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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

In an entirely foreseeable turn of events, impeachment returns as a very popular subject of questions.

Q: I was reading your item on the Cook Political Report changing its Senate ratings, and I started to Republican senators pay attention to Cook? Outside of their internal polling, what metrics/data sources are Republican senators watching to see if public opinion changes on impeachment? Anything I can watch, too? P.N., Austin, TX

A: It's possible that some of them take an occasional look at sites that do political analysis (Cook, Sabato's Crystal Ball, Talking Points Memo, possibly us). However, when it comes to judging how the political winds are blowing, most members of Congress are guided by three things:

  • Internal polling: This, of course, is the one you noted. Most members of Congress, particularly the ones that serve in the House, don't actually have the means to conduct their own polls. They rely instead on the RNC/DNC, and the relevant campaign committees (for example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee). Obviously, this is not available for you to peruse.

  • Constituent feedback: Some members of Congress have the fortitude to face their constituents in person, and so get in-person feedback at town halls and other events. All of them have e-mail accounts, Twitter, Facebook, etc., which are monitored (by interns, usually) and distilled down into regular (usually daily) summaries. If a senator gets 10,000 e-mails on impeachment, and 90% support a vote for conviction, then the senator will be well aware of that. Obviously, this information is not available to the general public, either.

  • Popular news media: The Republican members know full well that Fox News both reflects and influences the base. Democrats know the same is true of MSNBC and, to a lesser extent, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Negative coverage from an outlet that speaks to your party's base is trouble, and can certainly influence politicians' behavior (up to and including the politician who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). The good news for you is that if you really want to watch Fox News, to see if there are any cracks forming in the armor, you are free to do so. The bad news for you is that if you really want to watch Fox News, to see if there are any cracks forming in the armor, you are free to do so.

Q: White House Counsel Pat Cipollone is one of the lawyers for the Trump impeachment. Does that mean we the taxpayers are paying for part of the Trump defense because we pay the White House Counsel's salary? G.W., Oxnard, CA

A: Very possibly. There are, we would say, three relevant facts here:

  1. The Trump White House is unusually unethical
  2. The Trump White House is unusually lacking in transparency
  3. Donald Trump hates to pay for things out of his own pocket

This means things could get creative, accounting-wise, and we might not know about it for a long time.

One possibility is that Trump could use campaign funds to cover the costs of one or more of his five defense attorneys. He's done that many times before. However, that would be the hard to hide, since FEC filings have to be made. And admitting to the use of campaign funds, in turn, is a problem, because it implies that this was a campaign matter rather than an official matter, which undercuts the President's entire defense. It would also complicate the use of Cipollone, making his time something that the government should be reimbursed for, not unlike when Trump uses Air Force One to fly to a rally.

So while there is a scenario where Cipollone might not collect taxpayer dollars for trying the impeachment, the odds are that Trump will let the government pay his salary, and will find some other way to compensate the rest of his team. Maybe he will go with campaign funds, or maybe he'll pay out of pocket, or maybe he'll establish a special "Trump defense fund" that people can donate to (Bill Clinton did this). It's also possible that folks like Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr will work pro bono, because they like the publicity. But that would be...atypical, shall we say, for legal sharks like them.

Q: Is there any news on the Ukraine front regarding an investigation on the Bidens? Trump does not have the strongest international reputation, and Zelensky was an anti-corruption candidate so it seems it could hurt his reputation or ability to connect with the United States.

Also, what makes you think Liz Cheney is running for president? Would she even be a viable general election candidate?
R.M., Baltimore, MD

A: The Ukraine has announced no investigation, and it would be shocking if that changed. Volodymyr Zelensky has no interest in losing face personally, or in showing weakness before his countrymen, unless absolutely necessary. And obviously, it's no longer necessary.

