Jan. 10

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Trump Storms Out of Meeting with Democrats

Donald Trump met with Democratic leaders yesterday to talk about how to reopen the government. His "compromise" is for Congress to give him the $5 billion he wants to start building a wall. So, he asked speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA): "Will you support a wall?" She gave a direct answer: "No." He slammed his hand on the table, stormed out of the meeting, and sent this tweet:

Just left a meeting with Chuck and Nancy, a total waste of time. I asked what is going to happen in 30 days if I quickly open things up, are you going to approve Border Security which includes a Wall or Steel Barrier? Nancy said, NO. I said bye-bye, nothing else works!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 9, 2019

Pelosi replied to questions about the meeting by saying: "It was a petulant president of the United States." Vice President Mike Pence chimed in later, saying "there will be no deal without a wall." For someone who claims to be the world's greatest negotiator, Trump seems to have forgotten how to negotiate. It's fine for him to insist that there must be a wall, but an actual great negotiator would ask the other team: "What do I have to give you to get the wall?" That would be the start of an actual negotiation. Pelosi might have said the price of a wall is amnesty for all the undocumented immigrants in the country. Trump could have then said: "No, that's too much, how about only dreamers who were under 3 years old when they came here?" Then they could have worked towards a deal. But with Trump, "negotiation" means "my way or the highway." Pelosi is never going to buy that.

When responding to comments yesterday that a wall is a medieval solution, Trump said: "It's true. It's medieval because it worked then, and it works even better now." And with the Rio Grande just behind the wall, the country would even have a medieval moat. We are waiting for some Florida congressman to insist on a clause in the wall-funding bill to stock the moat with only Florida alligators, because they are of better quality than the imported foreign ones. Meanwhile, if Trump thinks that medieval solutions are better than modern ones, perhaps he will want to get rid of those pesky guns that border guards currently carry and replace them with longbows. Perhaps they could also be provided with pots of boiling oil to pour down upon anyone who tries to climb the wall.

If he isn't going to negotiate, then Trump has one card left to play: Declaring a national emergency, and ordering the army to build the wall. That is probably illegal, and any such decision would be caught up in the courts for months or years. It could also have effects downstream. If a Democrat is elected president in 2020, but the Republicans hold the Senate and frustrate the new president, he or she could start declaring national emergencies for all manner of things to make end runs around Congress. Just imagine:

Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it is hard to get him back in.

As long as nearly all the Senate Republicans back Trump, he might be able to hold out, but cracks are already showing. Sens. Cory Gardner (CO), Susan Collins (ME), and Lisa Murkowski (AK) would prefer that the government reopen first, then the discussion about the wall take place. If another half-dozen Republican senators jump ship, Trump will have a problem.

In fact, news broke late on Wednesday that a number of GOP senators, who seem to understand much better than the President what "negotiate" means, are working with their Democratic colleagues to find a mutually acceptable compromise. The current proposal involves money for the wall, but also amnesty for the dreamers, plus greater protections for some refugees, and adjustments to H-2B visas (which allow people to come into the U.S. to work). If Congress reaches a deal without any input from Trump, it certainly won't help his reputation as dealmaker-in-chief. And while he will nonetheless claim "victory" because of the wall money, much of his base will be none too happy with this particular end result. What the Senate is working on is currently a long way from fruition, but given the time pressure created by the shutdown, it's very possible something could come together quickly. So, Trump may have nowhere near as much time left for temper tantrums and melodramatic tweets as he thinks. (V & Z)

House Democrats Use Health Care to Pressure Republicans

When Republicans controlled the House, they constantly brought up bills whose main purpose was to force Democrats to take votes that could be used against them in the next campaign. Turnabout is fair play, so now Democrats are going to force Republicans to vote on issues they would prefer not to vote on. Case in point: Health care. A Texas judge has ruled the ACA unconstitutional, so House Democrats are going to bring up a resolution that authorizes the House general counsel to defend the law, specifically "the provisions ensuring affordable health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions."

