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      •  Surprise, Surprise!
      •  Saturday Q&A

Surprise, Surprise!

That headline is not meant ironically or sarcastically. On Friday, Donald Trump twice made news in ways we certainly did not see coming.

To start, he has seen the light when it comes to visiting Tulsa, OK, on Juneteenth. On Thursday, the White House's statement was that the day has "special meaning" to the President. On Friday morning, that had evolved into declaring that the date was not chosen "on purpose." And on Friday night, "out of respect" for the occasion, Trump announced that the rally would be rescheduled to June 20. That's still not great optics, but it's less fraught than June 19. Our guess is that someone told him about how very bad it would look if mass violence broke out right outside the door as he spoke.

Even more heartening, for those who fear a coup, is that Trump spoke to Fox News' Harris Faulkner on Friday night, and said that if he loses the election in November, he will leave office peacefully. "Certainly, if I don't win, I don't win," he said. We have made the argument repeatedly that any "coup" attempt would have to be backed by the military, and that there's no way they would go for it. This week's events made that even clearer. To avoid an incredibly embarrassing situation, like being physically dragged out of the White House, he has no real option but to go gentle into that good night if he loses. Well, to go gentle into that good midday, but you get the point. Anyhow, it would seem he has realized that. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

Help! I'm stuck in a political-question-answering factory! (Just checking to see if people actually read the intros).

Q: There have been many videos that blame George Soros for planting people in the protests we've seen across the country. Why do conservatives target George Soros, and is there justification for that belief/attack? Is there any evidence that there is any specific group behind what's going on? R.F., Round Lake, IL

A: There are a number of factors that combine to make Soros the perfect boogie man for conservatives and conspiracists (who are often one and the same):

  • He's rich
  • The source of his wealth, hedge fund management, is a tad bit abstract/mysterious to many people
  • He's given lots of money to left-wing causes
  • He's foreign-born
  • He's Jewish

All of this makes it very easy to fit him into the centuries-old notion, most famously expressed in the notorious propaganda piece The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that the world is being run by a shady cabal of wealthy Jews, whose goal is to destroy various nation-states and leave them subservient to, well, the Jewish people.

There is no evidence in support of any of these suspicions. George Soros is using his own personal wealth to pursue his own personal goals, no different from the Kochs, or T. Boone Pickens, or Peter Thiel. You will notice that there are very few conspiracy theories when it is a Christian right-winger who is funding political causes.

Q: Is it possible that the overwhelming support for the protests the polls show is partly a result of the "social desirability bias"? If memory serves, the somewhat unexpected result of the 2016 presidential race was in part chalked up to some people hiding their actual preference when answering polling questions. Could something like this be at play this time around, too? A.P.B., Ljubljana, Slovenia

A: We think it is unlikely that this is a meaningful phenomenon. There is just too much corroborating information, from businesses making substantive policy changes, to statues coming down, to a vast conversation on police misconduct, that suggests there is a real movement here. There are probably some companies that are signaling that they are "right" with Black Lives Matter for PR purposes, rather than due to some true, honest sentiment. However, our guess is that those are the rare exception.

Q: I've been reading about how the Senate and House are writing new legislation to reform policing. One thing that struck me was how the Senate was crafting their bill with only Republican input but they say they "want" a bipartisan bill and "hope" the Democrats will be willing to work with them. Is this a normal way of writing bills? And, is the House doing the same thing but with Democrats? J.T., Southlake, TX

A: We are going to start with two propositions. The first is that the parties are coming at this from different angles, based on the size of their respective bases. As the party with the larger base, the Democrats have more potential for building a broad consensus in support of their policies. There is value in trying to do so, because while 50.01% support in Congress is enough to get a policy enacted into law, 60% or 70% support makes that policy more likely to stick long-term. The Republicans, as the smaller party, have less possibility for building consensus. And as that party's views have grown more extreme, they have reached the conclusion that their best (and possibly only) path is to spend little energy trying to enact a policy agenda, and instead to do everything possible to obstruct the Democrats' agenda while also using their slim majority in the Senate to pack the courts with conservative judges who can legislate from the bench. The Party's leaders have made no secret of this strategy.

The second proposition is that the parties are coming at this from different angles, based on the composition of their respective bases. The Democratic base is made up of far more people who have been victimized by police misconduct, or have a friend/relative who has been victimized, or who have sympathy for those who have been victimized. The Republican base is made up of far more people who are police, or who have a friend/relative who is a police officer, or who are sympathetic to the police.

