Saturday, May 11, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Gail Collins: Bret, I guess we ought to start off with the attorney general’s performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But I think I’m suffering from Mueller fatigue. Seen any good movies lately?
Bret Stephens: I haven’t, though I’ve very belatedly started watching “Game of Thrones” and binge-watched Season 2 last week. It feels very … contemporary. As for William Barr, I think he’s baiting the Democrats, and I think the Democrats are falling for it. What’s your view?
Gail: People are in Trump overload. We’ve gone through so many Bad President moments that the people who support him are hardened against fresh scandals and the people who hate him couldn’t be any more outraged if he was — who’s the guy in “Game of Thrones” who slept with his sister and then pushed a kid out a tower window?
Bret: Jaime Lannister, aka the Kingslayer.
Gail: Well, at least Jaime felt remorse. I don’t have similar hopes for Trump.
But I don’t see why the Democrats shouldn’t keep pushing on about the president’s attempts to obstruct justice. It’s a matter of principle.
Bret: Maybe, but I have my doubts: If you repeatedly bash your head against a rock, it isn’t the rock that’s going to get hurt. And if you yell loudly enough, people stop listening (and your voice gets hoarse).
Look, I don’t like the precedent of an attorney general skipping a House hearing, and I like even less an AG who, even if he didn’t quite perjure himself, aggressively shades the facts to suit the president’s political purposes. All of this is corrosive to the normal functioning of government and to the ethical foundations on which it rests — something the Department of Justice is supposed to advance, not undermine.
Gail: So when Americans of the future look back on this period in horror, they’ll at least give the Democrats credit for trying.
Bret: But right now, the main thing congressional Democrats should be doing is talking up an agenda for governance, not reminding Americans for the zillionth time that the president is a very bad hombre. And that’s barely happening, because outrage over this or that transgression by Barr or tweet by Trump dominates the news cycle and is the only thing that left-wing Twitter can talk about. Which is why, for now, my money is on Trump being re-elected.
Gail: I admit it would be great if the Democrats presented a thoughtful, progressive agenda for the future. But it’s not easy for Nancy Pelosi to come up with one, given the fractured ideology of her members.
We’re past the point in history when congressional leaders are going to take the lead and set the party course. While I made fun of the rank-and-file sheep back then, that setup looks pretty attractive now.
This isn’t just Democrats. It looks as if the Republicans can’t even come together to do an infrastructure bill. I thought everybody loved road repair.
These days, a party’s voice comes from its president or presidential candidate. We’re not going to get that one message from the Democrats for a while yet — you may have noticed there’s more than one person running for the nomination.
Bret: Gail, I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone ought to run for president at least once in their lives. It should be like running a marathon, or going on an extended juice fast, or visiting the Galápagos. There’s no real barrier to entry: Any first-term senator or young member of Congress or mayor of a small city can do it.
Gail: Or even the mayor of New York, heaven help us.
Bret: There’s no particular downside: The worst thing that can happen is increased name recognition. If you get in a good line or two in a debate, you can wind up with a lucrative cable TV show (like Mike Huckabee) or a Cabinet job, like secretary of housing and urban development.
Gail: Great job, HUD secretary — high visibility and no apparent duties except inspecting the occasional public housing elevator. I’m thinking Ben Carson is a perfect contender for Trump’s next Fed nominee.
But go on about the grand opportunities of running for president. I guess it does look good on a résumé.
Bret: And if you really exceed expectations in an early caucus, you can earn the VP spot and then run for president when your time comes. That’s how George H.W. Bush made it to the White House. And, who knows, you might just win. Did you hear the one about the failed real estate tycoon with two past marriages and six past bankruptcies who catapulted to the White House mainly because he was known for firing people on TV?
Gail: Yeah, and except for a few really irritating entries — I am thinking again of our mayor — it’s pleasant for the voters. You get all these new names. You can have party conversations where nobody gets hysterical over political differences. With occasional exceptions for Bernie-philes.
Bret: The good news about Bill de Blasio’s candidacy is that it gets him out of New York.
Gail: But at the same time, we do have a Congress allegedly at work in Washington. It looks as if the Senate Republicans are going to reject the Trump-Pelosi-Schumer plan for infrastructure funding. What do you think about that?
Bret: I’m always torn when it comes to these big infrastructure bills. On the one hand, heaven knows the U.S. could use some major upgrades for roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, the works (starting with a subway train that actually reaches La Guardia Airport, of course).
Gail: Sorry, but as much as our president likes construction, he really hates anything that goes in a tunnel. Because, you know, nobody can see it. It’s the opposite of a gold-plated hotel tower.
Bret: On the other hand: $2 trillion? That’s a lot of money, even in today’s Washington. I’ve never been a big budget hawk, but if a future Democratic president is going to massively expand Medicare, or advance some kind of free college-tuition scheme, or spend big on some version of a Green New Deal, then it begins to add up in ways that are unsustainable and crowd out other core functions of government. I’m also worried about whether the funds would be put to efficient use. When you have a huge pot of money, you wind up with a lot of extras on the road crews and too many bridges to nowhere.
Gail: Given the deep, deep, deep inefficiency of the current administration, I’d say that’s a fair worry.
Bret: Meanwhile, there’s the news that unemployment is at 3.6%, a 50-year low, wage growth is solid, inflation is low, and growth is robust. Presidents who preside over these sorts of economic numbers usually win re-election. What’s a wise Democratic candidate to do?
Gail: If the economy is this good in 2020, that’s definitely going to be a challenge. But you’ve still got a society in which some very rich people and very rich corporations pay no taxes whatsoever, while the bottom half struggles.
And the Trump administration is not on the same side as most Americans when it comes to health care. That’s going to be a huge issue.
By the way, did you watch the Kentucky Derby? I think there were almost as many horses as Democratic presidential candidates. And everything wound up in a muddy mess. Hope that’s not a harbinger of things to come.
Bret: I always like a horse race, but right now I’m not seeing a winner. Democrats will win if they can find a candidate who will appeal to the center and is willing sometimes to push back against the progressive fringe; who won’t talk down to Trump voters; who believes capitalism should be improved, not replaced; who can give Americans a reason to feel proud of their president rather than embarrassed by him.
Make America Proud Again? There could be worse slogans.
Gail Collins and Bret Stephens are columnists for The New York Times.