The vote is not required for the House general counsel to intervene. All that is needed is for the speaker to give him marching orders. Also, the ACA will be defended regardless, with or without the House general counsel helping out. The (only) purpose of the vote is to force House Republicans to choose between (1) going on record defending the ACA (which will encourage conservatives to primary them), or (2) oppose protecting people with pre-existing conditions (which Democrats will throw at them in the general election). Neither outcome is good for them, which is precisely why speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) want them to vote on it.

In addition to this (largely symbolic) vote, Democrats are planning to introduce bills to fund the various now-shuttered government departments, one by one. It will be difficult for someone like, say, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), to vote against funding the Agriculture Dept. or HUD in order to build a wall 2,000 miles from Philadelphia to keep out Mexicans. If large numbers of Republican representatives vote with the Democrats, Pelosi will be able to say that there is bipartisan support for reopening the whole government. (V)

White House Wants to Expand Trump's Tariff Powers

The Democrats aren't the only ones who want to force votes for political purposes. Bloomberg News is reporting that Donald Trump is going to urge Congress to pass legislation to expand his powers to increase tariffs if he doesn't like how foreign countries are behaving. It is expected that he will make the announcement in his State of the Union address. The idea came from Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro, but it probably wasn't hard to talk Trump into supporting legislation to give him more power.

The only fly in the ointment is that the bill would have to pass the House in order to reach his desk, and a bill to allow Trump to unilaterally impose more tariffs is not going to be very popular with Democrats, assuming it even makes it to a vote. Of course, Nancy Pelosi could try to make a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring up a bill he would rather not bring to a vote, such as H.R. 1, the Democrats' omnibus "democracy" bill.

Not all Democrats are against the idea of tariffs to protect American jobs, but many of them are against giving Trump more power. Nevertheless, Pelosi is unlikely to bring the bill to the floor unless she is confident that it will be voted down. The last thing she wants is to give Trump a "win" he can brag about. A clear and unambiguous defeat would be more to her liking. (V)

Barr Met with Senators Yesterday

Attorney General nominee William Barr was on Capitol Hill yesterday talking to the senators who will soon vote on his confirmation. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked Barr if he would fire special counsel Robert Mueller. After the meeting, Graham reported "I can assure you he has a very high opinion of Mr. Mueller, and he's committed to seeing Mr. Mueller complete his job." Graham also noted that Barr said he would, "be fair to the President and the country as a whole."

Of course, talk is cheap and once confirmed, Barr could quickly forget his previous promises. The would-be AG has previously been very critical of the whole Russiagate investigation. On the other hand, Barr and Mueller are long-time personal friends and Barr knows very well that Mueller is a straight arrow and is not on a witch hunt. Absent pressure from Trump, Barr probably would just leave Mueller alone and let him finish his job. The problem comes in if Trump pressures Barr to hinder Mueller, preferably in some way that isn't visible to the public, like decimating his budget.

The Democrats were not impressed with Graham's remarks. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said: "I want more than bland ... assurances. I want ironclad, specific commitments, and possibly even recusal." Barr has been prepping for weeks for the Senate hearing, which is expected to take place next week. If history is any guide, Barr won't commit to anything specific, will give meaningless generic answers to all questions, and be confirmed on a party-line vote in the end. (V)

Rosenstein Plans to Leave the Justice Dept. after Barr is Confirmed

Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who appointed special counsel Robert Mueller and supervised him until Matthew Whitaker was appointed acting AG, is planning to leave the government as soon as William Barr is confirmed as the new AG. Although Donald Trump despises Rosenstein, the Deputy AG is not being forced out. He knows that once Mueller issues his report, things are going to get lively within the Justice Dept., as officials there have to decide what to do with it. He would probably prefer not being caught up in that mess. Besides, Barr would prefer naming his own deputy.

