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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

This one's all over the place, from centrist senators, to ratfu**ing, to the Supreme Court, to police shootings, to Lincoln's vice-presidents (neither of whom was shot by the police, in case you were worried).

Q: What are the chances that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) come around to passing H.R. 1 and statehood bills for D.C. and Puerto Rico? They must know that their arguments about the filibuster and bipartisanship are complete BS. Surely they would prefer to be power brokers in a 51-51 Democratic-controlled Senate with a Democratic-controlled House, rather than being powerless and irrelevant in a 49-51 GOP Senate with a gerrymandered GOP-controlled House. J.W., Buffalo, NY

A: Those two senators are pretty happy with things as they currently stand. They are cultivating a reputation for being wise and cautious, everyone on both sides of the aisle is kissing their rear ends, and they are in a position to demand a king's ransom in exchange for their votes on key issues. If Manchin were to demand that, in exchange for supporting a change to the filibuster, the Pentagon must be relocated to West Virginia, his wish would probably be granted.

Assuming that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) or Joe Biden does not make them an offer of so much pork they can't refuse, Manchin and Sinema are likely to wait until they can get the lay of the land for next year's elections. If polling suggests the Democrats are in serious danger of losing one or both chambers of Congress, the two Senators would presumably become much more flexible. Especially since, by that time, they would have spent a year on "bipartisanship" without success, and could thus claim they gave it their best shot.

Q: During President Biden's remarks announcing his executive actions on gun violence, he stated, "But no amendment—no amendment to the Constitution is absolute." I am surprised that this comment did not get more attention (even in your analysis). Certainly, if former President Trump had tweeted that the first section of the 20th Amendment was not absolute (hmm, he may have), many would have rightly criticized his audacity. Yes, the target of President Biden's comment was the 2nd Amendment, but he also extended the application of his assertion to other amendments. Does this simple statement betray a broader attitude of President Biden or his party? C.D., Jacksonville, FL

A: Donald Trump had a long history of abusing the norms of democratic government, and more specifically of hinting at various unethical or illegal schemes for extending his time in office. For that reason, you are right that if he had declared that the 20th Amendment is not absolute, it would have gotten some attention.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden has a long history of moderate hyperbole, and of being something less than laser-precise in his choice of words. And so, anyone and everyone (including us) regarded his statement as being generally true and not, well, absolute. There are a number of amendments, including most of the last dozen or so, that don't really have any plausible exceptions. But Biden's purpose was to place the 2nd Amendment in the context of the other Bill of Rights amendments, most of which are very much open to interpretation, and most of which have well-defined exceptions.

Q: In The Washington Post's special "First 100 Days" section, it says that a president is expected to appoint people for over 4,000 positions. Over 1,200 require Senate confirmation (30 have so far been confirmed).

Why so many? Why is Senate confirmation required on the deputy assistant undersecretary of interior fisheries (ok, I made that up)? To finish all 1,200 would require approving about one per day, and that pace hasn't been maintained so far. What is Plan B if Biden doesn't manage to appoint and confirm all those folks? Do the incumbents stay on? Does the position remain vacant? Is the organization without leadership for 4 years?
M.M., San Jose, CA

A: The Senate has a duty to oversee the staffing of the federal government. And the federal government has about 4 million employees. So, in exercising approval authority over 1,200 of them, the Senate is putting just .03% of federal staffers under the microscope. In making 4,000 appointments, meanwhile, the president is putting his stamp on just 0.1% of federal employees. These numbers are apparently the sweet spot between "managing the government" and "there's only so much time in the day."

It is true that the pace of Biden confirmations has been pretty slow, but that's not too unusual at this point in the game, since it's the biggies that are under consideration right now. Once the Senate gets to work on the Ambassador to the Bahamas; the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy; and the three members of the Railroad Retirement Board, there will be considerably less scrutiny and the approvals will come in bunches.

When it comes to jobs where the president does not make an appointment, there are a number of possibilities, depending on the job and the president's goals:

  • The Previous Appointee Stays On: There are many federal jobs that are supposed to extend over multiple presidential terms, and where appointees are not expected to resign on the advent of a new administration. Think the Federal Reserve, or the FCC. In addition, there are some jobs where it's considered essential to have continuity in leadership, and so the outgoing person stays on until an incoming person is formally approved.

  • It Remains Vacant: Some presidents deliberately leave posts vacant. They may do this as a cost-saving measure, or for political reasons, or for self-serving reasons. Donald Trump ultimately left about 150 jobs vacant for his whole term, perhaps most obviously a couple of seats on the Federal Elections Commission. This left the FEC without a quorum, and thus unable to exercise oversight of the election of 2020. Wonder why Trump would have favored that state of affairs?

