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The Lineups for the First Democratic Debates Are Set

DNC Chairman Tom Perez is bending over backwards while standing on his head in order to avoid a repeat of 2016, when many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) felt, with some cause, that the DNC had its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton. This cycle there will be 12 primary debates and the rules for getting on stage were published months in advance. The final bid to make it fair was a decision to create two groups, based on polls—the one-percenters and the two-or-more-percenters—and then to split each group randomly over the two nights. Drawing such a bright, red line between, say, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ, a two-percenter) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY, a one-percenter) is total nonsense, since the margin of error in the polls is about 4%. Meanwhile, when you do things at random, you get random results. Here is the breakdown for the two nights:

First debate
Cory Booker
Julián Castro
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City)
John Delaney
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)
Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN)
Beto O'Rourke
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Second debate
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)
Joe Biden
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend)
Kirsten Gillibrand
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
John Hickenlooper
Bernie Sanders
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA)
Marianne Williamson
Andrew Yang

Let's start with the first night. What shall we call it? Snow White and the nine dwarfs? The cheese stands alone? Liz and the kids? However you name it, as luck would have it, the only one of the current major contenders on stage that night will be Elizabeth Warren. This probably works well for her. She won't have to argue with Sanders about whether their not-all-that-different ideas should be called Democratic socialism or Democratic capitalism. She won't have to deflect any sniping from Joe Biden about how centrism is actually a better fit for the majority of Democratic voters than her brand of capitalism.

Most of the other candidates are largely unknown to most Americans and probably won't go after her much. After all, if you are Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), whom nobody outside of Ohio has ever heard of, do you want to waste the most valuable 10 minutes of your campaign telling everyone that she is a lefty? How does that make people want to vote for you? Besides, Jay Inslee, Tulsi Gabbard, and Bill de Blasio are probably as far left as she is.

This setup allows the two candidates who actually stand for something, Inslee (save the planet) and Warren (save the middle class), to make their respective cases for their causes. The others will just have to answer the questions and hope for the best (meaning that no moderator asks: "What makes you the best person of the 254 candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination?").

Now on to the varsity debate. Oops, we mean the second night. By dumb luck, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris will be up there, along with half a dozen other people who are polling down in the weeds. Three of the four probably have a clear message. Biden will say he has the best chance to win back blue-collar workers in the Midwest and thus beat Trump. Sanders will say the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and he is the only one with the guts to change it. Buttigieg will say it is time for generational change. Maybe he will even compare himself to JFK, since no one on stage will be able to claim they served with Jack Kennedy or that Jack Kennedy was their friend. Biden is old, but he is not that old. Harris might try to play the identity politics game, saying we now know that a woman can get the most votes for president, and that she's the one to get the most electoral votes.

Not every one of the "major" candidates will be on stage at all. Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), and Mayor Wayne Messam didn't make the cut. This doesn't finish their campaigns, but losing your biggest chance to break out isn't a plus. For Bullock, there could be a silver lining here: once he realizes that he is not going to be elected president in 2020, he might have a change of heart and decide to challenge Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT). That's a race he might actually be able to win. As to the others, they will just go back to their day jobs.

The order of the debates could play a role. NBC decided to put Warren, et al., first because millions of people won't want to miss the first debate of the season and everyone will want to see Biden and Sanders slug it out the second night. If the Biden-Sanders slugfest had gone first, the audience might have dropped precipitously the second night, when Warren was the only real attraction. The NBC decision on the order thus (inadvertently) helps Warren. However, a consequence of this decision is that the second nighters are all going to be watching the first night intensely (and reading the reviews) to get ideas of what to do and what not to do.

In any case, no matter what happens, this is not the end of the campaign. We have 11 more debates and innumerable more cattle calls yet to come. (V)

Trump Will Run a Professional Campaign in 2020...Sort Of

In 2016, Donald Trump's campaign was amateur hour. In 2020, it will be a professional campaign run by people who know how to run a campaign. Furthermore, it will be well funded, with $40 million in the bank before it even starts. The official kickoff is tomorrow in Orlando, where 20,000 people got tickets in exchange for their names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses, so they can be hounded mercilessly for donations from now to Election Day.

