Usually, we put the history questions near the end. But, by virtue of C-SPAN's presidential rankings, they come at the start today, and then pop up throughout.
Q: Historians seem to think there were several periods when we had great presidents (at our founding, during the Civil War, while pulling ourselves out of the Great Depression and getting through World War II and its aftermath), while there are three periods where we had exceptionally bad presidents (in the decades before and after the Civil War, in many of the years before the Great Depression, and now). My obvious question is how much of this is cause, and how much is effect? Did bad presidents lead us to Civil War, or do we think they were bad because they couldn't prevent it? You've addressed this some in the past, but I'm wondering if you can shed some more light on this for those of us who wonder what new disaster awaits us in the next decade, following the exceptionally bad presidency of Donald Trump. M.G., Stow, MA
A: The United States, like any country, always has challenges to confront. And some of those challenges have been extra big (building a viable nation, slavery, industrialization, two world wars, the Cold War, etc.). Extra-big challenges tend to create extra-big failures (for those who cannot and do not meet those challenges) and extra-big successes (for those who can and do).
Ultimately, your question is just as difficult to answer as the one about the chicken and the egg. Clearly, presidents like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan (more on him below), and Andrew Johnson had the bad luck to be dealt a tough hand, particularly as compared to the hands that, say, Jimmy Carter and James Madison were dealt. That said, they proved entirely unable to meet the challenge, and made things worse through their incompetence and mismanagement.
Today, it seems fair to say that the U.S. is in another particularly challenging era. The world is shrinking, the economy is changing, the social order is being reshuffled, the planet is heating up, and all of these things create significant challenges in and of themselves. Not helping things is that a lot of people, as people are wont to do, have responded to these changes by turning inward and becoming angry and fearful. Also not helping is that at least one political party has kept itself in power by exploiting this fear and anger, and also by taking advantages of loopholes in the Constitution. There are many parallels between the U.S. in 2021 and the U.S. circa 1890.
There was a run of presidents who mostly did a poor job of responding to the challenges of the late 19th century, such that the voting public nearly gave the government over to a Populist in the person of William Jennings Bryan. And there was a run of presidents who mostly did a poor job of responding to the challenges of the late 20th century, such that voting public did give the government over to a populist in the person of Trump.
At the start of the 20th century, the U.S. had the good fortune to end up with a president who could meet the moment, and was able to persuade Americans that there was no going backward to a "better" time, and that the only path was forward. The odds are good that the country will eventually find another Theodore Roosevelt who can do the same thing. Is that person Joe Biden? We don't know, but it's not impossible.
Q: I agree that it's important to take conditions at the time into account for presidential rankings, but something that is wrong, like slavery, is still wrong. Period. Why couldn't each president get both a presentist and a non-presentist ranking? Wouldn't that provide more context (e.g., by current standards, President X was mediocre, but he was good for that time)? Maybe someone should suggest that to C-SPAN... E.W., Skaneateles, NY
A: Well, one of the dimensions on which presidents were ranked is "Performance Within the Context of the Times," so there is some element of what you are suggesting.
That said, the point is to evaluate them as leaders, and not as people. Otherwise, Jimmy Carter would be at the top of the list and Lyndon B. Johnson would be at the bottom. Further, once you start introducing modern day moral judgments into the equation, the exercise pretty quickly devolves into farce. There are about a dozen presidential slaveholders, but why should that be the only offense that is considered? How about being a racist and/or a white supremacist, which most presidents were before 1920 or so? How about waging war against the Native Americans, which most presidents did between 1830 and 1890? How about being a complete and total sexist, which was standard for any white man before about 1960? On top of that, MeToo would have conniptions if John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Warren Harding, and at least six or seven others came along today. Oh, and there may be a grand total of two or three presidents that would not be considered homophobes by our standards.
Put another way, the "presentist" ranking would have Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jimmy Carter, and maybe George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, in some order, followed by a 40-way tie for last place.
Q: I've been following the C-SPAN rankings since the first one in 2000. I've noticed that "liberal Republicans" like Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Abraham Lincoln routinely rank higher than their conservative counterparts (with the exception of Ronald Reagan). Do you think this demonstrates the left-leaning bias of academia that Conservatives are always griping about? A.D., Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A: No, we do not.
We can absolutely, ironclad, 100% guarantee you that any person qualified to vote in the C-SPAN poll knows full well that the party labels of today have very little to do with the party labels of generations past. When making their judgments, scholars are impressed by records of accomplishment, and not where the person might have fit on the modern-day political spectrum. By modern standards, in addition to Reagan, #2 George Washington was actually quite conservative. So were #14 William McKinley and #15 John Adams. They all did just fine in this year's ranking, as they did in the previous ones.
Q: Every time I see a ranking of our presidents, such as the recent one from C-SPAN, it always bothers me that they choose to rank Presidents William Henry Harrison and James Garfield at all. Neither one of them was president long enough to have had a major influence on policy beyond their choices of advisers and Vice Presidents. Wouldn't it be more equitable to exclude them from the rankings and include a footnote that explains why? What are the thoughts of our resident historian? J.P., Horsham, PA
A: Wikipedia has a table that shows a bunch of the major presidential ranking surveys from over the years, starting with the famous 1948 survey conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., which essentially invented the genre. As you will see, more often than not, Harrison and Garfield were omitted.
C-SPAN has chosen to be completist, probably to keep people from contacting them and wondering why two presidents are missing. No matter how clear you make your footnotes, or your "rules of the survey," or your introductory text, or whatever, some people just don't read. The tricky thing is that there are two rather different ways that a historian might rank a nonentity. They could say that the short-serving president is, in effect, neutral, and deserves a middle-of-the-pack rating, below the presidents who were a net positive, and above the presidents who were a net negative. Or, they could say that every president starts at the bottom, and has to work their way out of the basement with their accomplishments.
