The Boy Who Cried Tariff

How did our political life come to seem like a fable? And is there any hope on the horizon for something more grounded?

Gail Collins: Well Bret, I guess vacation is over. Can’t say mine was remarkable. I went to Cincinnati, got a new dog and memorized the names of all the Democratic presidential candidates. Then forgot a couple. How about you?

Bret: South of France, mostly, though it was awfully hot and air-conditioning isn’t really a thing over there. I bet you’re in the market for the world’s smallest violin, right?

Gail: Well the air-conditioning was great in Cincinnati. It’s a lovely city, now known as the birthplace of Representative Ayanna Pressley, who you may remember was one of the congresswomen President Trump told to go back to the “crime-infested places from which they came.” While you were in your muggy vacation bubble, how much of our politics came seeping through? Give me your shorthand analysis of where we are now.

Bret: The one constant is D. T. C. T.: Donald Trump Crazy Talk. He now describes Jay Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve as an “enemy,” and wants to “order” American businesses out of China. I’m tempted to say this meltdown might be a good thing, in that it might finally get Republicans in the Chamber of Commerce mold to realize the president is not their friend. Then again, I seem to remember that the attack on Pearl Harbor was prompted in part by the Roosevelt administration’s effort to isolate Japan economically, so my feelings are mixed. What do you think?

Gail: I don’t see the Chinese bombing Pearl Harbor, but I am really worried Trump is going to trigger a recession just by scaring the heck out of everybody. Anticipated a lot of crazy stuff from this administration, but not the current race toward an economic meltdown.

What do you think he should do to calm down the global economic order? Short, of course, of announcing that he’s going to retreat to a monastery to do penance for his sins and take a vow of silence until Thanksgiving of 2020.

Bret: Remember when Donald Trump said trade wars were “easy to win”? That may be this administration’s version of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. What makes it all the more dangerous is that tariffs and trade protectionism are among the few policies Trump deeply believes in, along with bashing Hispanics and Muslims. And he has turned the trade battle into a contest of wills between him and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, in which neither man wants to lose face. In other words, Trump is playing a game of chicken with the world economy.

If this triggers a recession, Trump will deserve it. But the American people definitely won’t. That said, it might make the task of beating him easier. Any advice to the remaining Democrats about how to do it?

Gail: I like the way you say “remaining Democrats” as if the departure of Jay Inslee, Seth Moulton and John Hickenlooper had left us with a tiny band of survivors. As opposed to 21 people.

Bret: Is it really that many?

Gail: I guess we’ll lose a bunch more after the party announces, later this week, who’s going to be eligible to participate in the next debate. But there still might be a dozen survivors staggering onward. Even if the odds are hopelessly against them, they’re getting a national platform and name recognition.

Bret: And maybe a TV show. Or a minor cabinet job.

Gail: Is Mayor Pete still your favorite? I don’t think he’s got a prayer of winning the nomination, but he’s only 37. He could run again in four or eight years. In fact, if he wants to be the next generation’s Joe Biden, he could keep running until 2060. Looks like a pretty persistent guy to me.

Bret: I don’t really understand why he hasn’t risen higher in the polls. I can understand that voters would feel slightly reluctant to back someone so young, except that he comes across not only as the smartest person in the field, but also the most levelheaded, broadly experienced, temperate and approachable. Because of his Midwestern affect, I think he could get across to the voters Democrats need to win back in places like Wisconsin and Michigan. And I think he’d make mincemeat of Trump in a debate. I don’t think I can say the same about Joe.

Gail: One very useful function of this Campaign That Will Never End is that it gives us a chance to see how well Biden would hold up if he got the nomination. So far, I have to say he isn’t looking terrific. If he folds, I’m pretty certain Elizabeth Warren will be running against Donald Trump next year. And if I remember correctly, if that happens you’re prepared to vote for her, right?

Bret: Nope. Never. I think of her as Bernie Sanders without the Brooklyn charm. I know you think it’s a cop-out, but if she’s the nominee I would vote third party.

Senator Elizabeth Warren campaigning at a town hall in Los Angeles last week.
CreditPhilip Cheung for The New York Times

Gail: Voting third party is worse than just staying home. It’s like pretending you’re making a choice.

Bret: I think that’s an argument for Democrats to nominate a candidate who doesn’t alienate so many middle-of-the-road voters the way Sanders and Warren do.

Let me try to unpack the things I don’t like about Warren.

Her core conviction is that “the system is rigged” — a view she happens to share with Trump, even as they differ on the details of the supposed rigging. Yet her own life story, as a child of the lower-middle class who wound up being a law professor at Harvard and then a United States Senator, gives the lie to that argument.