As to Cheney, there have been rumors and whispers, and she's obviously a member of a particularly ambitious family. However, the clearest indication of her plans is this: She is the current chair of the House Republican Conference, a relatively thankless job that people accept with an eye toward moving up the ladder. If Cheney's endgame was a Senate seat, she'd be running right now. If her endgame was the Speakership of the House, then she wouldn't have flirted with a Senate run at all. That means that she's got her eye on something that might be aided by moving up the House ranks, or might be aided by moving to the upper chamber. The only job that describes is the presidency.

Q: What role if any, does Mike Pence as President of the Senate play in the impeachment process? R.H., Sydney, Australia

A: Probably none. He wasn't sworn in this week, implying that neither he nor anyone else expects him to play a role. And the somewhat clunky wording of the Constitution implies that Chief Justice John Roberts assumes Pence's role during the impeachment. Meanwhile, the clear intent of the framers was to remove the vice president from any decision-making that could elevate him to the White House.

There is an argument, made by some, that Pence still retains his right to break ties during procedural votes. But the stronger argument is that John Roberts has that privilege, and it''s also somewhat unlikely to come up, anyhow. There will either be 7-9 GOP defectors, or there will be none.

Q: It is a given Donald Trump will be acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial. My question is this: Should a Democrat win the White House in November, can all the documents the White House refused to turn over be released to the House? I am assuming the House stays blue and the Senate red. Can the impeachment process be started again if Trump is not reelected? If somehow the Senate changes enough where a conviction is possible, can that happen? Does double jeopardy apply? J.M., San Jose, CA

A: A Democratic White House could release any documents it sees fit, could waive executive privilege, and could otherwise give House Democrats anything as the next president sees fit. However, only officeholders are impeachable, and so this material would not be deployed in a second impeachment trial, since Trump would no longer be an officeholder. It could, however, be used in a criminal trial.

Q: I am an English lawyer, and not qualified in the U.S., but it seems to me that Donald Trump's repeated assertions that Adam Schiff is "corrupt" on Twitter would likely be actionable for libel/defamation. Is there a political reason that Schiff doesn't take the point in court? R.C., London, UK

A: This is one of the single-biggest differences between British and American law. In the United States, libel/slander suits are very difficult to win, particularly under these circumstances. To start, it is necessary for the plaintiff to prove specific damages, which is not easy to do. Beyond that, the bar for slandering/libeling public figures is extremely high, far beyond what it takes to slander or libel a private citizen. And finally, Trump could claim he was joking, or that it was just his opinion, and that would likely be a satisfactory defense.

Meanwhile, if Schiff tried to file, he would be subjected to merciless ridicule from right-wing media and right-wing politicians for months. He would also be subject to discovery which, even if he has nothing to hide, is not pleasant. And finally, there would be lots and lots of headlines with "Schiff" and "corrupt" in them, and that is not good for branding, given that the Representative clearly has his eye on the Speaker's gavel.

Q: If Michael Bloomberg is willing to spend a good chunk of his fortune on commercials to influence the 2020 elections, wouldn't it be more effective to buy a controlling interest in Fox Corp? I realize this would take at least $11B, but instead of a few hundred hours of ads, he would have 24/7 control of the Fox News propaganda machine. If handled carefully, he could slowly unbrainwash millions of Americans and save our democracy. Of course a new cable channel would spring up and take the place of Fox News as the TV propaganda arm of the Republican party, but this would take some time, and not everyone would switch. Fox viewers tend to be old and set in their ways. A.G., Chapel Hill, NC

A: Clever plan, but we see three problems. First, there's no indication that all (or part) of Fox is for sale. Remember, Rupert Murdoch also has more money than Croesus. Second, there is no way Bloomberg could hide such a purchase, which would make the whole scheme very hard to execute. Third, and most significant, such a purchase would trigger massive anti-trust scrutiny from the Dept. of Justice, since Bloomberg already owns a major media conglomerate. The odds are that Justice would not sign off, even if a Democrat was in the White House. What do you think the odds that a Justice Dept. under the leadership of Bill Barr and Donald Trump signs off?