Rosenstein will stay around long enough to ensure a smooth transition to the new team. He hasn't said what he plans to do next. He has worked for the government his entire career, but the Justice Dept.'s former #3, Rachel Brand, left last year to become head of corporate governance at Walmart, presumably with a very large increase in salary. Rosenstein could go that route and look for a job as the top lawyer at a big corporation or perhaps try for elected office—for example, by challenging one of Maryland's many congressional Democrats in 2020, or maybe Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) in 2022. (V)

Romney Gets a Chilly Reception in the Senate

Speaking truth to power is not something U.S. senators are famous for doing. So, when Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) wrote an op-ed praising Donald Trump's tax cuts and deregulation and judicial appointments but criticizing him for his foreign policy and his tendency to divide rather than unite the country, the other senators were not amused. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), for example said: "It is funny to me that while he was complaining about President Trump's personal attacks, he was personally attacking President Trump." And Lankford meant "funny peculiar," not "funny ha ha." Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said: "Focusing on our political opponents that are trying to annihilate us and embarrass the president is probably a more productive focus, rather than just criticize what the president is, how he does things." In short, there has been no shortage of Republican senators who don't like the idea of a guy who has been in the Senate for one week bad mouthing their president.

Romney, of course, doesn't care a whit what they think. He didn't decide to run for the Senate so he could sit around for 20 years with his mouth closed and his hands folded in his lap, such that in 2039 he could become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He is not currently planning to challenge Trump in 2020, but stuff happens. Imagine what might happen if special counsel Robert Mueller were to issue a report saying that Trump actively conspired with Vladimir Putin's henchmen to win the election, and in addition had laundered hundreds of millions of dollars for various Russians close to Putin. Suppose that Trump were to call the report "fake news" and refuse to resign and few Senate Republicans were willing to convict him should the House impeach him. Under those circumstances, Romney could change his mind about 2020. Being a Trump toady now would make a future run against Trump much harder, so Romney will just take his lumps and not worry about which committee chairmanship he is throwing away in 2039 by not being a team player now. (V)

Steyer Will Not Run in 2020

If George the Garbageman were to announce he was entering the 2020 Democratic primary, that wouldn't be news. After all, everyone else is doing that. But when a billionaire who could spend $100 million of his own money to finance a primary campaign says he is not running, that's definitely "man bites dog" territory. So, the announcement yesterday by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer that he is not running is news.

In reality, Steyer wouldn't have a prayer of getting the nomination. The Democratic primary electorate is fairly young, fairly diverse, and generally progressive and a cranky old white male billionaire is not exactly what they are looking for. Steyer probably recognized this.

But Steyer is not giving up on politics. He said he will spend at least $40 million to try to get Donald Trump impeached. He could run ads in key states urging people to contact their representatives and demand that they support impeachment. He could also prime public opinion for an impeachment by running ads talking about all the "crimes" Trump has committed. And after Mueller's report comes out, he could make sure that tens of millions of people know what is in it. Currently, the Democratic leadership would greatly prefer that he just shut up and go away, but that doesn't seem to be his game plan. (V)

Thursday Q&A

Lots and lots of shutdown questions (and shutdown-adjacent questions), of course. We're going to answer those, given that they are timely, but we're also building up a large backlog of non-shutdown questions we will hopefully get to someday soon.

Which is the bigger constitutional crisis: The Supreme Court telling the President that his declaration of emergency is invalid, or the Supreme Court telling the nation that declarations of emergency are at the discretion of the president and not subject to judicial review? M.F., Brick, NJ

We think that the latter scenario, namely the current SCOTUS sustaining Trump after he had declared his wall to be a national emergency, would be far and away the larger crisis.

To start, the Court tells the president "no," all the time—it's part of their job description. They have also told the president "no" specifically in terms of the power to declare a national emergency. The best known example of this is Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, in which the Court voted 6-3 to override Harry S. Truman's attempt to nationalize America's steel mills during the Korean War. So, if the current Court were to override a Trumpian national emergency, it would neither be unprecedented nor would it be particularly out of place.