The strange thing is that the scholars seem to have adopted the former approach for Garfield and the latter approach for Harrison. We really don't understand how two guys who served well under than a year can be so far apart in the rankings (26th place tie for Garfield, 39th place for Harrison).
Q: History nerd that I am, I devoured the latest presidential rankings. One of the dimensions,
"Relationship with Congress," had me wondering: what on earth did James Buchanan do that scholars consider his
relationship with Congress to be worse than Trump's?
I get the reasoning that Andrew Johnson was one vote away from being removed from office in his impeachment trial, but I can't really imagine anything worse than "impeached twice, and also instigated an armed uprising against the Capitol building while Congress was in session." What am I missing about Buchanan's Congressional relations? M.R., Austin TX
A: Well, Trump did have a decent-to-good relationship with half the Congress (the Republicans) for much of his term. And the scholars are probably not thinking of the insurrection as being Trump vs. Congress as much as it is Trump vs. the Constitution.
As to Buchanan, not only was he at war with the Republicans for most of his term, he was also at war with much of his own party. As a history nerd, you will presumably recall that Kansas tried to join the union, and ended up submitting multiple constitutions to Congress. One of those was the Lecompton Constitution, written by pro-slavery folks, most of whom were not actually from Kansas. To kowtow to the Southern elements in the Democratic Party, Buchanan tried to ram the Lecompton Constitution through Congress. That was a non-starter for Republicans, of course, while the Northern wing of the Democratic Party, under the leadership of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, also put its foot down, correctly recognizing that doing so would split the Democrats in two (and probably the country, as well).
Eventually, the Republicans and Northern Democrats got so angry with Buchanan that they formed a special committee, formally known as the United States House Select Committee to Investigate Alleged Corruptions in Government, but generally called the Covode committee after its chair, Rep. John Covode (R-PA). The committee looked into the possibility of impeaching Buchanan, and while they did not recommend that course of action, they did declare his administration to be the most corrupt in the history of the republic (and they backed that with a fair amount of evidence).
In the end, Buchanan, Trump, Johnson, John Tyler, and Richard Nixon all had very bad relationships with Congress. You could put Grover Cleveland on that list, too, if you consider vetoing everything to be a poke in Congress' eye. Deciding who belongs at the very bottom means splitting some very fine hairs. Trump also ended up so near the bottom in so many categories that we would guess that some folks were looking for excuses to, at very least, lift him out of the basement as often as they could.
Q: You wrote that James Buchanan "is often blamed for converting the Civil War from 'strong possibility' to 'absolute certainty.'" Is that a fair assertion? What could he have done to prevent the Civil War? While I have an undergrad degree in history, most of my classes were focused on European History (particularly European colonial history, which was of great interest to me coming from a place that was a British colony). But from what I have read about the Civil War, it seemed almost inevitable. The South had to secede as the only way to guarantee the continuance of slavery. No? O.Z.H., Dubai, UAE
A: Though we can never know for sure, it probably was inevitable. That said, Buchanan did two things that crushed whatever limited possibility for compromise might have remained. The first is that he botched the Kansas situation, as we note in the previous answer, which persuaded many Americans, North and South, that Congress would never be able to solve the slavery question. The second is that he put his thumb on the scale in order to secure an ultra-pro slavery decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a decision that most certainly did not resolve the fight over slavery, and that persuaded many Americans, North and South, that the Supreme Court would never be able to solve the slavery question. Once the Northern public was persuaded that Congress and the Supreme Court were in over their heads, they began looking for a president who might be able to solve the slavery question. Someone like, say, Abraham Lincoln.
Meanwhile, even if civil war was inevitable, Buchanan has one additional big, black mark on his record. Once the union began to collapse (and recall that most of the Confederacy seceded under him, and not under Lincoln), he did...nothing. He did not try to stop the secession and, in fact, he allowed the seceding states to seize control of federal buildings and supplies, including lots and lots of guns and bullets and other war materiel. In fact, Buchanan deliberately looked the other way while his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd (later a Confederate general), saw to it that federal arsenals in the South were stocked with an additional 115,000 muskets and rifles in late 1859 (i.e., after John Brown's raid). Both men knew full well that, if secession were to come to pass, those weapons would be invaluable for the South.
So, even if you believe Buchanan could not have stopped the Civil War from happening, he nonetheless, through action and inaction, did much to put the Confederacy on a footing that made them a viable military power. It is entirely plausible that if he had emptied federal arsenals in the South instead of stocking them, and perhaps sent U.S. military forces to protect forts and other installations, that the Confederacy would have collapsed in a matter of weeks or months rather than years.
Q: I am flabbergasted that Andrew Jackson failed to make the bottom ten—a racist, slaveholder, murderer, misogynist, and bigamist ranks squarely in the middle of U.S. Presidents? What a sad state of affairs if half of the U.S. Presidents are worse than him. What redeeming characteristics could he possibly have that elevated him beyond even Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford? A.M. Miami Beach, FL
A: First of all, the bigamist charge is not fair. Jackson and Rachel Donelson thought her divorce was official, because divorce laws back then were so arcane and so anti-woman. The rest, though...ok.
Anyhow, as we note above, this is an assessment of their qualities as political leaders, and not as human beings. That said, if you look at the link above, you will see that Jackson's reputation is clearly on the decline. He used to consistently make the Top 10, and now he's in the mid-teens or the twenties. That actually does reflect greater modern sensitivity about racism, to the extent that he implemented that racism through his policies (most obviously by initiating Indian Removal). It also reflects a much greater awareness that his economic policies, while ostensibly undertaken in service of the "working man," were actually pretty disastrous, especially for the working man.
