Opinion | If Mike Pence Is a Big Hero, We’re in Big Trouble

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I know we’ll get to the latest Trump indictment in a moment, but I wanted to start by raising a subject we haven’t discussed in detail before: capital punishment. Last week, a jury sentenced Robert Bowers, who murdered 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, to death. I sort of assume you’re against the death penalty, but wanted to know your reaction to the verdict.

Gail Collins: Bret, many folks who are opposed to the death penalty — including me — feel that if there was one time they’d like to see an exception, it’d be the Tree of Life mass murder.

Bret: Agreed.

Gail: Still, I wish the jury had come back with a life sentence. Tell that miserable excuse of a human being that he’s going to spend the rest of his existence alone, in a cell, being shunned and treated like the pariah he is.

The death penalty just doesn’t work for me. On the intellectual side, there isn’t convincing evidence to suggest that the death penalty deters violent crime. And on the moral side, I just can’t see responding to the deliberate taking of life with deliberate taking of life.

I assume you disagree?

Bret: I always thought the sole purpose of capital punishment was justice, so even if the death penalty did deter violent crime, that argument wouldn’t hold water with me. But my support has softened over the years, mainly because, as I grow older, I think it’s wrong to foreclose the possibility of atonement and redemption in prison, particularly for those who committed crimes when they were young.

Gail: Good thought.

Bret: And yet there are some crimes that are so premeditated, hateful and cruel that I think society has to respond in the severest way possible. Life in prison with three meals a day, an hour for exercise, friendships with other inmates, answering fan mail (and there will be fan mail) — all that mocks the idea of justice. I don’t for a second doubt that justice was done when the war criminal Adolf Eichmann was hanged or the serial killer Ted Bundy was executed or the terrorist Timothy McVeigh was killed by lethal injection. Bowers belongs in their company.

And, um, speaking of justice, what do we make of Trump indictment No. 3?

Gail: We’ve gotten to the real bottom line, Trump-crime-wise. The country can get past a president who breaks the law in his private life, hides official documents and hides the evidence that he hides official documents. But we can’t survive a president who makes a serious attempt to wreck the election system and stay in office after he’s been voted out.

That just can’t be overlooked. He has to be punished.

Bret: I thought the right remedy for Jan. 6 was political, via immediate impeachment and conviction, as I wrote at the time. I worry that the latest case is going to turn on the question of whether Donald Trump truly believed he had won the election and could have his vice president reject electoral ballots. In other words, it’s going to be about Trump’s state of mind and his First Amendment rights, rather than the disgrace of his behavior, which increases the chances of his ultimate acquittal.

Gail: All this drama keeps bringing me back to Mike Pence — and believe me, I never thought I’d be in a world where I wanted to be back with Mike Pence in any way, shape or form. But when the critical moment came, he followed through and declared the actual election winner the actual election winner.

Bret: Sorry, but I will never buy the whole “Mike Pence was a hero” business. He was Trump’s faithful enabler for more than four years, his beard with Evangelicals, his ever-nodding Yes-man. He was mute for the eight weeks after the 2020 election when his boss was busy denying the result. He only called Kamala Harris to congratulate her on Jan. 15, more than two months after she and Joe Biden were declared the winners. And if Pence had tried to overturn the election on Jan. 6, he’d now be facing his own federal indictment.

Gail: No way I’m going to battle on behalf of the virtues of Mike Pence. You win.

Bret: The only Republican I like these days is Chris Christie. I forgive him for endorsing Trump in 2016 because he’s going so hard and so eloquently against his former friend. I also think he has the right theory of the primary race, which is that the only way to beat Trump is to oppose him frontally. Unfortunately, he’s likelier to end up as Liz Cheney’s rival on “Dancing With the Stars” than he is in the White House.

Gail: Well, I’d certainly pay good money to watch that season.

But right now, I’m just rooting for a Christie smash-down at that Republican debate later this month. Looks like he’ll qualify. And I guess Trump will be too chicken to attend, right?

Bret: My guess, too. He has such a commanding lead over the other Republicans that a debate can only hurt him, particularly with Christie in the ring.

Switching topics: Congress and spending!

Gail: My favorite!

Bret: I’d like to propose a legislative idea to you and see if we can find common ground. Right now we have serious problems with our defense-industrial infrastructure. Our shipyards don’t have enough resources to build sufficient numbers of submarines, destroyers and frigates to increase the size of the Navy. Many of our existing ships must wait years for necessary repairs even as we face a growing maritime challenge from China. We’re struggling to replace all of the munitions we’ve given to Ukraine, especially artillery shells but also Stingers and Javelins. And inflation has eaten away at the value of our defense dollars. This doesn’t get a lot of mainstream attention, but people close to the problem understand that it borders on an emergency.

So my suggestion is that pro-Ukraine Democrats and anti-China Republicans — and vice versa — unite around legislation that would fund a five-year, $250 billion supplemental defense bill to refurbish our defense infrastructure, create thousands of unionized jobs, restock our munitions and help our allies. In honor of Franklin Roosevelt, I would call it the “Arsenal of Democracy” bill. Are you on board?

Gail: Hmm. Appreciate your concerns about the shortage of military supplies, and I feel pretty supportive of our aid to Ukraine.

My big reservation, however, is that the Pentagon doesn’t really need the extra money. It could come up with the funds itself if it would just cut back on waste. The infamous overcharging by suppliers, for instance, and the purchase of way more planes and weapons than we need.

Bret: There’s waste in every government program. Progressives mainly seem to notice it when it comes to the one item of government spending they don’t like.

Gail: Defense spending tends to get bipartisan support, not so much because it’s worthy as because so many lawmakers see the money going into their districts. Good target for conservative cost-cutting.

Sorry, F.D.R.

Bret: This seems to me an opportunity for a real bipartisan victory that brings the country around the sensible objective of being strong in the face of aggressive autocracies. I’m picturing a bill sponsored by Richard Blumenthal, one of Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, whose state makes many of our nuclear submarines, and Mike Gallagher, the intelligent and sensible Republican congressman from Wisconsin.

Gail: Fine lawmakers, but I’m still not buying that one.

Bret: OK, enough of my legislative fantasies. Question for you: Considering that the economy is doing relatively well, why aren’t Biden’s poll numbers better — not even on how he handles the economy?

Gail: Excellent question. You’d think a guy who passes breakthrough legislation on everything from education to global warming, who has done a terrific job handling a very troubled economy and is respected as a leader around the world, would be super popular. And I truly think if you had an actual election right now, people would turn out in droves to give Joe Biden another term.

Bret: I wouldn’t be so sure. The latest New York Times/Siena poll has Trump and Biden in a dead heat. Sixty-five percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track. Food prices keep moving up. The effects of the migration crisis, which have now hit so many places far north of the border, will be felt for years in housing, the school system, even parks. There’s a palpable sense of urban decay in one city after another. Kamala Harris makes a lot of independent voters nervous. Also — and I can’t say this enough, even if it isn’t nice — Biden just seems feeble.

Gail: I said if we had an election now, they’d turn out in droves to vote for Biden. Not that they’d be excited about it. The ideal opposition to a crazy, irresponsible former reality TV star isn’t a calm, 80-year-old career politician. I think people are yearning for somebody who’s charismatic and able to get them wildly excited about the future — like the early Barack Obama.

We’ll see if anybody pops up ….

Bret: That person would be Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. But I guess we’re just going to have to accept the cards we’re dealt. Feeble versus Evil. Can’t America do better?

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Gail Collins is an Opinion columnist, is a former member of the editorial board and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007. @GailCollins Facebook

Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. Facebook

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