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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

We have an excellent group of "behind the scenes" questions, but there are just too many good and important COVID-19 questions right now. We'll get to the behind the scenes stuff eventually! Many of today's questions require a fair bit of speculation; hopefully that sets the stage for a robust mailbag tomorrow, with readers weighing in with their opinions on these questions.

Q: Any thoughts on the relief bill lobbying efforts? With a trillion dollar plan probably coming out and possibly more such to follow, it seems like there is a lot of money sloshing around and it could go in very different directions depending on the exact wording.

On the other hand, lobbying is based on in person meetings and close and continued contact between lobbyists and congressional staffs. It's a literal golden opportunity but trickier to pull off with social distancing and an ongoing crisis. On the human side, it seems like the direction of the bailouts could alter the economy for the next 10 years, as seemed to happen with the 2008 bailouts.
R.M., Baltimore, MD

A: There is no question that the lobbyists smell blood in the water, and realize that the time is ripe to ask for a big, juicy handout (see here, here, and here for news coverage). Our guess is that the lack of face-to-face contact is not much of an issue. Much can be accomplished via e-mail, Skype, and other forms of electronic communication. Further, those members of Congress who are particularly susceptible to lobbying know which side their bread is buttered on.

The McConnell bill is here, if you're interested in reading through 250 pages. As to the Democrats, it's not clear if they even have a bill yet, or just a set of guidlines. In any event, the question before us is about who is, or is not, being influenced by lobbyists right now. And as far as we can tell, the answer is: the Republicans. The vast amount of money and other concessions that Team McConnell wants to give to corporations, the fact that the Majority Leader was uninterested in Democratic input, and the fact that he tried to ram the bill through the Senate in less than 24 hours (unsuccessfully) all support this conclusion. By contrast, what we know of the Democrats' bill (large amounts of money for very poor people and for unemployment insurance) does not speak to substantive lobbying influence. Once there is an actual bill, perhaps our view will change. One could argue that Team Blue is using government money to purchase people's votes in November, but that is different from yielding to lobbying pressure. If is possible that the Senate and House will pass very different bills, which will have to go to conference to get one final bill. That sausage making will most definitely not be done by email.

Q: The latest relief package being discussed is a "rebate" of $1,000 for each individual and $500 for each child or some variation of it. A while back, George Bush 2.0 oversaw the enactment of a similar relief package. Every taxpayer received a $400 check and some received more for their dependent children. A few things people forget about that exercise: (1) it did relatively little for the economy, and (2) in the subsequent tax year, there was a question when you filed you return along the lines of "Did you receive a check for $400?" If yes, your refund for the current tax year was reduced by the $400 or your tax liability for the year was increased by $400. Basically, the $400 was an advance on your tax refund for the subsequent year. Have you seen anything in this latest package which suggests it will be similar to how they handled the $400 relief package? If not, how will a package of this size be paid for? I recall the adjustment to subsequent year tax returns was left out when they were sending out the checks, and taxpayers got a small surprise on their subsequent returns. R.D., Croydon, PA

A: The portions covering the "rebate" program total almost 49 pages of the McConnell bill (pages 35-84), and since we are not enrolled agents or tax attorneys, we are not able to unravel them all (since there are a vast number of references to parts of the existing tax code). However, we can say the following:

  • McConnell is trying to give private citizens as little money as possible: Roughly half the money in the bill that Senate Republicans proposed would be new money "loaned" to businesses. The other half would ostensibly go directly to private citizens. However, since there would be so many limitations on that money, and since it would just be a "rebate" on money they've already paid (or are going to pay in the future, possibly), the extent to which this represents a "giveaway" to the American people is open to debate. One can certainly make an argument that McConnell has shrewdly used COVID-19 to, in effect, craft a backdoor giveaway to corporations. That is certainly the argument that Slate's Jordan Weissmann makes, in an item headlined "Republicans Found a Way to Mail Checks and Still Screw People Over."

  • There could be unexpected future liabilities: The bill refers several times to "advance refunds" and also makes some changes to the rules for charitable deductions. So, should the McConnell bill pass, folks could get some unexpected surprises when it comes time to file their 2021 returns.