We will also point out that Andrew Jackson is, hands down, the most Trump-like president that the U.S. had prior to Trump himself. We have absolutely no doubt that the experience of the Trump years has given historians a better sense of the dynamics of the Jackson years—to the detriment of Jackson's reputation. It is surely not a coincidence that the four lowest ratings that Jackson has tallied, across 23 major polls and nearly 75 years of polling, all came during or after Trump's term in office.
Q: I can't help but notice that Lyndon B. Johnson is knocking on the door of the top ten, with John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama standing in the way; I'm pretty sure that he can take at least one of them down. Why is it that the American people have never heard of Lyndon Johnson? Ask anyone to name a great American president and the person will name Kennedy three times and Reagan twice, but won't think of Johnson. It's not that people don't like him; they have no idea who he is. B.C., Walpole, ME
A: In class, (Z) does an exercise with students where he asks them to guess the five best presidents, as judged by scholars, in whatever the latest C-SPAN poll is. The top four are always Lincoln, Washington, and the two Roosevelts, and then (Z) usually writes down the guesses that have been #5, or near #5 (Kennedy, Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson). Then (Z) asks students to guess again, except the second time around, the poll is a Gallup poll in which they asked U.S. voters (i.e., non-scholars) to name the best president in U.S. history. That top five is Reagan, Kennedy, Obama, Abraham Lincoln and, depending on the year, either Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
The final question for the students is: What do we learn from the rather significant differences between the historians' list and the voters' list? And they pretty quickly observe three things: (1) most Americans have relatively short memories; (2) if you want to be remembered, it helps if you are/were good looking, and (3) if you want to be remembered, it helps if you are/were a good public speaker who came up with pithy, memorable quotes.
Lyndon Johnson left office 52 years ago, was not a handsome man, and was a lousy public speaker who rarely came up with anything quotable to say. That's three strikes, and you're out. As a result of this, he is rarely mentioned on TV shows, in movies, or in documentaries. He doesn't appear on currency or in statutes; high schools and streets are not often named for him. And, as a "bonus," the parents or grandparents of many students absolutely hate him. So, into the dustbin of history he goes.
JFK's biggest legislative achievement was a huge tax cut for rich people, dropping the marginal tax rate from 91% (where it had been during all of the administration of the conservative Republican Dwight Eisenhower) to 70%. All LBJ did was lobby for and sign the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which provided huge benefits to Blacks and none to rich people. But JFK was, indeed, much better looking.
Q: In your discussion of Ronald Reagan's presidential ranking, you noted that he gets credit for "helping to end the Cold War" (or, as it's often stated, "ending the Cold War"). I've always been skeptical of this claim. As a Reagan non-fan living through it, I always saw the Soviet Union's collapse as almost entirely of its own doing—perhaps American pressure played some role, but if so it was the same pressure exerted by the U.S. throughout the Cold War, not something special that Reagan initiated. Furthermore, it always seemed as though Reagan and Bush 41 botched the end game there: with better U.S. support, perhaps Russia would have come through the transition in better shape to resist its subsequent return to dictatorship. Do either of those views have merit? A.S.W., Melrose, MA
A: We agree entirely with your first point. The pressure that the U.S. put on the U.S.S.R. to keep up militarily, and in the space race, and in sports, and in other ways probably did help hasten the demise of that nation, since they just couldn't keep up. And if that is true, it was a team effort, from Franklin Roosevelt all the way through Reagan and Bush 41. Reagan just happened to be the guy who was in office when the cracks in the facade got too big to hide any more (and don't forget that the actual collapse took place under Bush).
As to handling the fallout better, we just don't know. The United States' record in the area of nation-building is mixed, at best, and had the Reagan and Bush administrations taken a more hands-on approach, then post-U.S.S.R. Russia might have been more democratic, more friendly to the west, and less authoritarian. On the other hand, U.S. involvement might have triggered a bad reaction, like what happened in Iran a decade earlier, and put someone even more problematic than Vlad Putin into power.
Q: Your analysis of C-SPAN's survey of historians felt spot-on to me, especially when it comes to
the presentism that compelled respondents to ding racists (such as Wilson), slaveholders (such as Polk), and others
whose behavior hasn't aged well (such as Clinton). My big question that you haven't already answered: Given that he's
risen from 36th (out of 42) to 29th (out of 44) in the span of 12 years, what the heck do you think is going on with
historians' collective assessment of George W. Bush?
When he left office, Bush's historical legacy looked likely to revolve around the economy's collapse near the end of his presidency, two wars that cost trillions and produced few tangible benefits, and the administration's seemingly indifferent response to Hurricane Katrina. Other than his ability to (temporarily) unite the nation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—aided by political opponents' widespread unwillingness to blame him for failing to prevent them—what data points are historians using in his favor, other than the fact that he represents a more genteel strain of pre-Trump Republicanism? T.B.S.S., Silver Spring, MD
A: This is very difficult to understand. If you look at the crosstabs, you see that Bush's rise has largely been powered by changes in three categories, where he was ranked near the bottom at the end of his term, and now is ranked closer to the middle of the pack. Those three categories are: Public Persuasion (from #36 in 2009 to #23 in 2021), Moral Authority (#35 to #26), and Relations with Congress (#36 to #21).
Undoubtedly, this is a response to the two presidents who served since Bush. Donald Trump has given us a view of what it looks like when a president has no ability to persuade the public (other than his base), is lacking entirely in moral authority, and fails to work with Congress much of the time. Meanwhile, Barack Obama also provided a case study in being unable to work with Congress (never mind that his bad luck, and Bush's good luck, in this regard were due significantly to Mitch McConnell's being a Republican). Anyhow, a scholar could say "Well, Bush did bring people together after 9/11, and he was an actual Christian who opposed racism, and he had at least some success working with Congress, so that's probably enough to move him up a few pegs in these three categories."
