Bret Stephens: Gail, I know we don’t typically talk about office politics, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid — as when our friend and colleague Nick Kristof leaves us to run for governor of his home state of Oregon. Our readers ought to know what an incredible guy he is behind the scenes.
Gail Collins: Bret, I am extremely proud to say that when I was the editor of this section, I lured Nick over from the news side to be a columnist.
One of his early projects was to write about the vile goings-on in a remote African country. I can’t remember all the details. But it involved a short plane ride that cost about $10,000 because he was barred from entry and had to be flown in by a brave pilot who claimed to be transporting a barrel of wheat.
Bret: Now you’re going to see Nick’s opponents accuse him of flying private.
Gail: I was of course impressed by the work, but the small, evil part of my brain thought, “Wow, this guy is going to cost me a fortune.” Then I started getting his bills for the long trek through Africa that followed, and they were like hotel: $2; dinner: $1.25.
Bret: Nick is one of the few people I know who actively seeks out opposing points of view, which only makes him hold his own with greater depth and zero rancor. He and I probably disagree on 95 percent of policy issues (OK, Oregon lefties, make that 100 percent). But I never missed his columns because there was always something important and interesting to learn from them.
Also, accounts of Kristof family holidays fill me with a sense of both awe and deep parental inadequacy.
Moving from the inspiring to the debased, what do you think the chances are that Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy will ever challenge Donald Trump on his claims of election fraud?
Gail: Well, about the same as my chances of competing in the next Olympics.
Bret: Your chances are better.
Gail: Watching the rally Trump had recently in Iowa, I was sort of fascinated by his apparent inability to focus on anything but the last election. Don’t think a 2020 do-over is at the top of anybody else’s list of priorities.
Bret: It would be nice to think that his obsession with 2020 is solely a function of his personal insecurities. But there’s a strategy involved here, which is hard to describe as anything less than sinister. Within the Republican Party, he’s making the stolen-election fantasy a litmus test, which Republican politicians defy at the peril of either being primaried by a Trump toady or losing vital Trump voters in close elections. At the national level, he’s creating a new “stab-in-the-back” myth to undermine the legitimacy of democracy itself.
Of course Joe Biden’s job performance so far isn’t helping things.
Gail: About our current commander in chief: Biden’s moving into troubled waters — through no fault of his own — as chances grow of strikes or some kind of work stoppage everywhere from the cereal industry to tractor factories. He’s vowed to be “the most pro-union president” in history. Am I right in guessing that’s not something you’d look forward to?
Bret: Anyone remember a certain politician from the late 1970s named James Callaghan? He was the U.K.’s Labour prime minister during the “Winter of Discontent,” when the country seemed to be perpetually on strike. Those strikes were the proximate cause of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, which is something the Biden administration might bear in mind before getting too close to the unions.
Gail: Did I ever tell you that long ago, in days of yore, I was president of the union at a small paper in Milwaukee? We only formed it because the publisher was a truly evil guy who’d threaten to write editorials denouncing local businesses unless they invested in advertising. Went on strike and the publisher closed down the whole operation.
Bret: He sounds like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” You went on to bigger and better things.
Gail: This is a prelude to saying that I think unions are critical to protecting the nation’s workers, but well aware that they don’t protect everybody who needs it.
Bret: I still think the most pro-worker thing the White House can do is get the infrastructure bill passed. Biden dearly needs a political victory, especially one like infrastructure that will divide Republicans while keeping Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on the Democratic side, as opposed to the social spending bill that unites Republicans and alienates those two.
Gail: I’ll refrain from pointing out that Sinema appears to be the captive of big-donor business interests and that the climate change part of Biden’s bill is now under pressure because of Manchin’s ties to Big Coal.
Instead, remind me how you came around to be on the side of Big Spending.
Bret: I love your concept of “refraining.”