  • Tax professionals aren't satisfied: As we said, we're not experts in the tax code. However, the folks who are experts seem to be generally nonplussed (see here, here, and here for examples). Beyond wondering about the specifics of the plan, and exactly how much of a "gift" this really is, there are three major concerns that appear repeatedly: (1) the plan is designed poorly, and is not likely to stimulate the economy; (2) it is wrong-headed to exclude the poorest people from participation; and (3) the bureaucratic inefficiency built into the plan (lots of complicated calculations are needed) will slow its implementation, and thus blunt whatever positive impact it might have.

That said, this discussion is somewhat academic, since the House is going to insist on some pretty big changes before they pass any trillion-dollar relief bill.

Q: Here's a particularly morbid (no pun intended) question: Can you make a guess, based on population demographics and current infection rates, whether Democrats or Republicans are more likely to contract and succumb to COVID-19, and if so, do you think this calculus could be affecting the current administration's response to the pandemic? For example, could the mentioning-but-not-truly-invoking of the Defense Production Act allow for critical resources to be allocated in a partisan manner? Or could there be something related to voter turnout? D.M., Granite Bay, CA

A: Well, Democrats are more likely to live in big cities, in close proximity to other people. So, the circumstances are presumably more ripe for the disease to spread among those voters. That said, on Friday, Illinois and New York joined California in issuing lockdown orders. That means the three largest cities in the country (New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles) are now taking aggressive counter-measures to combat COVID-19. These states might well shift to 100% vote-by-mail; at this point, that outcome is more likely than not. So, our guess is that the urban slant of the Democratic Party won't actually matter that much in November.

We also know that people above the age of 65 are more likely to contract COVID-19 and more likely to succumb to the disease. Republicans in general, and Donald Trump's base in particular, skew somewhat old. The President got 53% of the over-65 vote in 2016 (compared to 44% for Hillary Clinton). The only demographic groups he did better with were whites (54%-39%) and non-college-educated voters (64%-28%). We doubt that the deaths of some number of older voters are likely to affect the voting in November, but it is entirely possible that reluctance to visit polling places could have an effect. We've already seen an example of this, in Illinois on Tuesday, where over-65 turnout was way down. Obviously, this could be resolved by adopting nationwide vote-by-mail, which is surely within Congress' power to do. However, Republicans know that in addition to making it easier for older folks to vote, this would also make it easier for young people, people of color, working people, and anyone who might be affected by Voter ID laws to vote. So, in order to capture those older voters, the Red Team would also open the door to a big increase in Democratic votes, which presumably would not work in their favor. In short, they appear to be in something of a Catch-22, though the political pressure may be so great that they are left with no choice but to allow vote-by-mail.

Oh, and in answer to your middle question, we cannot think of any way the administration can manipulate the production of supplies so as to disproportionately help Republican voters. However, as you can see in the next answer, we think that Trump is already doing an excellent job of setting things up so as to disproportionately help Democratic voters.

Q: What are your thoughts on having each state trying to get their own supplies (Hunger Games procurement?), as opposed to a centralized ordering/inventory system? D.D., Hollywood, FL

A: There is actually a pretty clear historical analogue for this, namely the Civil War. More specifically, the Confederacy, as its name implies, did everything possible to privilege the power of state governments over the central government. In view of that philosophy, not to mention the fact that the Confederate government did not actually have very much money, there was an expectation that the Southern states would clothe, feed, and equip their own troops. That meant that the soldiers from wealthier Confederate states (Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia) tended to be much better supplied and equipped than those from poorer Confederate states (Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi).

If the President decides to stick with his "federalism" strategy, then the results should be fairly predictable. Blue states are, in general, much wealthier than red states. If we consider them by GDP, for example, then five of the top 10 states are blue (CA, NY, IL, NJ, WA), two are purple (FL, PA), and three are red (OH, GA, TX). If we expand that to the top 20, then we add five more blue states (MA, VA, MD, CO, MN), three purple (NC, MI, AZ), and two red (TN, IN). Even if you want to disagree with our characterization of some states (is Arizona purple, or is it red?), there is simply no avoiding the conclusion that allowing states to fend for themselves will work disproportionately in favor of big and blue states.

