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Opinion | Raise Your Hand if You Were Expecting Biden to Be a Revolutionary

Gail Collins: Bret, the winter weather and pandemic panic are so depressing, let’s start today out with a cheerful thought. Just toss me one.

Bret Stephens: Ivanka Trump will be the next president, but it’s OK because by then most of us will have died from the South African variant of the coronavirus.

Kidding! Hey, we’ve got a president who drives my conservative self crazy in an old-fashioned way, which is to say I disagree with so much of what Joe Biden is doing. And that means he must be totally delighting you. Moratorium on fracking on federal lands? Stopping arms sales to friendly autocrats? You must feel like you’re living through real-life reruns of your favorite West Wing episodes.

Gail Collins: Bret, we have come to a great turning point. Ever since we started conversing our political differences have been drowned out by our mutual loathing of you-know-who.

Now he’s gone and we are ready for war. Friendly war.

Bret: Are you sure he’s gone? Sorry, go on.

Gail: One of the great things about our era of Trump loathing is that it allowed us to develop a personal friendship I know will endure our differences.

Bret: It will, with the assistance of fermented grapes.

Gail: Sometimes whopping differences. Yeah, I am pretty darned happy with Biden. Particularly his top-priority commitment to climate control.

Bret: I don’t begrudge a Democratic president from behaving like, well, a Democrat. He said he was going to rejoin the Paris climate accord, and so he has — though how he’ll get countries like China and India to reduce their emissions is the really important question.

Gail: Definitely a problem, but the choice was joining with allies to put pressure on China and the others, or just throwing up our hands and saying it’s hopeless. History — and future generations — will be on Biden’s side.

Bret: Could be, but China isn’t. What I don’t understand is the logic of killing the Keystone XL pipeline: It just means that Canadian oil will continue to go east or west on rails rather than south through a pipeline, with a loss of blue-collar American jobs. And I really don’t understand the administration’s hostility to fracking, which has helped the U.S. make a broad transition from coal to natural gas, and reduce both our carbon emissions as well as our dependence on foreign fossil fuels.

Gail: Ah, that pipeline. Lots of support, lots of opposition, including from many Native people who live in the construction area. My instinct is to always side with the folks who don’t want to drill for more oil.

And if our concern is good American construction jobs — remember the infrastructure! You think that can be a rallying cry. Like “Remember the Maine”? Guess not.

Bret: I’d be satisfied with, “Remember the Gateway Tunnel!” or “Remember There’s Still No Subway Link to LaGuardia!”

Of course, if Democrats really want to get serious about fighting global warming, they’d embrace safe, modern, carbon-free nuclear technology. I know a lot of our readers will say “Chernobyl!” But using a Soviet-era disaster to condemn an entire technology seems misguided to me. Every energy source involves environmental trade-offs, and from a climate perspective nuclear looks very good.

Gail: Did I ever tell you my father was in the nuclear energy business? Might not have been able to go away from home for college if that hadn’t come along.

Bret: Didn’t know that. I’m guessing the two of you didn’t see eye to eye on the benefits of enriched uranium.

Gail: The cataclysmic disaster that could occur if there’s a problem with a nuclear plant outweighs the benefits. But I have to admit I don’t really have the heart to argue a lot about this one.

Bret: What do you think of some of the other executive orders?

Gail: I’m a fan. Some of them just rescinded extremely stupid Trump dictates, like the ban on transgender troops serving in the military.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress prioritize?

  • The Editorial Board writes that to improve relations with Canada after four years of Trump, Biden must “show that America is prepared to walk alongside its neighbor, rather than kick it around.”
  • Nicholas Kristof, Opinion columnist, writes that the president needs a deft China policy: “The coming years represent the greatest risks since I began covering U.S.-China relations in the 1980s.”
  • Michelle Goldberg, Opinion columnist, writes that in this unique moment, Biden “has the potential to be our first truly post-Reagan president.”
  • Adam Finn and Richard Malley, physicians specializing in infectious disease, argue for a faster vaccination strategy: “The excess of caution is killing people.”

Bret: Hmm.

Gail: Some are just a way to buy time while the new administration figures out plans. For instance, it extends the current pause on federal student loan payments. That’s a very messy situation, made 10 times worse by the Trumpites’ love affair with for-profit schools. But give the kids a break until we can figure out how to reform the whole program.

