Bret Stephens: Hello, Gail. I hope these last two weeks of vacation have been nicer for you than they’ve been for Joe Biden.
Gail Collins: Bret, I always feel sympathy for a president when there’s a national disaster on his watch. Well, presuming he’s a person who has the capacity to imagine other people’s pain.
But this does seem more terrible with Biden, given his long history of personal family tragedy. As you know, I don’t converse much about foreign affairs — I decided long ago to leave that area to folks who have way more knowledge than me. But feel free to share your thoughts.
Bret: I always opposed the withdrawal. Two years ago, I wrote a column calling on Mike Pompeo, when he was secretary of state, to resign for “fathering the catastrophe that may soon befall Afghanistan.” I thought we could have maintained a small and secure garrison that would have provided the Afghans with the air power, surveillance and logistics they needed to keep the Taliban from sweeping the country.
Gail: I am not conceding my no-foreign-affairs policy, but let’s just say I am feeling a tad skeptical.
Bret: Reasonable people can debate the point. What’s beyond debate is that Biden’s execution of his own policy has been a fiasco. He assured Americans in early July that there would be no fall-of-Saigon scenes in Kabul. He abandoned the Bagram Air Base that would have provided a much more secure way of getting people out. He set an unnecessary deadline that the Taliban could hold him to. He reportedly gave the Taliban a list of American names, many of them Afghan Americans, presumably to expedite their departures but putting them at risk of being targeted or taken hostage. He has left stranded countless Afghans who depended on America’s protection and are now terrifyingly vulnerable to reprisal. He made the United States look humiliated, incompetent and weak.
I’d call it Biden’s Bay of Pigs, but that would be unfair to Jack Kennedy, who came into office with much less foreign policy experience than Biden. And now the president can’t even seem to acknowledge his own mistakes.
Gail: That last one, I suspect, is temporary. You don’t generally get presidents coming before the public in the middle of a terrible crisis saying, “God, I screwed this up.” I predict he’ll be more reflective as time passes.
Bret: I hope so. If we had a parliamentary system, Biden would probably lose power in a no-confidence vote. As it is, I think he may have wrecked his own presidency when it’s barely begun. How does he recover?
Gail: Well, he obviously needs to pass his domestic agenda. If the Democrats can get their act together before the congressional elections, he’ll have a huge infrastructure program that will have the whole country driving across rickety bridges and crumbling overpasses with a new optimism.
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
Bret: Every time I drive through the intersection of I-678, I-295, I-278 and I-95 in the Bronx, which seems to have been under construction since the Ptolemaic era, I have my doubts.
Gail: Plus, although I am already prepared for your protest, most of the country would be happy to see a future with quality early childhood education for all, a sane system of higher education that doesn’t bankrupt the younger generation before it starts off in the world and a serious, major-league program to fight climate change.
That last one used to be a rallying cry for the left and concerned college students, but I really think the horrors of this summer’s weather have made climate change an issue most Americans are concerned about.
Bret: Not to make you spill your coffee or anything, but I’m with you on the goals if maybe not the methods. I’d love to see the U.S. revive our nuclear power industry for energy-dense, low-carbon electricity production. Too many people associate nuclear power with the Chernobyl disaster, but the technology has made huge strides, and it’s the only realistic path to move forward from coal-fired plants. All those Tesla owners tend to forget that their cars are still dirty so long as the electricity is coming from a carbon-based source.
Gail: I think I told you my father’s career was in nuclear power plants, so I never could get too excited about attacking them.
Bret: Admittedly, my personal exposure to the industry has come mainly through episodes of “The Simpsons.” Of course, I identify with Mr. Burns.
Gail: It’s crazy to pin all our hopes on an energy source that creates a waste product that can be radioactive for thousands of years. Especially when there are alternatives like solar and wind that have proved safe and practical to nearly everybody but Donald Trump. His concern for the safety of birds near windmills was possibly his only expression of interest in the welfare of animals since back when he didn’t like the family poodle.
Bret: Every conceivable energy source has big environmental downsides, particularly biofuels that were all the rage a few years ago. In the case of wind and solar, they can’t deliver power reliably and consistently without the need for a backup energy source so that you can still turn on the lights when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. If people are going to be serious about cutting carbon, they also need to recognize that the pros of nuclear energy outweigh the cons.
Gail: When you said you were with me on the Biden goals, did that include quality early childhood education for all?
Bret: To hell with the children, I say. In fact, I’m thinking of adding that to my list of dubious future column titles, along with “Polar Bear Meat Is Delicious,” “The Only Gulf Stream I Care About Is My Private Jet” and “Mike Pence: A Reconsideration.”
OK, I’m kidding. I’m all for early childhood education, so long as the federal government doesn’t get further involved. Do we really need a huge new entitlement when Washington’s endless interventions haven’t even solved our nation’s literacy problems?
Gail: I know you’re just trying to pick a fight to perk up an otherwise bleak week. However, the idea here is quality early childhood education. We’ve seen tons of for-profit enterprises, and even some well-meaning nonprofits, open up what are basically big day care rooms with minimally trained staff and a bunch of games. Pretty sure Americans want their tax dollars to be underwriting something more ambitious.
And which, studies show, is particularly important and helpful for students from low-income families.
Bret: I think the data about Head Start shows some pretty mixed results over time. The really crucial years are in middle school, where public schools of my experience did a pretty lousy job.
Gail: Do you really think our literacy problems are based on Washington intervention in local schools? Really, really?
Bret: Totally, totally. And on a both-sides-are-guilty basis. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind was a gigantic bureaucratic nightmare that burdened local school districts with enormous compliance requirements but did very little to improve the quality of education.
Presidents of different parties think they can improve the system with more demands and more money, but the truth is that what ails our schools isn’t the lack of funding. It’s the lack of flexibility. That’s something best solved through greater local control, not more federal intervention.
Now you’re going to tell me I’m wrong.
Gail: Local control is great when the local is, um, great. And obviously you don’t want to stick the schools with more bureaucracy than necessary.
Bret: Good luck getting that to happen. Bureaucracy is like kudzu.
Gail: But here’s the thing: There have to be basic standards. I don’t want to live in a country where kids in upper-middle-class suburbs get terrific school experiences while the ones who most need it often get something a lot worse.
Bret: Basic standards are fine. But right now the single biggest impediment to more equal educational outcomes comes in the form of teacher union resistance to innovative and independent charter schools. Instead of imposing uniformity, we should be encouraging competition.
Gail: We need a well-educated population, and the federal government has to play a role. It’s a bit like a vaccine program. Obviously you want to give people as much control over their own bodies as possible. But we can’t be living in a country where everybody has the right to infect the rest of the population with the coronavirus. So we’ve got a middle road, with a lot of government intervention on masks, rules, etc.
OK, maybe the vaccine analogy is going overboard — have to admit I spend too much time thinking about the pandemic. It’s like a cloud over almost everything else. How are you feeling?
Bret: Exhausted. Covid-19 is turning out to be a lot like Bartok doing opera: more sinister than you think, worse than it sounds, with lots of doors leading to awful places. When can we finally get back to some Mozart?
Gail: This is why I love conversing with you. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Bartok makes an appearance.