And now, your question. It is not normal for the members of Congress to put together a bill without input from the other side, and then to expect bipartisan support. They are not stupid, and they know that the former choice effectively precludes the latter possibility. However, we would also argue, following from the propositions above, that the Democrats in the House and the Republicans in the Senate are not "doing the same thing." Without making judgments about who is good/bad, moral/immoral, racist/non-racist, Democrats have considerably more motivation to reach across the aisle in general, and to make progress on this issue in particular. So, any efforts they make in the direction of change or progress are probably genuine, and if they fail to reach across the aisle, it's only because their hand has been slapped away too many times. Barack Obama, in particular, was criticized for clinging to ideals of bipartisanship for far too long after it was clear that Congressional Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), weren't interested.

The Republicans, by contrast, have little motivation to engage in bipartisanship in general, or to make progress on this issue in particular. So, why are they making so much noise about putting together a bill and wishing for bipartisanship? Because they are not stupid. They've seen the same polls everyone else has, and they realize that public sentiment is currently on the side of the protesters, of Black Lives Matter, and of the Democrats. Senate Republicans have to do something, or they will be damaged. And so they are going through the motions. McConnell's preference would be to do nothing, and to say that he really tried his little heart out, but those unreasonable Democrats just wouldn't get on board. Failing that, he may decide that his chamber will have to pass some sort of limited bill. But there is no chance that he is going to actually try to work with the Democrats, nor that he will pass the more sweeping bill passed by the House, because—barring some major change—those things are just not in his interest, or the interests of his caucus.

Q: The police officer accused in the homicide of George Floyd is Derek Chauvin. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "chauvinism" derives from the name of Nicolas Chauvin, a French soldier. Any familial relation? G.A., Berkeley, CA

A: Unlikely. First of all, Chauvin is a fairly common French last name; there are about 16,000 Chauvins in France at the moment. They (and their last-name brethren abroad) do not share a common ancestor any more than all the Joneses, or Johnsons, or Coopers do.

Second, Chauvin was almost certainly fictional. No evidence of his actual existence has been found, and around the time the name first found its way into print (the Napoleonic Era), it would have been [Common French First Name] + [Slangy term for tough]. In other words, it would have meant something like Johnny Buttkicker. The closest American equivalent is probably the Revolutionary War-era Molly Pitcher, who was believed for a time to have been a real person. We know now that there probably was no Molly Pitcher, per se—it was a nickname applied to multiple women, one that combined a common female first name of that era plus a task women often performed during battles (bringing water to thirsty, overheated cannoneers).

Q: The Economist just gave Joe Biden an 85% chance of winning the presidential election, while oddsmakers have Biden at maybe 55%, depending on the bookie. How would you currently rate Biden's chance of winning the election? R.M., Baltimore, MD

A: As we've noted, the betting odds right now are skewed by the money that bettors put on Trump before the Democratic nominee was known, as well as by bets that were made for entertainment/emotional/arbitrage reasons, and were not necessarily predictive.

Anyhow, we would say The Economist's number sounds pretty on-the-mark. Maybe a little high, but not a lot.

Q: I also see on the map that Utah, Montana, and Missouri are all polling very closely. Do you think there's any thought being put into pursuing Utah and the like, or is that too much of a longshot? I have to think that the advertising markets in Utah and Montana are probably fairly inexpensive compared to Georgia and Florida. Z.W.R., Philadelphia, PA

A: We don't see it. Yes, advertising is cheaper in those places. However, it is also the case that the prize is much smaller, and the hill to be climbed is much taller. Further, if states as red as Utah and Montana are in play, then Donald Trump is in deep trouble. Better for the Biden campaign to focus on the surer and more lucrative bets, like North Carolina or Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin (even if they are more expensive). Recall that Hillary Clinton spent some time and money chasing longshots, and that worked to her detriment. The longshots didn't pay off, and it turns out that she should have spent the time and money in states that she unwisely assumed were safe (like Michigan).

Utah is a lost cause for Biden unless Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) announces that he is voting for Biden, which is unlikely. Montana is a bit different. If Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) wins the Senate race big time, it is at least conceivable that Bullock's coattails could pull Biden over the finish line. Again, this is unlikely. In both cases, there is nothing for Biden to do except hope and pray; spending time and money on the state isn't going to help him.