  • A Lower-Ranked Senate-Approved Staffer Takes Temporary Charge: With jobs that just cannot remain vacant, not for even a day, there is a temporary succession plan wherein a Senate-approved appointee is expected to assume temporary authority. For example, if the Secretary of Defense dies or resigns, the Deputy Secretary of Defense becomes acting secretary.

  • The President Chooses an Acting Official: Sometimes when those jobs that cannot remain vacant, not even for a day, become vacant, the president chooses an "acting" official to run the show. In some cases this is kosher, and in some cases it is a potentially illegal subversion of the established line of temporary succession. Trump, of course, liked to push the limits here, sometimes illegally elevating a staffer, and sometimes having an "acting" staffer remain on the job for longer than federal law allows.

  • A Careerist Takes Temporary Charge: There are some jobs where none of the immediate underlings are Senate-approved, and so it falls on a non-Senate-approved careerist to fill a temporary vacancy. The obvious example here is ambassadorships; if the ambassador to Spain resigns or dies, then the highest ranking staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid takes over until the Senate approves a replacement.

On the other hand, no other democracy has anything even vaguely like 4,000 appointees in a new administration, even scaled for population. Most high-ranking jobs are civil servants who are expected to follow the law no matter who is in power. In nearly all cases they do. For the small number of positions that are filled by appointees, there is generally no vote by the legislature. The idea is that the people picked the parties in power (often a coalition), so they should be free to put their own people in positions of power to allow them to carry out their program, without anyone else mucking it up. Of course, in a system where the government (usually) has a majority in the parliament by definition, then having that same parliament rubber stamp the government's appointees would be pointless.

Q: When a bill does not pass a vote, can it not come up for vote again? For example, if H.R. 1 did not pass, could it not come up for a vote again a couple months later? R.M.S., Seattle, WA

A: There are two ways to revive a failed bill. The first is to submit it for committee approval again, either during the current meeting of Congress, or during a future meeting. This would normally be done only if the bill is going to be reworked in order to make it more palatable.

The other way is for a member to bring a motion to reconsider. In the Senate, such a motion can be brought by a member who was on the prevailing side of a measure, or a member who did not vote on a measure at all. In the House, such a motion can only be brought by a member who was on the prevailing side.

Q: You wrote: "[T]he cost of actually 'creating' an extra vote (either by getting someone to the polls who otherwise would not have voted, or by flipping a vote) is on the order of $500." I didn't see any supporting information for that cost, and that figure sounds questionable to me.

A well known and partisan politician (like AOC or Marjorie Taylor Greene) will likely have voters who will vote for or against them no matter how many ads they see, and an unknown but attractive person with a popular stance may get new votes with minuscule spending.

Even for votes within an electorate, the cost per vote would vary considerably, which is surely why every campaign seems to target specific demographics. Recently, the voter du jour seemed to be "suburban women" (or "suburban housewives," depending on your political leanings).
R.M., Baltimore, MD

A: Whether it is a well known candidate, like Donald Trump or Joe Biden, or an unknown, it is very difficult to be certain how many votes they would have gotten just by virtue of being on the ballot (with that oh-so-important 'D' or 'R' next to their name), and how many votes they were able to bring to the ticket thanks to their campaigning. The $500 figure is a crude estimate based on dividing the amount of money spent by the estimated number of "persuadable" voters. For example, here is an interview with campaign analysis expert Ken Goldstein. Discussing the election of 2020, he guesses that the presidential campaigns ultimately spent $1 billion, and what they were really chasing was the 800,000 or so persuadable voters in the dozen or so states that had any chance of flipping. That actually puts the cost per vote around $1,000.

You're right that the campaigns try very hard to target the voters where they will get the most bang for the buck (or, at least, most campaigns do—Trump 2020 was notoriously inefficient in this regard). It is also the case that, generally speaking, money spent on getting existing voters to the polls is more effective than money spent on registering new voters, which is more effective than money spent on advertising. But there are diminishing returns no matter how a campaign invests its money; you can only send so many voter registration operatives to canvass a neighborhood, and you can only run so many ads. And the main point that we were trying to make still stands: No matter how you crunch the numbers, the process of converting money into additional votes is very inefficient. Still worthwhile, in most cases, but inefficient.

Q: I have two questions that are both related to each other. First, is it possible for the political parties to find someone with the same name as a current or former candidate (such as Don Trump or Joe Biden), or to convince somebody to legally change their name, and put them on the ballot to confuse low IQ voters and steal votes away from the opposite party? And second, if something like this were to happen, is there anything that election officials can do to prevent it? D.L., Cannon Falls, MN

A: This is certainly possible, and it's definitely one of the items in the partisan bag of ratf**ing tricks. However, note that it usually only makes sense to try it in jungle-style primaries/elections, where there can be multiple candidates from the same party. It would not work in a presidential election. Presidential ballot access is no small feat, and even if a second Joe Biden were to get on the ballot, it would be obvious to everyone that "Joseph R. Biden Jr., DEMOCRATIC" is the real candidate and "Joseph R. Biden Jr., NATURAL LAW" is the phony.