On the other hand, if the Court were to uphold Trump, it would dramatically increase the power of the executive at the expense of the legislature. While there are limits to the president's power to declare national emergencies, as Youngstown made clear, Trump and his successors would be very tempted to announce "national emergency!" anytime Congress does not bend to their will (see above for some hypotheticals). Meanwhile, the Court that would be granting Trump this expanded power would be one that was stacked by the GOP, first by denying Merrick Garland a hearing, and then by ramming Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh through the Senate. That would be the same Senate, by the way, where the GOP majority was elected by 30% of the American people.

In short, if SCOTUS sustains Trump in this scenario, it would (for good reason) appear very undemocratic, and would also risk significant damage to the balance of powers between the branches of the government, as well as to the reputation of the Court. Those are all constitutional-crisis-type outcomes.

Can the Senate pass a House bill with a veto-proof majority? How many is that? M.F., Brick, NJ

Is it theoretically possible? Yes. Is it likely? Not very, in our current polarized climate, although Donald Trump may soon put it to the test.

To override a veto requires 2/3 of each chamber of Congress. Assuming that all seats are filled, and that all members are present and cast a vote, that translates into 67 senators and 290 representatives. Given the current breakdown by party, that means that in the Senate, it would take all the GOP senators plus 14 Democrats/Independents, or all the Democratic/Independent senators, plus 20 Republicans. In the House, it would take all the Democrats plus 55 Republicans, or all the Republicans plus 91 Democrats.

Note that it does not matter by what margin a bill originally passes. Even if a bill gets 435 votes in the House and 100 in the Senate, a second vote has to be held after the president's veto in order to override him.

The number of federal workers affected by this shutdown is often cited as 800,000. However, there are lots of categories of federal workers. I believe the 800,000 number is direct government employees (civil service, military, etc.), but there are also various types of contractors (e.g., guards, janitors, maintenance, IT support, construction, food workers, satellite manufacturers, etc.). I have a number of friends who are contractors and, like the civil servants, are not getting paid, but unlike the civil servants, do not expect to get back pay at the end of the shutdown. Could you shed some light on the total number of workers who are out of a paycheck due to the shutdown and the historical likelihood of them getting paid at the end? J.L., Mountain View, CA

You raise a good point. When it comes to this category of workers, the number affected is unknown, and probably unknowable. There are several reasons that this is the case. The first is that many of them are temporary, at-will, part-time, etc., and so today's count is different from tomorrow's count which is different from yesterday's count. The second is that many of them are hired by third parties. The government pays, say, $1 million a month to Acme Custodial, and only Acme Custodial knows exactly how many people they had to hire to clean the Pentagon. The third is that for some firms—say Boeing—it would be difficult for them to separate their regular operations from whatever slowdown comes as a result of delayed/lost federal funding.

Bloomberg took their best shot at calculating the overall financial loss to federal contractors during the current shutdown, and their conclusion was: $200 million/day. During the shutdown in January of last year, which included only one weekday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) proposed a bill to pay contract workers (custodians, security guards, etc.) their lost wages, but no action was taken on the measure. That's more than normally happens; in government shutdowns, the contractors who lose money are generally just out of luck.

You said, "Overall, it was a pretty average performance from the two Democrats." I said to myself before the speech and response, "if Chuck Schumer is one tenth as effective as Nancy Pelosi, it'll be twice as good as it's been." That said, the performances were predictable. She's not a good public speaker. But, for once, he was. Granted, all of it is boilerplate. But to my ears, it was the exact boilerplate necessary for the situation. Since none of this apparently impressed you, based on the real-world constraints on the situation, what exactly could Nancy and Chuck have done that would've actually impressed you? D.L., Cary, NC

We agree that Schumer was better than Pelosi, and that Pelosi is not a particularly good public speaker. We even had a sentence along those lines, observing that the Speaker's talent is in behind-the-scenes politicking and organizing, and not in speechifying. However, the piece was quite long, and ultimately that sentence didn't seem to add much, so we struck it.