Q: I'm curious as to what would happen if there were elections in certain states, with others choosing to postpone (e.g., Ohio). What would happen in such a situation? What states would likely postpone and which ones wouldn't? Would this favor Republicans or Democrats? K.K., Nairobi, Kenya

A: Let us begin by pointing out three important things. First, Congress sets the date for federal elections. Second, the date is already set for this year's elections, by virtue of language set out in the U.S. Code. Third, that date can only be changed by a vote of both houses of Congress, and the Democratic-controlled House is not going to be a part of any scheme that would allow Donald Trump to remain in power beyond January 20, 2021, without being duly reelected.

What that means is that if there's going to be any postponing of elections, it's going to be by presidential fiat or by state governors/legislators asserting their authority to do so. We do not see a situation where big, blue states like California and New York will bow to Trump asserting authority he does not have, nor a situation where they postpone elections of their own volition. In our view, voters in those states (and Illinois, and Washington, and Oregon, and Colorado) will definitely be voting in November, very possibly via mail.

The red states, in this scenario, will theoretically have an interesting tactical question before them. As we've noted before, it is at least possible that the 28 Republican-controlled legislatures could award Donald Trump those states' electoral votes without benefit of an election. This is permissible under the terms set out in the Constitution. However, it would be very difficult politically (and probably legally) for them to cancel the presidential vote, but to hold elections for all the rest of the offices on the ballot. That, then, would seem to leave the red states with two options: (1) cancel/postpone all elections, which would allow Trump to be reelected, but would also (at least for a while) cost Republicans the Senate, or (2) follow the blue states' lead and hold elections no matter what, even if it means vote-by-mail. Our guess is that if push comes to shove, most (or all) states choose option #2. Especially because there are some red states (e.g. Ohio) run by folks who are not necessarily enamored of Trump, and who may not be interested in subverting the democratic process just to give him another term.

Q: Last week, you answered a hypothetical question about what would happen if President Trump attempted to cancel the elections. You explained how most of the line of succession would have their terms expire, leaving the Senate President Pro Tempore to assume the office.

This got me thinking about the Speaker of the House. I was wondering when does the Speaker's term legally end? Where in the law is this formally defined?

Article 1, Sec. II says that the House picks their Speaker, but not for how long. This same section also does not explicitly state that the Speaker must be a member of the House. Is it not possible, that if no elections are held, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would still remain Speaker of the House, despite no longer being a member of the House of Representatives?

I realize that this is a pointless thought exercise, but I really enjoy your detailed explanations of the nuances of the Constitution.
D.T., San Jose, CA

A: As you note, and as we also note above, this is just a thought exercise, as the Democrats aren't going to play along with a situation like this. Or, if they do play along, it would be because it would result in their gaining the presidency, in which case the Republicans would not play along.

In any event, you raise two excellent points: (1) that the Speaker need not be a member of the House of Representatives, and that (2) neither the Constitution, nor the U.S. Code, dictates when a Speaker's term comes to an end. One could argue that if there is no duly-elected Congress, that the office of Speaker becomes vacant, because there is nobody legally entitled to elect them. On the other hand, one could also argue that since the end-of-term for other federal offices (members of Congress, the president) is explicitly spelled out in the U.S. Code, the lack of such verbiage for the office of Speaker means that they remain in office until their death/resignation or until a successor is appointed. It is worth noting that the vast, vast majority of federal jobs are not automatically vacated on Inauguration Day, and so it would be entirely plausible to argue that the job of Speaker is analogous to the director of the CIA, or an ambassador, or a governor of the Federal Reserve, all of whom—once they are appointed—serve until they are relieved of duty, they resign, or they die.

Also, a few folks noted that in our answer last week, we missed a pretty important wrinkle. Assuming there were no elections, and assuming the Speakership was considered to be vacant, it is true that the highest-ranking person left in the line of succession would be the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. It is also true, however, that we would be left with 33 legally elected Democrats versus only 30 legally elected Republicans. And a new session of the Senate begins a couple of weeks before Inauguration Day. So, the 33 Democrats would undoubtedly choose a new and Democratic Pro Tempore, resulting in a President Schumer or maybe a President Warren, and not in a President Grassley.

