Opinion | Some of the ‘Adults in the Room’ Aren’t Who We Thought They Would Be

By Equipo
12 Min Read

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I think the theme for last week was the return of adult supervision. Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House, finally showed a spine by staring down Marjorie Taylor Greene and joining forces with Democrats to pass critical foreign aid bills. And Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, authorized the police to arrest pro-Palestinian student protesters who had occupied part of the campus in violation of university policies.

Are you cheering with me?

Gail Collins: Bret, as a former college sit-in-er myself, back in days of yore, I have mixed feelings. Not saying President Shafik was wrong, just that I just can’t get into cheering administrators who try to solve nonviolent campus demonstrations by calling in the cops.

Bret: Since Hamas’s massacre of Israelis on Oct. 7, demonstrators at Columbia have called for the elimination of Israel, praised Hamas, urged the murder of Jewish students and physically assaulted Israelis on campus. That’s not my idea of young idealists reliving the peace-and-love marches of the late 1960s. I also wonder how these kids have all this spare time to protest just as term papers are coming due and final exams are on the near horizon.

If it were up to me, I’d sentence them to six months of hard academic time at the University of Chicago.

Gail: On the Mike Johnson front, I was thinking all week about how we’d be joining forces to praise him. Didn’t really expect he’d be that kind of stand-up guy, but every rational member of Congress has to feel that he’s doing the right thing. And every rational voter, considering the people leading his opposition, is gonna have to come around to his side.

Bret: Nothing is more difficult these days in American politics than going against your own ideological tribe. And nothing is more admirable than politicians who are willing to challenge their base and gamble their office for the sake of a great cause. I wasn’t much of a fan of Johnson when he became speaker of the House, but what he’s done is a profile in courage. For which, no doubt, the MAGA folk will tear him limb from metaphorical limb.

In the meantime, we have — the Trump trial! Your thoughts, hopes, fears and prayers.

Gail: Do love the idea of Trump being forced to sit, for hours on end, listening to other people talk about him and not being allowed to interrupt.

Bret: I’m not a fan of this particular prosecution, but I’m with you on that.

Gail: My ideal outcome would be one that exposes him as a totally failed businessman, without a prison sentence that would just turn him into a martyr.

Bret: Was there any doubt before this trial that he was a totally failed businessman? I mean, Trump University, Trump Shuttle, Trump Steaks?

Gail: Team Trump can’t talk enough about the left-liberal bias of a Manhattan jury, and I admit you can wander around my neighborhood for ages without running into a Trump voter.

But I have faith the jurors will try to do the right thing. Have you ever served on a jury, Bret?

Bret: I’ve been called up twice but have never served. One time there were no cases to try. The other time I got to the voir dire stage but wasn’t selected. Afterward I went out to a Chinatown lunch with some of my fellow rejects, and it turned out we all had advanced degrees. Make of that what you will.

Gail: I was on a jury a trillion years ago, long before I worked for The Times. We had the case of a guy who’d attacked an elderly woman, I think on a bus, and his only defense was a claim she hit him first. We all knew before we entered deliberations that the defendant was deeply, totally guilty. But we wanted him to understand we were trying to be fair, so we forced ourselves to argue for a very long time before we came back with the verdict everybody — I think including the accused — had been expecting in 15 minutes.

Bret: You’re a better person than I am. But getting back to the Trump trial, I’m deeply apprehensive about it. The case is built on the legal stretch that falsifying a business record, usually a misdemeanor offense, should be treated as a felony. John Edwards, the former Democratic senator and vice-presidential nominee, was acquitted of a similar charge. An acquittal would be a political triumph for Trump. A conviction — which might well get overturned on appeal — would vindicate his argument (at least with his voters) that he is a victim of politicized justice by a progressive prosecutor. And it would open the door for conservative prosecutors to return the favor against their own political opponents.

My point being: The only way to defeat Trump is through normal political means. Which makes it heartening to see President Biden doing a little better recently in head-to-head polls, though he’s still behind in most of the swing states.

Gail: You offer me yet another opportunity to complain about the fact that the presidential candidates are obsessed with Pennsylvania, population 13 million, and totally unconcerned about California, population 39 million.

The whole “swing states” thing is a polite way of talking about the Electoral College, which ignores the total number of actual votes a candidate gets nationwide — have I mentioned that Democrats won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections?

Bret: Your complaint needs to be lodged with the founding fathers. Personally, I think the system is fine. It keeps smaller states relevant, forces candidates to campaign in places where the contests are tight and usually provides a decisive result.

Gail: … and disenfranchises city dwellers.

Bret: Or conservatives who live in blue states.

But whatever else one thinks about it, the system is not about to change anytime soon. And I think Biden can still win by pushing hard on the subject of abortion. Kinda ironic that if he wins a second term, he’ll owe it in part to Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and the other conservative justices who foolishly decided to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Gail: I have to tell you the intense political support for abortion rights has kinda stunned me. In a good way, but it’s been wild seeing all the politicians who made their careers as abortion opponents suddenly discovering ways to, um, recalibrate their positions.

Bret: If the overturning of Roe causes Kari Lake to lose her bid to win a Senate seat in Arizona, it will be something of a silver lining.

Gail: And like I wrote last week, it does really bother me that gun safety doesn’t get the same kind of political support. You’d think there’d at least be a sweeping movement for national rules requiring gun owners to take a safety course before they get a license and prohibiting people from trotting around the shopping mall with a loaded revolver in their pocket.

Bret: Fine by me, though I don’t think gun-safety laws will do much to change gun violence. California has such a law, but gun violence is hardly disappearing.

Different subject, Gail. The Biden administration just closed off millions of acres in Alaska to energy exploration and mining, including a huge copper deposit. I understand that Biden wants to placate environmentalists in his base, but how does that square with his demand for more electric vehicles? Help me out here.

Gail: The copper thing is a short-term problem, I gather. The electric vehicles of the future are supposed to be better on that front. And the advantages of getting rid of gas guzzlers are more important.

But do I get the impression you’re not a fan of the whole transformation from gas to electric?

Bret: I’m fine with electric vehicles, though I think their environmental benefits are overstated if you consider all of the mineral and energy inputs that go into building and powering them. What I don’t get is the argument that we need millions more of them while also refusing to mine the stuff — copper, lithium, cobalt and so on — that goes into making them. Trade-offs are a fact of life, and too many environmentalists confuse virtue signaling with clear thinking. We should especially want to mine those minerals within the borders of the United States, where we can regulate their production, rather than getting them from, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we can’t.

Gail: I’m rooting for the increasingly-efficient-to-build electric cars of the future, but I bow to your argument. We’ve got a long way to travel. And more research required.

Bret: Which reminds me, Gail: The most important book I’ve read lately comes from our colleague and friend Frank Bruni. It’s called “The Age of Grievance” and it’s not just the most astute diagnosis of the rage, recrimination and revenge culture that ails our country. It’s also the best prescription for our redemption. At its heart, it’s a call for humility: the humility to accept that we don’t have all the answers, that we have a lot to learn from those with whom we disagree, that thinking well is impossible if we can’t listen well.

Gail: Totally agree with you about Frank’s analysis. He’s one of the smartest people I know.

Bret: Also, you should get a copy because we need to keep Frank’s dog, Regan, well fed.

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