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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

If you read all the way through, there's even a question about Pluto, despite this being a political blog. None about Uranus, though.

Q: You guys wrote: "...but [Rush Limbaugh] also hated Black activists, gay activists, abortion rights activists, animal rights activists, vegetarians, environmentalists, feminists, and many other groups..."

I sent that item to a conservative friend, and he pointed out that by saying Limbaugh "hated" these groups, you guys are guilty of mind reading.

Unless Limbaugh said, "I hate Black activists, gay people, etc." then we cannot for sure know that, unless we equate something he did with exposing his hate. And I think he was probably too clever for that.

I don't think one can prove Limbaugh "hated" anybody.
M.C., Santa Clara, CA

A: We'll concede that it's possible that for some of the groups on the list, what Limbaugh felt was more like "disdain" than outright hate. It's also possible that he was just playing a character on the radio, and that the feelings he expressed had little to do with how he really felt.

If your friend had made one of those arguments, then we might have yielded the point. But the argument that your friend actually did make is nothing more than sophistry. It is certainly possible to hate without saying the word "hate." And it is certainly possible to judge the bigotries of such people through their other words and through their actions, even if they never say "Boy, I hate those..."

To take the obvious example, you can scan the text of Mein Kampf, and the word "hate" does not appear (nor, necessarily, does the phrase "I hate"). The word "hatred" appears 32 times, but it is mostly used to criticize the alleged sentiments of others (e.g., "what was impossible to understand was the boundless hatred they expressed against their own fellow citizens"). The very few times that Adolf Hitler used the word to describe his own feelings, it was never directed at an entire race, religion, or national group, it was always more narrowly tailored (e.g., "During those nights my hatred increased—hatred for the originators of this dastardly crime"). And yet, nobody would disagree that Hitler hated many, many people—Jewish people, and Black people, and Roma, and just about anyone who was not sufficiently Germanic enough for him.

To take another example, Nathan Bedford Forrest gave a speech in 1875 in which he declared, "I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends." This is the same man who engaged in slave trading long after it was illegal, who oversaw the massacre of Black soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864, and who served as first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (from 1867-69). However, he found it to be politically expedient, in the context of Reconstruction, to frame himself as a racial moderate in his public pronouncements.

Limbaugh, as you note, was cagey in the same way that Hitler and Forrest were. He knew full well that open expressions of bigotry were politically/socially unacceptable, and would be used against him by critics. So, in general, he chose his words carefully (though, given that he was basically freestyling 15 hours per week, he did slip up on occasion). Still, it's entirely clear where his heart was at. Or, at least, where the heart of the radio character "Rush H. Limbaugh" was at. It's also clear, and certainly more important, that he encouraged and legitimized hateful feelings among many of his listeners.

Q: What's the reasoning behind reconciliation bills requiring provisions that affect the budget? On first hearing about reconciliation bills, my instinct was the opposite (i.e., if a provision is so minor that it doesn't affect the budget, then it can be passed this way). But as that's just wrong, I wonder what the reasoning is behind the process. D.C., Brentwood, CA

A: To start, we will begin by noting the (fairly) obvious, namely that the budget itself is un-filibusterable because it's too important to let it get tied up in partisan squabbling. The majority, whichever party that might be, must be able to get a budget in place.

Byrd had the insight (which was certainly not unique to him) that budget bills could thus be used to do an end-run around the filibuster in the Senate, by sneaking things in there that had nothing to do with the budget. And so, he came up with a set of standards for separating "legitimate budgetary issue" from "backdoor attempt to get around the filibuster" and got his colleagues to agree with them. And that is the logic—anything that fails the Byrd Rule is thus deemed to be non-budgetary and, in effect, an invalid attempt to subvert the filibuster.

Q: Could you please give your thoughts on: (1) the near-term possibility of statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, and (2) how helpful they would prove in the short-term in getting Democratic Party priorities passed in Congress. Also, what do you think about the expectation that a large portion of the Latino vote is a better fit, culturally, for the GOP? J.S., Seattle, WA

A: We do not have the inside information needed to put a percentage on it, but we'd be willing to guess that it's more likely than not that Washington, DC, will be a state by the time of the next presidential election. Puerto Rico is a little trickier, since they are not quite as far into the process, but the U.S. does have something of a history of basically admitting states in pairs. Of the last 12 states to be admitted, 10 joined in the same year as another state (the only exception is the 11-year gap between Utah in 1896 and Oklahoma in 1907). Point is that once Congress puts its admission hat on for one state, that tends to grease the skids for another.

As to the Democratic priorities, the admission of D.C. would very likely add two moderate-to-liberal Black Democrats to the Senate, and one to the House. This means Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) would have to decide whether she wanted to run for a House seat (where she is well known) or try for a promotion to the Senate at 83. Puerto Rico is harder to project; they have their own political parties that don't line up perfectly with Democrat/Republican. If they are admitted, one Republican and one Democratic senator is probably the most likely combo, followed by two Democrats, and then by two Republicans. Obviously, whether the Democrats add two senators, or three, or four, it's not enough to invoke cloture. And so, the main benefits to the Party would be: (1) they could kill the filibuster while allowing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to keep his hands clean, and (2) they could squeeze legislation through that makes one or two of the Blue Dogs uncomfortable.