The campaign is being run by Brad Parscale. He has never run a campaign before, but he is an expert on digital media, which is increasingly important in all campaigns. Parscale is expected to work closely with the RNC. The RNC has $42 million in the bank, so Parscale already has $82 million at his command—and this is before he starts a massive fundraising drive. The campaign will definitely not lack money.

One key thing that Parscale understands is that he cannot develop a strategy and then tell Trump to follow it, because Trump is incapable of following directions. So Parscale will see what Trump wants, says, and tweets, and then form the campaign around the candidate. Normally, being an incumbent is an advantage, but in 2016, Trump ran as an outsider who was going to come in and drain the swamp. That won't work this time. What might work is the economy (if it stays in good shape), Trump's immigration policies, and his judicial appointments, especially Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Also of great importance is who the Democrat is. Parscale already has plans for handling Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. He will attack them as radical socialists hell-bent on turning America into Venezuela. Against them, he will position Trump as a moderate.

Against Joe Biden, Parscale has a much bigger problem. Calling Biden a socialist is not going to work, no matter how often he does it. Prayer may play a role here: Parscale is undoubtedly praying that Biden doesn't win the nomination, as state poll after state poll shows Biden ahead. Parscale doesn't have any current plans on how to handle any of the other 20 Democrats because he doesn't think any of them has a chance.

Incidentally, as things get underway, Parscale will have fewer pollsters to call on, as the campaign has fired several of the folks who were responsible for last week's internal poll that showed Trump trailing Biden. Officially, this is being done because the numbers were leaked, but insiders say that the real issue is that the poll embarrassed the President. Over the next 16 months, of course, each side of the presidential race will get "good" polls and "bad" polls. If Donald Trump flips his lid any time he gets a bad poll, it's going to make for a very difficult campaign for him and those around him. Meanwhile, if his staff gets the message "if you give me bad news, you're fired," then all Trump would be doing is depriving himself of important information. If a candidate is a couple of points behind in some state, most candidates want to know that so they can zip over there and hold a couple of rallies. Trump doesn't seem to care since he knows his gut is more valuable than a 4-TB hard disk stuffed with data.

In short, Trump 2020 will definitely have all the trappings of a professional campaign. But if you have a candidate who has no interest in staying on message, and little willingness to listen to advice from the experts he's paying six-figure salaries to, and who actively resists any information that tells him things are going badly, then you're going to end up with a campaign that looks an awful lot like 2016, regardless of how much better organized it is. (V & Z)

Fox News Poll Shows Trump Losing to the Leading Democrats

Speaking of bad polls for Donald Trump, a new Fox News poll has Donald Trump trailing all the leading Democrats nationally. Here are the results:

Candidate Democrat Trump
Joe Biden 49% 39%
Bernie Sanders 49% 40%
Elizabeth Warren 43% 41%
Kamala Harris 42% 41%
Pete Buttigieg 41% 40%

It should be noted that although Trump trails each of the leading Democrats, none of them make it to 50%, and the last three are within the margin of error. Also noteworthy is that at this point in 2015, Hillary Clinton led Trump by 17 points. Those two silver linings will have to assuage the President's feelings, here, because he can't exactly call Fox "fake news," nor can he fire their pollsters. The poll also showed that Democrats prioritize a leader who is ethical, while Republicans prioritize a leader who shares their view on the issues, ethical or not. (V)

Biden Leads in the Early States

A new CBS/YouGov poll of the 18 states that will vote first next year (including Super Tuesday) gives Joe Biden a substantial lead. The results were given for the 18 states together, and for Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (but not Nevada) separately. Here they are:

State Biden Warren Sanders Harris Buttigieg
All early states 31% 17% 16% 10% 8%
Iowa 30% 12% 22% 5% 11%
New Hampshire 33% 17% 20% 7% 10%
South Carolina 45% 8% 18% 7% 6%

Basically, Biden has a significant lead everywhere, with Warren and Sanders generally following him. What's interesting there is that if one of them were to drop out and endorse the other one, the remaining progressive candidate would probably take the lead. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Also of note is that in South Carolina, where 60% of the Democrats are black, the top three candidates are all white. The two black candidates in the race together rack up just 11% of the vote.

