Opinion

If Politicians Are Either Stainless or Shameless, Guess Which One Senator Menendez Is

Bret Stephens: Gail, you know how much I hate stereotypes, but — New Jersey! What is it about the state that seems to produce ethically challenged pols? I’m thinking about Harrison Williams and Bob Torricelli and Jim McGreevey and innumerable mayors and assemblymen and now Senator Robert Menendez, indicted — once again — for various corrupt practices, including taking bribes in the form of gold bars.

Is it the mercury in the Hackensack River? The effects of a Taylor Pork-Roll? Lingering trauma over the Snooki pouf?

Gail Collins: Well, Bret, the case has of course yet to be tried, but right now, whenever I see a picture of Bob Menendez, I imagine a little golden rectangle sticking out of his pocket.

His career is over. However, let’s be fair. We can’t get all high and mighty about New Jersey when we live in a state where George Pataki, whose three terms ended in 2007, was the last elected governor to finish his political career without having to resign in disgrace.

Bret: Maybe the eastbound sign on the George Washington Bridge should read, “Welcome to the Empire State, not quite as crooked as the state you’re leaving. But …”

Gail: I can think of some more states that could use similar signs, but I’ll be charitable today and refrain from making lists. Do you have a remedy? One thing that worries me is how uncool politics has become. You don’t see promising college students talking about their dream of going back home and running for City Council. Or even someday becoming president.

I blame Donald Trump for that, of course. But I have to admit Joe Biden doesn’t exactly make politics look like an exciting career.

Bret: My pet theory about modern American politics is that only two types of people go into it: the stainless and the shameless. Either you have lived a life of such unimpeachable virtue that you can survive endless investigations into your personal history, or you’re the type of person who lacks the shame gene, so you don’t care what kind of dirt the media digs up about you. In other words, you’re either Mitt Romney or Donald Trump, Chuck Schumer or Anthony Weiner.

Gail: Wow, first time I’ve thought about Anthony Weiner in quite a while. But go on.

Bret: Point being, most normal people fall somewhere in the middle, and they don’t want to spend their lives under a media microscope. That’s why so many otherwise well-qualified and otherwise public-spirited people steer clear of political careers. Which brings us without stopping to the complete breakdown in the Republican House caucus …

Gail: So glad you brought that up. I was of course going to ask — how much of this is Kevin McCarthy’s fault, how much the fault of Republican conservatives in general?

Bret: Can’t it be both? McCarthy got his speakership by putting himself at the mercy of the lunatic fringe on his right, and now that fringe is behaving like … lunatics. In theory, what the Republican caucus is arguing about is government spending and whether a government shutdown can send a message about excess spending. In reality, this is about power — about people like Matt Gaetz showing that, with a handful of votes, he can bring the entire Congress to heel. It’s the tyranny of a small minority leveraging its will over a bare majority to hold everyone else hostage.

Including, I should add, the Defense Department. If you had told me 10 years ago that the G.O.P. would purposefully sow chaos at the Pentagon to score points about government spending or abortion, I would have thought you were tripping. But here we are.

Gail: Non-fan of the House Republicans that I am, I did not expect anything good when they won the majority last year. But I did expect them to be semi-competent in their attempts to do bad.

Bret: Hehe.

Gail: Instead, we have government by Matt Gaetz, or Tommy Tuberville, the Alabama senator who’s been holding up military promotions as a protest against … abortion rights?

All this is good for the Democrats, who would have had to block any House budget that decimated critical services like health care. As things stand now, if we go into October without a national budget in place, all the ensuing crises will be blamed on the Republicans.

Not saying I want that to happen, but if it does, glad the shame will go in the right direction.

Bret: House Republicans have become a circular firing squad and I really have to wonder whether McCarthy will last another month as speaker, let alone to the end of this Congress. Although, whenever I think the Republicans are harming themselves, I … turn to the Democrats. Granting almost 500,000 Venezuelans temporary protected status is the right thing to do, but the administration’s failure to get control of the border means it’s only a matter of time before grants at this scale happen as a matter of course. I just don’t understand how this is good policy or wise politics. Please explain it to me.