When it comes to your final question, we are reminded of the old line, "But besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" It's true that Latino voters (and Black voters, for that matter, and arguably Asian voters, too) are, in many ways, more in tune with the Republican Party (at least, the pre-Trump Republican Party) than they are with the Democrats. But the problem, dating back more than 150 years at this point, is that it's not plausible to have the racists and the people of color in the same party. There is a reason that Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, remarked "I have just lost the South for the Democratic Party for a generation." That's not to say that all Republicans are racists, but it is to say that the Party has done a great deal to attract those folks, particularly under the leadership of Donald Trump. For the great majority of people of color, the presence of the racists is simply a bridge too far.

Q: There are six medium-sized islands near the island of Puerto Rico. Three of them are part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the other three form the U.S. Virgin Islands. Why are the latter three not part of Puerto Rico? Could they become part of a state of Puerto Rico? C.S., Newport, UK

A: This is certainly possible, though it would require the assent of Congress, the people of Puerto Rico, and the people of the Virgin Islands. The first two of those are very plausible, the latter is nearly inconceivable.

To explain, consider the possibility of Delaware (pop. 986,809) merging with the neighboring state of Pennsylvania (pop. 12,783,254). The people of Pennsylvania would probably be ok with that, since it would be more land and tax revenue for their state. The people of Delaware would never go for it, though, because they would instantly become a small minority in Pennsylware (or Delavania), with only a small voice in the election of senators, governors, etc., as opposed to having 100% of the voice in the election of senators, governors, etc. Similarly, the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands might very well like to see Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) elected to the Senate, but that would never happen if they merged with Puerto Rico.

And the reason they are separate territories, and have been since joining the U.S., is that Puerto Rico was acquired from Spain in 1898, while the Virgin Islands were acquired from Denmark in 1917. So, they are pretty different in terms of culture, languages spoken, economy, historical experience, etc. Blending them together based on geographic proximity is not dissimilar from blending together, say, New Mexico and Oklahoma, which are also pretty different.

Q: I thought President Biden's mask mandate required wearing a mask on all federal land and in all federal buildings. I assume the Capitol is a federal building. How is Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) getting away with not wearing a mask? J.M., San Jose, CA

A: You're missing one element. Biden's order applies only to executive branch employees, since those are the ones he has control over. Paul, of course, is an employee of the legislative branch.

Q: In the past seven days, your site has mentioned Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) once and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on six days. I didn't go further back but I suspect the ratio would hold. This is not to pick on you other than to illustrate a general trend: right now, namely that the Minority Leader seems to wield a bigger megaphone than the Majority Leader. It used to be said that the most dangerous place to stand was between Chuck Schumer and a news camera. Why is he keeping a low profile now, and will this continue over the next two years? M.H., Boston, MA

A: Part of the reason is, in effect, random chance. Among the big news stories of the week is the McConnell-Trump war. Now that the Democrats have hammered out a COVID-19 bill, that will be among the big stories of next week, and Schumer's name will presumably show up a fair bit more.

The other part of the reason is that McConnell, in addition to his official titles, is also the leader of his party. Or one of the two leaders, at least, depending on who is winning the tug-of-war between him and Trump. The Minority Leader is, in other words, on the top rung of the GOP ladder, which grants him additional significance. By contrast, the leader of the Democratic Party is Joe Biden. Schumer is one rung below Biden, and he has to share that rung with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Q: Do you think Mitch McConnell made a rare political miscalculation by choosing not to rally the center of his caucus to vote to convict Donald Trump? Would a convincing bipartisan conviction (70+ votes) have created a strong, united front against Trumpism and made it harder for the Trump wing to target individual Republican "apostates" like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA)? R.E.M., Brooklyn, NY

A: It certainly looks that way, doesn't it? There may be no better chance to lop the head off the snake, and yet McConnell didn't take it.

That said, there is much behind-the-scenes information we do not have. Maybe we'll never have it, or maybe we'll have it only once McConnell writes a tell-all book ("Duck and Cover" would be a good title, for several reasons).

In view of this, we will propose two alternate explanations for your consideration. The first is that McConnell took the lay of the land and figured out that he was not going to be able to collect enough Republican votes for conviction. Surely he talked to his colleagues, and if they were intractable, then they were intractable. After all, as Minority Leader, he has much less to offer in terms of vote trading than he did when Majority Leader.

The second possibility is that McConnell concluded that convicting Trump would make him a martyr, and even more dangerous to the Republican Party. After all, if he's definitely not running again, that removes certain constraints in terms of what he might say or do.

Again, we just don't know enough to say with any confidence if all, some, or none of these things is correct. But they are all certainly within the realm of possibility.

Q: On Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), you write that: "As we and others have pointed out many times, pretty much everyone hates Cruz." So how did he receive the majority of the votes in both of his U.S. Senate elections in Texas, and how did he win 11 states in the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses? P.M., Albany, CA

A: Obviously, that was a little bit of poetic license. Certainly, there are some people who like him. For example, surely his kids like him, right? At least, one of the two?

Beyond that, however, surely you have noticed that voters, particularly these days (it seems), often choose the least odious candidate, since they don't like any of the choices before them.

Further, despite the old line about people voting for the candidate they would like to have a beer with, sometimes likability is not all that important to voters. We are reminded of a line that may first have been uttered by FDR about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García: "He's a son-of-a-bitch, but at least he's our son-of-a-bitch."

