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September 22, 2018

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OPINION: Conversation between a liberal and a conservative:

Longing for the days of a boring president

Gail Collins: Bret, we’ve had such a wild week, and soon I’ll ask you about all things Trumpian. But first, any thoughts on the Supreme Court? Are you a Brett Kavanaugh fan or foe?

Bret Stephens: My general principle is that presidents are entitled to their Supreme Court picks, provided the nominee is intellectually qualified. That’s one of the things presidential elections are about. That’s why I supported President Barack Obama’s picks, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, irrespective of my ideological differences with them. And it’s why I didn’t support Harriet Miers, the unqualified nominee George W. Bush picked in 2005 and was soon forced to drop.

Kavanaugh has been a highly regarded judge on the second-highest federal court for a dozen years. The American Bar Association unanimously agreed he was “well qualified” to serve. He should be confirmed 100-0.

Collins: Sorry, the theory about president-gets-to-pick was demolished by Mitch McConnell in 2016 when he refused to allow Obama’s nominee, the totally qualified Merrick Garland, to even come up for a vote — or even, really, a discussion. In fact McConnell bragged that telling the president “you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy” was one of the proudest days of his life.

Stephens: The GOP’s refusal to consider Garland’s nomination was a disgrace. No argument from me there. Although I would point out that the hyper-politicization of these confirmation hearings began in 1987 with the disgraceful Democratic mistreatment of Robert Bork, the Reagan nominee who should have been confirmed.

Collins: Kavanaugh seems to be a competent jurist but there’s every reason to believe that if he’s on the bench, he’ll vote to limit abortion rights. That’s a very big deal to me. And it should be for people like Susan Collins, whose reputation as a champion of reproductive rights is going to go down the drain if she votes for this nominee.

Stephens: I don’t believe Kavanaugh will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Democrats said the same thing about Anthony Kennedy when Ronald Reagan nominated him in 1987, yet he ended up being one of the justices (along with the Republican appointees David Souter and Sandra Day O’Connor) who reaffirmed the central holdings of Roe in the Casey decision. I’m confident Kavanaugh will respect 45 years of abortion precedent even if he’s more traditionally conservative on other issues.

Collins: So, we’ve got a disagreement! Doesn’t happen all that often these days, what with the big guy in the White House bringing liberals and conservatives together in bipartisan gaping horror. There’s been some feeling that this last week was the beginning of the end for Trump, but I see no evidence that anybody in his party who’s planning to run for re-election is prepared to call him out. What do you think?

Stephens: I suspect we are going to move into a more acute phase of White House paranoia. Richard Nixon comparisons seem apt, if a little unfair to our 37th president.

Collins: Yeah, amazing how we’re suddenly getting nostalgic for Nixon. Sure, he had his faults, but at least he didn’t tweet.

Stephens: The threat to turn the Justice Department loose on the New York Times editorial pages because of the op-ed article we published by an anonymous senior administration official is the sort of thuggish tactic Tricky Dick might have fantasized about. (Say what you will about the Pentagon Papers, they were actual secrets being revealed there, not the common knowledge of every sane person in Washington.)

Again, it’s depressing that the Republican reaction has been to denounce The Times or accuse the author of treason or cowardice, rather than acknowledge the simple truth of the situation. But anyway ... who do you think it is?

Collins: I’m so glad I don’t know because I am terrible with secrets. I do love all the speculation about Mike Pence and “lodestar,” though. Do you think the president’s going to take Pence up on that lie detector offer? Or tell Jeff Sessions to tap his phones?

By the way, about Sessions. A lot of people feel that even though he was a weasel throughout his career, they’re glad he’s attorney general right now. I know you’re definitely not a fan, so what’s your take?

Stephens: I think Sessions should lie in the flea-ridden bed he’s made with the president. He was the first senator to endorse Trump and now he’s getting exactly what he deserves. What’s worse, he’s chosen to accept public abuse and humiliation from Trump so he can make good on his real ambition, which is to abuse and humiliate immigrants in a manner that’s a national disgrace.

In that connection, I’m generally of the view that people in the administration who think — as that anonymous author does — that they’re saving us from Trump are really just enabling him. My only exception to this rule is Jim Mattis and anyone else in the national security apparatus, since they make me sleep better at night.

Collins: We’re all grateful to anybody who’s staying with the administration in order to keep things from blowing up.

But there’s a heck of a lot more going on than the road to Armageddon. Trump is also delivering on a very traditional conservative wish list — tax cuts for the rich, the attempt to undermine public education in favor of private schools and charters, the assaults on Obamacare and organized labor.

That’s why I’m so eager to see the Democrats take control of Congress. I don’t think it’ll lead to impeachment — unless the president starts wandering around in his underwear babbling about space alien takeovers. But I want them to put the brakes on his assaults on environmental protection, health care and the safety net for the poor.

Stephens: Under any other president, I’d want a Republican Congress to do precisely the things you oppose. Cut the top rate? For it. Broaden school choice? Bring it. End Obamacare? Absolutely. And can we please open up more federal lands for mining, drilling and logging?

But this isn’t a normal presidency, so I’m rooting for a Democratic Congress as a check on a dangerous and lawless president. I also think Trump is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors for conspiring with Michael Cohen to violate campaign-finance laws and that he ought to be impeached, convicted and removed from office. Conservatives should be delighted by the prospect: They would get a more typical Republican, Pence, as president.

The big question, of course, is whether pursuing an impeachment strategy is politically wise for House Democrats. Republicans remember that it didn’t serve them well in 1998, when they managed to make themselves look extreme and Bill Clinton appear comparatively sympathetic. What do you think?

Collins: I don’t think most Americans are comfortable with the idea of impeachment. And the country’s divided enough as it is without having a huge chunk of voters feeling that their president was robbed of his office. So I wouldn’t want to see Democrats spend all their capital on driving Trump out — just so we can spend two years being led by a twit like Pence. The voters need to do the deed themselves.

My prediction is that Democrats will retake control of the House and possibly the Senate. We’ll then manage to stagger through two more years of craziness during which everybody but the Trump kids gradually abandons ship. And I’m not even totally sure about Jared.

And then finally in 2020, we elect a new president who is hopefully both a Democrat and kind of boring.

Stephens: Boring is the new black. I envision someone like Tim Kaine without the charisma; Gerald Ford without the malice; George H.W. Bush without the vicious hatred of broccoli. Basically, anyone smart and responsible and good at making you forget he’s even there. Or rather, she. It’s past time.

Gail Collins and Bret Stephens are columnists for The New York Times.