It is probably also the case that, while it shouldn't matter, Bush's ex-presidency is helping a little. He paints paintings, and he writes books about how immigrants have helped America, and he gives candy to Michelle Obama. So, that has likely softened some of the scholars up a little bit.
Q: I'm sure that there are a number of books that comprise slightly more than capsule-sized
biographies of all the Presidents; something sufficient to flesh out how the voters might have come to their appraisals
of the men.
Are there any that you specifically prefer as the best way readers interested in that topic might expand our views? J.A., St. Petersburg, FL
A: In the past, we have recommended the American Presidents Series. These are fairly brief (150 pages or so) biographies of the first 42 presidents (no Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or Joe Biden yet) that are written by prominent scholars and are very readable. They can easily be consumed in a couple of hours or, alternatively, they are available as audiobooks.
If you want something more condensed, consider the works of Paul Boller, particularly Presidential Anecdotes and Presidential Campaigns. Each chapter is a 3-5 page summary of the president's life/the campaign, followed by a few brief, interesting stories about the president/campaign. Boller, who died a few years ago, was an excellent and engaging writer, and so the books are easy to breeze through, but also give readers a fair bit of insight.
Q: When I saw the list of Presidential rankings, I was prompted to renew my acquaintance with some of these individuals, and that perusal brought to mind a question to which I have never found a satisfactory answer: What is the difference between a "political machine" as opposed to a "political party" or "movement"? And why does the phrase "political machine" conjure up whiffs of corruption or shady antics, as opposed to being just a well organized effort? The explanations I find in biographies or histories seem to assume that a political machine is always something pejorative. Is that the case, or does that simply reflect the author's bias? P.C., Stony Brook, NY
A: There is an argument out there that "political machine" is a more pejorative phrase than it should be, and that the machines gave power and a voice to immigrant voters who otherwise would have had neither of those things.
In any event, while the definition of "machine" is a little bit fungible, it's definitely not the same thing as a political party or movement. Generally speaking, machines:
- Were geographically limited (usually to a single city)
- Were under the control of a single individual with near-dictatorial power
- Engaged in unethical or outright illegal tactics (like stuffing ballot boxes) to maintain power
- Abused public resources (patronage jobs, tax dollars, etc.) to keep themselves in power; the reason it's called a "machine" is because it is kept "greased" by money
You could make an argument that the current iteration of the Republican Party is machine-like, except that Donald Trump (no matter what he might think) does not exert anything near the control that a William Magear Tweed or a George Washington Plunkitt or an E. H. Crump did, plus the GOP is not as tight, geographically, as a proper machine.
Q: I was born after McCarthyism and, public education being what it is (and was), my high school
history classes in the '80s went only as far as World War II. When I see reports of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Q-GA)
calling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) not American and a little Communist and comparing COVID protocols to Nazi
yellow (not gold) stars, I wonder if there are any parallels between the rhetoric coming out of the mouths of her and
Trump's other apologists and Joseph McCarthy. Are there lessons to be learned here or are these apples and oranges? For how
long did McCarthy have influence? How many people actually supported him? How many hated him? How far in the rear view
was he before he became universally reviled?
If past is prologue, I guess I'm wondering if there are any clues as to how much longer I have to see and hear the hateful words of Greene, et al. R.L., Alameda, CA
A: Extreme rhetoric has always been a part of American politics. People claimed that Thomas Jefferson planned to burn all the Bibles, that Abraham Lincoln was going to force white and Black Americans to intermarry, and that Franklin D. Roosevelt was planning to stage a military coup and install himself as dictator, among other wild assertions.
What makes McCarthy and Greene similar is that their outlandish rhetoric found/is finding a fairly broad audience. The Senator was enormously powerful, and had broad support for about 4 years (1950-54). Republicans were happy to let him run wild, and Democrats were largely too fearful to challenge him. Some of his support never went away, even after he was censured. But much of it did because of two mistakes he made. The first is that he set his sights on the U.S. Army. The second is that, in search of an ever-larger platform, he managed to get his hearings broadcast on television. Many Americans thus saw for themselves that McCarthy was a weaselly looking fellow, and that he was making things up as he went along. The stern talking to he got from one of the Army's lawyers, Joseph Welch ("Have you no sense of decency, sir?"), was a particular dagger.
The modern-day Republican Party seems to be, in many ways, even further to the right and more outlandish than even the McCarthyites. So, maybe Greene's armor is less capable of breaking down than McCarthy's was. That said, we will observe that Greene and other fringy Republicans have begun attacking the Army, specifically over its alleged use of Critical Race Theory. Meanwhile, if she somehow gets on the 1/6 commission, then she'll be displaying her bad behavior for a truly national audience. So, she could become McCarthy v2.0.
Q: What was the best matchup between major party candidates during the 20th century?
Let's define good candidates as intelligent, objective, and as free from political and monetary influence as possible.
My nomination: the 1948 election between Thomas Dewey and Harry S. Truman. They didn't differ much on politics, and it's likely Dewey would have handled the issues Truman dealt with (Korea, housing, labor problems, Cold War) in a similar manner. If true, given Truman's lofty ranking in a recent poll of historians, that matchup presented Americans with an uncommonly good choice to make. Your thoughts? S.R., Englewood, CO
A: We're going to start by limiting ourselves to presidents who finished in the Top 15 of the C-SPAN poll. For the 20th century—which commenced on January 1, 1901, and so does not include William McKinley—that gives us a list of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Woodrow Wilson. Their opponents were Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, and Thomas Dewey (FDR); Alton Parker (TR); Adlai Stevenson twice (Eisenhower); Dewey again (Truman); Richard Nixon (JFK); Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale (Reagan), Barry Goldwater (LBJ), and William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes (Wilson).