Q: I have noticed that when Bernie Sanders is doing well in polls or in fundraising, the attention given to his performance on typically has a negative or dismissive tone, if his positive performance is highlighted at all. For example, in your January 7, 2020 post, which showed the Q4 fundraising numbers, Bernie Sanders' clear lead was attributed to a money-making machine going full blast, undercutting the possibility that he is actually popular among voters and his message is resonating.

It seems that maybe you do not see Sanders as a serious candidate, even though polls and fundraising seem to be showing he is one. Why the holdout on acknowledging Sanders' popularity with voters or the possibility he is a serious candidate?
D.B., Crawfordsville, IN

A: For those who don't care to click through and re-read what we wrote in that piece about candidates' fundraising, here is what we wrote about Sanders:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is a moneymaking machine (his operation also operates at full blast 24-7, by the way). Obviously, he easily outdistanced his Democratic rivals, and he lapped most of them. What heart attack?

To us, this appears to communicate that his fundraising is going very well, that he is easily outpacing his rivals, and that he has overcome whatever political damage was done by his heart scare. Hard to see how that's critical or dismissive, or how it's not taking him seriously.

It's true that we noted a slight chink in the armor (as we also did with Donald Trump), pointing out that he might not be able to ratchet the fundraising up much more than he already has, since the gas pedal is already floored. That is because we always try, as best we can, to give the "on this hand, but on the other hand" assessment. In the same piece, we were much more negative about Joe Biden ("Third place is not good for a 'frontrunner'") and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA, "Warren's take is also underwhelming").

In any case, we are both quite confident that Sanders is a serious candidate. Tomorrow, we'll print some letters commenting on our coverage of Sanders, particularly the Sanders-Warren spat.

Q: Does Bernie Sanders at some point have to actually join the Democratic party to become the Democratic nominee for president? If so, at what point? If not, could it be an issue at the convention, where—say, Joe Biden—says Sanders is not an actual Democrat and therefore, since I am second in delegates, and an "actual" Democrat, I should be given the nomination? J.C., Lockport, IL

A: This is a messier question than you may think. Back in 2018, the DNC changed its rules to state that anyone who receives its nomination must promise to run (and govern) as a Democrat, and that they must sign a pledge to that effect. The Party said this was not aimed at Sanders, but who are we kidding here? How many other non-Democrats have seriously challenged for the Party's nomination in the last, say, century?

Sanders has already signed the pledge for 2020, so that's that, right? Not entirely. See, he's also filed his paperwork to run for reelection to the Senate in 2024, in case this whole president thing doesn't work out. And on that paperwork, he identified himself as I-VT. That is why we continue to identify him thusly.

The bottom line is that Sanders has surely done enough to fulfill the Democrats' rules and to qualify for the nomination. If he wins it outright, then there is no way Biden or anyone else can steal the nomination on what is, in effect, a technicality. On the other hand, if we end up with a brokered convention, then the argument that "he's not really a Democrat" could influence some delegates.

Q: I have noticed that the use of the phrase "Democrat Party" by conservatives and members of the GOP has risen significantly over the past few years. One could believe that this is just a shortened version of saying "Democratic Party," but to me it comes across as pejorative. The best comparison that I can think of is using the term "Jew" instead of "Jewish." If there was a reference to "the Jew population" rather than "the Jewish population," it might come across as denigrating and bigoted. While the Democratic party isn't a religion (to most), the use of "Democrat party," to me, at least, comes across as dismissive, with images of blue-hairs wrinkling their noses in disapproval. Am I alone in this observation? J.C., Mullinville, KS

A: You're absolutely right, this is meant as an insult, and it's now in wide use by Republican politicians and the right-wing media. While the adjective "Democrat" was occasionally used in a derogatory fashion in the 19th century, it didn't become common until the mid-20th, and even then it was only some Republicans. For example, Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater used it, but Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford did not. It was in the late 1990s that it became pretty close to universal among Republicans, thanks in part to the efforts of Republican branding expert Frank Luntz, and also to the adoption of the convention by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Eventually, it was noticeable enough that William Safire wrote a column about the use of "Democrat" as a pejorative, noting that in addition to having a harsh sound, and a generally dismissive feel, "it does conveniently rhyme with autocrat, plutocrat, and worst of all, bureaucrat." Other Republicans like that the accent is on "rat."