Q: Does the situation for Ted Cruz get worse now that it is clear that his "I did it for my daughters" story is a lie, as shown by his wife's text messages? Or is it so bad that it just can't get worse?

Also, I note that you assumed (quite reasonably) that this was a planned vacation. Now that it is clear that Cruz and the family left Texas expressly to escape the cold and their heat-free home, does it ultimately make a difference?
J.S., Vancouver, BC, Canada

A: Cruz is certainly giving us an interesting lesson in whether or not you can dig the hole deeper (and, for the record, we think you can, and we think he is). To start, as you point out, we incorrectly assumed that someone as savvy as Cruz would not plan a vacation after a disaster began unfolding. Our mistake for giving him the benefit of the doubt. The news that he booked his tickets specifically in order to escape the deep freeze in Texas broke about half an hour after we wrote that item, so we missed it.

But is there any way that things could get even worse than that? Well, how about mixing in a lonely dog that pulls at the heartstrings of pet lovers everywhere? The Cruzes, quite reasonably, did not take their dog with them to Mexico (it's not easy transporting dogs, nor especially kind to the animal). And the Cruzes, quite responsibly, arranged for doggy care for their pooch. Still, the photo of their dog staring forlornly out the door, which is now all over social media and news broadcasts, is not going to do the Senator any favors, especially since the dog was surely freezing cold:

The dog appears to be a poodle, and is
sitting right next to the screen looking out on the yard

The memes have also commenced, as people have cut out Cruz from the photo taken at the airport, and dropped him in other places, like the D-Day invasion:

Cruz is pulling his luggage ahead
of the first Americans to hit Normandy on D-Day

There are also lots of other jokes being made at his expense, as expected. Jimmy Kimmel devoted nearly his entire monologue to Cruz:

Kimmel even added another mnemonic to the situation, namely "Snake on a Plane." There's also a bar in Washington that has added the "Cruz in Cancun" to its cocktail menu.

We shall see if this lingers until Cruz's next election, but as it gets worse and worse for him, our guess is that it does.

Q: Andrew Cuomo is my governor here in New York. How do you assess the nursing home scandal he is currently embroiled in? Do you think it will do significant political harm to him, as he is up again for re-election in 2022? Could he face a primary challenge from the left, from an AOC type? R.H.D., Webster, NY

A: Let us start by saying that we do not claim to have our finger on the pulse of New York politics. Perhaps a few folks who are residents of the Empire State will write in with their thoughts.

Anyhow, for those who are not familiar, the Cuomo administration cooked the books with the state's COVID-19 statistics, understating the number of deaths at nursing homes. This was done to reduce pressure from both voters and the Trump era Justice Department. The revelations, which came courtesy of AG Letitia James (D), have led to talk of impeachment, and calls for Cuomo's resignation, and so forth.

Thus far, however, Cuomo appears to be more Donald Trump than Ted Cruz when it comes to scandals. The Governor's approval rating in Siena College's poll in November was 56%, and in January it was 57%. In the latest entry, and the first to be conducted after the scandal broke, it's...56%.

We are doubtful that a challenge from any random leftist will be successful. Outside of New York City, the state's Democrats tend to be pretty conservative. However, if James challenges Cuomo, having unearthed this scandal, and (presumably by then) having gone after Trump for tax evasion? The Governor could be in big trouble in that scenario.

Q: Is it outrageous to think that Associate Justice Stephen Breyer might be an interesting choice for an Insurrection Commission? My guess is no one will be popular with everyone given the divided country we live in. Perhaps, if Breyer is even considering retirement, Joe Biden could say "Mr. Justice, your country needs you to serve on this commission." E.H., Washington, DC

A: First of all, there's no need for him to retire if he doesn't want to. Earl Warren chaired the Warren Commission and still kept his day job as chief justice.

Second, yes, he's a good choice. The 9/11 Commission was made up of five moderate Republicans and five moderate Democrats. The Warren Commission was made up of Warren (who was considered as neutral as was possible), two moderate Republicans, two moderate Democrats, and two officially non-partisan members (Allen Dulles and John J. McCloy, who were both registered Republicans, but who held "keep your politics to yourself" jobs as director of the CIA and chair of the World Bank, respectively).

Anyhow, Breyer would be a fit for either of these (somewhat similar) models for building a commission. But for chair, we'd guess that the preferred candidate, if he's up for the job, would be Colin Powell.

Q: During the questions phase of the impeachment trial, I had a question. Unfortunately, I'm not a senator, and none asked what I wanted to know, so I'd like to pose it to you, further asking that you put on your Trump defense lawyer hat and take a stab at it. Here goes: "Given the very first impeachment in our nation's history was of a private citizen who was no longer in office at the time they were both impeached by the House and tried by the Senate, and given almost every member of that Congress is an undisputed Founding Father, while the Senate trial itself was presided over by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, how can you assert with such confidence and certainty that it is plainly unconstitutional to try a private citizen who, unlike the first impeachment, was impeached while they were still in office?" J.L.J., San Francisco, CA

A: To start, the person you are referring to is William Blount, a U.S. senator from Tennessee who was accused of aiding Great Britain in a scheme to seize Spanish Louisiana (Blount was in it for the money). He was expelled from the Senate, and then impeached.

