Sunday, 14 Apr 2024

Opinion | These Aren’t the Darkest Years in American History, but They Are Among the Weirdest

Bret Stephens: Before we get to Donald Trump’s indictment in Georgia or the upcoming G.O.P. debate, I want to take note of the appalling tragedy in Hawaii. The images from Maui are just heartbreaking. But I also get a sense that heartbreak will soon turn to outrage as we learn more about the cascade of policy failures that led to the disaster.

Gail Collins: Maui is going to be hard for any of us to forget. Or, in some cases, forgive. There are certainly a heck of a lot of serious questions about whether the folks who were supposed to be responsible did their jobs.

Bret: There’s a story in The Wall Street Journal that made me want to scream. It seems Hawaiian Electric knew four years ago that it needed to do more to keep power lines from emitting sparks, but it invested only $245,000 to try to do something about it. The state and private owners let old dams fall into disrepair and then allowed for them to be destroyed rather than restoring them, leading to less stored water and more dry land. And then there was the emergency chief who decided not to sound warning sirens. At least he had the good sense to resign.

Gail: But let’s look at the way bigger issue, Bret. The weather’s been awful in all sorts of scary ways this summer, all around the planet. Pretty clear it’s because of global warming. You ready to rally around a big push toward environmental revolution?

Bret: I’m opposed on principle to all big revolutions, Gail, beginning with the French. But I am in favor of 10,000 evolutions to deal with the climate. In Maui’s case, a push for more solar power plus reforestation of grasslands could have made a difference in managing the fire. I also think simple solutions can do a lot to help — like getting the federal government to finance states and utilities to cover the costs of burying power lines.

Gail: Yep. Plus some more effortful projects to address climate change, like President Biden’s crusade to promote electric cars and an evolution away from coal and oil for heat.

Bret: The more I read about the vast mineral inputs for electric cars — about 900 pounds of nickel, aluminum, cobalt and other minerals per car battery — the more I wonder about their wisdom. If you don’t believe me, just read Mr. Bean! (Or at least Rowan Atkinson, who studied electrical engineering at Oxford before his career took a … turn.) He made a solid environmental case in The Guardian for keeping your old gas-burning car instead of switching to electric.

But I’m a big believer in adopting next-gen nuclear power to produce a larger share of our electric power needs. And I’m with you on moving away from coal.

Gail: Hey, if we’ve found a point of consensus, let’s grab it and move on. After all, we’re on the cusp of a Republican presidential debate.

Bret: With Trump as the apparent no-show. As a raw political calculation, I guess this makes sense given his commanding lead in the Republican primary polls, a lead that only seems to grow with each successive indictment.

Gail: Yeah, I have to admit that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of possible gain for him in debating people who are way, way behind him in the polls and give them a chance to point out all his multitudinous defects.

And I believe I speak for at least 90 percent of the population when I say posting a prerecorded interview with Tucker Carlson is not an acceptable substitute.

Bret: I’m still going to watch the debate out of lurid fascination. I’m guessing this will devolve mainly into an argument between Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy, with Ron DeSantis spending the time darting between them like a cornered lizard that doesn’t know where to turn. Christie will make the case for why Republicans need to turn against Trump, and Ramaswamy will make the case for why they need to favor him. That’s by way of Ramaswamy ultimately becoming Trump’s veep pick.

Gail: You think so? Would that be a good idea? Strategically speaking that is — I can’t imagine you think Ramaswamy would lift the quality of the ticket.

Bret: I met Ramaswamy a couple of years ago, when he was pitching a book on corporations going “woke.” He came to my house for lunch, where I made him a credible ratatouille. At the time, I was sympathetic to his message and impressed by his smarts. I’ve become a lot less sympathetic as he’s essentially promised to give Vladimir Putin what he wants in Ukraine, consider Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a potential running mate and reopen the investigation into 9/11. That said, his youth, wealth, verbal acuity, anti-woke message and minority background kinda makes him perfect for Donald, no?

Gail: Nah, I don’t think our former president wants anybody that … interesting. Remember, this is the man who made Mike Pence his No. 2 back when he actually needed more attention.

Bret: You may be right. In that case, it’s Tim Scott for veep.

Gail: By the way, I like your prediction about DeSantis looking like a cornered lizard in this debate. Seems he’s the one who’s got the most to lose — he really does need to show potential Republican backers that he isn’t a dope. That’d be a challenge under any circumstances, but especially when he’s up against someone as capable of crushing the opposition as Christie.

Bret: Our news-side colleagues Jonathan Swan, Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman had a great scoop last week about memos from a pro-DeSantis PAC urging their man to “take a sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy and “defend Donald Trump” in response to Christie’s attacks. It’s terrible advice, since attacking Ramaswamy will only help elevate him as a serious contender while further diminishing DeSantis’s claim to be the best and most viable alternative to Trump.

Gail: My dream scenario, by the way, is for Christie to take the debate crown, then go on to campaign in New Hampshire. If it looks like he could actually win there, sooner or later Trump is going to have to pay him some more attention, right? Just out of pure ego?

Bret: Presumably by harping on his weight, as if Trump is a poster boy for SlimFast. I think Christie probably enjoys those attacks, because he parries them so skillfully and it consolidates his position as the only real Republican alternative to Trump. Something that might come in handy on the slight chance that Trump goes to prison ….

Gail: Amazing we’ve gotten this far without mentioning that the man we all regard as the very, very likely Republican nominee for president is facing multitudinous criminal indictments in Georgia, New York, Florida and at the federal level.

Bret: Ninety-one counts in all. You could almost take ’em down and pass ’em around like bottles of beer on the wall.

Gail: So far, many of his supporters seem pretty eager to accept his claims that everything is just an anti-Trump political conspiracy. Can that last? It’s still about a year until the Republican presidential nominating convention in Milwaukee. I can’t help feeling that something will come up that even his fans will find impossible to ignore.

Bret: Gail, the truest thing Trump ever said is that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his base would stick with him. The proper way to understand his appeal isn’t by studying normal voter behavior. It’s by studying cults. In a cult, the leader is always, simultaneously, a savior of his people and a victim of a vast and shadowy conspiracy. Unfortunately, all of these prosecutions, however merited, do more to reinforce than undermine the thinking of his followers.

The only thing that can truly defeat Trump is a thumping electoral defeat. My biggest worry about President Biden is that he is so much more vulnerable politically than many Democrats seem to realize.

Gail: Bret, it’s sort of inspiring that you’re the one of us most worried about getting Biden re-elected. Presuming his health holds up, I’m pretty confident. Here’s a man whose biggest political drawback is being boring. Which doesn’t look all that bad when he’s compared with a guy whose biggest defects go beyond the 91 counts arrayed against him. Biden’s been a much, much better president than Trump was. I wish he wasn’t running again, because of the age issue. But as we’ve discussed, Trump is only three years younger and seems to be in much worse physical shape.

Bret: I wish I were as sanguine, but my forebears inclined me to fret.

Gail: Just for diversion, make believe that Trump drops out of the race. For any of a million reasonable reasons. The other options in his party look pretty appalling to me. Do you think you’d still wind up voting for Joe Biden or would you feel free to go back to your Republican roots?

Bret: The only Republicans in the current field I could definitely vote for are Christie and Nikki Haley. Otherwise, I’ll be pulling the lever for Joe and lighting votive candles every night for his health.

Gail: OK, one more quick “What if?” Suppose Biden dropped out of the race right now. Who would you vote for, Trump or Kamala Harris?

Bret: Gail, I would never, ever vote for Trump. Then again, if that winds up being the choice, God help us.

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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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