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Friendly Fire: Predicting Trump’s legal future, ‘riots in the streets,’ and a crisis of learning loss

Can Americans still have a sensible and friendly political discussion across the partisan divide? The answer is yes, and we prove it every week. Julie Roginsky, a Democrat, and Mike DuHaime, a Republican, are consultants who have worked on opposite teams for their entire careers yet have remained friends throughout. Here, they discuss the week’s events with Editorial Page editor Tom Moran.

Q. President Biden’s approval rating has risen 5 points in the last five weeks to 42 percent, on average. And the Cook Political Report now says Republican control of the House next year remains likely but is “no longer a foregone conclusion.” What do you make of these shifts?

Mike: Democrats shouldn’t throw a party for these job approval numbers. President Obama’s approval rating was actually a point higher before historic losses in the 2010 mid-terms, and Trump’s ratings were similar, around 40%, before Republicans were trounced in 2018. Numbers not being as horrible as they once were is not the same as being good.

Julie: This election, like every midterm election, should have been a referendum on the president. Instead, the Republicans have foolishly made it a choice. It is not even about policy anymore; instead, it is about Republican overreach. It is about whether to elect extremist candidates in thrall to an unhinged, potentially criminal authoritarian. It is about whether to elect extremist candidates who want to control women’s and even young girls’ bodies. It is about whether to elect extremists who are open about subverting our democracy. And because elections are also always about the economy, stupid, it is now a contest between a party that is at least talking about making regular folks’ lives better economically and a party that is only talking about whether Trump was railroaded by the feds, which doesn’t put food on anyone’s table. Biden who?

Q. In a court filing Tuesday, the Justice Department revealed new evidence that former President Trump may have obstructed justice, showing pictures of top-secret documents found in his office at Mar-a-Lago during the Aug. 8 search, despite written assurances all classified documents had been surrendered. What’s the over-under on criminal charges down the road?

Mike: The more that comes out, the worse Trump looks. At best it looks careless and selfish, at worst it’s criminal, and we have seen lesser instances of careless or intentional mishandling of classified material punished criminally.

Julie: Every time Trump and his lawyers open their mouths, I suspect the nation’s criminal defense attorneys start twitching in unison. I can’t pretend to read Merrick Garland’s mind, so I have no idea whether indicting a former president is something he will ultimately do. But to be clear, if this were anyone else on earth, he would have been hauled away long ago.

Q. Sen. Lindsey Graham, on Fox News Sunday night, predicted “riots in the streets” if criminal charges are filed against Trump over his mishandling of those secret documents, and seemed to justify it by saying, “When it comes to Trump, there is no law. It’s all about getting him.” Did Graham cross a line?

Mike: Sen. McCain must be looking down, shaking his head at his old friend Sen. Graham. I expected more from Sen. Graham, mistakenly so, I guess. He was a vocal critic during the 2016 primary, but he capitulated as much or more than anyone when he saw the support Trump had. I don’t think he is trying to justify the violence, though; I think he is predicting what could happen. We have seen violence from Trump’s supporters before. This is an intimidation tactic on the Justice Department, and my hope is they will behave impartially regardless of political pressure from both sides.

Julie: I agree that when it comes to Trump, there certainly is no law; at least thus far. Because if this were anyone else, that person would have been indicted long ago for violating myriad laws dating back years.

Q. Gov. Phil Murphy has declined so far to join California in its new rule that bans sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035, even as Washington and Massachusetts signed on. That comes on top of his support for a major expansion of the Turnpike leading to the Holland Tunnel, a plan environmentalists oppose with vehemence. Is the governor going soft on the climate fight?