In the impeachment hearing, Blount's counsel made two arguments: (1) Congress cannot impeach one of its own members, and (2) The Senate cannot try someone who is no longer in office. By a vote of 14-11, the Senate agreed to dismiss the case, though they did not in any way make clear which of those two arguments were the basis for their decision. And so, if this question had been posed to Trump's lawyers, they would have said "The Blount case shows that even the Founders knew you can't impeach someone who has already left office," while "forgetting" to mention that there may actually be a different reason his case was dismissed.

Q: No mention has been made about the families of the five individuals who died on Jan. 6. More specifically, all of the families should be considering filing a wrongful death action against the President. They would most likely be dismissed, but the adverse publicity would be intense, right? P.C., San Francisco, CA

A: To start, we would guess that the family of slain police officer Brian Sicknick is most likely to file suit. Of the four others who died, two were Trump fanatics whose families might decide that suing would dishonor their memories, and the other two died of natural causes that just happened to take them during the insurrection (a heart attack and a stroke, respectively). That's not to say that the families of some or all of the latter four won't sue, merely that it's less likely than Sicknick's family.

And you're a bit too fast to dismiss the possibility that Donald Trump would lose these suits. His hands are pretty dirty here, and the standard of proof in a civil action is lower than that in a criminal one. His own lawyers have told him he's in danger of "massive" financial damages.

Q: It's hard for me to imagine that Donald Trump will show up at jury hearings or at courts in Georgia, New York, Washington or elsewhere.

Will he be able to evade these summonses and, if so, what can be done about it?
D.H., Austin, TX

A: First, let us note that there are some differences depending on whether it's a criminal or civil action, and whether it's a federal or state case. So, we're going to answer specifically for a federal criminal case, and say that the situation would be very similar for a state criminal case, and pretty similar for a civil case.

Anyhow, federal law requires that a defendant be present for most phases of a criminal trial (including the initial appearance, the initial arraignment, and the plea, as well as every stage of the trial itself). The list of circumstances where he would not have to be present is pretty short, and largely does not apply to him (for example, the defendant does not have to be present if the charge is only a misdemeanor).

If Trump does not show up it would, first of all, look very bad in the eyes of the jury. More important, however, is that the judge would declare him in contempt and would have him hauled into court by a federal marshal or bailiff. And this is actual contempt, with real teeth, and not the contempt of Congress that Trump and his underlings so enjoyed making a mockery of. Obviously, a defendant can avoid being dragged into court if the authorities cannot find where they are. However, all that would be necessary in Trump's case would be to place a call to the U.S. Secret Service. They will know exactly where he is.

And so, if Trump is charged criminally, you can count on him being in court (unless he flees the country and seeks asylum in a non-extradition nation like UAE).

Q: You frequently suggest Donald Trump could wind up in prison for various federal or state infractions. Do you truly believe that or is it just wishful thinking? A.B., Cincinnati, OH

A: We do not engage in wishful thinking in our writing, at least not deliberately. Trump is exposed in so many different ways, and has so carelessly left juicy evidence all around for prosecutors to pounce upon, that he's got real problems. Could he beat the rap in, say, Georgia? Maybe. Or New York? Possibly. Or D.C.? Sure. But in all the places where he's in trouble? The odds are against it. So yes, we really do believe he could wind up in prison.

Q: We keep hearing about the various legal problems that Donald Trump will soon be facing. But I'm confused about the lack of stories about the ten counts of obstruction that were in the Mueller report. It seemed they laid out very obvious cases of obstruction and only chose not to prosecute him because he was the sitting president. Additionally, what about the charges that sent Michael Cohen to prison? The charges named Michael Cohen and an unindicted co-conspirator running for president; I'm just guessing that's Trump. Why aren't these criminal situations being discussed? D.S., Seattle, WA

A: When you hear news stories about Trump's legal woes, it's almost always because there has been some new development, and it's something that cannot be hidden from public view. For example, a hot-shot lawyer is hired, or a motion is filed, or an investigation is launched.

The person who will decide what to do about the Mueller Report is presumably AG-designate Merrick Garland, who has not yet been confirmed. And even once he takes office, he's going to play things on the down-low for as long as he can, until there's a need for something that cannot be hidden from public scrutiny. If he does decide Trump needs to be charged, he is likely to hire a special counsel known to be impartial to keep everything far from himself. Joe Biden, on the other hand, is not going to touch this situation with a 10-foot pole, for fear of giving ammunition to the charge that a prosecution of Trump is a "witch hunt" and/or "victors' justice." He's going to claim, probably truthfully, that he had nothing to do with any actions taken by Garland, and that the announcement of any such actions was as much news to him (Biden) as to the American public.

Q: In your item Trump to Haley: Pound Sand, you suggest that UN Ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (R) has zero chance of getting Donald Trump's endorsement in the 2024 primaries or general election, that Trump would not campaign for Haley, and that Trump might actively undermine Haley should she get the nomination. The issue is that Haley has been insufficiently loyal to Trump to earn any return loyalty.

In your estimation, who among prospective 2024 Republican presidential candidates has been sufficiently loyal to Trump so they could gain his endorsement (other than family members)? Is it possible that some candidate could benefit Trump in some way so as to motivate him to go on the campaign trail in support of that candidate? Obviously, Trump would only go to the trouble if it benefits his bottom line in a significant way, so how can Trump benefit financially? This seems like a high risk calculation for Republicans going forward, as Trump's star may fade between now and 2024.
G.W., Oxnard, CA

A: We doubt that any future president can really help Trump's bottom line, especially since his real estate empire may have bottomed out by 2024. However, in addition to money, the former president also likes power, including access to those who have it. So, Trump will back a candidate who is willing to take his calls 24/7 and who, ideally, will respond to his influence.