Q: I know this has been discussed in the past, but I wonder if you'd care to revisit the question of Condi Rice as Joe Biden's VP? J.O., Columbia, MD

A: This would be a very bad idea. First of all, she has remained virtually silent when it comes to the misdeeds of the Trump era. The selection of someone like that, particularly someone who is also associated with George W. Bush, would enrage most progressives and many non-progressives. Second, picking someone whose skin color is black, but whose experience and whose politics have nothing to do with those of most black voters, would come off as tokenism and would alienate many of Joe Biden's most avid supporters. Whatever nominal upside she would bring would not be worth those downsides.

Note also that there have been three notable cases of presidents whose running mates were either literally members of the other party, or were de facto members (William Henry Harrison/John Tyler, Zachary Taylor/Millard Fillmore, and Abraham Lincoln/Andrew Johnson). In all three cases the president died and was succeeded by his not-the-same-party VP. And, in all three cases, it was a disaster: The VP-turned-president had no coalition, as his "adopted" party was not on the same page and viewed him as an outsider, and his "real" party viewed him as an apostate.

Q: With all of the talk recently about the size of Joe Biden's lead, both overall and in the Electoral College, I'm curious as to at what point Republicans will turn their back on Trump. Right now, it seems as though the party is still basically all aboard the S.S. Trump, but if we get to September and Biden is still maintaining a lead similar to what he has now, will other Republicans still support him? R.M., Pensacola, FL

A: We, like all politics watchers, are watching closely for signs of a collapse in Trump's support among prominent members of his party. There have been some scattered signs, most obviously all the military pushback. But when it will happen, or even if? There is just no way to say with any confidence. There are plenty of examples of politicians who chose to stick with an obviously sinking ship rather than to rock the boat (for example, all the Republicans who stuck with Herbert Hoover in 1932).

If it does happen, there is some political value in being one of the leaders of the movement rather than one of the followers. In fact, watch for an item this week (already written) about someone we think would be well advised to turn traitor right now (but who probably won't do it).

Q: In Wednesday's item about the bad CNN poll for Trump, you mentioned a couple difficulties Trump faces in 2020 that he didn't have in 2016. In addition, he's the incumbent this time, and I think if we're honest, we could in many ways consider Clinton the "incumbent" in 2016 and Trump the "challenger." Is there any truth to the idea put forth by Dick Morris (in addition to credible political analysts) that undecided/late-breakers tend to break more to the challenger than the incumbent? If you have 3 years and 9 months to decide if this person is right for the job, and you're still on the fence, won't you be at least somewhat more inclined to give the other guy a shot? P.S., Marion, IA

A: First of all, the answer to any question that begins with "Is there any truth to the idea put forth by Dick Morris..." is almost certainly "no." He's turned into a weird, propagandizing crank. Like Hugh Hewitt or Bernie Goldberg, there was a time when he was pretty reasonable, but that time has passed.

Anyhow, this is one of the (many) cases where Morris is wrong. Lots of political scientists have looked at this question, because if they could accurately predict the behavior of late-deciders, they would earn a reputation as great soothsayers. And there is absolutely no consensus that late-breaking voters favor the challenger (or the incumbent). The only thing that's really clear is that late-breaking voters are particularly sensitive to...wait for it...late-breaking developments. For undecided voters who are high-information, the late-breaking developments resolve the "tie" that exists for them. For undecided voters who are low-information, the late-breaking developments are what they actually know about the candidate, and serve as the main basis for their decision.

And so, the fact that the undecided vote broke heavily for Donald Trump in 2016 is not because Clinton was the incumbent or kinda-incumbent. It is because the final major development in the campaign, namely James Comey's announcement about her e-mails, was strongly adverse to her.

Q: Donald Trump's numbers are tanking, and every move he makes seems to make matters worse. It occurred to me that maybe he has had enough. Being president can't be much fun anymore, and perhaps he knows he's in over his head. Do you think it's possible he really doesn't care if he loses and is now just doing the narcissistic thing of playing to his base to get the adulation? Maybe he figures he'll lose, but will claim the election was rigged. Then he can be a martyr in the eyes of his followers, and get back to playing golf, maybe building a TV network or something like that. R.P., Northfield, IL

A: If we are talking about what is happening on a subconscious, Freudian level? Who knows? He clearly doesn't like about 95% of the job of being president, and it's at least possible he's self-sabotaging. Or that he's giving himself an ego-saving "out" for when and if he loses.