Q: Your item from March 17th, which raises the question of whether Donald Trump could delay the general election, and what happens if his term expires and nobody has been elected, is unduly alarmist. Title 3, Section 1 of the U.S. Code requires elections for president be on one specific date with no provision to make exceptions. Meanwhile the Constitution clearly states that, if a president's term expires with no successor chosen, the Presidential Succession Act applies. All of this information is readily found with the littlest bit of homework and it worries me how a site, typically known for being magnificently thorough, could miss such obvious information. F.M., Houston, TX

A: When we write each day's post, we have to be careful of over-writing. We don't want to get too bogged down in details, as that makes for boring reading. We don't want to repeat ourselves too much, as that is not a good use of readers' time. Also, there are only 24 hours in the day, and we can only devote so much of it to producing content.

In any case, that was merely a brief paragraph hinting at some of the issues that might be bandied about if we entered tne unchartered territory of postponing/canceling elections. We did not go into depth, in part, because that was not apropos to that particular item. And, in part, because just three days before, we wrote this:

[P]ostponing the elections would not actually keep Donald Trump in power, in and of itself. Per the terms of the 20th Amendment, his first term will end on January 20, 2021. If he has not been duly reelected, he would have no further legal claim to power.

Q: What happens regarding Senate leadership if there were a point where the (current) majority party were no longer the seated majority in the Senate based on deaths or resignations? Although some governors have the legal ability to appoint a successor immediately, other states are required to call an election. So, if some senators died from COVID-19 or other medical issues, and/or other senators resigned because of insider trading or some other behavior, could the Senate leadership be whip-sawed back and forth as elections are held to fill vacant seats? J.S., West Hartford, CT

A: Just so everyone is on the same page, "insider trading" is a reference to Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), both of whom received early briefings on COVID-19, and both of whom sold portions of their stock portfolios in a manner that suggests illegal insider trading, since members of Congress cannot use information gained in the performance of their duties to aid in investment decisions. They both deny any wrongdoing, but even some right-wingers (for example, Tucker Carlson) are calling for them to resign. It is very unlikely that either of them actually do resign, especially if doing so would hand the Democrats a majority in the Senate. However, it is very likely that, whether it is justified or not, the pair loses some votes. In particular, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who is trying to primary the appointed Loeffler, is hitting her hard over this, and it may very well land him the nomination.

Anyhow, if we get to the (very grim) point that senators are dying (or otherwise leaving office) in large enough numbers for this to matter, it is certainly possible that leadership of the Senate could ping-pong back and forth. It's also possible we could end up with an evenly divided Senate. Twenty years ago, with the Senate split 50-50, Trent Lott (R) and Tom Daschle (D) worked out a power-sharing arrangement. It's possible that if we end up with a tie or a ping-pong situation this year that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer could reach a similar sort of agreement for the good of the country and of the Congress. But, in these highly partisan times, we doubt it. More likely, each faction would demand every bit of power that they are due. And if we end up with an evenly divided Senate, that would mean Vice President Mike Pence toddling down to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to tip the balance in the Republicans' favor.

Q: Since we've seen the stock market give back all of the gains from the Trump years over the course of a month, can we say Trump has done nothing to substantively grow the U.S. economy? And, in fact, that he has knocked down the supports the government and the economy would depend on to weather a storm like COVID-19? D.A.Y., Troy, MI

A: In general, we are advocates of the notion that presidents get too much credit for a good economy, and too much blame for a bad one. We would agree that Trump has done nothing to substantively grow the U.S. economy, though the recent performance of the Dow is not our evidence for that. No, our evidence is...a near-total lack of economy-growing initiatives or actions. One could argue for the 2017 tax cut as a feather in the President's economic cap, except that wasn't Trump's doing, and besides, economists generally agree that a trickle-down tax cut undertaken while the economy is already doing well does not actually grow the economy. Perhaps some of the President's initiatives (NAFTA v2.0, trade wars, deregulation) will pay long-term dividends, but we do not see the evidence of any sort of significant short-term dividends.

