That Christmas When the Trumps Saw Red

Posted December 4, 2018 12:26 p.m. EST

Bret Stephens: Gail, I was all set for us to converse about Michael Cohen and the Russians. And then the death of George H.W Bush — the only presidential candidate whose campaign I volunteered for (as a letter-stuffer in 1988) — reminded me that there was a time when our presidents were dignified, presidential, decent and public-spirited.

Does Bush’s passing cause you to rethink the way you viewed him when he was in office?

Gail Collins: I realized a long time ago I’d underestimated him — maybe when I started comparing him to his son, the walking foreign policy disaster. And now, of course, every former president looks great compared with Donald Trump. If Warren Harding had died this week, we’d all have been thinking: “Well sure his Secretary of the Interior went to jail, but compared to Donald Trump ...”

Bret: Agreed. James Baker was right when he said Bush 41 was the best one-term president we’ve ever had. The largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. The successful reunification of Germany. Lightning victory in the Gulf War. The end of the Noriega regime in Panama. The negotiation of NAFTA. The Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also, the complete absence of malice. Bush 41 was probably the last president who refused to govern in a state of remorseless partisan war with his opponents. Obviously that wasn’t true of his political campaigns, particularly against Mike Dukakis in 1988, but it did typify his time in office. It’s almost hard to imagine that we could recover that style of politics.

With that in mind, what are you looking forward to when Democrats take over the House come January?

Gail: Infrastructure. Lots and lots of talk about infrastructure. One of the very few things both parties in Congress and the president agree on is that infrastructure is ... good. Don’t know that they’ll get any farther than that, but if anything happens I’m thinking it’ll be about road repair.

Here in New York we have a desperate, critical need to get a new train tunnel under the Hudson River. The existing ones are in terrible shape and if either ever has to be closed down, it’ll be a major blow to the economy of the city, the region and the country. So far Trump just hasn’t gotten on board. Reliable sources tell me it’s because he doesn’t want to pay a lot of money for something people can’t see.

Anything you hope Congress will or won’t do?

Bret: An immigration bill. But, yeah, infrastructure first.

I say this with some reluctance, ideologically speaking. I think a lot of huge infrastructure projects are boondoggles of dubious long-term economic value — even if they create jobs while they are being built. And, as we’ve learned from the Second Avenue subway misadventure, it’s easy to inflate costs massively when the taxpayer is footing the bill and government isn’t controlling the costs.

That said, every time I go through Penn Station I’m reminded of how awful our rail lines are next to every other developed country. And any time I fly from JFK to Hong Kong or another Asian destination I feel as if I’m departing from the 20th century and arriving in the 22nd. So, yes, infrastructure.

Gail: I’ve always suspected that many conservatives hate mass transit because it just fundamentally offends their sense of individualism. That you can’t be the heroic American Man Who Rides Alone if you’re sitting in a car with 40 other people making multiple stops in New Jersey. But go on.

Bret: There’s more than a little something to that.

As for immigration, I liked our colleague Tom Friedman’s formulation from his column the other day: “A high wall with a big gate.” Not because I think the wall is such a great idea — the money would be better spent on personnel and technology, not concrete — but because I think it is a price worth paying for a path to citizenship for the Dreamers, an expanded H1-B program for high-skilled immigrants and their spouses, and other steps to make immigration to the United States fairer, safer and easier for every law-abiding person who wants to come and make this a better country.

Gail: Good luck getting that past the president. And if we want to resolve the border issues, there’s also going to have to be a very big effort to fuel economic development in Central America. This really isn’t a problem about Mexicans anymore so much as impoverished refugees from the violence and hunger of countries like Honduras.

Bret: Agreed. We need some version of a “Plan Colombia” for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, modeled on the military and financial assistance the United States gave to Bogotá that successfully helped Colombians get the upper hand against insurgents and drug cartels. And that’s another one for the “good luck getting it past the president” file.

Gail: But here’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about: the report on global warming. The president just won’t buy the idea that it’s happening. I suspect that’s why he was so nuts about the California fires — he was babbling about raking the forests because he didn’t want to go near the real issue.

We haven’t talked about global warming in a long time. Any reactions?

Bret: Given the topic, I guess the first thing I should say, yet again, is that I do not dispute the science that climate change is happening and that much of it is man-made. And Trump and his administration should simply acknowledge the fact.