Gail: Don’t think anybody feels the current border policies are anything close to perfect, but it’s a question of what else to do. Eager to hear any suggestions that don’t involve a stupid, embarrassing wall.

Bret: Which I continue to favor — along with wide and welcoming gates — but OK. There’s also something called a “smart fence” that has excellent sensors to detect border crossings, but is less ugly, less expensive and more environmentally sensitive than a wall. But it would have to be manned continuously by armed patrols. We can also immediately return people arriving here illegally rather than let them stay in the United States while awaiting a court hearing, unless they are from countries where they are at mortal risk from their own governments. President Obama did that pretty robustly, and I don’t remember any of my liberal friends claiming it was an assault on human rights. And we need to enormously expand consular facilities throughout Latin America so people’s immigration claims can be processed abroad, not once they’ve crossed the border.

Gail: Voting with you on greatly expanded consular services.

Bret: It would be a start. And I’m saying all this as someone who believes deeply in the overall benefits of immigration. But a de facto open border doesn’t advance the cause of a liberal immigration policy. It undermines it. And it could take down a lot of the Democratic Party in the process.

Gail: Arguing about the fence is sort of comforting, in a way. Takes me back to the old days when we could fight about politics without having to wring our hands over the likes of Kevin McCarthy.

Bret: So true. Politics used to be debating ideas. Now it’s about diagnosing psychosis.

Gail: Don’t know how depressed to feel about the deeply unenthusiastic, borderline terrifying polling numbers that Biden has been getting. On the one hand, it’s understandable that people are cranky about not having a younger, fresher, more exciting alternative to Trump. On the other hand — jeepers, the man has achieved a heck of a lot. And when you look at the inevitable alternative …

Bret: Liberals might see a lot of liberal policy achievements, but what conservatives and swing voters see is higher food and gas prices, higher mortgage rates, urban decay, an immigration crisis that only seems to get worse and a visibly feebler president. I really doubt we’d be having these anxieties over a potential second term for Trump if Biden simply stepped aside.

Gail: But to get back to the House Republicans — an impeachment inquiry, starring Hunter Biden, yet again? This one, as you know well, is allegedly supposed to investigate whether the president did anything in 2015 to protect his son’s business dealings in Ukraine. Are you indifferent, bored or embarrassed?

Bret: Angered. It’s outrageous to open an impeachment inquiry when there is absolutely no available evidence that the president committed impeachable offenses. By that preposterous standard, the police should open investigations into every parent in America whose children are louts.

Gail: Speaking of louts — or at least uncouth dressers — how do you feel about Chuck Schumer’s decision to drop the Senate dress code? Clearly a bow to John Fetterman, who has been known to show up in a hoodie and shorts.

Bret: Schumer is one of the nicest men I know in political life, a real mensch whether you agree with him or not. But this is a case of him being too nice. The Senate is held in low enough repute already; we don’t need it looking like an Arby’s. I hope he rethinks this. What’s your view?

Gail: Agree about Schumer and kinda think you’re also right on the dress code. He lost me at the shorts.

Hey, one last question — any predictions for the Republican debate this week?

Bret: I expect Ramaswamy to irritate, DeSantis to infuriate, Christie to needle, Pence to remind me of a beetle, Scott to smile and Haley to win by a mile. But I doubt it will move the dial.

Otherwise, I’d rather spend the time watching people ice fish.

Gail: Come on, there’s always something weird or ridiculous to reward you for watching. And some suspense — will Ron DeSantis say something truly stupid that will make him drop out? Will Tim Scott have any good I-wanna-be-veep moments? And it’s always fun to listen to Chris Christie slam into Trump.

Bret: True. And let’s see what conspiracy theory Ramaswamy will endorse next, like: Did Joe Biden get his Corvette at a discount from George Soros?

Gail: We can talk it over next week. Along with God-knows-what new political crisis. Looking forward already.

Bret: Same here. And before we go, I hope our readers didn’t miss Ian Johnson’s extraordinary essay about the Chinese journalists and historians fighting to preserve the knowledge of China’s tragedies and atrocities in the face of the regime’s attempts to suppress it. It made me think of how badly our own sense of history, including events like Jan. 6, has eroded, and reminded me of my favorite Milan Kundera lines: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

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