While this trick is not common, it's not unheard of, either. New York had a bunch of elections like this in the early 2000s, including matchups of José Serrano vs. José Serrano, José Rivera vs. José Rivera, and J.C. Liu vs. J.C. Liu. More recently, in 2018, Rep. Ron Estes (R-KS) was challenged by Ron Estes. You will be happy to hear that Ron Estes won (and lost).

The idea of getting elected by having the "right name" was the key to the movie The Distinguished Gentleman starring Eddie Murphy. In the film, Murphy's character is a small-time con man. When the local congressman suddenly dies, Murphy realizes that his name is almost the same as that of the late congressman, so he files, uses "The name you know" as his slogan, and wins. The money from lobbyists pours in until ... We're not going to spoil it in case you haven't seen it.

Right now, there is an ongoing scandal involving a Florida State Senate election in 2020. Former Republican officeholder Frank Artiles wanted to knock off then-incumbent José Javier Rodriguez, and so recruited a friend named Alexis Rodriguez to mount a primary challenge (in exchange for a $50,000 payment). The careful reader might notice that "José Javier Rodriguez" and "Alexis Rodriguez" are not actually the same name, but some voters in Florida State Senate district 37 didn't pay attention to that fact (or to the fact that Alexis had no party affiliation). So, the scheme was successful and the sitting state senator (José Javier) lost narrowly to Republican Ileana Garcia.

There is little that election officials can do to stop this from happening, since it's not illegal. However, it is necessary to make sure that the candidates are distinguished in some way, so that their ballot lines are not 100% identical. The courts have ruled that putting a person's office on the ballot is too prejudicial, so that's out. What most states do is render the names slightly differently (so in Kansas, for example, it was actually Ron Estes, REPUBLICAN vs. Ron E. Estes, REPUBLICAN). In other states, a number is appended to the name of the second person to file (so, if J.C. Liu is challenged by unserious candidate J.C. Liu, they will be listed as J.C. Liu, DEMOCRATIC and J.C. Liu 1, DEMOCRATIC). In those circumstances, it's up to the candidate to make sure their voters pay attention to which version of the name is theirs.

Q: Theoretically, I understand the idea of the Cook PVI. However, looking at the numbers from the newly launched 2021 update, I remain a bit confused as to how they're actually calculated. Joe Biden won MN-02 by almost 7 points, yet it has a PVI of EVEN. Is this also factoring in 2016 (when Hillary Clinton lost it by over 1 point) and the respective House race?

Also, why did Maine hold its elections in September up until 1960? Did they hold off on releasing the results until after the rest of the country had voted two months later?
J.H., Studio City, CA

A: The purpose of PVI is to compare local political leanings to national political leanings. And so, it's not merely a rolling average of how a district (or a state) has voted for president in the last two elections. It's that number as compared to the rolling average of how the nation as a whole has voted for president in the last two elections.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton took 48.2% of the vote nationally and Donald Trump took 46.1%, giving Clinton a 2.1 point edge. In 2020, Joe Biden took 51.3% nationally while Trump took 46.9%, giving Biden a 4.4-point edge. The average of 2.1 and 4.4 is 3.25, and so Democrats +3.25% is deemed to be the "national fundamentals" for purposes of the most recent Cook PVI.

Moving on to your example of MN-02, Clinton collected 44.9% of the vote there in 2016 while Trump took 46.1%, putting Clinton at -1.2 points. Biden collected 52.2% to Trump's 45.4%, giving Biden a 6.8 point edge. The average of -1.2 and 6.8 is 2.8. And so, Democrats +2.8% is deemed to be the "fundamentals" of MN-02 for purposes of the most recent Cook PVI. The difference between the national fundamentals, Democrats +3.25%, and the district fundamentals, Democrats +2.8%, is Republicans +.45%. Since Cook only deals in whole numbers, that rounds to Republicans +0.0%, or EVEN.

As to Maine, it's very cold there in November, plus that month is historically the height of the winter harvest (they grow a lot of potatoes during the cold season). So, for 130 years, they held most of their general elections in September. Note the word most; presidential elections were always held in November. Still, there was useful momentum and PR to be gained in presidential years by a party that did well in the September elections for seats in Congress, state offices, local offices, etc. This is the origin of the phrase "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."

Q: On Monday, you asked "Where Did Senator Biden Go?" because he's moved a bit to the left as President (versus his time in the Senate). The question that popped into my head was: Are Democrats nationwide leftier than the Democrats he represented in Delaware? So, I put that question to you because that might perfectly explain the shift. After all, President Biden now represents all Democrats; not just Democrats in the second-smallest state in the country. M.F., Philadelphia, PA

A: According to PVI, Delaware is now D+6, which makes it more Democratic than the nation as a whole. However, PVI does not attempt to assess the centrism/progressiveness of the Democratic vote. For their purposes, 1,000 AOC voters and 1,000 Joe Manchin voters are exactly the same. So, PVI may not be the best option for answering this question.