The word is, of course, ungrammatical when used in this way. The linguistic term for the repurposing of a word that is one part of speech as another part of speech (turning a noun into an adjective, or a verb into a noun, etc.) is "anthimeria." And in case you are wondering, some Democrats have proposed fighting back by calling Republicans by the epithet "Publican," as that vaguely references the corrupt tax practices of the Roman empire. It hasn't caught on, obviously.

Q: Maybe I am thinking too impartially, but why not have a random draw to determine debate stage placement? Also, if the point of the debates is to amplify voices, how is it fair that the frontrunners receive significantly more speaking time (sometimes more than double) than the B-team? Presumably, the American people have already heard a lot from the frontrunners, which is how they got there in the first place. J.A., Dublin, CA

A: One way to put it is that folks like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have had their chance to speak to the American people, and they should give someone else a turn. Another way to put it is that they have earned the right to more prominent placement and more speaking time.

Probably the most useful way to think about this is to consider what the full application of this idea would look like. So, imagine that—at the first debate—Marianne Williamson was positioned at the center of the stage, and got twice as much speaking time as Joe Biden. Does that really seem fair? Does it really serve the needs of the voters? Does it serve the needs of the Democratic Party? Would the frontrunners' campaigns be ok with that? We are inclined to say that the answer to all four questions is "no." We are 100% sure that the answer to the last two is "no," and for that reason alone, the system you propose is never, ever going to happen. Once again, we would like to point out that the Democratic primaries are not like Saturday morning Little League tee-ball. The purpose is not to make everyone feel good. The purpose—to put it in blunt terms—is to eliminate all the candidates except one and to do that as quickly as possible so the party can come together around the nominee. Propping up marginal candidates doesn't help. If a candidate wants to be in the middle of the stage, the rules are clear: Poll higher than anyone else.

Q: When I hear breakdowns of polling, two of the categories are often "college-educated whites" and "non-college-educated whites." I also sometimes see college- and non-college-educated men and women separated out. However, I never hear other racial or demographic groups broken down by education. Is this because other groups don't tend to have measurable differences based on education? Is it because most polls don't sample enough of those other groups to be statistically significant? Or is it something else? S.V.E., Seattle, WA

A: With the caveat that every poll is different, and so they can have very different crosstabs, you're right that it is very rare to get educational data for non-white voters. And you've also hit on most of the reason for that: it's hard to get enough people for a proper sample size, and it's not terribly likely to be instructive.

The only part of the puzzle you've missed, we would say, is that polling is expensive. It is certainly possible to find enough college-educated black women in their 60s or, for that matter, to find enough people 6'8" or taller, or to find enough left-handed bricklayers, or to find enough millionaire lesbian Texans. However, finding those people takes a lot of time (and money). Every additional question asked (height, handedness, sexual orientation, etc.) also adds time (and money). Pollsters are willing to pursue data that's instructive, and that speaks to meaningful cleavages in the electorate, but they don't go down rabbit holes.

That does theoretically mean, of course, that a pollster could miss a significant demographic development that they're not looking for (for example, a divide between voters of Puerto Rican descent and of Mexican descent, or between educated black voters and non-educated ones, or between short voters and tall ones). However, many pollsters are pretty good at what they do, and they would likely figure it out pretty quickly. Especially if they are Ann Selzer.