On a conscious level, however? No way. As much as he hates being president, he hates losing even more. Further, he is justifiably scared of going to prison once his term is up. New York AG Letitia James is waiting. She knows that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is eventually going to retire and that the AG position is often a stepping stone to the governor's mansion. She also knows that putting Trump in prison would raise her chances of winning a gubernatorial election in Trump-hating New York to above 90%.

Q: Suppose Donald Trump, after losing in November, resigns so that Mike Pence can pardon him before Joe Biden is inaugurated. But then suppose that Letitia James decides to indict Trump for crimes he may have committed in New York State. How could she force Trump to face charges? Does New York have an extradition treaty with Florida or something?

For that matter, is it possible that Trump could flee to a country that really doesn't have an extradition treaty with us, such as Saudi Arabia or Russia? Would he then be safe from prosecution? Which countries do you think most likely would be graced with his presence?
B.L., Hudson, NY

A: New York does not have an extradition treaty with Florida, but it does have the Extradition Clause, as well as 18 U.S. Code 3182. Both of those require the governor of a state where a fugitive is hiding to arrest and return that fugitive to the state where they face charges. It used to be that a governor could refuse such a request, but since the 1987 decision in Puerto Rico v. Branstad, the federal courts have granted themselves the right to enforce interstate extradition orders. There are some other circumstances where a state can legally refuse an extradition request (for example, the paperwork is not correct), but they would not apply here. What that means is that if James sends Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) a formal request asking him to arrest and deliver Trump, DeSantis would have to do it, or face going to prison himself for contempt of court.

This being the case, if Trump decides to flee, he will certainly go to a non-extradition country, which would make him safe from prosecution. The obvious option, which we've pointed out before, is the United Arab Emirates, where Trump already has a property. He could also head to Russia, where he already has at least one friend, and where he's always dreamed of building the Trump Tower Moscow. A full list of the 50 or so countries that have no extradition treaty with the United States is here.

Alternatively, Trump could try to argue he is being persecuted for political reasons, and could request asylum on that basis. If a country bought that argument, then they wouldn't extradite, even if they do have an extradition agreement with the U.S. Needless to say, the irony of Trump officially becoming a refugee would be so thick you could choke on it.

Q: I was having a discussion with traditional conservative types in my family and they came out saying that the current president has not done anything that is against the Constitution or otherwise illegal. Though these issues are rarely black and white, I find that hard to believe. If they are incorrect, what are the clearest and easiest to understand examples of the president acting unconstitutionally or illegally? C.S., West Palm Beach, FL

A: Here are five biggies:

  1. His attempts to silence CNN, the Washington Post, etc. are a violation of the First Amendment
  2. His hosting of foreign dignitaries and domestic politicians at his resorts violates both of the Constitution's emoluments clauses
  3. Robert Mueller made very clear that Trump obstructed justice during the investigation into Russian election interference
  4. By withholding Ukraine's money, for even one second, he violated the Impoundment Control Act
  5. His administration's policy of putting refugee immigrant children in cages is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment

That said, if your family believes he's done nothing illegal, then nothing you (or we) say is going to change their minds. It's like asking "Who is taller, Shaquille O'Neal or Tom Cruise?" If you can't figure out the answer by yourself, you're not going to figure it out at all.

Q: A few months ago you answered a question with a list of Donald Trump's 10 biggest scandals. I was wondering, what would the list look like now in your opinion? Also, just for the sake of comparison, what would you classify as Obama's 10 biggest presidential scandals? C.P., Silver Spring, MD

A: All right, here's our current top 10 for Trump, always subject to revision:

  1. COVID-19 response
  2. George Floyd response
  3. Children in cages
  4. Ukrainegate
  5. "Grab 'em by the pu**y"
  6. Hurricane Maria response
  7. "There were good people on both sides"
  8. Government shutdown
  9. Obstructing the Russia probe
  10. Dismissal of inspectors general

Note that this is our judgment of the impact on him and his party, politically, and not the impact on the country or the world at large.