On the other hand, we do think a case can be made for his deserving blame for the recent downturn of the economy. Some presidents happen to be unlucky, and have the ill fortune of taking office at just the wrong time (Herbert Hoover leaps to mind). On the other hand, some presidents take a bad economic situation and make it worse with poor leadership (Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter leap to mind). There is little question, at this point, that Trump has made choices in the past months (and years) that made the COVID-19 pandemic more shocking and more dangerous than it might otherwise have been. And, in contrast to George W. Bush after 9/11, or John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Trump has flip-flopped around and been something less than inspiring. A fearful, nervous country is definitely bad for the economy.

Q: What would happen if Joe Biden were to contract COVID-19? If it happens before the convention, another person could presumably be nominated, but after the convention, is there a process for putting up a candidate if someone has to withdraw for health reasons? R.N., Katy, TX

A: Keeping in mind, of course, that COVID-19 takes multiple days to run its course, and does not strike someone down immediately, we think the first thing that Biden would do if he was to contract the disease would be to announce his VP pick (and, by implication, his preferred successor as nominee, should it come to that).

Were he to succumb prior to the convention, then (most of) his delegates would become free agents. However, and we have emphasized this before, we do not believe that would result in the nomination of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), even if he is second in the delegate tally. The Party does not particularly want to nominate the Senator, and besides, in the event of Biden's untimely demise, there would be an enormous emotional desire to "honor" him and his legacy. So, his VP-designate (if he picked one) would surely get the nod, or, if he didn't pick one, some other candidate seen as a proper "successor" to Biden would be nominated.

If Biden were to succumb after the convention, then Party rules would empower the roughly 400 members of the Democratic National Committee to pick his replacement. Those folks really don't want Sanders, and as a VP candidate would have been chosen, they would definitely have an "honoring Biden's legacy" person available as successor. So, in this scenario, the VP candidate would undoubtedly become the presidential candidate.

Q: It's been assumed this virus will be gone by summer and life will be back to normal. However, we could still have an emergency by then. My question is: What would happen to the political conventions? The Democrats meet in July and the Republicans in August. If one or both are affected by COVID-19, how would they manage business (writing the platform, nominating candidates, give acceptance speeches)? They wouldn't be able to meet. Would everything be done by Skype, teleconferences, drastic social distancing? These are really uncharted waters we're in, politically speaking. R.H.D., Webster, NY

A: You're right that it's uncharted waters. And we think that the scenario you lay out—no in-person conventions—is actually more likely than not. For the conventions to happen as scheduled, not only would COVID-19 have to be in the rear-view mirror, it would have to be so far in the rear-view mirror that there is zero chance it could prove to be a danger to people in July/August. With the CDC predicting that it will take at least eight weeks for the worst of this to play out (i.e., until late May or early June), can we really believe that political parties (or anyone else) can stage large-scale gatherings in June or July with total confidence? We just don't see it. The 2020 Olympics are scheduled to take place from Jul. 24 - Aug 9, which is to say, right smack in between the Democratic convention (Jul. 13-16) and the Republican convention (Aug. 24-27). We are getting closer and closer to the Olympics being postponed, as more and more members of the IOC and more and more athletic federations call for that to be done. And if that comes to pass, how can the two parties take a different path?

Should the conventions be canceled, most things can certainly be accomplished with social distancing and/or teleconferencing. People can certainly give speeches, whether standing on an empty stage, or speaking from their office or their living room. Hammering out the platform doesn't actually require that many people (a couple dozen). Most other tasks are performed individually or in small committees.

The one thing that involves a large number of people, of course, is the approval of the presidential and vice presidential nominees by multiple thousands of delegates. You can be 100% certain that both parties are already working on contingency plans, and very likely have already settled on a basic course of action. They aren't going to share that information until necessary, but we see three basic possibilities:

  • Voting Remotely: On shows like "The Voice" and "American Idol," producers manage to collect millions of votes in real time using some combination of the Internet and toll-free phone numbers. Surely, the political parties could come up with something similar, especially when we're only talking thousands of votes instead of millions. Security would be a concern, though; what would the DNC do if Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) mysteriously ended up with a majority of the votes? Since there are only a bit under 4,000 delegates to the Democratic Convention, it wouldn't be that hard for the Party to hand-deliver a USB stick with special software and a secret encryption key to each one. The delegates could then vote using their computers.