I’m less clear, say, that we should attribute events like the devastating forest fires to climate change alone as opposed to a host of additional causes, including too many people living in fire-prone areas (and often causing the fires), as well as poor forest-management practices.

I’m also skeptical that we have any genuinely practical solutions right now to climate change — at least solutions that don’t create environmental or political problems of their own. “Do something” may be an emotionally satisfying statement, but it’s a lousy guide to policy.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading a fascinating piece in The Times Magazine about the ecological devastation wrought by biofuels — which were seen as part of the climate-change cure just a few years ago. The riots in France sparked by the government’s climate-related hike to diesel fuel taxes are also a reminder that the term “climate sensitivity” should be a political term as well as an ecological one.

Gail: It’s true that overdevelopment is one of the causes of the California fires — as well as all the terrible flooding in places like Florida and Texas. Interesting that the president never mentions that.

Bret: We could do a lot to discourage people from living in places they shouldn’t be in the first place, for instance by ending or reforming the National Flood Insurance Program.

Gail: Totally agree about the flood insurance. But not about your suggestion that just saying “Do something” is the worst possible response to global warming concerns.

Worst possible response is to gut the existing regulations and then just say, “Wait and see.”

Bret: Agree partially. The ethanol subsidies have been a fiasco. Cap-and-trade systems are prone to corruption. A carbon tax probably makes the most sense but tends to be regressive. My own view is that reinvesting in nuclear plants makes the most sense from an environmental and technological point of view, so long as you can reform the regulatory picture to make them economical.

Gail: If you’re worried about solutions that create problems of their own, there’s the one about getting rid of the radioactive waste.

One of the reasons I’m in the “Do something” camp is because there are plenty of strategies that would be helpful even if they didn’t turn out to do much over the long run for the global warming. We already mentioned mass transit, controlling overdevelopment of beaches and other fragile areas. Reducing car emissions makes the air better. Encouraging the solar heating industry and wind power gives us an economic boost.

And if I go on I will wind up once again pointing out that the worst possible approach is the one the president is taking — overturning the existing anti-warming regulations and shrugging his shoulders as if the whole issue was slightly less important than the weekend golfing schedule.

We spend a lot of time jointly beating up on Trump: Is there anything he’s doing that you’d want to praise with a little holiday-season cheer?

Bret: Let me think ...

... thinking

... thinking.

Ah, OK. Well, he didn’t completely wreck free trade this week, though the new NAFTA is worse than the old one and it isn’t clear it can get congressional approval. So I guess I’m mildly cheered that he has almost prevented a disaster he needlessly caused.

What about you? Anything to like?

Gail: Well ... I do appreciate he doesn’t come back to New York for weekends any more. We’ve got enough traffic jams from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Speaking of trees, I have to admit I’ve never been more fascinated with White House holiday decorations than this year. Those blood-red pseudo-firs are truly memorable. And sort of perfect for an administration that so frequently makes the nation go, “Yipes!”

Bret: This is the new third-rail of American politics: Melania. And Melania’s taste. For reasons I don’t quite get, liberals and conservatives seem to have made some kind of tacit pact not to criticize her or her choices as first lady. They weren’t so kind to Hillary Clinton.

But here goes: that was the tackiest White House Christmas display ever. Of all time. It looked to me as if Derek Zoolander had been brought in as style consultant. And that he, in turn, had subcontracted the task to Imelda Marcos. It looked like a staging for an avant-garde version of Federico García Lorca’s “Bodas de Sangre.” It looked — if looks could sing — as if “White Christmas” were being performed by Ozzy Osbourne just as he bit the head off a bat. It looked as if John Bolton had been chosen to perform an exorcism, sadly not on the president.

Otherwise: pure class!

Gail: OK, that is the best interior decorating critique of the year.

On the Trump plus side, the National Football League will be happy to know that, thanks to the president, I have developed a modest affection for professional sports. You have to live in Trumpland all week, but on the weekends you can turn it all off and watch people tossing balls around. You go to a party and rather than depressing everybody with talk of the latest tweets, you can just say “Hey, how about those Giants?” Or Rams or Bears or whatever animal mascot you like.

Bret: Poor Bears. Shoulda beaten the Giants on Sunday.

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