Mike: What? Are you serious? I don’t agree with Gov. Murphy often/ever when it comes to energy policy, but he has been a strong ally of the environmental community, which by the way, will never be satisfied and likes to call everyone who isn’t with them 100% of the time soft. You can’t ever be pragmatic and still satisfy them. And does anyone really think we should follow California and Massachusetts on energy? They have among the highest electric rates in the country. California has rolling brownouts every Summer. Boston is proposing a ban on gas hookups, but just 7% of their electricity comes from wind and solar. 7%! This is foolish, wishful thinking disguised as policy. If there are no gas cars in California in 13 years, people won’t be driving Teslas, they’ll be driving Fred Flintstone cars using their feet as brakes.

Julie: Pragmatically, California’s economy makes New Jersey look like a piker. If California bans gasoline-powered cars by 2035, auto makers will stop making them because the California market is just too big to ignore. The bigger worry for Gov. Murphy is not what kinds of cars we are driving, it is that the Gateway Tunnel won’t be ready by 2035 and that shutting down the existing rail tunnel before that, as the feds have long threatened to do, will put hundreds of more cars on the road. Not only is this awful for the environment but commuters will also be hit hard by New York’s impending congestion pricing. This will ultimately be a future governor’s problem but the right thing for this governor to do would be to start focusing on that now.

Q. A disheartening new report from the federal government showed steep learning losses during the pandemic among 9-year-olds in reading and math, wiping out two decades of progress, with the steepest loss among disadvantaged kids. Was this inevitable, or did we do something terribly wrong?

Mike: The mistake was not in the early days of the pandemic, when virtually every school closed for the final months of the 2020 school year. The tragedy was the loss of the 2020-21 school year for so many. Somehow, most private schools figured out how to get back to school in person by that Fall. Yes, some things were different. Some activities were cancelled. Students, faculty and staff wore masks. Kids didn’t interact in large groups as much. But they were back – in person. This was six months after the pandemic hit. Some public schools figured out a way to get back in person eventually that year, even if limited or in a hybrid manner, but many didn’t at all. Some states were far more aggressive. In some districts, kids were out almost the whole school year, and that was an example of putting the interests of adults before the needs of children.

Julie: The difference between private schools and so many public schools is that private schools had the physical infrastructure to stay open. Some of our public schools have no ventilation and kids learn in antediluvian facilities. Meanwhile, the state is not doing much to prepare for the next pandemic, when the poorest kids will once again be forced to learn remotely, even if they have no access to the internet. This should take a whole-of-government approach and a concerted effort by all stakeholders but it is, sadly, also not happening.

Q. Finally, the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. He’s a hero in the West for ending the Cold War and bringing new freedom to Russia. But he didn’t intend for the Soviet Union to break up, the personal freedoms have been mostly lost under Vladimir Putin, and he supported the 2014 invasion of Crimea. What’s his legacy?

Mike: Julie will have a far more educated answer, but his legacy for most in America will be the end of the Cold War. During my childhood, we lived under the threat of nuclear war and fallout shelter signs were visible in every school and public building. The threat of nuclear war hung over the world for 40 years until Gorbachev and Reagan brokered a peace. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, so perhaps he had little choice, but Gorbachev helped achieve a peace, even if temporary, between two great superpowers that had nuclear weapons pointed at each other for decades. His smile as he shakes Reagan’s hand is a defining moment in world history, and that’s how he’ll be remembered to most in the West.

Julie: Gorbachev was neither the hero the West considers him to be nor the loser the Russians consider him to be. By the time he got to power, the Soviet economy had been in negative GDP for a decade, the cost of supporting the Eastern Bloc was too expensive to sustain and the Afghanistan War was further draining the treasury. He had no choice but to deal with Reagan on an arms control treaty because there was no money to keep competing in the nuclear arms race. At the end, though, he was still a product of the Soviet Union: unable to imagine an economic system where perestroika could effectively work, unable to imagine that giving people a little glasnost would lead to a pent up torrent of free speech enough to topple the regime, unable to peacefully let dissidents and even Soviet Republics leave the USSR until his hand was finally forced by others. Having said that, he was like John Locke compared to Putin and, for a time, led a nation that did not feel it had to constantly be in opposition to democratic ideals.

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