  • Voting By Mail: Since both parties' presidential nominations will be locked up by the convention, delegates could just mail in a signed and notarized affidavit of their votes. That does not necessarily cover the nomination of the VP, whose identity is sometimes not known until the convention begins, but that could be addressed by making sure the pick is announced in advance.

  • The Party Chooses: Either party's committee could announce that it's just too risky to have a convention, and that since the will of the party's voters is known, they will make it official without benefit of a large-scale meeting. This would require getting a few hundred people together, as opposed to tens of thousands. Still a problem and a challenge, but less of one.

Our best guess is that #2 is the likeliest option; it is not as undemocratic-seeming as #3 and not as risky, security-wise, as #1, although if the planning for #1 starts now and it involves good security experts and checks, it probably is doable.

Q: You seem to be fine with all the restrictions being placed on Americans. But don't they all violate the United States Constitution's First Amendment? S.P., Bedford, MA

A: We are unaware that we've expressed any opinion on the restrictions, either pro or con. All we've done is noted their existence.

We are also unclear which element of the First Amendment you think is germane here. Freedom of speech? Freedom of assembly? Whatever it is, the courts have made clear, over and over, that the government cannot restrict speech/assembly without a reasonable justification. However, the government can absolutely punish you for yelling fire in a crowded theater, or sharing state secrets, or gathering with the purpose of fomenting a riot, or trespassing on a secured military base, because each of those restrictions has a reasonable justification. So, if someone was to sue over the COVID-19 restrictions, with the First Amendment as the basis for their suit, they would lose. In fact, they wouldn't even make it past summary judgment, most likely.

Q: Your piece on Republicans in denial on Friday contained no surprises. But I'm very puzzled that Nate Silver's Trump popularity polls show approval for him has been increasing since his Oval Office talk. This even as Fox News has changed its tune. Can you shed any light on this? S.C., Geneva, Switzerland

A: Truth be told, our answer to your question is that we don't think his popularity is rising. Silver's graph (which can be seen at the link above) reveals the same thing you see if you just look at the raw numbers: Trump's approval rating has been shockingly consistent since the Oval Office address, varying from 43% to 46%. This is entirely in line with his pre-COVID-19 numbers; he rarely rises above 48% or so, and he rarely drops below 38% or so. His base is very loyal.

Even if you (and other folks) see things differently than we do, surely we can all agree that his numbers haven't increased by much. It's not like he's all of a sudden pulling numbers in the 50s or 60s. And that, in and of itself, is pretty bad news for the President. Times of crisis are when leaders tend to shine, and tend to pull their very best approval ratings. Then, when the "shine" (and the excitement) wear off, and Americans begin to think long term, the spike tends to crater into a dip. One thinks of George H.W. Bush, whose approval rating was up in the nineties during the Persian Gulf War, and then collapsed down into the forties when the glow faded and the reality of a bad economy (largely unrelated to the war) took hold. If Trump isn't even spiking right now, or is barely spiking, what will happen to him long term, as the costs of COVID-19, human, economic, and otherwise, become clear?

Q: I, along with most people who have been paying attention to the situation closely, fault this administration for a series of missteps that made things unnecessarily complicated in the early days. However, cataclysmic events sometimes caused Americans to flock toward their leadership rather than criticize them (9/11, Persian Gulf War, etc.). I'm curious if you think at the sheer intensity and immediacy of this epidemic might cause Trump, with his many news conferences and appearances, to seem more presidential and thus gain some points among independents. It seems like the 2008 financial crisis would be a closer analog to this, but you never know with Teflon Don. J.K., Boston, MA

A: Obviously, anything is possible, and whether or not Donald Trump benefits from a "rally around the flag" effect would depend heavily on how bad COVID-19 turns out to be, and also how long the economy takes to bounce back.

That said, working with the information we have at hand, we seriously doubt that Trump is going to get a bounce from all of this, even if the negative effects only last a few months. There are four reasons we think this way:

  1. His approval numbers, as we note in the answer above, aren't really moving. If he's not getting a bounce now, the odds are not good he'll get one later.