At the moment, the non-family favorite for Trump is surely Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who took "stop the steal" to the mat, even after the insurrection. The former president appreciates that sort of loyalty. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is another real possibility as the favored Trump candidate, as is Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL).

And you're right that going all-in on Trump right now is risky, but becoming president is a longshot, regardless of who you are. So, an ambitious politician has to commit to a theory of where the electorate will be at the next presidential cycle, and then hope they're right.

Q: You ran an answer a couple weeks ago about how it's ultimately up to the states to decide who appears on their ballots. That started me wondering about a scenario I have not seen discussed in my news sources. Suppose some number of (blue) states passed or amended their laws to clarify that the Secretary of State should consider the language of the 14th Amendment when determining who is qualified to appear on the presidential primary ballot. That would raise the possibility that a Donald Trump, or even a Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley, might not be allowed on some ballots, which could have an effect on their decision to run. After all, even blue states matter when choosing the GOP nominee. D.R., Portland, OR

A: It's not legal for states to create requirements for federal office that are not in the Constitution. For example, a state cannot disqualify someone from a run for federal office due to their not being wealthy enough, or for being the wrong religion, or because they are convicted felons. However, the 14th Amendment is, of course, a part of the Constitution. And so, if a state attempted to disqualify someone on that basis, we think it would pass legal muster.

Q: I remember your claim that you would have your first day free of Donald Trump news in February. Did Thursday count? Your topics were Rush Limbaugh's death, Texas' problems, Joe Manchin, student loans, Marjorie Taylor Greene, far right news sites, and H.R. 40. I did, however, see Trump's name slip into the last paragraph of the post on Limbaugh. S.H., Chandler, AZ

A: We've already decreed that, in order to fulfill the prediction, the name "Trump" cannot appear in the text of that day's post (which excludes the headlines that appear at the bottom, below our signatures). So, that day does not qualify. We could easily have adapted it to make the prediction come true, but we'll wait for it to happen organically.

That said, there are only really a couple of ongoing Trump stories left: (1) the fight for the soul of the Republican Party, and (2) potential criminal or civil litigation. Eventually there are going to be days and weeks with no developments on those fronts.

Q: Can you write a bit about what you think is going on with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)? Does he have a need for a father figure (first John McCain, then Donald Trump)? Or does he have political aspirations that are driving him? And how does he get so much press with—in my view, at least—such a lack of charisma? G.H., Branchport, NY

A: The latter question is the easier to answer. He gets so much press because he accepts pretty much every invitation to appear, and he gets lots of invitations because he kinda shoots from the hip. That's better for ratings than a politician who just utters platitudes.

As to his goals, he's 65 and Mitch McConnell is 79, so he may have his eye on leading his party in the Senate someday. Alternatively, he may want to develop a reputation as an elder icon of the party, along the lines of a Barry Goldwater or, yes, a John McCain.

As to the psychological underpinnings of Graham's behavior, we don't traffic in those sorts of explanations. We haven't examined him, and we don't have the training to make such pronouncements.

Q: How is net worth of a politician calculated? If equity in one's personal abode is included, almost anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area who has owned a home for more than ten years has a net worth easily exceeding that attributed to Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). D.S., Palo Alto, CA

A: Candidates for most political offices (including all federal offices) are required to fill out disclosure forms that give an overview of their assets, liabilities, sources of income, etc. That includes any real estate they own in part or in whole.

That said, they are only required to give values within pre-defined ranges (for example, "I have a house worth between $1 million and $2.5 million"). When you see a politician's net worth, it's almost always derived from adding up the bottom number in each asset range (and subtracting the top number in each liability range). For example, a politician who has disclosed a $1 million to $2.5 million house, a $250,000 to $500,000 stock portfolio, and $10,000 to $50,000 in credit card debt will de described as having a net worth of $1.2 million ($1 million plus $250,000 minus $50,000), even though the true number is probably more. Sometimes you will see that rendered as "a net worth of at least $1.2 million."

Q: Did you listen to "Margin of Error: Lessons from 2020" from Cook Political Report and the University of Chicago? I was intrigued by Ann Selzer's comment that she has no idea how to predict electorate composition and turnout and instead just goes with what her data tells her. Thus, she saw trends like an overrepresentation of Republicans in Iowa this year or a huge surge in first-time caucus-goers in 2008 that she would have missed if she used past trends to predict the future. What do you think about that? Is it something pollsters should take a good look at—less modeling and more just accepting what the data tells them?

I also found John Anzalone's comment that he had the electoral map right all along by, for Democrats, ignoring margins and just focusing on Joe Biden's share in the polls. If Biden was at 49-50% or better he would win the state, and if he was lower he would lose even if the polls showed him leading. Thus he knew Biden would lose North Carolina and Florida, even though he had leads, because he was only getting 47-48%. Would this be an interesting tweak to at least look at for your map?
L.S., Greensboro, NC

A: We did not, due in one case to the time difference between the U.S. and the Netherlands and in the other case to having to teach (virtual) class. We tried to find a link, but it appears to be behind Cook's paywall.