The poll also asked people to name the candidates they were considering. The same five candidates made the top five, with the order being Biden, Warren, Harris, Sanders, and Buttigieg. All of this does not say the field has already been narrowed to five people, though. A lot can still happen. (V)

Biden Leads Trump by 11 Points in Michigan

Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by fewer than 11,000 votes (0.23%) in Michigan in 2016, so the Wolverine State is expected to be a fierce battleground in 2020. At the moment, though, the state doesn't look so good for Trump. A new EPIC-MRA poll has Joe Biden out ahead of Trump by 11 points, 52% to 41%. Biden leads among all age groups, but especially among 18-34 year olds (65% to 27%) and black voters (95% to 3%). Most Democrats (93%) support Biden, while most Republicans (83%) support Trump. However, independents prefer Biden by a margin of 48% to 35%, which is where much of his lead comes from. (V)

Four Democrats Court Black Voters in South Carolina

On Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, South Carolina Democrats will cast their primary ballots for president. Only three days later, a dozen states and Democrats Abroad will vote in a huge Super Tuesday election. Clearly, a big win in South Carolina just before super Tuesday is worth more than millions of dollars of advertising, so four of the Democrats showed up at the Black Economic Alliance this past weekend to show how their policies will help black folks in South Carolina. The attendees were Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren. None of the other Democrats showed up, not even Kamala Harris, for whom a loss in South Carolina could be a very serious blow.

Booker touted his "baby bonds" plan to help close the racial wealth gap. Buttigieg wants more federal contracts to go to minority-owned firms. O'Rourke called for increasing access to capital for minority business owners and expunging arrest records for marijuana possession. Warren wants to create a $7 billion fund to help set up 100,000 minority-owned businesses.

Next weekend, we will be treated to stories about Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and his legendary fish fry in Columbia. At least 22 of the Democrats are expected to attend. Not showing up would be like poking Clyburn, the highest-ranking black politician in the country, in the eye with a sharp stick.

Another recent poll of South Carolina Democrats showed that the leading three contenders in the state are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris. This is very good news for Sanders, who was totally crushed by Hillary Clinton in 2016 all over the South, where black voters are a large percentage of the Democratic primary electorate. (V)

Wall Street Has Made Its Choices

The above items deal with who the voters want. Wall Street also plays a role in the election, like it or not, by funding certain candidates and not others. Interestingly enough, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, the junior senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, and the senator for nearby New Jersey, Cory Booker, aren't favored at all. Wall Street's top picks so far seem to be Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and—surprise!—Pete Buttigieg.

The choice of Biden is obvious. He is leading in the polls and people on Wall Street love a winner. While Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are second and third in most polls, they are too far left for Wall Street bankers. Besides, both have said they don't want Wall Street money. So the fourth and fifth place candidates, Harris and Buttigieg come in next.

Does it matter? It might. It takes money to run a national campaign, and if the three favorites haul in a lot of it from the Street, it could help them. But for some voters, taking money from Wall Street is the kiss of death. Sanders and Warren seem to be doing pretty well with small donors, though. In a month we'll have the Q2 finance reports and will know more. (V)

House Democrats Want to Make It Possible to Indict a President

Democrats in the House of Representatives are considering adding a provision to some must-pass bill that would override the Dept. of Justice's policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The provision would make it clear that no one is above the law, not even a sitting president. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is for such a law, so it is likely to make it into some bill, sooner or later. Needless to say, the Senate will never approve such a bill (at least not until a Democrat is president). However, if the provision is attached to some crucial bill, such as one raising the debt ceiling, there could be an epic standoff between the two chambers.

Not all Democrats are for the provision, though. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), for example, said that it is unrealistic to expect the attorney general—who serves at the pleasure of the president—to begin criminal proceedings against his boss. She said: "That's why you have impeachment." Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) is worried about an overzealous and partisan prosecutor like Ken Starr. If Starr had been given the power to indict Bill Clinton, he might well have done so.

Another proposal floating around, which has the backing of Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), is to freeze the statute of limitations for crimes committed by a sitting president. That way a two-term president couldn't escape punishment after the second term because the statute of limitations (typically 5 years) had run out. (V)

McConnell Rejects New Call for Election Security

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is refusing calls from both Democrats and Republicans to beef up election security to keep out foreign interference. His view is that the states control the elections, and the federal government has no role to play there. But the reality is that most states simply don't have the expertise, money, or motivation to do anything. Even simple measures, like a law requiring campaigns to inform the FBI when they have learned about foreign meddling, is a bridge too far for McConnell. Such a law would mean that if the Russians offer Donald Trump Jr. dirt on the Democratic nominee in 2020 and he failed to report it to the FBI, he would be committing a felony.

