Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Gail Collins: Bret, we’re going to have to talk about the new justice, Brett Kavanaugh (sigh, moan). But please let’s begin somewhere else. How about that big New York Times report on Donald Trump’s finances?
Bret Stephens: For once, the word “yuge” seems entirely apt.
Collins: Perhaps my single favorite revelation was that our self-made billionaire was earning $200,000 a year from the family empire when he was a 3-year-old. Do you think all the nation’s toddlers are now eyeing their parents and wondering, “OK, where’s my income stream?”
Stephens: The practical question is whether the report might lead to tax-evasion charges. There’s a fine line between avoidance and evasion, and the dodges the Trump family used often seemed to push the envelope of legality even if they didn’t quite push past it. Of course, the larger issue is a tax code that’s filled with so many loopholes that it allows the ultrarich to game the system. How about lower rates for all and exemptions for none?
Collins: I might buy into that. The Democrats need to come up with a compelling, forward-looking agenda for the 2020 elections. Demanding an end to tax loopholes would allow them to talk about real change for the future while eviscerating Trump at the same time.
But here’s the part I wonder about — with great sadness. Do Trump fans care about this stuff? Thanks to our colleagues, we know he’s a phony billionaire who represents all the things they in theory hate about the New York economy. But he’s already run a populist anti-immigration campaign that managed to jump right over the undocumented workers he’s hired.
Stephens: I don’t think they care at all. Some don’t care because it was reported in The Times, and they’ve been conditioned to dismiss it as fake news. Others don’t care because they see Trump as a magician slicing his assistant in two and then putting her back together: It might be fakery, but who cares when you’re having so much fun?
Mainly, though, they don’t care because it’s an investigation that dwells on the past, while the presidency is about the present and the future. And while the rest of us were busy tearing our hair out over Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the unemployment rate dipped to its lowest level since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Dow hit another record and trade disaster was averted when a new NAFTA agreement was reached by Mexico, Canada and the U.S.
All of which is to say that you’re right. Democrats really do need to come up with a forward-looking agenda for 2020, because if all they have to talk about are the Trump family’s tax dodges from 30 years ago, or if they try to relitigate the 2016 election, they will lose again.
Collins: Why do you think politics is so mean and shrill and crazy right now? People keep saying it’s the worst in modern times. I’m old enough to remember the anti-war, New Left, Black Panther period of the late 1960s and ’70s. Things were pretty damn angry back then. Many Thanksgiving dinners degenerated into yelling matches, and everybody hated Washington.
Stephens: So what else has changed?
Collins: This does feel different. Maybe worse. I’m wondering if it’s the internet. Back in days of yore, the media was mainly TV networks and big newspapers that wanted to communicate with a large audience. Now the stars are people who yell. Blogs, Twitter — we’ve been painfully aware since 2016 that power belongs to whoever can get their followers really, really worked up. But the Kavanaugh nomination makes it loom even larger.
Or maybe it’s the Republican Party? There’s a lot of talk about divisions between left and center among the Democrats, but it doesn’t compare to what’s happened to the Republicans. It’s really two parties, with the establishment so terrified of the Trump train, they’re afraid to peep.
Stephens: To be frank, I wish the GOP were more divided: One of the most depressing political facts of our day is the extent to which Trump has captured the party, leaving conservatives like me who oppose him feeling politically homeless.
Collins: Are you hoping for a third party? Or a Republican Trump challenger? Paging Jeff Flake. ...
Stephens: I had one of those karmic moments on a train to Boston last week, where I was on the phone extolling Jeff Flake for insisting on the FBI investigation, only to turn around and see ... Jeff Flake. I’d love to see him or another disaffected Republican at the head of a moderately conservative third party.
Collins: Did you tell him that?
Stephens: I patted his arm, whispered “good going,” and gave him the kind of soulful look that says, “The American people believe in you, Senator!”
On your larger point, I suppose there’s a case to be made that it was ever thus. Barack Obama’s presidency begat the Tea Party. George W. Bush was considered an illegitimate president when he came to office after the Florida recount, and the post-9/11 consensus collapsed with the war in Iraq. With Bill Clinton, you had the rise of the Gingrich Republicans and then impeachment.