Now we're going to eliminate a bunch. Dewey, you already covered. Hoover, Nixon, Carter, and Taft either were president, or eventually became president, and were underwhelming. Landon, Willkie, and Parker were kind of empty shirts, and not likely to have been great presidents. Mondale was a decent fellow, but we actually think the winner of that contest was a mediocre president, despite the historians' ranking, so Mondale gets eliminated, too.
That leaves us with three pairings, all of them won by top-rated presidents. As to their opponents:
- Barry Goldwater (vs. LBJ): Goldwater was probably a bit too hawkish for that era, and was
certainly too slow to come around on the need for civil rights legislation. But he was clearly a man of integrity and
conscience who held some views that were pretty far ahead of his time (pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ, anti-religious right). As
a veteran senator, he also knew how to make sausage.
- Adlai Stevenson (vs. Ike): One of the most fundamentally decent people to achieve high
office in the United States, and incorruptible at a time when the Democratic Party was short on people like that,
Stevenson was a talented political strategist and orator with vast experience in both state and federal government
positions. There is a line from George Will that it took them 16 years to count the votes from the election of 1964, and
Barry Goldwater won. One could easily write that it took 4 years to count the votes from the election of 1956, and Adlai
- Charles Evans Hughes (vs. Wilson): A towering intellect who served on the Supreme Court both before and after his presidential run, Hughes was a moderate and a pragmatist known for his skill at coalition-building. He was also well ahead of his time on civil rights questions, and had expertise enough in foreign policy to serve as Secretary of State after his presidential run (but before his second term on the Supreme Court).
We'd say that all three of these contests were win-win, with strong (though, of course, not perfect) candidates on both sides. But if you made us pick one, we'd go with Stevenson-Eisenhower.
Q: I really enjoyed your alternate history responses about the Al Gore and John McCain presidencies and have another question in a similar vein. What happens if Hillary Clinton is the 2008 Democratic nominee instead of Obama? I.K., Queens, NY
A: We've thought about this, and our answer is pretty wild, but we worked with the known facts, and let them take us where they led us.
Hillary Clinton, benefiting from her vast network of connections within the Democratic Party, locks up her party's 2008 nomination early. There is some talk of a challenge by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, but he is persuaded that he needs a few more years of experience under his belt. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who recently finished his term in the U.S. Senate, attempts to mount a challenge, but nobody can quite figure out what he stands for, or even of what party he's actually a member. So, he's easily brushed aside. Recognizing that universal healthcare is an idea whose time has come, Clinton makes it the centerpiece of her 2008 campaign. As a veteran campaigner and debater, she consistently outclasses the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. When McCain taps Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, many voters are put off by her far-right rhetoric and lack of fitness for high office, others are offended by the apparent pandering in an effort to steal some of the "female" vote from Clinton. Clinton wins the election in a walk.
Consistent with her campaign promise, President Clinton quickly gets to work on overhauling the healthcare system. However, failing to learn from the mistakes of her first attempt at healthcare reform, undertaken while she was First Lady, she shoots for a single-payer system. That is "socialist" enough to scare off some centrist Democrats, and to give her a second health-care defeat, despite Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.
In the 2012 election, Clinton runs for a second term, but she does so with an underwhelming record, having spent the first two years of her term on the failed healthcare push and the second two years being blocked by Mitch McConnell. The Republicans, whose primary field includes a bunch of fringy right-wingers who tear each other to shreds, and just one moderate in the person of Mitt Romney, go with Romney. Nobody is surprised, since the majority of GOP voters just want the person with the best chance of dispatching the hated Clinton family. Some Democrats, unenthusiastic about Hillary even before healthcare fiasco v2.0, stay home on Election Day. Meanwhile the large number of rabid anti-Clinton Republicans comes out in force on Election Day to give Romney a comfortable victory.
Seeking to define himself in terms of his predecessor's failures, as presidents so often do these days, Romney announces that he knows what to do about healthcare, since he implemented a successful plan in Massachusetts while governor. And he gets Romneycare passed, since Republicans do not reflexively oppose it, while Democrats are hungry for any improvement in this area. With both parties backing the plan, it is embraced by nearly all states and quickly becomes stable, despite a few obvious problems.
With a fairly successful first term under his belt, Romney runs for reelection in 2016, spending much time bragging about how many people now have insurance thanks to Romneycare. The Democrats, with their voters looking for someone new and exciting, give Barack Obama his chance. But Romney's position is too strong, and he sends Obama to defeat. Donald Trump, who by this point has been toying with a run for years, lacks the fortitude to take on a sitting president, though he does a little sniping from the sidelines.
In his second term, Romney's approval ratings plummet. He's not especially inspiring, he turns out to be somewhat short on policy ideas (besides Romneycare), and he has trouble finding common ground with both the Democrats and with the growing far-right "tea party" faction of the GOP. Not helping things is that he's never been a great foreign policy president, and he's also just a bit too cozy with Wall Street. Plus, by this time, it is clear that Romneycare was a fine first step, but that reforms and improvements are needed. The President, too proud to admit that his signature achievement is losing some of its luster, and unable to work with Congress anyhow, neglects to tackle the problem.
