That Christmas When the Trumps Saw Red

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Bret Stephens: Gail, I was all set for us to converse about Michael Cohen and the Russians. And then the death of George H.W Bush — the only presidential candidate whose campaign I volunteered for (as a letter-stuffer in 1988) — reminded me that there was a time when our presidents were dignified, presidential, decent and public-spirited


Does Bush’s passing cause you to rethink the way you viewed him when he was in office?

Gail Collins: I realized a long time ago I’d underestimated him — maybe when I started comparing him to his son, the walking foreign policy disaster. And now, of course, every former president looks great compared with Donald Trump. If Warren Harding had died this week, we’d all have been thinking: “Well sure his Secretary of the Interior went to jail, but compared to Donald Trump …”

Bret: Agreed. James Baker was right when he said Bush 41 was the best one-term president we’ve ever had. The largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. The successful reunification of Germany. Lightning victory in the gulf war. The end of the Noriega regime in Panama. The negotiation of NAFTA. The Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also, the complete absence of malice. Bush 41 was probably the last president who refused to govern in a state of remorseless partisan war with his opponents. Obviously that wasn’t true of his political campaigns, particularly against Mike Dukakis in 1988, but it did typify his time in office. It’s almost hard to imagine that we could recover that style of politics.

With that in mind, what are you looking forward to when Democrats take over the House come January?

Gail: Infrastructure. Lots and lots of talk about infrastructure. One of the very few things both parties in Congress and the president agree on is that infrastructure is … good. Don’t know that they’ll get any farther than that, but if anything happens I’m thinking it’ll be about road repair.

Here in New York we have a desperate, critical need to get a new train tunnel under the Hudson River. The existing ones are in terrible shape and if either ever has to be closed down, it’ll be a major blow to the economy of the city, the region and the country. So far Trump just hasn’t gotten on board. Reliable sources tell me it’s because he doesn’t want to pay a lot of money for something people can’t see.

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Anything you hope Congress will or won’t do?

Bret: An immigration bill. But, yeah, infrastructure first.

I say this with some reluctance, ideologically speaking. I think a lot of huge infrastructure projects are boondoggles of dubious long-term economic value — even if they create jobs while they are being built. And, as we’ve learned from the Second Avenue subway misadventure, it’s easy to inflate costs massively when the taxpayer is footing the bill and government isn’t controlling the costs.

That said, every time I go through Penn Station I’m reminded of how awful our rail lines are next to every other developed country. And any time I fly from JFK to Hong Kong or another Asian destination I feel as if I’m departing from the 20th century and arriving in the 22nd. So, yes, infrastructure.

Gail: I’ve always suspected that many conservatives hate mass transit because it just fundamentally offends their sense of individualism. That you can’t be the heroic American Man Who Rides Alone if you’re sitting in a car with 40 other people making multiple stops in New Jersey. But go on.

Bret: There’s more than a little something to that.

As for immigration, I liked our colleague Tom Friedman’s formulation from his column the other day: “A high wall with a big gate.” Not because I think the wall is such a great idea — the money would be better spent on personnel and technology, not concrete — but because I think it is a price worth paying for a path to citizenship for the Dreamers, an expanded H1-B program for high-skilled immigrants and their spouses, and other steps to make immigration to the United States fairer, safer and easier for every law-abiding person who wants to come and make this a better country.

Gail: Good luck getting that past the president. And if we want to resolve the border issues, there’s also going to have to be a very big effort to fuel economic development in Central America. This really isn’t a problem about Mexicans anymore so much as impoverished refugees from the violence and hunger of countries like Honduras.

Bret: Agreed. We need some version of a “Plan Colombia” for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, modeled on the military and financial assistance the United States gave to Bogotá that successfully helped Colombians get the upper hand against insurgents and drug cartels. And that’s another one for the “good luck getting it past the president” file.

Gail: But here’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about: the report on global warming. The president just won’t buy the idea that it’s happening. I suspect that’s why he was so nuts about the California fires — he was babbling about raking the forests because he didn’t want to go near the real issue.

We haven’t talked about global warming in a long time. Any reactions?

Bret: Given the topic, I guess the first thing I should say, yet again, is that I do not dispute the science that climate change is happening and that much of it is man-made. And Trump and his administration should simply acknowledge the fact.

I’m less clear, say, that we should attribute events like the devastating forest fires to climate change alone as opposed to a host of additional causes, including too many people living in fire-prone areas (and often causing the fires), as well as poor forest-management practices.