As to Obama, we don't think that your question can be answered with just one list, because that list would include apples, oranges, and pears. So, we're going to give you three lists of five. First, here are the five missteps that hurt him most with the people who voted for him:

  1. Drone strikes in Pakistan
  2. "If you like the plan you have, you can keep it."
  3. Failure to publicly challenge Mitch McConnell on election interference
  4. Clumsy launch of
  5. The Snowden affair

Here are the five things that were real, but exaggerated beyond all reason by the right-wing media, so as to (intentionally) infuriate conservatives:

  1. Benghazi
  2. Hillary Clinton's e-mail server
  3. Uranium One
  4. Association with Jeremiah Wright
  5. 57 states

And here are five things that were completely made up, but did damage to him and/or his reputation nonetheless:

  1. Born in Kenya/Not a citizen
  2. Illegal investigations of Donald Trump
  3. Responsible for COVID-19
  4. Secret Muslim
  5. Michelle Obama is actually a man

Q: You often write about politicians a being cooked if they are "caught in bed with a live boy or dead girl". The last week has seen a prominent male senator accused on social media of having male escorts sign NDAs before performing "services" without much blowback. During the Bill Clinton impeachment, Larry Flynt was able to unseat, and bring to light the hypocrisy of the conservative movement. In the era of p**sy-grabbers, are we past the point where sexual indiscretions matter, much the same as it is in Europe where a mistress (or mister) on the side comes as a benefit of the job? M.G., München, Germany

A: First of all, for those who are not up-to-date, the senator in question is Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has never been married and whose sexuality has always been whispered about, and who has recently been accused of procuring numerous male "companions."

Anyhow, the United States is much more socially conservative than most of Europe, and we do not believe that the sexual dalliances of political leaders are yet something that voters will automatically look past. It depends very much on the circumstances. In the case of Graham, the story hasn't gotten much play, we think, because there are currently no credible sources for it. Social media gossip does not count, and the whole thing bears the faint smell of something that was cooked up to try to hurt the Senator, not unlike the inept efforts of Jacob Wohl, who tried to pull much the same scheme with Pete Buttigieg.

If stronger evidence does present itself, and if more responsible media outlets run with the story, it could indeed hurt Graham. Many conservatives (i.e., his base) don't much care for gay people, particularly as their elected representatives. Many centrists and liberals might not have a problem with him being gay, but could object to his having misrepresented himself, and having had a generally anti-LGBTQ posture (he's got a 0% score from the South Carolina Gay & Lesbian Pride Movement).

Q: Do you know of any impending charges or reprimands against AG Bill Barr stemming from John Gleeson's report on the Department of Justice's request to drop all charges against former NSA and admitted felon Michael Flynn, as well as Barr's authorizing and facilitating the infamous "clearing" of Lafayette Square on June 1st? M.B., Pittsboro, NC

A: There is much pressure in that direction, with over 1,250 former Justice Dept. officials signing a letter this week calling for an investigation. However, if Justice IG Michael Horowitz took their advice to heart, or if he's conducting any other investigations, he has not seen fit to share. His silence is not necessarily instructive, one way or the other. Even if he was investigating something he would keep it to himself in order to avoid tainting the inquiry and also to avoid getting fired as State Dept. IG Steve Linick just was.

There is the possibility Barr could be prosecuted after he leaves office. It's not common, but it's happened a few times. Specifically: Harding Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (bribery), Nixon AG Richard Kleindienst (obstruction of justice), and Reagan Secretary of the Interior James Watt (obstruction, perjury) committed while in office. Three people isn't much of a precedent, but it's not "no precedent," either.

Q: On Friday, Donald Trump declared: "I think I've done more for the black community than any other President and let's take a pass on Abraham Lincoln because he did good but although it's always questionable, you other words...the end result." What do you think his bizarre mind was trying to say? J.G., San Diego, CA

A: This could be read as declaring that the end of slavery itself was a mixed bag for black people, and that in some ways they might be better off if slavery had been kept intact. That notion has some currency in far-right circles, and was famously expounded upon by the nutty Cliven Bundy a few years back. However, while Trump is more racist than much of the country, we do not think he's anywhere near that racist.

There is also a notion, argued by some liberal scholars and by some civil rights activists, that Lincoln's role in emancipation is grossly overrated, and that lionizing him denies the agency of the enslaved people who fought back against the institution. See this piece, entitled "How the Slaves Freed Themselves," for an overview of this way of thinking. That said, this is clearly not what Trump was going for either.

That leaves us with the third possibility, namely the argument that Lincoln ended slavery, but that the developments of the postwar years were generally adverse to the freedpeople (sharecropping, lynching, discrimination, segregation). Consequently, emancipation was not as big a victory as it might have been. This argument is almost entirely undisputed among scholars, which helps explain why the preeminent history of the Reconstruction era, by Columbia University historian Eric Foner, is titled Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Note, though, that historians do not necessarily debit Lincoln himself for the failures of the era since he was, of course, dead by then.