House Democrats are planning to pass a package of bills this summer that would shore up election security if they became law. They know that stand-alone bills have no chance, since McConnell won't even bring them up for a vote. For this reason, they are thinking of attaching them to some of the upcoming appropriations bills, so McConnell won't be able to just sit on them. He will have to negotiate with Nancy Pelosi about them.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has said that he expects foreign attacks on the election process to be worse in 2020 than they were in 2016. In 2016, Russian trolls posted a lot of fake news to Facebook and other social media sites. Russian hackers also penetrated the election databases in dozens of states, but they most likely didn't try to change vote totals directly. In 2020, they could try that, in addition to everything else. As long as McConnell believes that foreign hacking will help the Republicans, he is going to resist better election security with everything he's got. The one thing that could change his mind is if he gets credible reports that China is already working on interfering in the election in a massive way with the intention of getting rid of Donald Trump.

As a sidebar, one wonders if voters in Kentucky will start asking themselves: What exactly does our Senator stand for? Obviously, he's not for Democratic initiatives like helping the dreamers or combating global warming, which he dismissed last week as "socialist." Outside of approving right-wing judges, he's also not working to implement Donald Trump's agenda, like border walls and tariffs. And he doesn't even support seemingly centrist/bipartisan things like better election security, money to prevent violence against women, or continued funding for 9/11 first responders who need help. Of course, politics-watchers know exactly what McConnell stands for: power, particularly power for one Addison Mitchell McConnell. However, that hardly seems like a political platform you can run on. (V & Z)

Susan Brooks Won't Run for Reelection to the House

Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), who represents IN-05, which covers the suburbs northeast of Indianapolis, has announced that she will not run for reelection in 2020. Her decision was a surprise for the GOP. No one on that side of the aisle saw it coming, as the district is R+9 and Brooks won in 2018 by nearly 14 points. The Democrats, on the other hand, apparently knew someone, as they had her on their "retirements" list earlier this year. Given the nature of the district, the Republicans have a good chance to hold it, although open seats are always harder to win than occupied seats.

Two aspects of her retirement are bothering Republicans. First, when a four-term congresswoman who is only 58, and who could have been reelected easily, decides to throw in the towel, this could be the canary in the coal mine. There might be others in her caucus who don't like serving in a House run by Nancy Pelosi, so there is a danger of many more open seats in 2020. Second, there are only 13 Republican women in the House, so losing one is painful to the GOP. In contrast, there are 89 Democratic women in the lower chamber. The imbalance wasn't always this bad. Here is a chart from Axios showing the share of women in Congress by party for the past 100 years:

Women in Congress

As you can see, as late as 1990, the parties were about even. Then the Democrats began electing more women to Congress and the Republicans didn't. The Republicans have a committee designed to address this problem, but the chair is...Susan Brooks. So, her departure is something of a double whammy on the "the GOP caucus is a sausage party" front. (V)

Monday Q&A

There were two themes in the questions in the past four or five days: The Steele dossier, and Donald Trump's cognitive decline. Maybe those two things are related, maybe they're not.

One of Donald Trump's favorite whataboutism fallback positions is to claim that the Clinton campaign's connection to the Steele dossier is a greater crime than anything he's ever said or done. The fact that Republicans established the original connection with Steele doesn't help me accept the fact of the Clinton campaign used a foreigner to supply what Trump smugly calls "oppo research." J.M., Norco, CA

Arguably, Christopher Steele consulted with people connected to the Russian government, and he himself is not a U.S. citizen. Did the original Republicans, and later the Clinton campaign, avoid legal problems by paying him for his information? And could the Trump people have avoided all their collusion issues related to the information provided simply by paying fair value for it? I don't like to think that contracting for the Steele oppo was illegal (and he did "call the FBI"), but this question has plagued me for some time. D.S., Palo Alto, CA

I understand why Trump is receiving so much backlash over his false assertion that it's not illegal to receive dirt on your opponent from foreign agents, but how is that different from the RNC, and later Clinton, from commissioning the Steele dossier from England? S.B., Arvada, CO

We don't usually run multiple variants of questions on the same subject, but we made an exception today (twice!) because it reflects the extent to which Team Trump is doing a pretty good job of muddying the waters.