  2. Presidential responses to crises tend to be defined by a very small number of very memorable moments. Think, for example, of George W. Bush, whose post-9/11 speech was the highlight of his presidency, and became a symbol of his successful response immediately after the crisis. Unfortunately for him, "Mission Accomplished!" became the defining memory for his blundering in the Iraq War, while "viewing Hurricane Katrina from a plane" cemented an image of him as a small man who was overwhelmed by that disaster. It's very possible that Trump has already given us the defining moments of this crisis, with the disastrous Oval Office address as the leading candidate, and that he will be as unable to change the narrative as Bush was.

  3. The number of historical examples where handling a crisis "saved" a presidency is vanishingly small. One can make a pretty good case for Abraham Lincoln, whose goose was cooked in 1864 until Savannah and Atlanta fell. But we struggle to think of more recent examples where a not-so-popular president was substantially helped by his crisis management. Perhaps readers will think of examples we've overlooked (note that we're not counting Bush and 9/11, since the gap between that and the election was three years, and the things that saved him in 2004 were a lousy campaign by John Kerry and the use of gay marriage as a wedge issue).

  4. On the other hand, there have been many presidencies derailed by crises, particularly economic downturns. In fact, you can make the case that every single president in the 20th century who stood for reelection and failed was done in by an economic crisis: Herbert Hoover (Great Depression), Gerald Ford (stagflation), Jimmy Carter (also stagflation), and George H. W. Bush (recession of 1991).

Trump has broken many of the "rules" of politics, and defied precedent before. He may do so again. For what it's worth, some Democrats think COVID-19 could work to Trump's advantage, though we think the analogues they point to (particularly Barack Obama and the Great Recession, since the Great Recession was clearly not Obama's doing) are not especially instructive.

Q: Although I don't think he would do it, could Bernie Sanders run as the candidate of the Green Party in the general election? Do some states prohibit a candidate from the primaries of one party from competing in the general under the banner of another party? If yes, what are these states? P.B., Lille, France

A: What you are referring to are known as sore loser laws, which prohibit the loser of a major-party primary from running as an independent or a candidate of a third party. 47 states and Washington, D.C. have some form of this; the only states that do not are Connecticut, Iowa, and New York.

If Sanders were to try to run as the Green Party candidate—which, as you note, is unlikely—he would have two major issues to overcome. The first of these is that third parties are reluctant to be used in this way, as if their nomination is a "consolation prize." The second is that he would have to challenge the sore loser laws in court and win, doing so on a very tight timeline. All of this for the privilege of...what? Helping Donald Trump win? We doubt that's his goal—to punish the Democratic Party and/or burn down the system—but if it is, he has more effective ways of doing it that trying to pull off a third-party run.

Q: In your Mar. 18 item on Bernie Sanders, you claimed Dwight D. Eisenhower promised Warren a SCOTUS seat if he'd drop out of the 1952 race. What's your source for that? Warren did relatively poorly at the polls that year, winning just one delegate, and wasn't really a threat to Eisenhower? D.N., Los Angeles, CA

A: Quite a few readers took us to task for this, some of them with a level of...pique, shall we say, that suggested they were deeply offended by the suggestion. It is true that Warren commanded few delegates, per se. It is also true, however, that he and Eisenhower were from the same wing of the Republican Party (and thus were competing directly with each other), and that Warren had enormous sway over his home state of California and its large number of delegates. Further, Ike's analysis of the situation was correct: If he could get Warren out of the way, the nomination would be his. And there is really no question that the two men made some sort of deal in exchange for Warren's support.

So, was a SCOTUS seat specifically promised? Some say yes, and some say no, and the small number of people who might speak authoritatively are all long dead. However, the fact that Warren declined appointment to Ike's Cabinet (as Secretary of the Interior), and that instead he was promptly appointed solicitor general, and then was equally promptly appointed to the Supreme Court once a seat opened, is strong circumstantial evidence of (at very least) how Warren understood the deal. And, as any historian knows, circumstantial evidence is often all we've got.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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