Anyhow, we think that the third explanation is basically the correct one. Not that Trump is up to date on the historiography of the 19th century, of course, but that someone pointed out to him that if you squint your eyes just right, you could maybe argue that he's done more of consequences for black Americans than Lincoln did, since Reconstruction turned out so poorly for them. This is an absurd argument because Trump has done zero for black Americans, but a badly mangled version of it is the one the President was trying to make, we think.

Q: You and others have been comparing the upcoming election to 1968, with Donald Trump following Nixon's "law and order" strategy for dealing with nationwide protests. I was wondering if Trump's abdication of any responsibility is also a bit like president Hoover's non-dealing with the Great Depression, combined with his toughness on crime caused by prohibition. Should Biden follow Franklin D. Roosevelt's strategy? P.L., Alphen aan den Rijn, The Netherlands

A: There's much to be said for your parallel. Hoover continued to insist all was well with the economy, even when it clearly was not. And when faced with significant unrest in D.C., #31 unleashed armed soldiers against peaceful demonstrators, to show that he was a tough "law and order" president. Although in that case, it was Hoover's Attorney General who gave the actual order, whereas this time, it was...oh, wait. Well, in Hoover's time, the victims were directly across the street from the White House, while this time...hmmm. Apparently, history really does repeat itself.

And it is usually a good idea to follow Franklin D. Roosevelt's strategies, since FDR really knew what he was doing. In this case, we would say it's a doubly good idea. Roosevelt knew in 1932 that Americans were not looking for a muscle-flexing president, they were looking for someone who could lift their spirits and give them hope in dark times. So, he adopted "Happy Days Are Here Again" as his campaign theme song and promised a "New Deal" for America. We think it's fair to argue that Americans are looking for the same thing now, and besides, such a strategy plays to Biden's strengths. He does empathy pretty well.

Q: Some of Joe Biden's, shall I say, lack of imagination on how to overcome our present crises has been weighing on my mind, leaving me waiting for some better proposals. The three most transformative sets of domestic policy changes in the modern era were the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights Act, enacted at times when the president (FDR and LBJ, respectively) had huge majorities in Congress. Since the current Democrats who are actually proposing new policy ideas (Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ)—roughly in that order) are no longer options for the White House, but are all in the Senate, this got me wondering: how much of the New Deal was actually the brainchild of FDR, and how much was it just FDR rubber-stamping the ideas his allies pushed through Congress? The same question goes for LBJ and the Great Society. N.S., Milwaukee, WI

A: Well, FDR's approach was very different from LBJ's. Roosevelt had limited experience in legislative office (a couple of years in the New York state senate) and fairly limited Washington experience (a stint as Asst. Secretary of the Navy). This meant that although he was very politically skilled, he was not in a position to bend the Congress to his will. Consequently, in the interest of building consensus, he declared that the states were "laboratories of democracy" and that he was willing to take good ideas from anywhere he could find them. If a notion like Social Security already had buy-in from the 5 million members of Townsend Clubs, to take one example, then his life was all the easier. That is not to say that FDR was a passive president, or just got lucky, or took credit for the work of others. His gift was in usually knowing what ideas might gain traction, and then in getting large numbers of voters on his side, forcing fence-sitting politicians to get on board. It also did not hurt that he had huge majorities in the Senate (58-36) and the House (311-117) at the start of his term.

LBJ's experience, by contrast, was entirely in the legislature, including 12 years in the Senate, where he served as both Minority Leader (1953-55) and Majority Leader (1955-61). Few presidents knew better than he how to make sausage. And the bills he got behind either were his own ideas, or were a collaborative effort between Johnson and his allies. Where FDR's talent was in deftly navigating the political winds to his benefit, LBJ's skill was in twisting the arms of Congress and getting them to do what he wanted. It did not hurt that he too had a large majority in the Senate (65-33) and the House (258-176), though those margins aren't quite as large as they seem because of the presence of Southern Democrats. That said, LBJ also had something FDR didn't have, namely the memory of John F. Kennedy to use strategically (e.g., "This is what Jack would have wanted!").

It's not impossible Biden could embrace one or both of these models. He might skillfully pick and choose ideas that are already out there, and have buy-in, to focus upon. Actually, he's already doing that with Obamacare reform. He might also use his knowledge of sausage-making, as a 40-year U.S. senator, to help get things done in the legislature.

Q: Your recent mentions of President Eisenhower (and the early political ads you linked to) got me thinking about his Presidency, which I know a lot less about than his famous military exploits.