In any case, let's start by clearing up a few factual matters. The Steele dossier actually originated with The Washington Free Beacon, which is a right-leaning alternative newspaper, and not the RNC. The company they hired, Fusion GPS, is an investigative firm, not a law firm. In other words, they are basically like the Pinkerton Agency. Eventually, of course, the Beacon dropped out and the Clinton campaign and the DNC took up the matter. It is true that the Clinton campaign's point person on this was Marc Elias of the law firm Perkins Coie, but one would not want to be left with the impression that Perkins Coie was a key player here, because they were not.

In any event, the law in this area—like so many others, as we have been learning in the last 2-3 years—is a little fuzzy. With that said, there is one distinction between what Team Clinton did and what Team Trump did that is absolutely critical: The Clinton campaign paid Fusion GPS for their work, and duly reported as such. One could make a strong case that this is the only thing that matters—full stop. Keep in mind that the concern here is to prevent candidates from developing "off the books" debts that could be exploited once they win office. That's a concern with domestic actors, as well, but is particularly a concern with foreign actors (given the harm that a Russia or a China could do to the United States). If a foreign entity is paid market prices for their work, or their information, or whatever else it is, then there is no outstanding debt for them to exploit. And if the payment is duly reported, then there is no risk of the American people being unaware of the relationship.

If we accept the argument that Trump & Co. are making, namely that all interactions between political campaigns and foreign entities are equally bad/wrong/illegal, we run into two rather serious problems. The first is that it would be very difficult for an entity the size of a presidential campaign to keep operating under that standard. What if they hire a lawyer to represent them in upstate New York, and it turns out that person is actually a Canadian citizen? Or a dual Canadian-American citizen? What if they contract with a Taiwanese firm to make their campaign buttons? Or, what if they contract with an American firm to make their campaign buttons, but that firm gets its supplies from Taiwan? What if the campaign hires an advisor on Brazilian-American relations who is a permanent resident of the U.S. and is in the process of gaining citizenship, but is still a citizen of Brazil? What if the campaign hires a polling firm, and the janitor and the IT guy at that firm happen to be Nigerian citizens? The point is that 100% American is difficult (or impossible) to achieve, which is why the solution is to pay fair market rates for everything, and then to duly report as such on your FEC paperwork.

The second problem is that oppo research is completely legal, and that some candidates—ahem—allegedly have ties to foreign governments, or banks, or citizens. How can a campaign look into that if they are disallowed contact of any sort with a foreign entity? Surely nobody would accept the logic that if your opponent made sexual advances on a 15-year-old in Alabama, then that is fair game, but if they did the same with a 15-year-old in Russia, what're ya gonna do? Or that if an opponent had shady interactions with Bank of America, that can be investigated, but if they had shady interactions with Deutsche Bank, that's off the table?

There are at least three other distinctions between Clinton campaign's handling of the Steele dossier and the Trump campaign's interactions with the Russians. These aren't as important as the one noted above, but they are—for lack of a better term—extra credit for the blue team. The first is that Team Trump interacted directly with Russia, while the Clinton campaign had multiple "layers" between themselves and the Russians. At very least, it was Clinton campaign -> Perkins Coie -> FusionGPS -> Steele's firm (Orbis) -> Russian sources. There may have been another layer or two in between Steele and the Russians. It would be somewhat difficult for a person at the end of that chain (i.e., a Russian informant) to come away with leverage over the Clinton campaign. It would be much easier for a Russian attending a meeting at Trump Tower to come away with leverage over the Trump campaign.

In addition, there has been no indication that Steele acquired his information illegally, or even unethically. By contrast, there is much indication that the Trump campaign was after material that had been pilfered from the servers of the DNC and/or the Clinton campaign. This is one of those "fuzzy" areas of campaign law, but it's likely that if the Trump campaign acquired stolen goods or information, and knew about it, they would be guilty of a crime even if they paid for those goods or that information.

And finally, the Steele dossier was turned over to the FBI and to the CIA. Beyond the first point we made, about paying for your goods/services/information and reporting it, this is the most important thing on the list. It's a way of making clear that you're trying to be above-board, and also that you did everything possible to warn the pros of a potential threat to the United States. In other words, it's an insurance policy over and above abiding by the FEC rules. As we know, the Trump campaign did not talk to the FBI, and might not do so in 2020 if the same circumstances presented themselves.