That brings us to the 2020 election, which is wide open on both sides, since it is clear that VP Paul Ryan is unelectable. Plus, he wants to return home to Wisconsin. Republicans, by this time, are looking for the anti-Romney; a far-right fire breather who will get down and dirty with opponents, and who isn't a RINO. Though 74 years old, Trump realizes that this is his best (and final) shot, and jumps in, promising to replace Romneycare with something much better, and also to tackle the "immigrant problem." Meanwhile, the Democrats also want an anti-Romney, though one much like they were looking for in 2016: new, exciting, and young. Barack Obama isn't really new anymore, but in a crowded Democratic field, his rhetorical gifts make him stand out. Plus, he has the name recognition from having already run once before. So, he claims the Democratic nomination for the second presidential cycle in a row. A shrewd political operator, he says he knows how to fix Romneycare and, unlike Trump, he actually lays out a plan to do it (www.obama2020.com/making_romneycare_great_again.html).
In the campaign, Obama—a more experienced and talented campaigner—runs circles around Trump. Americans are tired of Republican leadership after 8 years of Romney, and are interested in change. Plus, they have high hopes that American healthcare can finally be brought into the 21st century. The Donald tries to make use of racist dog whistles, claiming Obama isn't really an American, was born in Kenya, might be a Muslim, etc. If voters had been exposed to such conspiratorial nonsense for eight years, they might have been more prone to buy into Trump's racism and xenophobia. But that isn't the case, and so the dog whistles just come off as desperate and paranoid. Trump is crushed on Election Day 2020, making Obama president in his second try, and sending him to the White House with a mandate to overhaul Romneycare, very possibly with something closer to a single-payer system.
Q: I suspect you've answered this before, but regarding your "How Biden Won" piece, I have a question about youth and voting. You mentioned that Republicans have a problem if they can't get youth on board, but also isn't it kind of a truism that people get more conservative as they get older? There's that quote "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain." As someone who's turning 35 in a few months, I definitely feel more conservative than I was at 25 (life experience tempers a lot of idealism), but I was raised liberal and there would have to be a colossal shift for me to ever consider voting GOP. How true is this dynamic historically? J.M., Seattle, WA
A: We've addressed this question before, but it's worth answering again. The logic here certainly seems to make sense, and that quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill, which gives it gravitas. However, studies have shown, again and again, that it's just not true. Generally speaking, people form their basic political outlook in their teens and twenties, and they stick with that for the rest of their lives. They may shift around a bit within a fairly narrow range of belief, and obviously the ground may shift underneath their feet (a "liberal Democrat" in 1970 is a moderate Democrat today). But, on the whole, people do not get substantially more conservative as they grow older.
"That said, folks like AOC are only 'far left' by American standards. By the standards of other industrialized
democracies, she and Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are considerably closer to the political center
than Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)."
Since this is a political website, to what kind of election is this comment meant to be relevant? I was not aware of any Democratic candidates running for United Nations offices, or any other offices for which the electorate includes foreign voters (other than a small number of U.S. citizens residing in foreign countries).
Should not sensible analysis of American politics be limited to considering the American electorate? S.Z., New Haven, CT
A: That was a piece about the future of the Democratic Party. And our point was this: Compared to other Western democracies, the "political center" in the U.S. may be much further right than would naturally be the case, thanks to the Republican Party. It is at least possible that, if the GOP loses some strength and some efficacy, or the progressive wing of the Democratic Party takes over and has success, the American political center could shift dramatically leftwards to be more in line with other industrialized nations. So, it was indeed a point about the American electorate.
Q: With the date being set for the recall effort in California it had me thinking: What's to stop Republican activists from doing this every four years going forward? I can remember you explaining that the recall process is spelled out in the state constitution. If that's the case, is there any way for the Democratic supermajority in the California legislature to amend the constitution? It would seem to me that California is probably never going to skew red or even purple again, so if I were a politician in California I'd probably want to rid the state of a perpetual state of angry Republican recalls that will never go anywhere. M.U. Seattle, WA
A: Yes, it's certainly possible that the Republicans keep doing this. And it's possible for the legislature to change the rules. We would guess that if the Republicans try it one more time, the Democrats will have political cover to amend the process. For example, the threshold for having a recall could be raised to 20% of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. This would make it virtually impossible unless the governor was truly a total disaster.
Alternatively, the legislature (or some interested party) could put an initiative that amends the process on the ballot. In that case, political cover would not be needed, as it would be "the people" deciding what to do.
Q: California, as progressive as it is (in general), has never had a woman governor, and the only women I remember running recently were in the Republican Party (and so were long shots). Any thoughts on why the state hasn't broken that glass ceiling yet, when even red states like Kansas have had 2 or 3 women governors? T.B., Santa Clara, CA
A: We meant to answer this question last week, and then printed the question but forgot to copy and paste our answer (which was in a separate file due to including a table).
Anyhow, the state is clearly not averse to giving victories to women in statewide elections. A sizable number of statewide officeholders in the last 50 years have been women, including four of the eight state-level officeholders right now, as well as one of the two U.S. Senators. Indeed, California has had as many female Senators as any state (3), and has been represented by women in the Senate for more service days than any state except for Maine:
In view of this, we would say the lack of a woman California governor is basically due to...chance. The first woman to be elected governor of a state in her own right (as opposed to being the wife of a recently deceased or term-limited governor) was Connecticut's Ella T. Grasso in 1975. Since then, there have only been 13 gubernatorial elections in the Golden State. And since California has reelected every single governor who served in that time (excepting Gavin Newsom, who is still in his first term), that means there's only been an open seat seven times. By contrast, there have been 17 U.S. Senate elections in California since 1975, including nine times when a seat was open. So, ambitious female politicians have been afforded opportunities at a Senate seat more often than opportunities at the governorship.
Q: The Supreme Court, in their recent judgment in the Arizona case, have virtually completed the job
started in 2013, and destroyed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Is there any point in Congress passing new legislation, as surely it will end up before this Court and, even if it requires all kinds of legal gymnastics, will surely meet the same fate as the 1965 Act. In other words, is the battle for fair voting rights over? J.K., Dublin, Ireland
A: Yes, there is a point.