What we could do is note that Delaware does have a reputation for being more centrist than most blue states; for example, the Wikipedia article Politics of Delaware notes "Delaware residents as a group tend to vote toward the conservative side of moderate on fiscal and economic issues, and are more moderate on social issues." However, that is just anecdotal.

To try to put this on a numerical basis, GovTrack's Ideology Score and FiveThirtyEight's Trump Score both put Delaware's two current Democratic senators (Chris Coons and Tom Carper) in the most centrist quartile of the Democratic caucus. This would seem to support the notion that a Delaware Democrat has to be a more centrist than Democrats in many other states, or a national Democrat like Biden. That's also consistent with the fact that an enormous percentage of America's corporations (e.g., 66.8% of the Fortune 500) are incorporated in Delaware. Delaware politicians who do not hew to the center on economic issues are going to find themselves facing a very well-funded primary opponent, and then a very well-funded general election opponent if they survive.

Q: Regarding your item about the National Review authors who have adopted a different approach to arguing for voting rights restrictions, I was wondering about your take on other versions of this.

I've heard proposals that maybe people should need university degrees to be qualified to vote. I think that's way too restrictive and elitist, but what about a 5-day civics course, with a test, so people have to prove they understand the basic underpinnings of American democracy, and what its goals are?

What if the course were 1-3 days? What if everyone was paid to do the course when they want to register to vote? All these things are more restrictive than voter-ID laws, along at least some dimensions, so I'd understand opposition.

Broadly, is there some systemic barrier, designed to create better, more-informed voters that you would support? Why or why not?
D.C., Brentwood, CA

A: You asked for our opinion, so we're going to give it. Brace yourself. We think this is an awful, awful idea for many reasons:

  • Anything that demands this sort of time commitment would be inherently discriminatory against certain groups of voters. Working people who cannot afford that much time off. People with families who cannot afford babysitters. If the class is in-person, then people without cars, or people in sparsely populated regions. If the class is online, then people who cannot afford computers/Internet access, or don't know how to use a computer.

  • The curriculum would inevitably become politicized. One person's (and one major party's) definition of "good citizenship" is going to be at variance with another person's (and the other major party's) definition.

  • Finding enough capable teachers who would not use the opportunity to sway people to their political point of view would be very hard. Can we really believe that the version of "civics for voters" taught in Alabama would be identical to the one taught in Massachusetts?

  • What do you do with people who don't need the instruction, and who know perfectly well how democracy works? If either of us were mandated to attend such a class, we would be annoyed, and we would either rush through it (if online) or would not pay attention (if in person).

  • What do you do with people who have language barriers? Or learning disabilities? Or other challenges that may make it difficult for them to pass a civics test?

  • What about Americans who live abroad? The number is estimated to be about the same as the population of Virginia. Would they have to fly home to take a test or take it on the Internet, with all the risks that entails? Overseas Americans vote in the state where they last lived.

  • The costs of something like this would be enormous, even more so if a "you passed the class, here's some money" carrot was added to the equation.

That's seven serious objections, but here is the biggest one: This is a solution in search of a problem. If you believe that voters made a horrible decision in electing Donald Trump in 2016, or in electing Joe Biden in 2020, or both, a "jump through the hoops" civics course isn't going to solve that. People voted for Trump or Biden (or both) because human beings are inherently tribal, and tend to vote in their own self-interest, however they might define that. Someone who is a QAnon believer, or a MAGA fanatic, or a nutty hippie anti-vaxxer who prefers the candidate with the best aura, is not going to change their voting behavior because they have been compelled to learn what the three branches of government are, or what a bill of attainder is, or what the 19th Amendment does.

Q: Regarding your item "A Different Argument for Making it Harder to Vote," what do you think would be the effect of requiring voters to pass the citizenship test that new citizens have to pass? Would that favor Democrats or Republicans? I suspect many people would fail it. D.K., Iowa City, IA

A: This would eliminate some of the problems with the civics class idea from the previous question, but would heighten others. Most obviously, for those who have not seen the sort of questions asked, is that forcing them to learn what's needed to pass this test is even less likely to give voters anything that might actually make them more effective citizens. Being able to explain what the Statue of Liberty is, or to name two national holidays, or to list one of the things on Benjamin Franklin's résumé has absolutely nothing to do with being a well-informed voter. It's just Trivial Pursuit, Civics Edition. Perhaps the silliest question is #92: "Name one state that borders Canada." Can you imagine a single person saying, "Now that I know Montana borders Canada, I will never vote for a demagogue again!" Though our opinion of that question might change a fair bit if it was reworded to "Name one of the 13 states that is most in danger of invasion from the insidious maple syrup guzzlers to the north."