But you’re right. It does feel different this time. And I think the difference is that the fights aren’t really about policy. They’re about our personal experiences and deepest fears. Christine Blasey Ford was electrifying because so many women said: She’s me; her suffering is so much like my own. And, at the same time, a lot of men fear that their careers could be upended by an allegation from long ago, unprovable but devastating. So we’re not just arguing about the best course for the nation in the abstract. We’re fighting for our own corner.
Collins: Thanks for bringing us around to Kavanaugh. Quick question: If you’d been in the Senate, how would you have voted?
Stephens: I’d have voted for him. Susan Collins spoke for me on pretty much every point.
Collins: I appreciate your standing up for Collins when so very many commentators, including me, felt she just took a dive.
Obviously, I’d have voted no. By the end, a vote for Kavanaugh was a vote for a guy who went out of his way to rally the troops by turning the nomination into a partisan us-against-the-Democrats battle. I realize the Democrats were not exactly working above the fray themselves. But the Supreme Court is about transcending partisanship. That’s supposed to be the whole point. And if the justices don’t always live up to that goal, that doesn’t mean you pick a new guy who’s given up the fight before he starts.
Stephens: In a better world, Kavanaugh would have stood down and Democrats would have promised a vote on another nominee before the midterms. But something tells me that if the nominee were Amy Coney Barrett, Democrats would look for a reason to postpone the vote, hope to retake the Senate and then ... take revenge for Merrick Garland by refusing to hold a vote.
Collins: Not necessarily agreeing, but Garland is an open sore. Particularly since Mitch McConnell keeps gloating about it.
Stephens: One thing we can probably agree on is that the process managed to degrade and demean just about everyone who participated in it. Ford never intended to go public, but Washington can’t keep a secret, so her name got leaked. I doubt Kavanaugh intended to go on the attack quite the way he did, but he was advised by White House counsel Don McGahn to “channel his outrage and indignation.”
The news media reported stories that otherwise violated normal journalistic standards. And most senators made fools of themselves one way or another: The low point for me was Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, who famously lied about his military service, lecturing Kavanaugh on the legal concept of “false in one thing, false in everything.”
Collins: Your mentioning Blumenthal reminds me about how Trump, in his never-ending battle to make the court fight as degrading and insane as humanly possible, kept suggesting he had some big nefarious secret about the opposing Democrats and wound up with Blumenthal’s war record and the fact that Cory Booker was mayor of Newark.
Stephens: Wait, I thought Booker led a slave revolt in ancient Rome under the name “Spartacus.” You’re saying he also was mayor of Newark? Sorry, go on.
Collins: Blumenthal served in the military, unlike most of his generation of politicians, including a certain president I could name. He did indeed mislead voters into thinking that he fought in Vietnam. Then he admitted it, apologized and moved on. He did not accuse the Republicans of war crimes. Those were in the good old days when politicians behaved like normal, sane people.
Stephens: I’m curious how you think this will play out in the midterms. The latest conventional wisdom is that Democrats stand to benefit out of the broad sense of outrage and desperation that Kavanaugh’s confirmation engendered. But Republicans seem pretty energized, too.
Collins: Everybody’s pretty clear that the Democrats should take the House. The Senate was always very iffy. I would like to think that the people of, say, North Dakota are going to reward Heidi Heitkamp for taking a principled stand against Kavanaugh. Particularly after that interchange with her awful opponent when she revealed that her mother was a sexual assault victim. But the politics there are so close to the ground and personal it’s hard to know.
Stephens: I have to give Heitkamp great credit for that vote. She voted her conscience against her political interest. Good for her. I hope the next Democratic president gives her a big job.
Collins: That leads me to one of my constant preoccupations: the way this country is organized to disenfranchise urban voters and empower people from rural areas. The 59 million people in California and New York are going to elect Democratic senators. But they’ll be completely canceled out if the less than 2 million people in Wyoming and Montana decide to go Republican.
Stephens: There you go again, Gail, making the case for democracy. I’m still a republican (even if no longer a Republican), so I’m for sticking with the original design. How about all those blue state voters moving to Kansas or Wyoming instead?
Collins: Instead of “Let them eat cake,” it’d be “Let them move to Cheyenne?” There’s a gulf between the empty states and the crowded states that goes beyond geography.
But we can pursue this topic later, Bret. Right now I’m going to finish recovering from the Kavanaugh crisis. I’d say this calls for a lot of introspection and several glasses of wine.
Stephens: I’ll drink to that.
Gail Collins and Bret Stephens are columnists for The New York Times.