Opinion | There Are Almost Too Many Things to Worry About

Bret Stephens: Last week I joined a video call with the estimable Russia expert Fiona Hill to discuss the war in Ukraine. She warned that Vladimir Putin may already be laying the groundwork for the use of chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons should he fail to win quickly, perhaps through some “false flag” operation that he can blame on Ukraine or the United States.

Anyway, good morning, Gail.

Before we get to tragedy, can we dwell on farce? I loved your column on Andrew Cuomo’s chutzpadik attempt at a comeback.

Gail Collins: I guess Cuomo’s only recent public service is distracting the public from the horror of international news.

Bret: It’s like going to a doctor who diagnoses you with cancer and then adds that you also have gonorrhea. Just to be clear, Putin is the cancer in this analogy.

Gail: Cuomo’s successor, Kathy Hochul, a former lieutenant governor, is in a tough place right now, given the cranky, Covid-exhausted, inflation-irate state of the state. But I can’t say I’ve heard anybody going around saying, “Hey, what New York really needs is to go back to the guy who kept grabbing his female associates.”

Any thoughts on your end?

Bret: Cuomo has about as much chance of making a political comeback in New York State as Ted Cruz does of winning a Mr. Congeniality contest. And friends of mine who have known Cuomo for decades usually describe him with a vulgar noun modified by the adjective “colossal.”

That said, the fact that five separate investigations into Cuomo’s alleged sexual misconduct were all dropped should give those who rushed to convict him in the court of public opinion — this would include me — pause to take stock of our own behavior. We elided the difference between gross behavior and criminal behavior, and we created a political stampede that effectively revoked the will of voters. I never voted for Cuomo in the first place, but maybe he shouldn’t have resigned.

Gail: American history is full of politicians who fell into sexual scandal but survived. Andrew’s tabloid-headline offenses involved treating the women he worked with in a disrespectful, handsy, ass-groping way.

It’s true that his behavior wasn’t found to be actually criminal and that may say a lot about how hard it is to prove these cases. But at a very minimal minimum, it’s something that makes you want to go “eeuuw.”

Bret: Or deliver a sharp slap to his face.

Gail: When the crisis arose and this all went public, he was in his third term as governor. By a third term people get tired of you and figure out how to work around you, and a lot of the folks who might have helped you early on are now trying to figure out how to get your job for themselves.

Bret: Especially when you’re the bullying type who delights in humiliating those who cross you.

Gail: Bottom line: Sexual misconduct by a politician is serious. The worst cases, involving physical force or job threats, are cause for impeachment. The midlevel stuff like on-the-job touching has to be publicized and turned into yet another lesson for powerful men on how to treat women like humans. Even guys who survive the scandal legally, like Andrew Cuomo did, have to go through a hellish session of humiliation. As well they should.

Bret: Totally agree.

Gail: When it comes to political survival, I think it’s a balance between the seriousness of the inappropriate behavior and the overall power, competence and promise of the guy involved. That’s where Andrew lost the game.

Did I mention I once wrote a book on political sex scandals? Perhaps not my proudest moment but for a while I was great at cocktail parties.

Bret: You’re referring to your delightful 1998 book “Scorpion Tongues,” which The Times reviewed under the apt headline “Below the Beltway.” Maybe you should consider updating it for a 25th anniversary reissue next year.

On another topic, two recent stories out of Texas caught my attention. The first is that the Texas Supreme Court turned back a legal challenge to a restrictive abortion law that basically deputizes private individuals to become anti-abortion vigilantes. The second was that most Texan women who were denied an abortion under the new law found a way to get one another way, either by leaving the state or ordering abortion pills online. Your thoughts?

Gail: I keep thinking of that crazy law as the one that allows a citizen to sue the Uber driver who transports a woman to an abortion clinic.

Bret: You’ve heard of “scratch and sniff”? This law is “snitch and sue.”

Gail: I fear we’re headed back to the pre-Roe world when women in some states had the right to control their own bodies — just took it for granted — while women in others had to end an unwanted pregnancy by going to a doctor for undercover treatment, or making a sudden trip to visit a relative in a different state. The abortion pills will make a difference for sure, but the women I worry about most are the ones who, because of youth, ignorance or the avoidance that comes from terror, just don’t face their problem until it’s too late for an early-stage intervention.

This is going to get worse and worse, isn’t it, Bret? The right is already planning to make it a big issue in the next election.

Bret: They might, but I’m not sure how it helps them. Close to 60 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases, and a concerted push by some states to effectively ban it could lead to political blowback for Republicans at the state level. If the Supreme Court repeals Roe this term, I could even see the decision galvanizing Democrats for the midterms to keep the Senate.

Gail: Democrats are always terrified things like this will galvanize the right, but you make a good point.

Bret: I also have a hard time imagining any sort of return to the pre-Roe world, not just because of the abortion pill but also because we’re a much more mobile world. In 1971, two years before Roe, fewer than half of Americans had been on a plane even once in their lives. Now it’s close to 90 percent. But I still think the court should uphold Roe.

Gail: Amen.

Bret: We haven’t yet mentioned President Biden. House Democrats have been urging him to hone his message for the midterms. Any suggestions?

Gail: Well, Putin’s certainly been a big help. Not only providing the president with a villain to fight, but a villain he can also blame for soaring gas prices.

Bret: Up to a point. Prices had been soaring before the invasion, thanks to the inflation Biden last year told us was “transitory.”

Gail: I just hope this doesn’t distract from the critical goal of clean energy. The second the Russian crisis began, the right started demanding that we revive the Keystone pipeline.

Bret: As we should! I still don’t understand how it’s supposed to be an environmental win that we won’t allow Canadian oil to be transported via Keystone, even as the same oil gets transported (much more dangerously) on rail lines to Canada’s coasts. Or that we shouldn’t frack for oil and gas on federal lands, but instead lift sanctions on Venezuela, where there’s no serious environmental regulation to speak of, and ask Saudi Arabia to pump more oil. It’s just incoherent.

Gail: Portrait of a president trying to protect his party from blame for gas prices. I understand the pressure he’s under, but for that very reason I want to see those of us who worry about climate change raise the nagging volume.

Bret: The smart political play for Biden is to tell Americans that after Russia’s invasion, we live in a world where we need more reliable supplies of carbon energy for the short term, but that we must also invest in alternative energy for the long. In other words, we need a “yes-and” strategy, rather than “either-or.”

In terms of a catchier mantra for Democrats, how about: “Trump thinks Putin is a genius for invading Ukraine. We think he’s a thug. Whose side are you on?”

Gail: I know we’re always going to be in accord when it comes to the man in Mar-a-Lago. Interesting that even a deeply supportive Fox interviewer couldn’t get Trump to criticize Putin.

Bret: You mean the sycophantic Sean Hannity interview in which Trump boasts about how well he got along with Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un because “I understood them and perhaps they understood me”? You have to give the guy points for honesty.

Gail: Meanwhile, I’m pleased to note that Congress managed to pass a bill that keeps the government operating. Go team! Any chance they’ll accomplish anything more notable?

Bret: Ukraine’s courage under fire ought to be a reminder that Republicans and Democrats should also show the courage to compromise and that there’s a lot to be said for showing good faith toward political opponents, including our beleaguered but well-meaning president.

OK, who am I kidding? I’m sure there are some more post offices Congress can name before the name-calling resumes.

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