First of all, the Supreme Court did not say that all tests for pre-clearance, and all tests for discriminatory intent are unacceptable, they merely said that the ones in the Voting Rights Act are unacceptable. Congress has many smart lawyers in its employ, and those lawyers could surely read the Court's rulings very carefully and come up with something that addresses the Court's concerns.
Further, if Congress passes a new law, there will have to be an election, then a lawsuit, and then a whole federal appeals process before it gets to SCOTUS again. That will take years. At very least, that would mean 2-3 elections conducted under the new rules, which would be a win for voting rights advocates. Further, by the time the Court gets the new bill (or the bill after that, or the one after that), its membership might have changed. Even some of the conservatives (e.g., Clarence Thomas) are not spring chickens.
Q: With the recent Supreme Court Ruling, could Democratic State Legislatures start passing voting restrictions to inconvenience rural areas—perhaps stating that to help with election integrity all polling places must be located in a municipality with population greater than 100,000? B.B., St. Louis, MO
A: They could, but they won't. First, Democrats are far less comfortable with that kind of chicanery, especially since it would just encourage an anti-voting-rights arms race. Second, it really only makes sense in states where Democrats have the trifecta, but fear losing power (and EVs and seats in Congress) in the future. There are really only two states like that right now, namely Maine and Nevada. On the other hand, Republicans have many large and valuable states like that, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, and arguably Texas. One can see why Republicans would be rather more motivated to stack the deck.
Q: In a spirit of bipartisanship I challenge (Z) to say something nice about Shelby Foote.
I know that (Z) massively loathes Nathan Bedford Forrest and it shows in recent postings. Let us all accept that Forrest was a monster. Nevertheless, good men, including Peter Taylor and more recently Madison Smartt Bell, have tried to understand the monster from the inside, as it were. Shelby Foote is the patron saint of trying to rehabilitate Forrest and is buried or would be buried next to the Forrest tomb if Forrest weren't so controversial. It is understood that understanding the monster from the inside (say, some president one doesn't like) is problematic—the problem of the age, perhaps. B.K., Bath, England, UK
A: Undergraduate students tend to agree with everything they read in class. Graduate students tend to be critical of everything they read in class. By the time someone gets their Ph.D., they are expected to be able to thoughtfully comment on both the good and the bad in things, without writing something that amounts to fawning approval or a bitter screed.
When it comes to Forrest, (Z) would be happy to tell you that he was clearly a man of great personal courage who inspired his men and had a natural gift for understanding and applying military tactics. That is true even if he was also an inveterate racist and a violent man who often disregarded law, ethics, or both if he found those things to be inconvenient.
As to Foote, (Z) actually knew him a little bit, as they discussed Civil War reenactment a couple of times. Foote was a gifted storyteller and writer with a mellifluous voice, an encyclopedic grasp of the military side of the Civil War, and an endless supply of Civil War anecdotes. No wonder Ken Burns used Foote as the "military guy" for the Civil War documentary; Foote was perfect for that. That said, Foote was also born in Mississippi in 1916, and was a product of his time. He was pretty progressive on the racial dimensions of the war, especially compared to his peers, but he was still a little out of step with the post-Civil Rights Movement generation of historians on that front. He was also steeped in the "magnolias and moonlight" version of Southern history, and of the romantic version of Civil War history, meaning that he sometimes made things pretty that, in truth, weren't pretty at all. Finally, he was not a trained historian (in fact, he regarded himself as a novelist), and so he was sometimes prone to making gross generalizations that don't really stand up, and that an academic historian would not make.
Q: I'm frequently up at 4:00 a.m. MT taking care of an elderly cat when E-V.com comes off the
press. Occasionally the grammar Nazi inside of me sees a misplaced modifier or a missing Oxford comma. What's the
threshold for sending off a quick jot to
email@example.com? The quality
of the writing is so high that there has never been an issue about the clarity of your meaning, so I've never pestered
you about anything.
Meanwhile, on the weekends I'll sometimes be catching up with the site much later in the morning and spot a typo. What's the time frame for noticing errors and sending you feedback? And how do you ever find the time to make corrections when there's so much effort going into the next day's edition? Can you help us better understand your process so we can avoid spamming your corrections inbox with needless or duplicative e-mails? K.H., Albuquerque, NM
A: First of all, there is no threshold. If something seems wrong, even something small, we would prefer to fix it. (That said, just FYI, we don't usually use the Oxford comma.) Similarly, if something seems obvious, it's still worth sending in. Sometimes we get corrections from 30 people who clearly read the whole post, and it's the 31st who notices that we mis-punctuated something, or we accidentally dropped a word.
As to timing, we often do a round of corrections in the hour or so after the post goes live, and then we usually do another round about four hours after that. We also make corrections during the day, if additional ones come in. And we absolutely go back to past days' postings and fix those, if we become aware of issues.
Q: I'm curious if, over the past 6 months or so, the amount of hate e-mail you receive from pro-Trumpers has dropped significantly in conjunction with the end of his presidency/social media presence? K.B., in Madison, WI
A: It has; we rarely get e-mails full of venom anymore. Though we'll see what happens when we announce and implement our plan to write all items based on the application of Critical Race Theory.
Q: I've asked versions of this before, usually rhetorically, but in light of your item
Two States Undercut Secretaries of State for Not "Finding" Votes for Trump,
I really wonder about the answer.