Because most people tend to grasp things in very simple terms, the odds are high that "Clinton got information from the Russians" will be what sticks for many voters, and that the activities of both campaigns will be perceived as equally nefarious. However, even a cursory look makes clear that is not at all correct.

Given the importance of the Democrats trying to win a majority in the Senate, two things stand out for me: (1) They do not seem to be trying all that hard (e.g., Bill Nelson's lackluster campaign in Florida); and (2) Are certain senators ignoring the importance of their Senate replacement if they are part of the national ticket (e.g., Elizabeth Warren)? P.C., Stony Brook, NY

As to the Democrats not trying all that hard, that is a subjective judgment, though one we are inclined to disagree with. First of all, you're stuck with the candidates you're stuck with, and Bill Nelson was something of a limp noodle, and made some very foolish errors (like thinking he had the Latino vote in the bag). Oh, and he still came within several thousand votes of winning. Beyond that, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has only so much money, and so many other resources, to spread around, and they make the best choices they can with the information they have. And finally, if the DNC or the DSCC gets too involved in a Senate race, it can create a backlash and backfire on them. Undoubtedly, they could have gotten any major Democrat to go to Florida or Missouri or North Dakota, but who among them would have been a net positive? Bernie Sanders? Barack Obama? Bill Clinton?

As to the senators who are currently running for president, there are seven of them. Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris, if elected, would all have their replacements chosen by Democratic governors. Bernie Sanders, if elected, would trigger a special election to be held within 3 months of his resignation, in a state that went for Hillary Clinton by 25 points, and that has not sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate in two decades (and that was Jim Jeffords, who quit the GOP mid-term). In short, the Bern's seat is very safe for the blue team. As to Warren, her resignation would also trigger a special election, this one to be held within 145-160 days. Special elections can have wonky turnouts, and when Massachusetts filled a Senate seat mid-term upon the death of Ted Kennedy in 2010, the blue team got caught with their pants down, and Republican Scott Brown eked out a victory. So, Warren's seat is the most endangered of the seven senators-who-would-be-president, because it's the only one that is plausibly endangered at all. However, it would not be an automatic loss or anything close to it, because Charlie Baker (R-MA) would not choose her long-term replacement (though he would get to nominate a placeholder who would serve until the special election).

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on her way out the door, declared that Trump has accomplished a tremendous amount for the country. Perhaps I am not being fair to him, but this is not my perception. How does history typically quantify what the President actually accomplishes and how does Trump compare with other recent Presidents at this point in his term? V.M., Denver, CO

We've addressed related questions before, but this is worth revisiting. Our resident historian (Z) believes, with some evidence, that there are two important considerations here (though the second consideration has multiple parts). First, when all is said and done, each presidency tends to get distilled down to a very small list of things. For example, a well-informed person probably knows that Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. to victory in World War I (though he fumbled the League of Nations). They may know that he helped create the Federal Reserve. On the downside, there is a general awareness of his unapologetic racism, and possibly his mistreatment of women's suffrage activists. But we doubt that more than one or two people in 100 could expand the list beyond those three or four things, and he's one of the famous ones. How much does anyone know about William Howard Taft's presidency, beyond him getting stuck in his bathtub (which didn't actually happen)? And how many people could name one thing that Millard Fillmore did?

The second thing to keep in mind is that there are only some kinds of accomplishments that tend to be remembered and honored. That list, roughly in order of importance, looks something like this:

  1. Winning a war (most important)
  2. Implementing one or more long-lasting domestic initiatives (e.g., the Interstate Highway System, Social Security)
  3. Status as a trailblazer (e.g., first president, first "common man's" president, first black president)
  4. Skilled diplomacy (e.g., forming the U.N., normalizing relations with China, the Camp David accords, etc.)
  5. Being a charismatic figure and/or inspiring leader

There are also things that a politician's contemporaries may value, but that history largely doesn't give a tinker's damn about. Economic prosperity is the obvious one; one struggles to think of a president regarded as "great" or "near great" simply because he was steward of a good economy. Similarly, all presidents pick judges that align with their personal views (or, in some cases, to get an annoying rival out of their hair). There is no president whose reputation was made (or, for that matter, was substantially affected) by their judicial picks.