Anyhow, as to Selzer, she's very good, but her method is considerably more viable when dealing with a fairly homogeneous state like Iowa. If you are polling a state that is 27% Latino, like Nevada, and only 5% of your respondents are Latino, how can you fix that other than modeling the electorate? You certainly can't just assume that only 5% of the voters will be Latino.

As to Anzalone, we made observations like that before the election, along the lines of "the undecideds broke heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, so Joe Biden should be considerably more nervous about states where he's up 44-37 than ones where he's up 49-46." The problem is that we do not know if that is the new normal, and that "undecideds" should basically be regarded as "voting Republican" or if it's unique to elections where Trump is on the ballot. And we won't really know for at least 1-2 more cycles.

Q: You wrote that there would be "virtually no chance" that a new center-right party gets formed, because it would struggle with recruitment, ballot access, and money—and have almost no chance of winning. At best, it would be a "thorn in the side of the GOP" to try and purge them of their more "Trumpy" elements. How is this different from what the Green Party does, or for that matter, the Libertarian Party? E.H., Stevens Point, WI

A: It's certainly similar, but we would point out two rather important differences. First, the people who vote for/run as Greens/Libertarians have decided that they prioritize making a statement with their vote/candidacy over winning elections. By contrast, the hypothetical centrist party voters/candidates have largely made the opposite choice in past elections—they have prioritized winning over ideological purity. Maybe such folks can transition to the Green/Libertarian way of thinking and maybe they can't.

A second difference is that the Greens and Libertarians have both been at this for many cycles, whereas the hypothetical centrist party would be starting from scratch.

Q: Now that you've given an example of the "Overton Window," as if I didn't know the definition, could you please explain your application of the term to various presidents who supposedly did or did not take advantage of it? Specifically, does winning an election by a significant margin open or widen this window? Or did you get this term confused with the window opened by a "mandate" or "honeymoon" period? G.H., Chicago, IL

A: The concept speaks to what ideas and positions are tolerable in public discourse. To be more specific, the Window is generally divided into "left" and right" panels, each of them subdivided into "Unthinkable," "Radical," "Acceptable," "Sensible," "Popular," and "Policy." The unthinkable ideas are outside the window, the radical ideas are right on the edge, and the other four are inside. The closer to the center something is, the more ripe it is to become law.

And there is indeed a debate as to whether politicians can move the Overton Window with their words or their political campaigns, or if they can merely respond to it. Joseph Lehman, who actually coined the term "Overton Window," takes the latter position, writing "[T}he most common misconception is that lawmakers themselves are in the business of shifting the Overton window. That is absolutely false. Lawmakers are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it." For many, including us, this seems nonsensical. Sometimes politicians lead from behind, yes, but sometimes they lead from ahead. And if a Franklin Delano Roosevelt spends 9 months running for office, and talking the whole time about how it would be awfully nice to give pensions to elderly people, we cannot see how that doesn't help to turn once-radical ideas into "acceptable" or "sensible" or "popular" ideas.

It is also true that winning an election or being in the first 100 days of their term gives presidents a little extra political capital. However, the less radical a policy position is, the less capital they have to spend on it. And so, moving the Overton Window and taking advantage of early-term advantages are complementary, but are not the same thing.

Q: Caucuses have always struck me as a slow motion version of ranked-choice voting. What is the big attraction of caucuses that justifies a day-long process that excludes many people due to time and/or travel conflicts? J.N., Springfield, VA

A: We have two answers to this. First, in many places (most obviously Iowa), caucuses are traditional, and Americans love tradition. Second, the people who show up to caucuses tend to be the same high-investment party faithful who serve on party committees and in other such jobs, and who thus play a big role in the decisions about what kind of election to hold. You can see how such folks might say "Let's stick with the approach that makes my vote as important as is possible."

Q: I was born and raised in Brazil and moved here with my family years ago, having since adopted the U.S. as my country. One of the many striking differences between Brazil and the U.S. is how much of the original African culture and traditions the Black population managed to keep in Brazil: food, music, religion, etc. However, here in the U.S., it looks like their original culture got lost at some point (perhaps Louisiana being the exception), and was replaced by what I would call a "manufactured" identity (for example, blues music).

Is my perception wrong? And if it's not, why did this happen?
A.A., Kingwood, TX

A: (Z) does not claim to be an expert in transnational studies, a field that was just taking off as he finished grad school, and he certainly does not claim to be an expert in the comparative history of Afro-Caribbeans and Black Southerners. So, take all of this with a grain of salt.

With that said, it's pretty well understood that the greater the population imbalance in favor of people of African descent, the more likely there are to be survivals from African culture. In Brazil, during the slave era, folks of African descent tended to outnumber whites by a margin of 2-to-1. In the American South, whites tended to outnumber Black slaves by about the same margin. As you might expect, Southern whites undertook sustained, systematic efforts to stamp out as many remnants of African culture as they could. The survivals you note in Louisiana are because that was a French colony until fairly late in the game, and so it had strong ties to the nation of Haiti, which was absolutely dominated by people of African descent (9-to-1). Louisiana voodoo, for example, is an adaptation of Haitian Vodou.

The other issue is that the slaves brought to the American South came from a broad number of locations in Africa, particularly the western coast, but also from the eastern horn as well. This being the case, we would expect that whatever did survive would be a blend and an adaptation. By contrast, Brazilian slaves tended to come from a much narrower portion of Africa, mostly the region from Angola to southern Gabon. So, they were quite a bit more homogenous, and thus more likely to sustain the culture brought from Africa as opposed to creating a creole culture.