Q: What is the best compromise on voting? What sort of law do you think would be tight enough to please most conservatives but open enough to please most lovers of democracy? Perhaps require an I.D. (photocopy okay) but offer a wide range of voting options? A.L., Cambridge, MA

A: Democrats might go for a plan that involves: (1) Making ID easily available to all, with zero cost to them; (2) Generous polling place hours and availability; and (3) Ending voter registration entirely, and switching to "show your ID to vote." This would address the Democrats' concerns and would also address Republicans' alleged concerns (voter fraud). Of course, it wouldn't address Republicans' actual concerns (they don't want to lose elections because too many poor people, people of color, college students, etc. actually get to vote), so the GOP would never go for it.

Q: Back in High School, in the late 80s, I distinctly remember my AP history teacher discussing revolutions, and just how many (or how few) percentage points of the population are necessary to have a decent sized "army" to succeed.

Notwithstanding what was discussed almost 30 years ago and likely lost to the ages: Are there studies out there talking about how much of the population needs to be effectively mobilized to take a government down? Maybe a better question is: Just how close a call did the nation have on Jan. 6?
C.S., New York, NY

A: We're not sure which study or scholar your AP history teacher presented to you, but the best-known recent work on this subject is Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. They looked at 200 incidents of violent resistance and 100 incidents of nonviolent resistance, and concluded that the level at which success is effectively guaranteed is the involvement of at least 3.5% of the population. This doesn't mean that the government was necessarily toppled, merely that it was compelled to respond to the resisters' concerns (think: The Civil Rights Movement). It is also possible to be successful with less than 3.5% of the population, but the further away a movement is from that bar, the tougher the road is for them. The authors also found that nonviolent resistance is about twice as likely to be successful as violent resistance.

Applying these findings to the insurrection, the Trumpists weren't even close. To start, they were a violent movement, which means they were already starting in the hole. Further, 3.5% of the population would be about 11.5 million people, which is considerably more than "thousands."

Q: I believe that one of the reasons Donald Trump took over the Republican Party was that the Party had no mechanism to stop him. The Democratic Party should not make itself equally vulnerable to a populist takeover by further weakening their superdelegate system. I think the parties should be able to determine who uses their funding and electoral support systems. Of course, others who wish to run are free to start their own parties, with all the difficulty that entails.

Could you please discuss the role of the parties in selecting candidates (for better or worse)? I think in 2016, all our systems for preventing unfit candidates from being elected failed.
C.K.R., Cabin John, MD

A: Back when candidates were chosen by the party honchos, in the infamous "smoke-filled room," most voters did not get to weigh in until the general election because there were relatively few primaries and caucuses.

Over the first 5-6 decades of the 20th century, the parties decided that more input from voters would be helpful, since that would aid in: (1) selecting the most electable candidates, (2) causing voters to get excited about/invested in the general election, and (3) persuading voters to get out their wallets early and often. At the same time, some candidates decided they were better suited to pressing the flesh and retail politics than they were to kissing the pooh-bahs' rear ends. John F. Kennedy was a particularly transitional figure in this way, and he is regarded as the first presidential candidate to be chosen entirely by the primary/caucus system.

In the end, it's implausible for the parties to have it both ways. They can have the tradeoffs of the smoke-filled room (total control, but less voter enthusiasm and possibly a less popular candidate), or they can have the tradeoffs of the primary/caucus system (less control, and possible stinker candidates, but greater voter enthusiasm and more robust fundraising). What the parties cannot do is give their rank-and-file members a voice, then overrule those voters' judgment on the basis that it was deeply flawed, and then expect those voters to be completely happy with that. And unhappy voters, at least some of them, are going to put away their wallets, and may not show up to vote on Election Day (or may vote for some other party's candidate).

In short, the parties can get rid of the primaries and caucuses, or they can accept that lousy candidates will sometimes grab the nomination. Those are the only two options.

Q: How is it, really, that the Republican Party still has the support of 40+% of the voting public? Populist dictators are fine and dandy when they're on "your side"... until they're not. I cannot fathom how the "aggrieved white men" faction commands as much as it does of our national discourse, that a sizable chunk of the electorate is as blind to, or ignorant of, the idiocy and malevolence. Are they (we) that gullible? M.M., Centralia, IL

A: Obviously, there is some sizable percentage of the American public who looked at Trump in 2016 and liked what they saw. And there was a sizable percentage who watched him for four years and liked what they saw even more. So, some chunk of that 40% is fine and dandy with the things you find deplorable.