And finally, there are also black marks against a politician's record. Again, roughly in order of importance, starting with the worst:

  1. Starting a war they could not finish (e.g., Vietnam War, War in Iraq)
  2. The perception, legitimate or not, of corruption
  3. Harming the economy
  4. Embracing racist, sexist, or other attitudes out of step with the values of subsequent generations

Yes, we are arguing that a president does not get credit for a booming economy, but that he does get blamed for an economy that tanks, even if it's not his fault (see Hoover, Herbert; Bush, George H. W.). Meanwhile, past presidents are usually afforded a bit of leeway for living in a more racist/sexist time, but even by the standards of their day, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and Woodrow Wilson (among others) were pretty bad, and so they are dinged today.

Please note that this breakdown is based entirely on the 43 fellows who already occupied the Oval Office (including the one, Grover Cleveland, who occupied it twice). You can put it to the test yourself by applying it to the president of your choice. For example, Abraham Lincoln won a war, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, did well with diplomacy (for example, the Trent affair), was the first GOP president, and was charismatic and inspiring. He checks all the boxes on the "good" list, and none on the "bad" list, so it's not surprising he's rated among the greats. By contrast, Warren Harding has none of the items on the "good list," is perceived as corrupt, and was something of a sexist, even allowing for the standards of his day. So, he's a bottom-dweller.

Anyhow, Sarah Huckabee Sanders' spin notwithstanding, Donald Trump's historical reputation is in big trouble. His two big selling points, the tax cut/economy and his judicial picks, are exactly the things that are not "rewarded" by future generations. Meanwhile, he and his administration will be perceived as corrupt, and as racist/sexist, which means two big demerits. And that is before we see what happens with the economy; if it tanks, things will get really grim. Same thing if Trump starts a war with Iran or North Korea.

Of course, nobody can predict the future with perfect clarity, and there's still a chance that Trump could do something to turn things around. But that would not be the smart bet.

It may very well be true that winning the Senate is more important for the Democrats than winning the White House. But how likely is this possibility? It seems to me that if they manage to win the Senate, they would very likely also to win the Presidency. Am I wrong? A.I., Oslo, Norway

You're right; in fact, we really should have made that point in the original answer.

The very competitive Senate races are, by all indications, going to be in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, and North Carolina. Alabama is going for Trump, regardless of what happens with the Senate there. However, that leaves us with seven states. The Democrats would need to win Senate races in four of them if they hold Alabama, or five if they don't. Only two of those seven (Colorado and Maine) went Democratic in 2016. Ergo, if the Democrats retake the Senate, it likely means they also won one or more states that Trump won comfortably in 2016 (the two closest on the "competitive Senate seats" list are Arizona and North Carolina, which Trump won by just less than 4%). And if they did that, it likely means they also won several states that Trump won narrowly in 2016.

There are, of course, scenarios where the blue team could retake the Senate and not the White House, but they are remote, and largely would require sizable numbers of people to vote for Trump and for a Democratic senator, which seems improbable.

Why do you often talk about Trump's apparent cognitive decline, as if it's real? Given that, in the time since it's been mentioned, he's managed to win the presidency and dodge a thousand scandal bullets, isn't it more likely that he's just dumbing down his speech to hit the range of his audience? More people probably know what "[having] the best words" means, than know what "erudite" or "articulate" mean, when you consider that as many people have an IQ of 70 as 130. D.C., San Francisco, CA

I feel that your discussion of Trump's cognitive decline is slightly ageist. Your latest Q & A response quotes the garbled "nuclear" speech. Linguist John McWhorter wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which he analyses this speech and concludes that it is normal parlance for someone who is unprepared and just winging it. Trump's cognitive faculties have been a common point of (in my opinion, ageist) critique and many mental health professionals have come forward and have said it is not possible to make an accurate assessment without working face to face with a patient. J.K., Jackson, Michigan

Rather than true cognitive decline, I think Trump's apparent cognitive issues are the effects of medication—while he certainly has had episodes of rambling, nonsensical statements and there are numerous reports of meetings that are similarly strange, Trump can also come across as coherent and there are reports of him being engaged during meetings. I think what we are seeing is Trump at different phases of medication, either when he has just taken it or when the medication is wearing off. I have no idea what kind of medication would do that, but the waxing and waning of the effects of medication seem consistent with his behavior. J.B., Bend, OR