Q: Who, in your opinion, was the most consequential "forgotten" president, and why? M.A., Springfield, MA

A: We will go with John Quincy Adams. Obviously, he's not forgotten by historians or by political junkies, but we doubt the American public knows a lot about him. Anyhow, before becoming president, he was probably the best Secretary of State this nation has had; among his accomplishments were securing Florida for the U.S. and penning the Monroe Doctrine. During his presidency, he oversaw a substantial expansion of the nation's infrastructure, helped create the Whig Party, and broadened American trade. After his term, he became a leading figure in the House, won the Amistad case, and helped lay the groundwork for the downfall of slavery. That's a pretty impressive career.

Q: Since the Northwest Ordinance was passed by the Confederation Congress under different rules than the United States Congress, what law would you choose to replace it on your "10 Best Laws" list? M.L., Franklin, MA

A: When the 1st Congress formed under the newly adopted Constitution met, one of the first things they did was pass the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, which affirmed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in its entirety. Since the 1787 bill is the one that actually lays out the terms for statehood, the terms used in the literature are invariably "Northwest Ordinance" or "Northwest Ordinance of 1787." In other words, including the Northwest Ordinance on our list was entirely apropos, as was giving it the year 1787.

Q: What are the 10 worst laws passed by Congress? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: In contrast to last week, we will start by specifying our terms. First, we are going to interpret "worst" as meaning "negative impact;" either a massive negative impact on a portion of the country or a smaller negative impact on most or all of the country. We are also, as we did with the "best" list, excluding enabling acts, such as those that laid the groundwork for constitutional amendments, since those acts do not become law in and of themselves. And finally, we tend to favor the most significant law from groups of similar laws, so as to avoid too much repetition.

And, with that said, here's our list:

  1. Mann Act (1910): The stated goal of the Mann Act, namely to combat human trafficking, is a worthy one. However, this is an excellent example of how a poorly written law can have problematic consequences. The reliance of the legislation on vague terminology like "immorality" and "indecent" allowed some states to declare open season on sexual relationships deemed offensive, even if they involved consenting adults and no trafficking whatsoever. This included adulterers, people who had interracial affairs (most notably Jack Johnson) and, of course, LGBTQ+ folks.

  2. Alien Enemy Act (1798): An early chapter in America's long history of xenophobia; this bill was passed during the Quasi-War with France, and allowed the government to expel non-citizens deemed to be disloyal. It remained on the books for well over a century.

  3. Patriot Act (2001): With the "war on terror" as justification, the federal government assumed enormous civil-liberty-infringing powers that it has yet to give back.

  4. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994): In the 1990s, the majority of Americans, including leaders of both political parties, decided that a lot of problems could be solved by locking up a lot of their fellow citizens. How many lifetimes' worth of years were wasted by folks languishing in prison while they served unduly harsh sentences? And how did folks in 1994 not realize that, as with all matters of American criminal justice since at least the 1860s, the burden would disproportionately fall on Black citizens? This remains the biggest debit on Joe Biden's record.

  5. Sedition Act (1918): Another example of using a war as cover for political goals. In order to maintain a "loyal" populace, the government gave itself the power to punish "disloyalty," very broadly defined. We are skeptical that suffragettes, socialists, communists, and many others imprisoned under the law's terms did much to derail the American War effort in World War I. Especially since the most notorious and aggressive exercise of the law, namely the Palmer Raids, happened after the war was over.

  6. Public Law 503 (1942): When Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Japanese to be interned, he realized he was pushing the limits of his powers as president. Public Law 503 made everything "legal."

  7. Gulf Of Tonkin Resolution (1964): Congress gave Lyndon Johnson permission to expand a relatively small-scale American intervention into an ugly, directionless full-scale war that cost 58,209 American soldiers their lives, killed countless Vietnamese, and tore American society apart.

  8. Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930): This attempted to forestall the whopper of a depression that everyone knew was coming by effectively cutting off foreign access to American markets. It didn't work, almost certainly made things worse by ruining American businesses that depended on foreign trade, and heightened nationalist sentiments across Europe, helping to lay the groundwork for the rise of Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco, among others (Benito Mussolini predated the tariff).

  9. Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854): "Let the people decide" seemed a very democratic approach to the slavery issue. But this law, by avoiding the pesky nuts and bolts of exactly how "popular sovereignty" would work, led to a disastrous implementation of the policy in Kansas. And, as a result, Kansas became "Bleeding Kansas," helping push the nation much, much closer to the precipice of civil war.

  10. Indian Removal Act (1830): Millions of Natives died on the "trail of tears" that resulted directly from this legislation, millions more died in the wars that removal policy "justified."

Did we miss any we should have included?

Q: In the 1992 movie "Leap of Faith," the crew takes bets on whether fake faith healer Jonas Nightingale (brilliantly played by the great Steve Martin) can manage to integrate certain phrases into his sermon, like "aluminum siding." With all those pop culture references in your articles becoming more common lately, do you ever challenge each other like that?

And, if that hasn't been the case yet, may I dare you to use ************ (a term that gets harder to integrate as impeachment is further in the rear-view mirror) sometime next week?

My money is on (Z), by the way.
A.D., Las Vegas, NV

A: We've never had a challenge of that sort, but we recall that movie very well, and we're up to giving this a try sometime in the next week. The fun is in trying to work the word in without it being too obtrusive, which is why we've hidden it, although we left the number of characters (12) intact. We shall see if people figure it out when we use the word in question.