Because she thinks the problem is the system, her politics are all about tearing the system down. I think that is politically untenable and dangerous. For example, you can’t just get rid of employer-provided health insurance in favor of some form of “Medicare for All” without creating gigantic dislocations with immediate costs for millions of people lasting for years.

Also, her plans for everything — health care, the environment, free college, child care — cumulatively cost tens of trillions of dollars. The idea that Jeff Bezos and a few other billionaires and millionaires are going to pay for it all just doesn’t add up mathematically. But she lacks the honesty to admit that the only way to pay for it all is by levying immense taxes on the middle class. If you think our debt levels are worrisome now, and they are, they would become nightmarish under a Warren administration.

I actually think she’d be such a disaster as a candidate that it would only strengthen the Trumpian reaction to her. She’s more of a gift to the president than she is to her party.

Gail: Elizabeth Warren is a capitalist. She understands the economic system better than any other candidate. It’s true she doesn’t have much executive experience, but running South Bend, Indiana, isn’t really a great prep for running the whole country either.

Bret: If Warren is a capitalist, she sure seems to have an odd definition of the term. The Democratic Party needs, and the American people want, a candidate who is a reformer, not a revolutionary. We’ve tried “scary” long enough. How about “nice, competent, unifying and nonexhausting” for a change?

Gail: Well, Warren is very nice. You’ll like her when you see more of her. She’s an expert in bankruptcy law, consumer finance, banking regulation. She’s been in the Senate longer than Barack Obama was.

Bret: Something tells me you’re rooting for her. Go on …

Gail: I’m not obsessed by policy differences among the Democratic candidates. I could go along with pretty much any one of them if I thought they had the capacity to win the election. But I really fear Biden might not make it through a long, exhausting, perilous campaign — the latest thing about him asking everybody to imagine Obama being assassinated really freaked me out.

Bret: I worry about some of Biden’s other gaffes, though I don’t know why everybody is so upset about it with respect to this one. In the context of the point he was making — about his coming-of-age politically in 1968, following the assassinations of M.L.K. and R.F.K. in the spring of 1968 — it was a perfectly appropriate point to make. Warren being completely coherent scares me more than Biden being his garrulous self.

Gail: Any negative thing you could say about Warren would go triple for Bernie Sanders. And I’m sorry, Mayor Pete’s time just hasn’t come. But hey, if he wins the nomination, I’ll be on the bandwagon.

Bret: Ageist!

Gail: Meanwhile, I’m hoping some of the also-rans like Beto O’Rourke will follow John Hickenlooper’s example and drop out, then run for another office. I would so love to see him kick John Cornyn out of the Senate.

Bret: I notice you didn’t mention our mayor, Bill de Blasio. Is that because you prefer having him spend his time in Brooklyn, Iowa, rather than in Brooklyn, New York?

Gail: Anybody who wants our mayor is welcome to have him. If he’s not in Iowa, he’d be in a gym in Park Slope.

But back to Warren. If it’s her versus Trump I know you’ll do the right thing. Right? Reassure me.

Bret: Of course. I’ll vote for Bill Weld or some other third-party candidate, because I can’t cast a ballot for Warren or Trump. Which, to repeat, is why I earnestly hope Democrats come to their senses and nominate a centrist.

Alternatively, a generous friend of mine has a house in the Seychelles he’s offered to let me stay in for an indefinite length of time if things get much worse. Assuming, that is, the Seychelles are still around. We all need a Plan B.

Trump Plays Chicken With the Ayatollah

The United States and Iran remain on a collision path. Here’s what President Trump should do.

President Trump applied maximum pressure on North Korea, and it is continuing to produce nuclear weapons.

He applied maximum pressure on China, and we may be facing a trade war.

He applied maximum pressure on Venezuela, exacerbating hunger in the streets but leaving the dictatorship in place.

He applied maximum pressure on Palestinians, who responded by refusing to meet administration officials.

Most worrying of all, Trump applied maximum pressure on Iran, and we may now be on the brink of war.

In each of these cases, Trump pursued aggressive tactics without any obvious strategy. The tactics themselves often proved quite successful at inflicting misery, but this simply led several countries to double down on belligerence in ways that endanger the United States — and that is particularly true of Iran.

Trump says he called off military strikes on Thursday — thank goodness! — but he adheres to a failed policy that has put Iran back on a potential track to nuclear weapons. He is improvising, confusing friend and foe alike, even as he plays a perilous game of chicken with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump seems to inhabit a fantasy world in which his abandonment of the Obama nuclear deal with Iran, along with sanctions and bellicose tweets, will force Iran to roll up its nuclear program. Instead, Trump’s tactics have, quite predictably, led Iran to lash out.

Some Americans speak blithely about “surgical strikes,” and I fear that many Americans, including those in the White House, don’t get how badly these can go awry.