As to our being impressed or not, you might have misread us a little. The point we made is that it was a circumstance that, tactically, called for them to play it safe, and that is what they did. To use a sports analogy, consider a quarterback whose team is up by 14 points at the start of the fourth quarter. Throwing three touchdown passes and gaining 150 yards before the end of the game would be impressive, perhaps, but would be the incorrect thing for him to do. His job is to chew up time and remove the possibility of the other team coming back to win. Nobody is going to write rave reviews of a quarterback who, in that situation, leads a nine-minute drive that ends with a field goal. Nonetheless, that is exactly what a quarterback is supposed to do in that situation.

That said, (Z) has been watching politicians and thinking and writing about their "performances" for 20 years. He also has a bit of experience as a theatrical director, having helmed productions of "Arsenic and Old Lace," "A Thurber Carnival," "As You Like It," and "A Company of Wayward Saints." If Chuck and Nancy had called him for advice, he would have made the following suggestions: (1) Sit, don't stand; try to achieve a "fireside chat" kind of vibe; (2) Interact in some meaningful way and show you are a team; as it was, they might as well have been in different rooms; (3) Simplify: It would have been better if their central message had been a little clearer and cleaner, so that all the Democrats could repeat it on TV this week—something along the lines of, "We want badly to reopen the government, but we can't do so until Donald Trump acknowledges that 'compromise' and 'negotiate' do not mean 'give me everything I want, and I'll give you nothing you want." Alternatively, if they wanted to think outside the box, they could have announced that they would take questions from the voting public, and then selected and answered half a dozen of those in lieu of a speech. That would have allowed them to look responsive, to be more engaging, and probably to cover more ground than was possible in a more formal address.

Many of us gave Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on his competency to be President after the election of 2016. As time has gone by, TV news, newspapers, comedians, etc., have become entirely dismissive of him, his agenda, and the few collaborators who are left. Has there been any moment in US history where so much of America (public opinion, media, congress) dismisses the President? M.C., Scotch Plains, NJ

There are certainly some analogues to the current situation. The one that immediately leaps to mind is Andrew Johnson, the man who became president upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A conservative Southern Democrat who was only added to the GOP ticket (known temporarily as the "Union" ticket) for PR purposes, he preferred to be very lenient with white Southerners immediately after the Civil War, and to tell black Southerners to pound sand. This was very much at odds with what most of Congress and much of the Northern public wanted, and so a massive power struggle emerged, culminating in Johnson's impeachment. Although he avoided conviction by one vote, he was effectively rendered irrelevant for the rest of his term. For two years, Congress basically ran the country, and if Johnson objected, they either ignored him or overrode his vetoes. To this day, he holds the record for most vetoes overridden, with 15 (meaning that 52% of his vetoes were overturned). By way of comparison, FDR served over 12 years and had just 9 vetoes overridden, representing just 1% of his total vetoes.

Beyond Johnson, some other presidents that leap to mind in response to your query are John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge is something of a special case; he was a very effective president for a year or so, and then his son died suddenly. Thereafter, the President checked out, suffering almost certainly from what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression. He started sleeping 10-14 hours a day, and working as little as possible. So, the rest of the government was de facto compelled to get by without him.

The other four men were all generally incompetent politicians who were out of step with a large segment of the party that elected them (not to mention the opposition party). In Tyler's and Fillmore's cases, that was because they were non-Whigs added to Whig presidential tickets in order to broaden the ticket's appeal, and then became president when the actual Whig (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, respectively) died. In Pierce's and Buchanan's cases, they were elected in their own right, but were Northerners who favored the South (which meant they were known as "doughfaces" to their contemporaries). And all four of these men were caught up in the animosities that led to the Civil War, a circumstance that would have tested even the most skilled of politicians. In any case, all four were being roundly ignored by the ends of their terms, and none of the four had even the slightest chance of being renominated, much less reelected.

