Gail Collins: Hey Bret, would you hate it if I asked for a couple of predictions for 2024?
Bret Stephens: Gail, it would be better if you asked me for my prediction for the year 2112. That way, hardly anybody will remember how wrong I was and I won’t be around for them to remind me. But here’s my 2024 prediction anyway: Trump is elected president again, and we become neighbors in Toronto.
Now your turn.
Gail: OK, Donald Trump is going to be campaigning for president while on trial for an astonishing range of crimes. Meanwhile, we’ll shiver with fear every time Joe Biden coughs. But in the end, I predict the nation will square its collective shoulders and elect the better man, even if he’s beginning to look like an old 81.
Bret: Biden has a 37 percent approval rating, according to Gallup, and Trump is running four points ahead of him in the latest Wall Street Journal poll — or six points, if you factor in third-party and independent candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West. This is beginning to have the makings of an epochal disaster, not just for the country but for Western civilization. Yet Democrats are driving at high speed toward a rock wall because they don’t want to tell grandpa that he no longer should be allowed to get behind the wheel or even suggest he replace his vice president with someone more … confidence-inducing.
Gail: Here’s a pre-new year prediction: In stores around the nation, children — and their parents — will stand in line to sit on Santa’s lap and beg him to bring them a different presidential race.
Bret: Nikki Haley against Gretchen Whitmer — how much fun would that be? But we are where we are. Pass the absinthe.
Changing the subject: Did you watch the testimony of the university presidents?
Gail: Yeah, Claudine Gay of Harvard is probably going to be haunted for the rest of her life for having said “it depends on the context” when asked whether calling for genocide of the Jews violated Harvard’s rules against bullying and harassment.
Bret: Along with Elizabeth Magill, the now-former president of Penn and Sally Kornbluth, the president of M.I.T. Just imagine the reaction to any university president saying “it depends on the context” as to whether calling for the genocide of, say, Black or Asian people, is permissible. It was heartening to see Democrats and Republicans alike taking them to task for such colossally stupid answers, even if it’s hard to find myself on the same side with an election denier like Elise Stefanik.
Gail: In the world of higher education, free speech is a cardinal virtue and leaders learn how to get past questions that would force them to call for anything that sounds like censorship.
Magill framed her answer in what sounded like a weaselly dodge, but I’m sorry she felt compelled to resign.
Bret: I’m against cancel culture on principle, so I hope Gay, who apologized for her remarks, and Kornbluth, who hasn’t — at least as far as know — don’t follow Magill out the door. There needs to be space for contrition and learning.
I’m also a fervent believer in free expression, including at private universities that don’t have a legal obligation to abide by the strictures of the First Amendment. The problem is that universities like Harvard often enforce rules against hate speech when it comes to heinous statements against some minority groups, but they invoke free speech when it comes to heinous statements about Jews. That double standard lies at the root of the antisemitism that pervades too many campuses. If colleges were truly serious about free speech, they would work a lot harder to pierce the left-wing bubble that so many college campuses have become.
The other big national story from last week is Hunter Biden’s indictment on tax evasion charges. Your thoughts?
Gail: Well, we’ve been down this road before. Hunter is certainly in a ton of trouble on the tax front, but I don’t believe voters will hold his problems against his father.
Bret: We’ll see.
Gail: Joe Biden is a man who, early in his political career, lost his wife and daughter in a terrible car accident. Then later he lost a beloved son — the star of the next generation of Bidens in the political world — to cancer.
Hunter was the offspring who was always getting into trouble. Many families have one and God knows he’s caused his father a lot of grief. The message the country should be getting from all this is that our president is a leader who can work through incredible personal pain for the common good.
Bret: I think we both recognize that the president has suffered through a lot — and having a surviving son with a longstanding drug habit has been part of the suffering. He has my sympathy.
But Joe’s political problem is that Hunter’s story keeps getting worse — and parts of it suggest attempts to conceal the full truth. Before the election, Joe claimed that Hunter’s lost-and-found laptop was part of a Russian disinformation campaign. False. He said he knew nothing about his son’s business dealings and never got involved. False. David Weiss, the special counsel appointed by Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general, was about to give Hunter a sweetheart plea bargain. The judge rejected it, and now Hunter has been hit with tax evasion charges that could end up in a long prison sentence.
Gail: The last was a punishment for being Joe’s son. A normal defendant would have had no problem getting that deal approved. A normal well-lawyered defendant, anyway.
Bret: He’s accused of evading more than $1 million in taxes and spending it on drugs and, uh, companionship. And Burisma, the Ukrainian energy firm that paid Hunter a fortune to sit on its board when Joe was vice president — with a special responsibility to help clean up Ukrainian corruption — cut Hunter’s salary in half after Obama left office.
Gail: Don’t think even the Bidens’ best friends believed Burisma hired Hunter for his depth of knowledge on energy issues in post-Soviet republics. But let’s just say it’s not unusual for the children of powerful men and women to get jobs because of their names.
If there were serious stories about Joe using his political muscle to, say, get Burisma a special government contract, that would be a different matter.
Bret: At a minimum, all of this will help Trump neutralize some of the ethical and legal charges against him, at least with some wavering voters, the way Bill Clinton’s record of sexual misconduct neutralized Trump’s vulnerabilities on that score. But if there are other shoes to drop, it will turn into an even bigger political liability for an already vulnerable president.
Gail: Praying all the shoes are already on the floor. But I think the Republicans are flirting with trouble when they tie all this into an impeachment crusade. Just gonna remind the public that Trump was the only president in American history to be impeached twice.
Bret: Do they even remember? Stalin supposedly said that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic. I propose a corollary for Trump: A single criminal indictment against a former president is a disgrace, but 91 counts is a blur.
Gail: OK, gonna quote that one in 2024.
Bret: Gail, we’ve made it a December tradition to mention charities we admire and support. Do you have a recommendation for our readers?
Gail: First, can I say kudos to the many readers who provide ongoing support for projects that help the poor, educate the neglected, protect the environment and do so many other great things?
Bret: You may indeed.
Gail: I’m happy to recommend La Mision Children’s Fund in El Cajon, Calif. It fights hunger and works to improve education in impoverished communities in Mexico near the California border. With all the current hysteria over border politics, it’s a particularly good time to encourage something so sensible.
Your turn …
Bret: Rails-to-Trails conservancy. It has been around since the 1980s, working for the creation of biking and walking trails across the country, including a trail that will eventually connect Washington. D.C., to the state of Washington. Conservatives and liberals will always have differences, but we should be able to agree on the importance of conservation, of urban and rural renewal, and creating great public spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone.
Gail: Once again we’re in accord. Although the disaccords are always fun, too. Happy holidays on both fronts, Bret.
Bret: Gail, before we go, I want to put in a word for our colleague Megan Stack’s brilliantly reported and beautifully written essay on life for Palestinians in the West Bank. I’ve known Megan for more than 20 years, when we both worked in Jerusalem. And while we are on opposite sides of this subject, politically speaking, I have nothing but respect for the deep sense of humanity she brings to everything she writes. We need to preserve our intellectual humility by paying attention to those with whom we disagree, sometimes passionately. The alternative really is the abyss.