There is much to respond to here, and it will not be easy to do so in an orderly way. Let us start by taking the bull by the horns, and saying that the evidence is very strong that something is wrong, cognitively. We gave the "nuclear" speech as a particularly extreme example, but his remarks are usually meandering and unfocused. In addition, there is no question he cannot, or will not, pay attention to complicated briefings. He confuses very basic facts, like claiming that his father was not born in the United States (when it was actually his grandfather). Everyone has a bad day, or a bad week, but we've now had years of exposure to his current manner of speaking, which is strikingly different than what he showed in the 1980s or 1990s. It is not ageist to point this out; we would say the same thing if someone presented so very differently between age 20 and age 40. It's also true that a full diagnosis would require a multi-hour assessment from a professional (and not a silly 10-minute test). However, Trump refuses to sit for such an assessment (which is itself instructive). So, we are left to judge based on available evidence.

Now, on to some of the alternate theories proposed by the questioners:

  • He's consciously "dumbing down" his language: We rejected this explanation in our previous answer, and we stand by that rejection. First, this is not what this sort of code-switching looks like; if you want to see an actual example, watch a video of a press conference with Dwight D. Eisenhower or George W. Bush sometime. Second, Trump hardly had a need to speak like a Harvard Law professor in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was hosting reality TV shows and going on Howard Stern's program to talk about the size of his penis. To the extent that he could or would consciously "dumb things down," he was already doing it before he entered politics. Watch this clip from Late Night with David Letterman from more than 30 years ago. Trump is speaking at roughly a sixth-grade level—any voter could easily understand him—and raising many of the same kinds of issues he talks about today, but he's doing so in a clear and lucid fashion.

  • He's just improvising: John McWhorter tends to enjoy playing devil's advocate. In any case, it is hard to take his analysis seriously. McWhorter is a college professor, and presumably he speaks extemporaneously on a regular basis. We doubt that his lectures are anywhere near as rambling and disjointed as Trump's unscripted remarks are. We can say for certain that (Z) and (V) have both delivered thousands of lectures without notes, and heard hundreds of others, and that they never sounded like Trump does.

  • He's on medication: This one's plausible. But if it's true, is it not more concerning that Trump is regularly in a state of mind where he struggles to be lucid? What if there's a crisis, and he's just taken his pills, whatever they may be? So while this is a different explanation, it's not exactly a less worrisome explanation.

Ultimately, in the absence of a proper assessment, these are all armchair judgments. However, we will close by pointing out three related things: (1) People raised the same questions about Ronald Reagan, and with less evidence than we have for Trump; (2) Reagan's staff, and his defenders, raised the same objections that are being raised in Trump's defense; and (3) It turned out that Reagan actually was in serious cognitive decline, after all.

If Trump loses the election and is prosecuted once he is a normal citizen, I predict his family and lawyers will claim that he is not mentally fit to stand trial. He has yet to have a legitimate mental or physical checkup since entering office. Is this a possible scenario? F.H., St Paul, MN

Obviously, given our answer to the above question, we think this is certainly within the realm of possibility. And, if it does come to pass, it would certainly be quite the irony.

With that said, Trump's relationship with the truth is such that even this would not be conclusive proof of a lack of mental fitness. After all, he lied about having bone spurs to get out of serving in Vietnam. So, why wouldn't he lie here, to avoid prosecution?

Is there objective evidence that curtailing gerrymandering reduces political polarization among voters and elected officials? M.J.T., Exton, PA

If you would like to read more about gerrymandering, and the current scholarship on the subject, Brookings has an excellent primer. In answer to your question, we will say that there is clear and objective evidence that gerrymandering itself causes polarization, primarily by allowing for the election of extremists. It stands to reason reduced gerrymandering would lead to reduced polarization, but the question is not generally studied from that angle, so it's not certain.

The other thing that is clear is that while gerrymandering is a convenient bugaboo to point out, and is a problem, it's not the main cause of polarization. Far more important, among other things, are the left- and right-wing media echo chambers that have arisen in the last 20 or so years, and the fact that folks are self-sorting by political/cultural/social viewpoint, such that "red" areas and "blue" areas are becoming more homogeneous.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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