The president who might be the closest comparison to Trump, however, at least in this way, is Harry S. Truman. Truman got off to a good start, as he brought World War II to a successful close, helped create the United Nations, and oversaw the implementation of the GI Bill at home and the Marshall Plan abroad. However, his reputation eventually began to sink due to a number of factors, including: (1) policies that were out of step with much of the populace; (2) foreign policy failures, most obviously involvement in the Korean War; (3) a sense that he was kind of swampy, given his longstanding ties to the Pendergast Political Machine; and (4) a personal style that was refreshingly honest to some, but boorish and crude to the majority of the population (for example, Truman got angry at a critic who gave Truman's daughter Margaret a bad review after a vocal recital, and so publicly threatened to punch the critic in the balls if they ever met face-to-face). Anyhow, Truman barely won the election of 1948 (remember "Dewey defeats Truman"?), and by mid-1950 or so he had zero political capital left. In the final months of his term, he recorded the lowest approval rating in U.S. history: 22% (keeping in mind that approval ratings have been measured only since the 1940s). Trump's low, so far, is 33%, so he's still got 11 points before he plumbs the same depths that Harry S. did.

(Sidebar: We are aware that Truman's entire middle name was 'S,' and that the period would seem to be grammatically incorrect—or unnecessary, at least. However, Truman himself signed his name with the period, and so we defer to him on the proper way to render his name.)

It is utterly unbelievable that there does not yet seem to be a GOP candidate willing to challenge Trump in the primary. Can you address why that seems to be the case, and list some of the viable players who might mount a challenge? P.K.T., Dallas, TX

We actually don't think it's unbelievable at all. Trump may be unpopular with the public as a whole, but his approval among Republicans remains very high—around 85%. On top of that, he has literally made the RNC into a Trump subsidiary, having blended them and his re-election committee together. And in some states, like South Carolina, GOP officials are talking about canceling their 2020 primaries altogether. Under these circumstances, a primary challenge against Trump would be a suicide mission. And anyone who announced plans to try it would be putting a giant target on their backs, and would become a punching bag for the Rush Limbaughs and Laura Ingrahams of the world.

The only real option, then, is to plant a few anti-Trump seeds, and wait to see what happens. Not enough to trigger a full-blown response from the President and his acolytes, but enough that if he crashes and burns, the person can point and say, "See? I told you he was no good." This is basically what Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has done (see above), as well as John Kasich.

As to candidates who might viably challenge Trump (again, assuming he craters), that's very tough. The aforementioned Romney and Kasich are the obvious answers, but Republicans had no interest in the latter in 2016, so why would they be interested now? As to the former, he's on the wrong side of 70, he got crushed by Barack Obama in 2012, and he's a chronic flip-flopper. Hard to believe GOP voters would be excited about him. Given the current state of the Republican Party, if someone was to supplant Trump, it would probably have to be a politician who is a lot like him, but who would not be enmeshed in Russiagate or whatever other hypothetical scandal that brought Trump down. Maybe Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who is young, popular among Republicans, quite outspoken, and close enough with Trump that he might reasonably inherit the base, but not so close that he has involvement in collusion or obstruction or any other misdeeds.

Regarding your answer about the unlikelihood of Republican spoilers preventing Trump from getting an Electoral College majority, wouldn't it be possible for Mitt Romney to do what Evan McMullin tried to do, and be a third place finisher in a close election who could be chosen by Congress as a compromise candidate? The Democrats would prefer him to Trump, surely, as would a few Republican delegations. D.C., San Francisco, CA

He could certainly try it, but this is a very dubious plan, for three reasons. The first is that Utah has 6 electoral votes. If we generously award Idaho (conservative, lots of Mormons, next door to Utah) to the Senator, that brings the total to 10. While there are combinations of the other 48 or 49 states (plus D.C.) that end up with both Donald Trump and the Democrat between 260 and 269 electoral votes, there aren't many of them, particularly considering that most of the swing states (Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina) are pretty big. So, the odds that the numbers work out in a scheme like this are pretty poor.