To what extent do you think his military career influences contemporary views on his presidency (which I understand to be well-regarded)? Do you think he would have made a good 21st Century politician, given his (lack of) personality?
B.S., Somerset, England

A: Generals who are great tactical generals, and who run battles with skill and panache, are the most likely to be overrated. Generals who are great strategic generals, and who run wars based on their insight and wisdom, are sometimes overrated. Generals who are great administrative generals, and who successfully manage subordinates and the tricky relationship between the political and military establishments, are rarely overrated because while running meetings well is a valuable skill, it's not a sexy one. Eisenhower was mostly the third kind of general (and certainly wasn't the first kind, since he never once commanded troops in combat). Consequently, while he was invaluable during the war, he's not terribly likely to be overrated in the popular imagination (in contrast to, say, Douglas MacArthur, whose flamboyance and penchant for snappy lines have definitely made him overrated, particularly in view of all his screw-ups).

Meanwhile, Eisenhower was a very effective president, overseeing the dramatic expansion of the U.S. economy in the 1950s, securing passage of the Interstate Highway Act, ending the Korean War, and keeping the Cold War from turning into a hot (nuclear) war in its most tense years. That said, these things aren't sexy either, not like winning a world war, or a civil war, or buying Louisiana. So, his presidency occupies a similar place in the popular imagination as his military career: well-regarded, but not prone to being celebrated or lionized.

Put another way, we do not think his military reputation bleeds over into his presidential reputation, or his presidential reputation bleeds over into his military reputation because both commodities are about equal. The person whose reputation does work like this is Ulysses S. Grant. USG was a very great tactical, strategic, and administrative general who had a middling presidency due to corrupt underlings as well as the nearly intractable challenges he faced in the South. Because Southern writers and historians did not much care for his presidency (e.g., crushing the KKK), they managed to tear him down from "pretty average president" to "horrible, corrupt president." And then, once his political reputation was in tatters, they turned around and used that to tear down his military reputation, arguing that he was a "butcher" who merely won because he had more troops and he didn't care if they died or not.

Oh, and Eisenhower would surely make a fine president today. He was pragmatic, flexible, and able to build consensus. Those qualities are almost always valuable.

Q: I was just reading an article about how Rutherford B. Hayes is famous in Paraguay for his administration's role in mediating a conflict between Paraguay and Argentina. Are there any other presidents that are particularly popular outside of the United States? D.B., Waltham, MA

A: This is not an exhaustive list, but:

  • Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are honored in many nations, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

  • James Monroe is regarded as a "founding father" of Liberia (founded to recolonize slaves). The capital, Monrovia, is named for him.

  • Woodrow Wilson is beloved in Czechia for his work on the Treaty of Versailles. Hundreds of streets are named for him.

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower has been honored with statues in many European countries, due to his World War II leadership.

  • Harry S. Truman is well regarded in Greece (he helped them fight off Communism) and Israel (he helped create that nation).

  • John F. Kennedy is remembered fondly in Cameroon and numerous other African nations due to his role in creating the Peace Corps.

  • Ronald Reagan is well liked by Germans, especially Berliners, due to his role in bringing down the Berlin Wall.

  • Bill Clinton is very popular in Albania, and also in Kosovo, for his role in helping liberate the latter nation.

  • George W. Bush is also very popular in Albania, because he was the first U.S. president to visit that nation.

  • Barack Obama is well-liked in Kenya, due to his ancestral roots there. Also, the Chinese once commissioned a burning statue of him prior to a state visit, because he has "fiery energy."

  • Statues of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump stand guard at the gates of hell. (Just joking; it's Nixon himself, not a statue.)

Q: Who do you think was the best president who only served one full four-year term? R.H.D., Webster, NY

A: The classic answer to this question is James K. Polk, as he ran on a list of promises (including that he would serve only one term), fulfilled them all, and then retired, as he said he would. However, his reputation has taken a hit in recent years, since his biggest accomplishment was provoking a war with Mexico and taking half their land. Looked at through modern eyes, that was a tad bit imperialist.

Among the other 10 options, our top pick is probably John Quincy Adams. His term witnessed the completion of the Erie Canal, the dramatic expansion of America's first "freeway" (the Cumberland Road), the expansion of trade, and the construction of America's first railroad. A man of conscience, he had a humane Indian policy by the standards of his day, and pushed back against slavery, at least a little. After his presidency, he would push back against slavery much harder, in the midst of one of the more brilliant careers the House of Representatives has seen from one of its members.