Bret: The pandemic has put so many strains on the economy that I’m all for pause buttons — provided they don’t become permanent. I’m very skeptical of the kind of debt cancellation that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were touting during the campaign, which just seemed like another form of welfare for the relatively well-off.

Gail: Biden’s also been finding quick ways to send the message about bigger change to come — in everything from racial equity to health care.

Who’d have the heart to complain? You understand this is an invitation, right?

Bret: Well, since you asked: Biden has leaned very far to his left with some of these executive orders. Leaving aside the wisdom of the policy, it isn’t in keeping with his call to unity at the inauguration.

Gail: Well, I certainly felt unified …

Bret: Also, government by executive order is a lousy way of running a government. If a president wants to get something meaningful done, work it out with Congress, compromise and make sure the legislation can survive court challenges. That’s especially true when people’s lives and safety are at stake, as it is for the “Dreamers” who should never have to live in fear of deportation and deserve to be given U.S. citizenship.

Gail: I would agree on that last point except for all the times allegedly sympathetic Republicans have bolted on bipartisan immigration reform.

Bret: Republicans have become perfidious, shameful and dishonest when it comes to immigration. Dumb and self-defeating, too. But back to executive orders.

Gail: A lot of the Biden orders you’re worried about were basically retractions of executive orders Trump dumped on us.

Bret: True, although some of them are also additions to Trump rules, like the new “Buy American” order that’s hard to enforce, raises costs of procurement and reinforces the Trump administration’s bad protectionist impulses. I’m also no fan of the new administration’s insistence on sending fat coronavirus assistance checks to most Americans regardless of need.

Gail: Well let’s negotiate a little. Suppose the Democrats agreed to lower the income Americans would need to qualify for the coronavirus aid? I’ll admit couples making $150,000 don’t sound all that needy. Although some families living in places like Manhattan might disagree.

Bret: I’d go further and say that no couples making over $100,000 should be in line for aid, even in Manhattan. Save the money for those who need it most.

Gail: We’ve now got a program of emergency unemployment benefits that’s supposed to end in March. Biden wants to continue it until September and increase those benefits. The Republicans reportedly are arguing for June and to keep the supplement at the current $300 per week. To me, that’s just a knee-jerk conservative reaction to the whole idea of unemployment benefits, but I suppose they could split the difference and go for August.

Bret: Fine by me. I’m not against unemployment benefits so long as the benefit doesn’t pay more than a job.

Gail: Now it’s your turn. Pretend you’re the senator from Ohio, Rob Portman, who’s part of the negotiating. What will you offer me back?

Bret: Well, considering that he won’t be running for re-election next year, I guess the answer is another G.O.P. Senate seat that’s up for grabs. But, in terms of some grand bargains, if I were Portman I’d urge my Republican colleagues to support comprehensive immigration reform in exchange for a Biden promise to complete the border wall. No compromise is perfect and there’s a lot I don’t like about a wall, but this one makes moral, political and economic sense for both sides.

Gail: Obviously a lot of stuff is going to have to be approved by Congress, and I predict there will be much evildoing on the part of a certain senator from Kentucky. Will you promise to come around to my way of thinking when the enemy is somebody as appalling as Mitch McConnell?

Bret: Gail, when you are thinking about Republican villains, you can do a whole lot worse than McConnell. I mean, Josh Hawley? Ted Cruz? Or what about Marjorie Taylor Greene, of #JewishSpaceLasers infamy? At the rate things are going for the G.O.P., in a few years you may be saying things like, “Back when Republicans had sane and statesmanlike leaders like Mitch McConnell….”

Gail: Well I understand your point about the colorful and crazy villains, but I’m sorta obsessed about the one who stuffed the federal judiciary with a few hundred new conservative judges.

Bret: As you know, that’s the part about Mitch that I liked. And don’t forget that some of those judges proved extremely useful and credible when it came to turning away the crazy legal challenges to the election.

In any case, I’m rooting for a successful Biden administration. I just wish it would take the president’s own advice about bipartisanship more often.

Gail: I think you just like Biden because of all the things he doesn’t have the power to do. But I’m sure our president would love the idea of having you as a cheerleader. We should all get together for coffee sometime. If you don’t mind a bit of a trip, I know a great place at the end of a certain pipeline ….

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