Q: Now that you've spilled the beans that one of you was an astrophysicist, don't you think there was something fishy about the vote to demote Pluto? J.C., Binan, Laguna, Philippines

A: No. Although Pluto is a largish rock out there, it isn't the only one of its size. Also, a true planet has enough gravity to suck in all the other leftovers from when the solar system was formed, and to clear its orbit so that it is the only thing in the orbit. All the true planets have done that, and Pluto hasn't. When it was deplanetized, there was such an outcry from children who loved Pluto (actually, the Disney character named Pluto), that the International Astronomical Union backed down and called it a dwarf planet, to distinguish it from the eight real planets. Currently, there are four other dwarf planets: Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Haumea. Four others are under consideration, namely, Gonggong, Quaoar, Sedna, and Orcus. If you want to propose a candidate, having a moon around your candidate is a big plus, but not a requirement.

Q: With such a breadth of knowledge that you both have, have either of you considered being on Jeopardy!, or are you both based overseas?

Also can you finish a NYT Saturday Crossword? Not Sunday. Sunday's aren't very hard.
J.G., Upper Hanover, PA

A: (Z) has passed the Jeopardy! test multiple times, and has auditioned once, but it's very hard to make the cut (less than 1 in 10 who make it to the audition step get on the show). They want you to be high-energy on the order of Richard Simmons, and that's not easy to sustain for the length of the audition. Not because of the energy itself, but because it's hard to keep one's focus on being perky at the same time that one is trying to come up with the answers to trivia questions.

We will point out, though, that Jeopardy! is not quite the test of knowledge that it seems. Yes, you really need to have a base of knowledge that puts you in the top 10% of Americans (or maybe 5% or 3%). But they don't want games where nobody gets any questions, because those are boring. So, they tend to base the questions on a fairly narrow range of information, and they also tend to build in clues that make the answers guessable. That means that anyone who makes it onto the show will be able to answer the great majority of the questions asked. The #1 thing that separates winners from losers is not trivia knowledge, it's skill with the buzzer. If you ring in too early, you get locked out. If you ring in too late, one of the other players beats you to the punch.

Similarly, we have finished Saturday NYT puzzles, though one of our copy editors surely does so ten times as often as we are able. That is due, at least in part, to the fact that crossword puzzles are not entirely about testing knowledge, either. To a fair extent, what they are really testing is how much experience you have solving crossword puzzles. Someone who is used to the various word games that are played with the clues, and who knows the semi-obscure words/clues that tend to show up a lot due to the constraints of the medium (like 'oleo' or 'eton' or 'asta') has a sizable advantage.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb19 Ted Fled
Feb19 It Ain't Easy Being Prez
Feb19 Shadow Boxing
Feb19 Poll: It's Still Trump's Party
Feb19 Trump to Haley: Pound Sand
Feb19 Ivanka Is Out
Feb19 Video Killed the Radio Star
Feb18 Rush Limbaugh Is Dead
Feb18 How to Turn Bad News into Good News, Texas Style: Lie
Feb18 Manchin Is a Byrder
Feb18 Biden Does Not Support Forgiving $50,000 in Student Loans
Feb18 Democrats May Turn Marjorie Taylor Greene into a Boogeywoman
Feb18 Traffic at Far-Right News Sites Spiked in 2020
Feb18 Forty Acres and a Mule, Revisited
Feb17 The Kid's in the Hall
Feb17 Trump Slams McConnell
Feb17 Movin' on Up?
Feb17 Insurrection Panel Getting Closer to Reality
Feb17 Trump Sued for Inciting Insurrection
Feb17 Giuliani Sidelined
Feb17 The Downside to Schadenfreude
Feb16 Battle Lines Are Forming
Feb16 The Lincoln Project Is Dying
Feb16 One Born Every Minute
Feb16 Don't Call Us, We'll Call You
Feb16 An Unforced Error for the Biden Administration
Feb16 Nevada Getting out of the Caucus Business, into the "Going Second" Business
Feb16 Perdue May Take Another Bite at the Peach
Feb15 Takeaway Time
Feb15 How Brave Were the Anti-Trump Seven?
Feb15 Poll: Americans Believe Trump Was Responsible for the Capitol Riot
Feb15 But Will the Senate Vote Even Be an Issue in 2022?
Feb15 Some in Congress Want a Bipartisan Commission to Examine the Riot
Feb15 McConnell Is Now Leading a Fractured Republican Party
Feb15 Trump Is Coming Out of Hibernation
Feb15 Are the Democrats Powerless Now?
Feb15 Trump's Business Partners Are Squeezing Him
Feb14 Unimpeachable
Feb14 Sunday Mailbag
Feb13 The Defense Rests
Feb13 Saturday Q&A
Feb12 Send in the Clowns
Feb12 What's Next for the Republicans?
Feb12 It Will Be a Taxing Year for Trump
Feb12 Former Republican Officials Consider Forming Center-Right Party
Feb12 Biden Administration Grapples with COVID-19
Feb12 Biden Administration Also Grapples with Clemency
Feb12 Diplomatic Unity?
Feb11 The Impeachment of Donald J. Trump, A Tragedy in Three Acts
Feb11 Atlanta DA Has Opened a Criminal Investigation of Trump's Call to Raffensperger