Most of the rest, however, is because the U.S. system is basically binary: you can vote for one major party, or you can vote for the other (at least, if you want to have a chance to be on the winning side). And so, there are tens of millions of Americans out there who are unhappy with what the Republican Party has become, but who still think the Democrats are even worse. Some of these folks are driven by reasoned (or, at least, somewhat reasoned) assessments of the two parties' programs (e.g., "I'll never vote for a party that supports abortion" or "I'm worried the Democrats' policies will wreck the economy.") Others are responding to the endless barrage of anti-Democratic propaganda from Republican politicians and their media allies (e.g., "Democrats want to get rid of all guns," or "Democrats want to make the country socialist.")

Q: Are we closer to the end of the GOP than anyone thinks? P.D., La Mesa, CA

A: Doubtful. We have written recently (and will be writing some more this week) that we believe the Party faces a tough choice right now between reinventing itself or being relegated to long-time minority, "regional party" status. However, that is a far sight from collapsing, and the dynamics discussed in the question above (some people still love the Party, others really hate the Democrats) will stop the GOP's support from dipping too far.

The last major party to collapse, 165 years ago, was the Whig Party. And the reason they collapsed was that half the party ended up on one side of a deal-breaker issue (slavery), the other half ended up on the other side, and there was no bridging that gap. We don't see an issue today that could split the Republican Party into two like that. Except maybe worshipping/not worshipping some god-like figure. But fortunately for them, the GOP doesn't have any such figures.

Q: With the exception of Chief Justice Roberts, the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court has been pretty much in lockstep lately. And obviously, the Democrats need two vacancies to make any meaningful change. But in your opinion, if Joe Biden got to replace only one conservative during his term, whose departure would be most favorable for liberals? R.S., San Mateo, CA

A: There are three ways to approach this. The Chief Justice has a lot of soft power in terms of influencing the cases that SCOTUS hears, and the decisions they render. And so the most impactful seat for the liberal wing to seize would be the one currently occupied by Roberts.

If that's a little too easy, and we just limit ourselves to the eight associate justices, then the most anti-liberal among them is Clarence Thomas. He writes opinions (and, much more commonly, concurrences/dissents) that are very right-wing, and that are often on shaky legal and factual ground. And those writings are sometimes seized upon by right-wingers at the lower levels of the courts. For example, a number of conservative, anti-abortion federal judges have availed themselves of Thomas' historically ignorant concurrence in Box v. Planned Parenthood, in which he equates abortion to eugenics.

However, while Thomas is very right-wing, he's also the second oldest justice at 72, and his retirement has been hinted at for at least a decade. So, as a purely tactical matter, the Democrats might be best waiting him out, and instead claiming one of the seats held by one of the younger conservatives. Amy Coney Barrett is the youngest person on the court, at 49, so maybe hers. However, she seems to be somewhat willing to break with her party, on occasion. Far more, it would seem, than Neil Gorsuch, who is just 4 years older than her. So, if picking between them, we'd actually say Gorsuch is the more advantageous for the Democrats to replace. On the other hand, Gorsuch is from Colorado and is an avid outdoorsman. We have yet to see how he comes down on a major case relating to climate change. It's a tough call.

Q: I know that in 2017, the Republican-controlled Senate voted to end the filibuster option for Supreme Court justices (following the Democrats, who eliminated the filibuster for all lower-level executive and judicial nominees in 2013 when they controlled the Senate). Can you explain why the filibuster was not used during Clarence Thomas' nomination process in 1991? He was only approved by a 52-48 vote following a very controversial confirmation hearing. If there was ever a time to invoke the filibuster, I would think this would be it. I also found it interesting that 11 Democrats voted in favor of his nomination (with 2 Republicans voting no). D.B., New York, NY

A: You have basically answered your own question. When Thomas was being confirmed, the Senate was in Democratic hands. There is no need for the majority to filibuster a judicial nominee. If they were truly united in their opposition to Thomas, they could have just voted him down, or even refused to bring his nomination up for a vote. But they were not truly united, as indicated by all the Democratic aisle-crossers.

Q: As we have observed all year long, the spate of shootings and harassment of Black Americans is seemingly escalating. Are you aware of any statistics that have analyzed the number of shootings by Black officers on white Americans? Especially of white people who have committed silly offenses (i.e., bad taillight or signal, crossing the street, etc.). W.C., Burnsville, NC

A: This is a difficult question to answer with any precision, for a number of reasons:

  • There is no central repository where all the relevant data is available. The FBI has been collecting data and making it available as part of their Uniform Crime Reporting Program since 1984. And in 2019, they expanded their mission to include the compilation and dissemination of the National Use-of-Force Data Collection. However, all of this depends on voluntary participation from police forces, and only about half of the nation's departments have signed up. There have also been data collection efforts from activists, like the Center for Homicide Research and Mapping Police Violence, as well as from various media outlets, like The Guardian (UK) and The Washington Post. However, all of these data sets, even if combined, are noticeably incomplete in terms of their coverage.