Do you think your type of polling site will be obsolete in 2022 and 2024, and that it might be more valuable to show which states are in the bag for Republicans no matter what (and similarly for Democrats if they were also cheating), using polling only in those remaining states where the outcome of the election actually translates into electoral votes? I mean, what's the point of showing that polling shows Biden winning Arizona's electoral votes if it's a given that Arizona will give its EVs to the Republican no matter the outcome of the vote? Or if Republicans control Congress in January 2025, and it's clear that they will challenge enough states to throw the contest to the House of Representatives?
In my 60 years of life as an American, I never thought I would be asking this question, but seriously, is your entire methodology out of date? L.H., Chicago, IL
A: First of all, we are producing an average of 5,000 words a day right now, and the number of polls we've written about in the last six months numbers less than 10. Polls were once the bulk of the site, but that's not true anymore.
Second, it is much easier to get away with dirty tricks if the outcome of an election was always cloudy. On the other hand, if there was overwhelming evidence that Joe Biden was supposed to win Arizona by 3-5 points, and he loses by 3-5 points, then that's the starting point for a potential scandal. And that information being out there certainly makes it much harder for the legislature to get away with something. Not impossible, we suppose, but much harder.
Q: Is (V) tired of anonymity? This week, you
an article you co-wrote and had published by IEEE. Unless you are using a pseudonym, your readers can now conclude you are
either NP or AST.
Fear not. I'm sure your identity will be safe with your devoted readers. M.H., Salt Lake City, UT
A: (V) hasn't been anonymous for roughly 12 years, and (Z) never has. Among other things, we both identify ourselves by name here.
Q: Last Saturday,
to a question from T.G. in College Place about how many questions you answer, you wrote: "We have received roughly
27,295 questions [and] we have written 1,565 answers. That's an answer rate of about 6%."
Are those the numbers for just the Saturday questions? What are the statistics for the Sunday comments?
Also, how much shorter would your website be on Sundays if P.M. in Currituck never wrote in, and elicited so many responses? H.F., Pittsburgh, PA
A: Those numbers were only for the questions. And let us note something we should have mentioned last week: Even many of the unanswered questions do have an effect. Sometimes, a question clues us into something we should include in the writeup of a news item. And if we get four or five versions of the same basic question, we're likely to pick one of them, because that suggests many people are interested in the question.
As to mailbag submissions, we've received roughly 17,465 of those, and we've run 3,031, or about 17%. Each week, we try to pick out the dozen or so main subjects that people have written about, and to pick a selection of responses on each of those. So, if any one correspondent disappeared, it wouldn't change things much, because some other subject would replace them on the list.
If you wish to contact us, please use one of these addresses. For the first two, please include your initials and city.
- firstname.lastname@example.org For questions about politics, civics, history, etc. to be answered on a Saturday
- email@example.com For "letters to the editor" for possible publication on a Sunday
- firstname.lastname@example.org To tell us about typos or factual errors we should fix
- email@example.com For general suggestions, ideas, etc.
To download a poster about the site to hang up, please click here.
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul02 Pelosi Makes Her Picks for 1/6 Commission
Jul02 A Win for Biden (Not That Anyone Will Notice)
Jul02 Weisselberg Surrenders, TrumpWorld Spins
Jul02 At Least It's Not Just a Blog...
Jul02 It's a Date!
Jul02 New York City Releases Update on Mayoral Race
Jul01 Report: Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg to Be Charged Today
Jul01 Trumpers Want More Arizona-style "Audits"
Jul01 Maricopa County Will Replace the Tainted Voting Machines
Jul01 Wisconsin Republicans Cower in Fear of Trump
Jul01 Select Committee to Investigate Insurrection Passes
Jul01 McConnell Now Has a Tough Choice to Make on Infrastructure
Jul01 Pelosi Pushes Back against McConnell on Infrastructure
Jul01 New Study Shows How Biden Won
Jul01 New Ranking of the Presidents--Trump Beats Pierce, Johnson, and Buchanan
Jun30 No News Is Bad News (for RCV)
Jun30 The South Will Fall Again
Jun30 Trump Says Herschel Walker Will Run for Senate in Georgia
Jun30 Whither Lisa Murkowski?
Jun30 A Famous Name Is Not Enough
Jun30 What Happens to Sh** Stirrers When There's No Sh** to Stir?
Jun30 A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Part I
Jun29 RuJoe's Drag Race
Jun29 Pelosi Spells Out Commission Details
Jun29 No Charges for Trump in New York?
Jun29 Maybe Trump Should Be Focused on Some Image Management
Jun29 Political Themes of the Olympics Are Emerging
Jun29 Arizona Audit Is Not Helping Trump
Jun28 Biden: I'll Sign Bipartisan Bill without Reconciliation Bill
Jun28 Donald Trump Wants to Make the 2022 Elections about ... Donald Trump
Jun28 Two States Undercut Secretaries of State for Not "Finding" Votes for Trump
Jun28 Dept. of Justice Sues Georgia over Voting Law
Jun28 Barr Dumps on Trump
Jun28 Axios: J.D. Vance Will Announce a Senate Run in Ohio This Week
Jun28 Democrats Have a Gerontocracy Problem
Jun28 Socialism Is Not a Bugaboo with Young Voters
Jun28 Voting Machines Are Black Boxes--and So is the Entire Voting Industry
Jun28 Former Alaska Democratic Senator Mike Gravel Dies
Jun27 Sunday Mailbag
Jun26 Saturday Q&A
Jun25 As the Infrastructure Turns
Jun25 Pelosi Makes It Official...
Jun25 ...As Does the New York Bar
Jun25 DeSantis Cements His Claim to the Trump Lane
Jun25 This Week's 2022 Candidacy News
Jun25 COVID Diaries: The Origin Story
Jun24 We Have a Deal, Part 29
Jun24 Supreme Court Justices Are Earning Their Paychecks
Jun24 The Day After