Q: I recall reading at the time of the ratification of the 27th Amendment that the Supreme Court didn't have jurisdiction over the questions involving an expiration date. Rather, it was the Archivist of the United States (currently David Ferriero) who ratified it and claimed jurisdiction; SCOTUS didn't touch it. I don't know anything about Ferriero's politics, and his Wikipedia page indicates he's not overtly partisan, but it does look like it could lean in a direction that would predispose him to be sympathetic to the ERA. Could he assert the power and authority of the office and simply ratify the amendment? If so, given the SCOTUS' precedent for not interfering with the 27th, can they claim jurisdiction over such legal questions? And couldn't the Democrats actually attempt to persuade Ferriero to do this with the political goal of having a wedge issue to drive ERA-sympathetic voters to the polls, even if the case won't hit the Supremes until after the election? S.H., Worcester, MA

A: A major lesson of the last three years (and really of the last 20 years) is that much of the American system is governed by tradition, and by cautious application of Constitutional principles. It is clear that when someone disregards tradition, and embraces a wildly assertive, rather than cautious, approach, they can do a great deal. See Donald Trump, for example, or Mitch McConnell, as both have taken very liberal advantage (no pun intended) of gray areas in the American system.

All of this is to say that it's certainly possible Ferriero could assert himself in this way. However, as someone who appears to be a cautious, "old school" type (he's a career librarian, for goodness sake's), we doubt it. Also, the ERA raises two sticky legal questions that the 27th Amendment did not: whether Congress can set a deadline, and whether states can rescind their approval. It's very possible that the Supreme Court did not feel a need to weigh in on the notion of an implied deadline, but that they would want to weigh in on an explicitly stated deadline or on the legality of rescinding approval. We won't really know until someone tries to add the ERA as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, and then SCOTUS decides whether or not to take any lawsuits that result.

Q: Can you explain why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is the least (well, now the second-least) popular senator in America, in his home state?

Why don't Republicans in Republican Kentucky approve of what Republican Mitch McConnell is doing for them? Especially when he brings home the pork?
J.G., New York City, NY

A: Neither of us lives in Kentucky, and we would be happy to print insights from any readers who do, and who would care to share. However, it appears to be three things. The first is that he is a very prominent advocate for and advancer of the Republican agenda, and he's used some underhanded tricks in service of his quest(s). So, he basically has zero support among non-Republicans in Kentucky. Second, and related to the first, is that he's not very charismatic or personally likable. And so, he hasn't won back any crossover support by being a swell guy that a voter might like to have a beer with (unlike, say, a Charlie Baker in Massachusetts or a Steve Bullock in Montana). Third, it's not a secret to Kentuckians that his focus is mostly on national matters and not on their state. Some of them appreciate the pork, if they happen to benefit from it personally. However, some of them feel neglected.

Q: I remember you said that Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden are not good public speakers, while you said Stacey Abrams is "an excellent public speaker." My question is: What do you think makes a politician a good public speaker? L.M.S., Harbin, China

A: When (Z) worked at the Daily Bruin, the advertising sales manager there observed that a good salesman is one who can sell you without your feeling like you're being hit with a sales pitch.

Obviously, judging a person's public speaking skill is subjective, but we would say that this is also a pretty good way to make objective sense of it. That is to say, good speakers talk in a way that seems conversational, and makes you forget that they are giving a speech. Bad speakers, by contrast, speak in a way that is halting, or paced oddly, or is otherwise unnatural. Similarly, good speakers display appropriate emotional states, without overdoing it or underdoing it. They are funny, touching, even-keeled, angry, etc. when it makes sense, and their presentation feels genuine. Bad speakers are wooden, or make clunky jokes, or seem like they're acting when they reach for an emotional moment.

We will also add one other nuance. There are some college professors who connect extremely well with a subset of students, and win awards for their teaching, but leave the rest of the students confused and frustrated. There are also some college professors who connect very well with a large percentage of their students, and win awards for their teaching. Some politicians have a speaking style that resonates, but only with a certain subset of voters. Donald Trump is in this category, as was Huey Long. Other politicians have a speaking style that resonates with nearly everyone. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and John F. Kennedy are in this group.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan17 Impeachment Day 1 Goes Badly for Trump
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