a long history as an acerbic businessman who said some things to female employees we would now consider deeply, deeply offensive — and may have then. Not to mention his statements about black New Yorkers and crime, plus the virtues of redlining.
Can he apologize for those failings in a way that sounds sincere and not smarmy? We’ll learn more now that he’s made it into tomorrow’s debate.
I presume his billions aren’t a concern to you — but what about the wine cave thing? Do you think there should be any curbs on how much money candidates get from rich insiders?
Bret: So here’s a piece of heresy: No. Eugene McCarthy would never have been able to challenge Lyndon Johnson in 1968 save for the support of a handful of big-money donors. Campaign-finance laws have had all kinds of perverse effects, including the fact that they force politicians to spend inordinate amounts of time raising money in relatively small increments. And, because rich people can spend unlimited money on themselves, they have a built-in advantage over candidates like Buttigieg. I’d like to see fewer limits on donations coupled with radical transparency about the sources of funding.
Gail: I am closing my eyes and imagining a Congress composed of people who had to raise all their campaign money from small donors. We’d have a hell of a different tax code. And if it forced the members to spend their wine cave time talking to $50 contributors who got a glass of Blue Nun in the bargain, well, fine.
But about billionaire presidential candidates —
Bret: Regarding Bloomberg: I don’t think his problem is that he’s racist. If he were, he wouldn’t have won nearly 50 percent of the African-American vote when he ran for re-election as New York’s mayor in 2005, or be drawing considerable African-American support today. I think his problem is that he comes across as — and might well be — a big-league jerk, who thinks the police officers throwing minority youth up against a wall on mere suspicion is no big deal. His meanness toward women is part of the same picture.
Gail: I’d say that’s fair.
Bret: Right now, however, I’m willing to forgive many personal sins if I think a candidate can defeat Trump. And I remain fairly bullish on Mike’s chances if he gets the nomination — assuming (a very big if) that Sanders supporters wouldn’t sit out the election in protest over a contest of plutocrats.
Gail: That’s one of the interesting arguments in the Democratic contests. A Buttigieg or Klobuchar supporter would say we need a moderate who can appeal to swing voters. The Bernie folk would argue that we need a nominee who can get people fired up and turn out the voters who might otherwise just yawn and stay home.
Bret: I was on a TV show the other day in which Amy Klobuchar was the star guest. There is nothing yawn-ee about her. She’s funny, fierce, knowledgeable and quick on her feet. And she has a message of sanity and unity that should appeal to a lot of voters who desperately want to vote against Trump but whose attitude toward Bernie, as I pointed out on the show, is like the singer Meat Loaf’s attitude toward love: They’d do anything for it, but not that.
The fact that her numbers are rising gives me hope, Gail. And it pretty much guarantees that we’ll have no shortage of political surprises coming up. No shortage of material for us, either. On to Nevada!