Q: I read that the Whig party took the raccoon as a symbol, similar to the Democrats using a donkey. The political opponents of the Whigs called them "coons," accusing them of being too sympathetic with black people, and the term transformed into a pejorative for black people.

Is this remotely true?
F.L., Denton, TX

A: The use of the term "coon" as a racial slur predates the Whig Party by multiple generations, dating back at least as far as the Revolutionary War era. It probably derives from the word barracoon, which is a variant of the Portuguese word for "slave."

That said, the Whig Party did adopt a raccoon as its mascot (to emphasize their Western-ness and their support for Westward expansion), and they were slurred by opponents as being too friendly to the interests of black people. Since "coon" was already in use as both a slur and a diminutive of "raccoon," the double entendre was indeed used as a political weapon against the Whigs.

Q: You mentioned some possible new names for military bases in your item "Trump Won't Rename Army Bases." I was excited at the idea of naming a base after a prominent military woman (I imagine there already is one).

If you were to rename one base from each branch of service after a woman, which bases would they be and whom would they honor?
S.B., New Castle, DE

A: Here goes:

  • Army: For this one, we will pick General Ann E. Dunwoody (ret.), the first woman in American history to achieve four-star rank. She is a Virginia native, so let's make Fort A.P. Hill into Fort A.E. Dunwoody.

  • Navy: This one's easy. It's gotta be Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the pioneering computer programmer. We're going to have to rename Fort Meade here, since that is the HQ for U.S. Navy's cyber command. Meade was a Civil War general, but on the side of the North, so he doesn't have to be kicked to the curb. But we're going to, anyway.

  • Air Force: We're going with Col. Eileen Collins (ret.), who was the first woman to command a space shuttle. Los Angeles Air Force Base is the only Air Force base (among six) that is part of the space operations command and is not already named for a person. Further, it's not even in Los Angeles, really—it's in El Segundo. So, we'll pick that one to transform into Eileen Collins AFB.

  • Marines: How about Lt. Gen. Carol A. Mutter (ret.), the first woman to achieve three-star rank in any of the armed services? She spent much of her career in Okinawa, and the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, Okinawa has no honorific name, so Marine Corps Air Station Carol A. Mutter, Okinawa? Its sister base in Okinawa, Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler, is already named for someone, so it would seem that's kosher.

  • Coast Guard: Vivien S. Crea (ret.) was the first woman to achieve flag rank in the USCG, and the first (of two) women to serve as Vice Commandant, which is that service's second-in-command. The Coast Guard does not name bases after people, so we'll have to give her a building at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. The officers' club there is unnamed, and that seems like a pretty good fit.

Let us also note some other folks worthy of consideration:

  • Deborah Sampson (Revolutionary War), Sarah Emma Edmonds (Civil War), and Cathay Williams (buffalo soldiers) are among the women who passed themselves off as men in order to serve. Williams is also the first known black woman to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

  • Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was denied a commission during the Civil War, by virtue of her gender, but she remains the only woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

  • During World War II, Lt. Annie Fox was the first woman to be awarded the Purple Heart.

  • Naomi Parker Fraley was the model for Rosie the Riveter.

  • Lt. Kara Hultgreen was the first American woman certified as a fighter pilot, and died in the line of duty.

And as far as we can tell, there is no existing U.S. military base named for a woman.

Q: What is your view on keeping/removing statues of Confederate leaders, and do you make a distinction between very outspoken pro-slavery political leaders and military leaders like Robert E. Lee? J.J.K., Haarlem, The Netherlands

A: As a historian, (Z) generally likes historical sites that speak to the disagreements and disputes of the past. These sites are a form of "teachable moment."

That said, he generally prefers that statues that are so emotionally fraught be limited to museums and historic sites. If a person of color finds a statue of Robert E. Lee upsetting, as well they might, they aren't going to see it every day if it's placed at the Confederate White House or the Museum of the Civil War. They can also avoid those places, if they so choose. On the other hand, if the statue is located on Monument Avenue in Richmond, they could be all-but-compelled to see it on a daily basis. That sort of negative impact is not worth whatever teaching value there is.

And the people who got statues were pretty much, by definition, slaveholders or were staunchly pro-slavery. Most of these monuments were built in the decades after the war, particularly in the 1890s and early 1900s, as pro-white supremacist political statements. A statue of someone like James Longstreet would be less objectionable, but they also didn't build statues of him, outside of one silly one erected at Gettysburg about 20 years ago.

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