Gail Collins: Bret, we haven’t talked since the Republican debate. Can’t say I fell in love with any of the contenders, but your fave Nikki Haley was certainly the most moderate voice onstage.
Bret Stephens: Moderate and sane, but also cutting and sharp, particularly when it came to her vivisection of Vivek Ramaswamy’s neo-isolationist, Putin-kowtowing foreign policy.
Gail: But she did promise to continue supporting Donald Trump for president, even if he’s convicted in any of the multitudinous, frequently anti-American charges against him.
Bret: She shouldn’t have raised her hand, but I don’t think it was a fair question. All the candidates, including Chris Christie, pledged to support the party’s eventual nominee as a condition of being onstage. The important thing to me was that Haley was prepared to criticize Trump’s record and not just as a matter of character and ethics.
The other candidate who seems to have everyone’s attention is Ramaswamy. Your thoughts?
Gail: Wow, is he irritating. Not many people I can think of who I’d rather have over for dinner less than Donald Trump, but this guy’s one of them.
Bret: I mentioned last week that he came to my house two summers ago for a pleasant lunch. That was before he got into politics.
Gail: He’s very young and rich and I assume he’s figuring on making a name for himself with the right while Trump finishes out his career, in order to turn himself into the neo-Don of the late 2020s.
Bret: Remember the John Cusack romantic comedy from the 1980s, “Say Anything?” It could become the slogan for a cohort of ambitious young conservatives whose views are endlessly malleable because their only goal is to advance their personal brand. Ramaswamy, for instance, would probably prefer not to be reminded that in his book he called the Jan. 6 riots “a disgrace” and a “stain on our history” that made him “ashamed of our nation.”
Switching from the understudy to the master, what was your reaction to the Trump mug shot?
Gail: Sigh. So deeply the story of our era that a former president charged, in effect, with attempting to overthrow our democratic form of government, would respond by selling a mug shot T-shirt.
How about you?
Bret: What ought to be a sad moment for the United States — when a former president who abused his power and disgraced his office faces legal consequences — has become a terrifying one, when that same former president treats the law with so much contempt that it becomes the springboard for his re-election campaign, to the applause of tens of millions of Americans.
Ron DeSantis was right when he said at the debate that America is a nation in decline and that decline is a choice. He just wasn’t right in the way he meant it. We’re in decline because a spirit of lawlessness, shamelessness and brainlessness have become leading features of a conservative movement that was supposed to be a bulwark against all three.
Gail: Now a lot of the debaters seem to think we’re headed toward national disaster because of government overspending. You’re kinda with them on that one, right?
My bottom line on government spending, both state and federal, is that what matters isn’t the amount, it’s the return on investment. We spent a lot on World War II, but it was worth it to defeat fascism. I’d argue the same about Eisenhower’s interstate highways or Reagan’s arms buildup. My quarrel with some of my liberal friends is that funding for, say, California’s $113 billion high-speed rail project from nowhere to nowhere is a colossal waste of money, as is every cent we spend subsidizing ethanol.
Now I’m sure you’re going to say the same thing about my beloved F-35s, B-21s, SSN-774s and so on.
Gail: Well, the big difference is that cutting back on global warming is approximately a billion percent more important than keeping weapons suppliers happy. That high-speed rail project has indeed been hell to complete — you’re talking about clearing the way through 171 miles in the middle of California. But eventually, it’ll get done and when it does there’ll be a dramatic reduction in motor vehicle emissions at a time when Americans are realizing that global warming can ruin the future for their children and grandchildren.
Bret: Hmm. When Californians approved it, they thought they’d spend around $30 billion. It’s now costing almost four times as much and it’s not clear why people will prefer to go by train instead of just hopping a quick flight from San Francisco or San Jose to L.A. or Burbank. Plus, the inputs of concrete, steel and electricity all put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, too.
Gail: That reminds me — during the Republican debate, when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed human activity causes climate change, nobody was brave enough to do it. Although Haley did at least seem to admit it had a role.
I know you don’t agree with our friend Ramaswamy, who called the climate change agenda “a hoax.” But do you feel yourself moving toward our oh-lord-this-is-a-world-crisis side?
Bret: I feel myself moving toward the we-need-two-real-sides-in-this-debate side. Conservatives could have something meaningful to contribute if they acknowledged that climate change was real and that big-government solutions aren’t the way to go. We could do a lot to facilitate the permitting and construction of smaller, safer, next-generation nuclear reactors. We could welcome mining for rare-earths and other critical minerals in the United States. We could fight to end the environmentally destructive subsidies for biodiesels and the morally hazardous subsidies for flood insurance. We could take a Teddy Roosevelt-inspired conservationist approach to our shorelines to discourage beachfront development. We could support more investment in basic science, particularly for carbon capture and battery storage. We could support a carbon tax and offset it with a reduction in income tax. And we could agree to outlaw cryptocurrencies on purely environmental grounds, never mind that they’re mostly Ponzi schemes.
What am I missing?
Gail: Hey, we can go right back to our California discussion — whether it’s easy or not, the nation — and the world — has to encourage mass transit as opposed to carbon-spewing cars. Push solar and wind power as opposed to coal and oil and gas.
Bret: All of the above. Plus hydrogen, tidal and did I mention nuclear?
Gail: I rally behind your mention of flood insurance subsidies. We must, must stop developers from throwing up waterside housing complexes that are just invitations for the next disaster.
Let’s go … less intense for a minute. Seen any good movies lately?
Bret: I have, though it’s neither “Barbie” nor “Oppenheimer.” It’s “Golda,” which stars Helen Mirren as Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It’s a smart and haunting film about a pioneering woman caught in a moment of national and personal crisis. But the movie has itself been caught in an idiotic controversy because Mirren — who knows how to play an anxious Jewish mother even better than my own anxious Jewish mother — isn’t herself Jewish. I don’t know when it became a thing, culturally speaking, that only members of a given ethnicity could represent characters from the same ethnicity. But it’s the antithesis of what acting and art ought to be about.
Also, I’ll definitely see “Equalizer 3” when it comes out later this week because who doesn’t love watching Denzel Washington kill lots of people? What about you?
Gail: We’ve been to see “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” The nice part was just going out to actual movie theaters and seeing shows that everybody’s talking about. These days almost every movie seems like it’s made to go right to TV. It’s convenient, but the communal experience is lost.
Can’t say “Barbie” is great art, but it was nice to go to listen to the audience — or at least the part of the audience composed of young women — cheering for a plot that doesn’t involve blowing things up.
Bret: My daughters loved it. You’d have to drag me to it kicking and screaming.
Gail: On the other hand, “Oppenheimer” is most definitely about blowing things up — I’m amazed by how many folks decided to go out and spend three hours watching the history of the atomic bomb.
Bret: I’ll be sure to watch it on a big screen. Now, as soon as the writers strike is over, I’m hoping that someone produces a series about all of the atomic spies: Klaus Fuchs, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Ted Hall, David Greenglass, Morton Sobell. Many of them brilliant scientists and starry-eyed idealists who, in their political naïveté, put themselves in the service of a dreadful cause. I love stories about deception that are really stories about self-deception.
Gail: Wow, as if the poor Hollywood writers don’t have enough dark clouds in their lives right now.
Bret: Speaking of the “misguided but interesting” category, readers shouldn’t miss our colleague Clay Risen’s terrific obituary for Isabel Crook, an anthropologist who spent most of her life in China and died this month at 107. Crook was an ardent Communist and remained one even when her husband was imprisoned for six years during the Cultural Revolution. Can’t say I admire her politics, but it’s hard not to be awed by the sweep and romance of a long and storied life.
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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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