  • Even when some data is available, that does not mean the specific information that is wanted is available. Many departments do not note the race of the officers responsible for shootings (or, if they do, they don't report it). In some cases, even if the departments want to note/report that information, it is not possible to do so. If several officers, of different races, draw their guns and fire and someone is killed, it may not be clear which officer actually fired the fatal shot.

  • Given the problems with the data, it takes great skill and care to work with it, and not everyone is up to the task. A couple of years ago, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study that found that "white officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-white officers." However, the study's methods were ripped to shreds by statisticians, and PNAS eventually retracted the article.

  • The whole issue is politically fraught, and there are many stakeholders who might prefer that the answer to your question remains...fuzzy.

With those caveats, it does appear that Black officers are quite a bit more likely to shoot Black suspects than white officers are. According to an analysis by ProPublica, roughly 78% of those killed in shootings by Black officers are themselves Black. By comparison, roughly 46% of those killed in shootings by white officers are Black. The reasons for this disparity are debated. At least part of it is that Black officers are more likely to serve in areas with larger Black populations, and white officers are more likely to serve in areas with larger white populations. It may also have something to do with political and social pressure; a Black officer may fear the blowback that comes with shooting a white suspect and so may be more cautious; a white officer may respond the same when the suspect is Black.

As to the "silly offenses" part of your question, that's very hard to address directly, since it's pretty subjective, and police department paperwork does not tend to include a "did this start over something trivial?" box. That said, we may be able to give you a pretty decent indirect answer. As it turns out, the issue here is not exactly that Black Americans are more likely to be shot to death by police than white Americans. That is the end result, but the actual dynamic is this: When someone is stopped by police, the odds of the confrontation turning violent are about the same, regardless of the suspect's race. However, Black people are considerably more likely to be stopped in the first place. If, say, 1 in 10,000 police stops ends in a shooting, and a particular ethnic group gets stopped twice as often as their numbers would suggest, then the members of that ethnic group is going to get shot twice as often as their numbers would suggest. Anyhow, this allows us to infer that a white person shot by a Black officer and a Black person shot by a white officer are about equally likely to have the interaction begin with something trivial.

Q: You piqued my interest with last week's campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln's election. How did Hannibal Hamlin end up as Vice President, why was he jettisoned in 1864, and is he important for any reason whatsoever? L.O-R., San Francisco, CA

A: When presidents select their executive team, they generally reward various interest groups within the party. In the 21st century, and for the Democrats in particular, that primarily means various ethnic and cultural groups. Since it was only a couple of months ago, surely we all remember the pressure on Joe Biden to appoint "enough" Black people to his Cabinet, and "enough" Asians and Pacific Islanders, and "enough" Latinos, etc.

In the 19th century, the interest groups were not ethnic and cultural groups. No, they were the citizens of the various states. And giving a highly ranked position to a particular state wasn't just a reward, like today, it was an inducement. Or a bribe, if you prefer. That is to say, most 19th century presidents (or, more commonly, their campaigns) would promise that, if elected, the president would appoint Joe So-and-So from New York as Treasury Secretary, and John Such-and-Such from Ohio as Attorney General, and so forth. When Benjamin Harrison won election, he was shocked to learn that his Cabinet was already set, as his campaign managers "had sold out every place to pay the election expenses."

Here is a list of the high-profile positions in the Lincoln administration, the person who was given the position to start, that person's home state, the number of EVs that state had in 1860, and where that state's EV total ranked among all the states (so, for example, Illinois' 11 EVs meant that the Land of Lincoln had the 9th most EVs among all the states):

Office Holder Home State Number of EVs EV Rank
President Abraham Lincoln Illinois 11 9
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin Maine 8 14 (tie)
Secretary of State William H. Seward New York 35 1
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase Ohio 23 3
Secretary of War Simon Cameron Pennsylvania 27 2
Attorney General Edward Bates Missouri 9 12 (tie)
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair Maryland 8 14 (tie)
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles Connecticut 6 19
Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith Indiana 13 5 (tie)

As you can see, Lincoln managed to throw a bone to most of the big EV states. Nearly all of the exceptions were Southern states, like #4 Virginia. In those states, Lincoln either wasn't on the ballot or was only on the ballot in some locales. He had no hope of winning there, of course, so there was no use wasting patronage on them. The only double-digit EV Northern state that did not get a top job was Massachusetts, whose 13 EVs put them in a fifth-place tie with Indiana. Lincoln could afford to gamble on Massachusetts, as that was the most staunchly anti-slavery state, and so was all-but-guaranteed to vote Republican (and, in fact, did).

Maine, by contrast, had a sizable population of Democrats, and a sizable population of folks who were agnostic on slavery. So, Lincoln had to give them some patronage to make sure they ended up in the Republican column. Hamlin was tapped because he was a prominent citizen, he was a former newspaper editor who knew how to work the media, and he was a former Democrat (as opposed to being a former Whig, like Lincoln) and so could "speak the language" of Maine Democrats who were wavering.