If we kill 150 Iranians in a set of airstrikes, as Trump says had been anticipated, Iranian proxy forces will retaliate by killing Americans in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. Iran or its proxies might strike at Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, while also interrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. We might see Hezbollah strikes on Israel and a new Israel-Lebanon war. The global economy could take a significant hit.

The conflict may start “surgical,” but it’s unlikely to end that way.

It’s essential that we clarify the location of the U.S. drone that Iran shot down, and delay any action until that question is resolved. Trump insists that the drone was in international airspace, while Iran says it had intruded over Iranian territory.

The Times quoted a senior administration official as acknowledging that it may in fact have violated Iranian airspace; if so and the administration is caught lying to the world, this will be an enormous self-inflicted blow. Iran’s decision to shoot down a drone in its own airspace would be understandable; certainly the United States would shoot down an Iranian drone that intruded over our territory.

The national security adviser, John Bolton, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reportedly are pushing for military action. Both are longtime hawks, with Bolton urging in 2015 that “to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.” Bravo to uniformed officers in the Pentagon for pushing back and warning of the dangers of escalation.

I suggest this principle of foreign policy: Hawks who were completely wrong about Iraq should refrain from jingoism about Iran.

What can be done to reduce the risk of war? Here are four steps for Trump to take:

1. Ensure that U.S. forces fire only in clear self-defense or on presidential orders, to reduce the risk of an accident. In 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down what the crew believed was a threatening Iranian military jet. In fact, the airplane was a civilian Iranian airliner, and all 290 people onboard were killed.

2. Try to organize an international force to protect ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This would present a united front against Iranian provocations and reduce the risk of a limpet mine starting a war.

3. Disentangle the United States from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have played a pernicious role (along with Israel) in encouraging belligerence toward Iran (the Senate took a landmark step in the right direction a few days ago by voting to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia). The blundering Saudi efforts to challenge Iran have so far backfired in Qatar, Lebanon and, most tragically, Yemen, so Trump should listen carefully to what the Saudi crown prince says — and then do the opposite.

4. Seek secret talks with Iran to patch back together the nuclear agreement.

These approaches may not succeed, but the stakes are high enough that they are worth trying. War is sometimes necessary; this is not one of those times.

Trump’s maximum pressure has been a failure in country after country, and I fear that his cancellation of airstrikes on Thursday may have simply deferred a military clash with Iran. The two countries remain on a collision path, with few face-saving exit ramps, and with hard-liners on each side escalating and empowering those on the other. Look out.

Chaos? A Trump Specialty

As Congress sees a shutdown as increasingly inevitable, the president sees a chance to show more swagger.

Mr. Trump’s embrace of a shutdown has given lawmakers on both sides the freedom to throw up their hands and claim this whole mess is beyond their control. The mood around the Capitol is less one of urgency and activity than of fatalism. Last week, Richard Shelby, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Congress looked to be “headed down the road to nowhere.

.. Not only did Speaker Paul Ryan fail to mobilize lawmakers for a vote on Mr. Trump’s $5 billion, but many lame-duck members couldn’t be bothered to show up for work at all. (Nothing like an electoral rout to take the starch out of a conference.) Counting, much less whipping, the vote became all but impossible. By Thursday, House leaders gave up and sent members home for a six-day weekend.

.. On the Senate side, Mr. Schumer’s office is insisting that everything depends on whether the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, can persuade the president to embrace a deal that Democrats can live with. The latest offer on the table is for a one-year “continuing resolution,” or C.R., that would delay the fight by temporarily funding parts of the government at current levels.

Shutdowns are especially fertile ground for Mr. Trump because they pit him against a political establishment that, as he sees it, obstinately refuses to pay proper deference to his genius. He has repeatedly voiced frustration at Congress’s unwillingness to lie back and let him run things as he sees fit.

Threatening to throw the government into chaos — to furlough, or in the case of personnel deemed “essential,”withhold paychecks from hundreds of thousands of workers, includingFood and Drug Administration inspectors, Transportation Security Administration inspectors and, paradoxically, Border Patrol agents — lets him exact a bit of cathartic payback, reminding lawmakers just how uncomfortable he can make their lives.

Chest thumping and trash talking remain central to Mr. Trump’s brand as a disrupter. His followers thrill to him precisely because of his pugilistic, vaguely unhinged personality. The more he rails against politics as usual, the more his base swoons.

As for those who see Mr. Trump as behaving like a petulant toddler, he doesn’t have to face their electoral judgment for another two years — an eternity in politics.

For now, the president can relish playing the tough guy. Even if he winds up folding, he’ll doubtless toss out some alternative facts and declare victory. As usual, he has ensured that this holiday season’s drama is all about him.