In my perfect world, the federal government would be about one-third the size that it is today and we would privatize and regulate functions like the Post Office, Amtrak and Social Security. But we live with the reality of big government and a Democratic presidency, so I’d prefer my tax dollars to go into investments that produce blue-collar jobs in the short-term and long-term returns in public utilization. Plus, a lot of our infrastructure could really use a major upgrade: Just think of New Jersey.
Gail: Ah, New Jersey. Sending you sympathy, which you’ll have time to appreciate while caught in traffic jams and train backups.
Bret: In the meantime, it looks like the commission Biden appointed to study reforms for the Supreme Court was divided on the idea of adding new justices. The commission also seemed lukewarm on other ideas, like term limits for justices. Personally, I’m pretty relieved, but some of my liberal friends seem to think this was a lost opportunity.
Gail: I’d like to be on your side when it comes to court appointments. Having one arm of government that takes an apolitical, long-term view of the world is definitely desirable.
I hate to say one more time that I remember when …
But I remember when both parties regarded Supreme Court appointments as something special; everybody tried to join hands in search of candidates who were wise and willing to rise above short-term partisan concerns.
Well, at least that’s what they said. And even pretending to be bipartisan is better than nothing.
Bret: Forty years ago, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ronald Reagan’s first nominee, was confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 99-0. The vote for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton’s first nominee, was 96-3. Since then, things have pretty much gone to hell.
Gail: Mitch McConnell ruined the tradition by refusing to hold hearings on Barack Obama’s nominees. I truly doubt we’ll ever be able to return to the old ways. And if so, we should do some reorganizing. That might include term limits of maybe 18 to 20 years.
Bret: I would quarrel a bit about whether the blame lies solely with Mitch. Some of us remember Harry Reid, when he was Senate majority leader, blocking qualified judges nominated by George W. Bush. But I also think a 20-year term-limited appointment to the high bench wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Gail: By the way, speaking of long-running arguments, I see the New York City Council is thinking about tossing Thomas Jefferson’s statue out of City Hall. We’ve talked about this before, but any change in your feelings about whether we should withdraw that kind of honor from Founding Father slaveholders?
Bret: My mind’s unchanged. If you’re going to get rid of Jefferson’s statute on that account, then why not get rid of the statues of George Washington, since he was also a slaveholder? For that matter, why not start a campaign to rename both the national capital and the state? This is the kind of dumb, symbol-chasing leftism that can only wind up helping Trump.
Gail: Not arguing for renaming all the George Washington stuff, but it’d be nice to have a state named after, say, Susan B. Anthony.
Bret: Anthony’s home state of Massachusetts should consider it. It would relieve the commonwealth of the sin of cultural appropriation and is also a lot easier to spell.
We should be able to see our founders’ profound flaws while also honoring the fact that they established a republic in which the principle of human liberty and equality were able to take root and flourish as nowhere else, and in which the concept of a “more perfect union” is written into the Constitution. In the context of the late 18th century, that was an extraordinary step forward.
Gail: Jefferson’s always been one of my least-favorite founders — his attitude toward women could be creepy even by 18th-century standards.
Bret: Him and J.F.K and a few other presidents I could mention.
Gail: My rule is that big names of the past should be honored on the basis of their main thing — I’m OK with giving Columbus a holiday to commemorate his life as an explorer, as long as we spend a good part of it recalling his slaughter of Native Americans.
Bret: Agree entirely. And preserve the names of Ohio’s capital and the Upper West Side’s premier institution of higher learning in the bargain.
Gail: What bothers me about the Virginia Founding Fathers is that although they made inspiring speeches about liberty, most of them were focused on protecting their state institutions from federal intervention. Particularly plantation life and culture, which included slaves.
The New-York Historical Society may be willing to take Jefferson’s statue on a “loan” and that seems like a good plan.
Bret: That’ll give us something to keep arguing about.
Gail: In the meantime, I’ll honor Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence. Always appreciate somebody who’s good with words. Which is why I enjoy our conversations, Bret. Bet I wouldn’t have nearly as much fun going back and forth with Thomas J.
Bret: Nor I with Susan B.
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