If it does, work, however, then that is when problem #2 kicks in. The scenario you imagine would toss the election to the House of Representatives, with each delegation having one vote. Here is what the vote would probably look like based on their current delegations:

Trump: 23 states (AL, AR, FL, GA, IN, KS, KY, LA, MS, MO, MT, NE, NC, ND, OH, OK, SC, SD, TN, TX, WV, WI, WY)

Romney: 2 states (ID, UT)

Democratic candidate: 22 states (AZ, CA, CO, DE, HI, IL, IA, ME, MD, MA, MN, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT, VA, WA)

There are three states missing, because Michigan and Pennsylvania are currently tied, and it's possible that the single representative from Alaska (Republican Don Young) decides to go rogue. Still, even if Romney gets all the Democratic states and we give him Idaho, and we give him Alaska, that's still only 25. We are somewhat dubious that the Democrats would agree to this scheme, but even if they did, that would not be enough to carry the day. If we imagine that another good-for-the-Democrats election gives the blue team control of Michigan's and/or Wisconsin's delegations, then it becomes possible, but we grow even more skeptical that the Democrats would hand Romney more than 90% of the votes he needs to win. Meanwhile, the GOP would have no motivation to play ball at all, since if the House can't pick a winner, the Senate gets to pick from VP candidates, and would be able to choose Mike Pence (or, maybe, Nikki Haley).

And finally, if Romney does somehow navigate the first two issues, and gets elected by a Mitt-Democratic coalition, we run into problem #3. When the fellows who wrote the Constitution designed this system, they anticipated a situation in which all three surviving candidates would have finished with relatively similar electoral vote totals. In this scenario, however, Romney would have effectively been elected by the voters of one or two states that are home to considerably less than 2% of the U.S. population. He would have zero mandate, not much more legitimacy, and Democrats and Republicans across the country might both take to the streets. It would be impossible for him to govern effectively.

Conclusion: While this is theoretically possible, it is the longest of long shots.

With the Democratic 2020 campaign essentially already under way, I was thinking about how it seems to have become "essential" for each would-be candidate to produce a book at the beginning of their campaign. I assume this tradition started during the modern day, after nominations were taken out of smoky back rooms, but when exactly did it start? Who was the first potential candidate to write such a book? What are the reasons candidates write such books? Is it merely an excuse for the campaign to book them on all manner of television programs for free publicity? Or is it one of those things that everyone just does, like going to the Iowa State Fair to shake hands, kiss babies, and share chili recipes? N.M., Meford, OR

A lot of your assumptions here are pretty spot on, though there's one that's way off. We'll start there, because it's also your first question. The campaign biography is over two centuries old; the volume generally regarded as the first example of the genre is The Life of Andrew Jackson, written by Jackson's friend John Henry Eaton in 1817 to capitalize on the General's emergence as a national hero, and then revised and re-issued in 1824 in anticipation of that year's presidential campaign.

While you are correct that the fellows in the smoke-filled room had undue influence until the 1940s or so, it is also the case that those fellows were subject to pressure from voters and party activists, even in the 19th century. Further, there was a need to sell the candidate to voters once he was nominated. In an era before television and radio, and where not everyone had access to newspapers, a campaign biography (often distributed free of charge) was that era's version of a political commercial. Note, however, that not all bios were book length; Abraham Lincoln's, for example, were barely enough to fill a short pamphlet. Nonetheless, every major-party candidate had one, of some sort.

Why does the tradition continue today? Largely for the reasons you intimate. First is momentum: This is what candidates do, because this is what candidates do, just like shaking hands and kissing babies (or kissing hands and shaking babies). Second is stealth campaigning: A book allows a candidate to put themselves out there, and gives them an excuse to appear on TV (and to schedule lots of book signings in Iowa and New Hampshire) without putting too big a target on their backs or triggering federal campaign finance laws.

Occasionally, there are other benefits of these books, as well. JFK's Profiles in Courage wasn't exactly a biography, but it filled the same role by outlining his values and his philosophy, and won him a Pulitzer. Though Kennedy friend and adviser Ted Sorensen probably wrote most of the book, the public didn't know that, and so the book and the award helped burnish Kennedy's credentials as an intellectual heavyweight. To take another example, Barack Obama's two books were both runaway bestsellers, and the royalties ran into the eight figures (something in the realm of $15 million). That's a nice bonus for someone who was still paying off his student loans when he was elected to the Senate.

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