Bret Stephens Asks Gail Collins: “How do you solve a problem like the Donald? How do you catch a clown and pin him down?”

From a New York Times conversation between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “Somehow, Trump Is a Tough Act to Follow”:

Gail Collins: Bret, what would you be doing now if you were Mitch McConnell?

Bret Stephens: Wishing I weren’t.

Gail: OK, I know, a bit hard to envision. But pretend.

Bret: Well, if I were him I’d want to become Senate majority leader once again. That means three things.

First, I’d need to find a way to unseat the four most vulnerable Democratic incumbents: Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Mark Kelly in Arizona, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. My guess is that all of them will lose except for Hassan, unless Republicans nominate crazy people. Which — if you remember Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell or Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin — Republicans are wont to do. Also, I’d have to hold on to the seats being vacated by Republicans in Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Gail: OK, Democrats, Senate candidates for you to rally around …

Bret: Second, finessing the politics of the inevitable fight over Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee. I think a lot of Americans were put off by Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman, not because they are racists or sexists but because they don’t think race and sex should be the primary criteria in selecting Stephen Breyer’s replacement.

Gail: We’re basically just talking about putting some diversity into what’s historically been a deeply undiverse part of the government.

Bret: The political problem for McConnell is that Americans might be even more put off by the sight of Republican Senate Judiciary Committee members like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — the insurrection caucus — pompously, pedantically, hyperbolically and hypocritically lecturing a nominee on the meaning of the Constitution.

Gail: Ah, Ted Cruz. Anything that’s a problem for the Democrats becomes a little easier if Ted Cruz is in the opposition….

Bret: And finally: Donald Trump. If I were Mitch, I’d spend my free time reworking the lyrics from “The Sound of Music” into something called “How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Donald?” As in:

How do you solve a problem like the Donald?
How do you catch a clown and pin him down?

I’ll leave it to readers to come up with the rest, with abject apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Gail: If there’s one thing I am confident about, it’s the creativity of our readers on matters relating to making fun of Trump.

Bret: He lies so fast and spews bombast
Pence says he’s not all there …

Gail: Meanwhile, Congress is off — no doubt exhausted from that big lift of voting to keep the government in operation. When lawmakers get back, Biden has made it pretty clear he’d settle for a few serious parts of his Build Back Better program. Anything you like? I’d be happy to rally around subsidies for high-quality child care.

Bret: A year ago, I would not have opposed something like that, even though I’m generally skeptical of programs that are likely to become permanent entitlements. But we now have a national debt of more than $30 trillion, which is up from $20 trillion in 2017. It’s unsustainable. We’ve already had multiple blowout spending bills for Covid relief and infrastructure. Along with ultralow interest rates, the spending has led to the highest inflation in 40 years. We are sprinting toward national bankruptcy unless we change course.

Which is to say, I hope Biden drops Build Back Better from his State of the Union. Since the speech is probably being drafted now, what do you think it should say?

Gail: Maybe something like: “My fellow Americans, we need to give more help to our needy citizens, especially mothers with too few resources to meet their many responsibilities. But the national debt skyrocketed after my predecessor cut taxes on the rich. Let’s undo that mistake.”

Bret: This is the part where the camera turns to Kyrsten Sinema, who isn’t going to vote for tax hikes. And shouldn’t, either: It would be political malpractice to raise taxes in the teeth of high inflation.

Gail: Bret, this is just the start of the week and I’ve decided to make it a rule that I don’t think about Sinema until at least Wednesday. Irritated as I am about Joe Manchin’s roadblocking, I have to give a little slack to a guy whose state gave Trump about 68 percent of the vote two elections in a row.

Bret: Makes me appreciate Sinema more. Political independence has distinguished Arizona senators like John McCain and Jeff Flake, and she’s carrying that maverick flag. More than can be said for former astronaut Mark Kelly, who may as well have stayed on the International Space Station for all the difference he’s making as a senator.

Gail: Let’s talk about something else, please. I just finished reading “The Beauty of Dusk,” a new book by our colleague Frank Bruni. Have you had a chance to read it yet?

Bret: An extraordinary, moving and beautifully written book. As many of our readers probably know, Frank lost much of his sightabout five years ago on account of a rare stroke that blurred vision in one eye and that could still strike the other. Frank being Frank, the experience only helped open his eyes to the stories of other people dealing quietly with grief, disability, chronic illness and inner torment — often despite professional success or otherwise placid exteriors.

Gail: It’s terrific, really, for anybody who wants to deal with mortality.

Bret: One of the subjects Frank examines is mental health. It seems particularly timely as we enter the third year of Covid-land. There are so many people who may not have gotten ill with the virus, but who have nonetheless cracked under the strain of self-isolation, social distancing, school closures and all the other restrictions. I think it’s hit the elderly especially hard, because they’re at such greater risk if they get sick. But it has also been devastating for kids in schools who were forced to try to learn remotely or been deprived of the company of friends or otherwise had their personal development stunted.

How do you think people will remember the pandemic 50 years from now?

Gail: It depends on whether this happens again. If — fingers crossed — this is an experience everybody can look back on as a once-in-a-lifetime thing, we’ll probably all be reacting to future crises by saying, “Well, yeah, this is bad but remember Covid …”

Bret: I suspect there will be tens of millions of people who will be bearing psychological scars for the rest of their lives.

Gail: And do you think something like this will happen again?

Bret: Maybe something worse. If it turns out that Covid-19 was the result of some kind of lab accident involving “gain of function” research, it’s entirely possible to imagine a similar catastrophe being unleashed, even on purpose.

But even if that theory doesn’t pan out and we aren’t hit by another pandemic, I think we’ve been living in the Age of the Unthinkable, from 9/11 to the Trumpastrophe to what might very soon be a calamitous war in Europe. Worse may come. Any contenders?

Gail: We agreed long ago that we wouldn’t discuss foreign affairs due to my conviction that so many of our opinion folk are wiser on that subject than I am. So I’m passing on the obvious great cloud of Russia-Ukraine.

Bret: My friend Garry Kasparov wrote a prescient book a few years ago about Vladimir Putin called “Winter Is Coming.” Next time I see him, I’ll suggest he call the sequel “Spring Isn’t.”

Gail: On the domestic front, for all my paranoia about Covid, I’ve been remembering when I was a kid and everybody was terrified of polio. First graders hearing stories from their parents about all the children who died or were disabled for life.

Then the terrible, terrible time when AIDS seemed to be a potential death sentence for so many in the gay community. And when it comes to many less dire illnesses, science also found new cures, or at least effective ways to control them.

Bret: Very true. But here’s what’s depressing: When the Salk vaccine came out, nearly everyone celebrated and got vaccinated, and polio all but disappeared from the developed world. When scientists developed antiretrovirals to manage H.I.V., people living with the virus embraced the new medication as the lifesaver it is. Yet here we are with a vaccine that can save you from dying or going to the hospital with Covid, and tens of millions of people refuse to help themselves by taking it. Which goes to prove that no pandemic is deadlier than stupidity.

Gail: None of this, of course, is an argument for not being paranoid about Donald Trump.

Bret: If Democrats don’t shape up, if all they do is bellyache about Republican meanies, and if they can’t master the ABC’s of governance — from safe streets and secure borders to stable prices and open schools — there’s a good chance he’s going to be president again.

Boy did this get dark. Happy Presidents’ Day, America.

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist and a former member of the editorial board, and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007.

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.


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