That said, while Lincoln was willing to play the patronage game, he did not hesitate to make a move if he felt it was necessary. For example, Secretary of War Simon Cameron proved to be wildly corrupt and horribly incompetent. So, Lincoln relieved him of duty, and sent him home to Mar-a-Lago. No, wait, that was someone else. Our notes got jumbled. Cameron was actually appointed Minister to Russia, where he could do less harm, and where his sticky fingers were less likely to be useful. Here, Lincoln undoubtedly recalled that Andrew Jackson used the same trick to rid himself of James Buchanan. Old Hickory famously observed, "Russia was as far away as I could have sent him. If we kept a minister to the North Pole, I would have sent Buchanan there."

Hamlin was not corrupt, as Cameron was. However, as the 1864 election neared, Lincoln's position was tenuous. Indeed, at the point when he had to commit to a running mate, the President thought he was more likely to lose than to win because of anti-Lincoln votes from conservative "War Democrats." Under those circumstances, keeping Maine happy was less important than trying to win over the centrists of that era. So, Hamlin was dumped, and the War Democrat Andrew Johnson replaced him. The gamble paid off; Lincoln did well enough among the War Democrats, still won Maine, and, of course, was reelected.

Hamlin ultimately put together a long and distinguished career. Before serving as VP, he represented Maine in both chambers of Congress and also served as the state's governor. After being dumped by Lincoln, he served in the U.S. Senate again, and also as ambassador to Spain. However, there is nothing particularly notable about him beyond his long career in politics. He does not get credit for any famous law, or any important treaty, or for a clever quip about the uselessness of the vice presidency, or having a salad or a dessert named after him, or anything like that.

Q: Inasmuch as we have now learned that Civil War historians do not make mistakes, I have a question I would like cleared up. My impression is that there were several junctures where history could have taken a different turn, resulting in entrenched slavery in the South. Possibilities include a secession under Pierce or early in Buchanan's administration, presidents who might have said, "Eh, let them go"; acceptance of the Crittenden Compromise in late 1860, resulting in preservation of the Union but with protection for slavery in unamendable provisions of the Constitution; or Confederate success on the battlefield in any of several key engagements.

In any such scenario, it's hard to see a path by which slavery would have ended. Mackinlay Kantor, writing in If The South Had Won The Civil War, envisioned a change in public opinion in the South, leading to abolition, but I'm dubious. The planter class that controlled the South would not have permitted any expansion of the franchise that might threaten their power. Any plan for voluntary and compensated emancipation would still have faced huge economic obstacles, plus some stubborn holdouts no matter how much money was offered. Despite all this, however, it's also hard to see human slavery persisting into the 20th century, let alone the 21st. So, what is the most plausible alternative history?
J.L., Paterson, NJ

A: There are three threats to the long-term viability of slavery that would have brought the institution to an end, sooner or later, we think. Whether one of these three would have been predominant, or all three would have conspired together in equal measure, we do not know. Anyhow:

  1. Public Opinion: You're right that an "awakening" among white Southerners was improbable. However, global opinion turned decisively against slavery in the mid-19th century, and it turned against feudal systems and most forms of human subjugation after World War I. It is probable the South would have been increasingly isolated from the world economy, as major nations like Britain (and probably the U.S.) became less willing (or unwilling) to do business with a slave power. Heck, the British were already using trade policy to undermine slavery before the Civil War; hard to see why they would have stopped after.

  2. Economic Viability: Slavery nearly collapsed around the time of the revolution because it just wasn't profitable anymore, as Southern soil had become exhausted from overproduction of tobacco. The institution was saved by two things: (1) the cotton gin, which made possible a shift to a different cash crop, and (2) national expansion, which not only provided new, un-exhausted soil to cultivate, but also a market for the selling of slaves by "Old Guard" slave states like Virginia.

    An independent South would likely have run into problems on both fronts. Eventually, overproduction of cotton (and, for that matter, foreign competition from producers like Egypt) would have made the slave system unprofitable. Meanwhile, the Southern Confederacy would have been hemmed in, unable to add significant new territory, and thus would have seen its supply of virgin soil and its market for slaves cut off. Oh, and the wealthier Northern states subsidized the Southern states, even back then. So, the South would have been dealing with these economic challenges while also trying to bear the full cost of running a national government.

  3. Technology: The South was pretty effective at keeping slaves subjugated when the guns were muskets and the most effective form of transportation was horses. But eventually, the guns got a lot better and more deadly, and the transportation got much more efficient. Slave rebellions would have been much harder to contain in the 20th century, and runaway slaves (perhaps in stolen cars, or perhaps aided by sympathetic activists from the United States) would have become a nearly unsolvable problem.

So, there you have it. Very hard to see how all of these challenges—or, for that matter, how any of them—could have been overcome, long-term.

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