We are going to test drive the possibility of dividing the questions into sections, as we do with the letters. Let's see how it goes...
In the News
J.K. in Las Vegas, NV, asks: You've mentioned more than once that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) doesn't seem to get how to negotiate the whole debt ceiling thing, and that "he blinked first." I'm curious, if either of you were in his position, how would you have handled it?
V & Z answer: Well, if we were in his position, we wouldn't have turned a previously nonpartisan, pro forma task into a partisan struggle. It's unethical, in our view, to play Russian roulette with the U.S. economy like that. It is also bad politics, we think. All the Republicans have to do is keep their heads down, and they will retake the House next year. McConnell's taking big risks, presumably with an eye to retaking the Senate and thus the Majority Leader's chair, but with the possible consequence of failing to capture either chamber.
That said, if we were going to play McConnell's hand in this reckless game of chicken, what we would do is go to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and tell him that for 48 hours, the Republican conference will not filibuster a bill that raises the debt limit by $5 trillion. That would allow McConnell to present himself as the one who offered the conciliatory olive branch, to make the (false) claim that to pay for their reconciliation bill the Democrats first had to add $5 trillion to the debt, and would forestall whatever trickery the blue team might come up with in the next two months, such as raising the debt ceiling to something comical like $500 quintillion.
J.L. in Colorado Springs, CO, asks: Regarding the debt ceiling, why don't the Democrats just offer two options and give the Republicans 24 hours to make their choice? Option 1 would be to allow a clean debt ceiling bill go through without filibuster, so the Democrats can pass that along party lines. Option 2 is that if the Republicans filibuster that bill, the Democrats will pass a bill using reconciliation that raises the ceiling and also reverses the 2017 tax cuts. I would think this would be a way to send a message to the public that the debt ceiling is all about spending already done, and it's really the tax cuts that are to blame for the need to raise the ceiling right now.
V & Z answer: Chuck Schumer is not exactly known for playing hardball, and he might not have 50 votes to pass a reconciliation bill like the one threatened here. But if he does have the votes, and if the Senate Parliamentarian goes for the plan, we are a fan of presenting clear options and of deadlines, as you can see from the hypothetical approach we propose in the previous answer.
D.S. in Palo Alto, CA, asks: On Thursday, you wrote, "...there is some value in trying to educate the American people on this subject." It used to be possible to reach a fair percentage of the American people by getting your message onto network television, on one or all of the major networks. I am at a loss about how to do that today. Clearly some citizens listen only to their choice of music, and only watch streamed movies or video series. If they listen to or watch political shows at all, it is shows comprised of their choice of choir preachers. How would you attempt to reach the populace today in order to educate them?
V & Z answer: Have Joe Biden do an Oval Office address where he "reassures" the American people, by explaining to them that reaching the debt ceiling doesn't mean that the U.S. is in trouble, and that what it really means is...
Failing that, put on the full-court press. Launch a social media campaign. Work up some TV ads. Have the dozen or so most prominent and telegenic Democrats appear everywhere: the Sunday news shows, the cable news shows, the Howard Stern show, "Ellen," "The Tonight Show," etc.
P.F. in Fairbanks, AK, asks: Alaska has only one representative, so decennial redistricting at the federal level is as easy as making sure Don Young still has a pulse.
At the state level, we have 40 house districts and 20 senate districts, each of which are subject to redistricting (and gerrymandering) by the Alaska Redistricting Board. In Alaska, citizens are allowed to create and submit their own map proposals using tools on the Alaska Redistricting Board website. You can try your hand at redistricting other states, as well.
Do any other states allow citizens to submit proposals for either state or federal redistricting? If so, have any ever been taken seriously?
V & Z answer: There are a handful of other states that encourage submissions from citizens, including Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Further, user-created maps are being used to put pressure on politicians to play fair, even in states where citizen input is not explicitly requested.
There is no way to know, as yet, how influential these citizen maps are because this is really the first cycle where redistricting is a big subject of interest, and where people had the tools to create maps from the comfort of their own homes. So, you'll have to check back in a year or so for an answer to that question.
It could well be that the future of district-making is on display right now in California, which is the one state where citizens control the whole process. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which did a bang-up job back in 2011, is made up of members of the voting public. People submit applications, and those applications are narrowed down through a process of screening and random lottery to five Democrats, five Republicans, and four from neither major party.
D.L.-O. in North Canaan, CT, asks: I've been puzzling over the new map of Colorado's congressional districts. There's no label for District 1. Maybe my eyes are going, now that I'm over the proverbial hill, I thought, but scanning even more closely revealed no edifying information. Denver seems to be lurking shyly (or maybe threateningly) behind the yellow area labeled District 6. Upon peering very closely, not having a magnifying glass, I concluded that the almost completely hidden red splotch at the top of the yellow District 6 must be District 1.
Did I solve the puzzle correctly?
V & Z answer: Yep.
It could be worse. See tomorrow's mailbag for letters about a map that erased a whole state.
K.E. in Newport, RI, asks: I read recently that some Americans have been pushing Ivermectin as a treatment for severe COVID-19. It is an anti-parasitic drug which is not approved and not proven by the FDA for use in fighting viral infections.
I find this idea completely baffling and strange. Virtually all of the people getting seriously ill from COVID-19 at this point are unvaccinated. My question is: How did ivermectin come to be viewed as an off-label treatment for COVID-19? Why would people hostile to an FDA-approved vaccine want to turn to an unproven anti-parasitic medication with no testing record of safety and effectiveness for use against viruses? Do you think there is some sort of grift going on by scam artists trying to sell medications for off-label use? Or is there something even more sinister going on?
V & Z answer: We don't know if sinister is quite the right word.
The folks who are turning to ivermectin are largely people who have been conditioned to operate based on faith rather than on hard evidence. And, as a result, they have also been conditioned—by grifters—to believe in various "miracle" cures. Think, for example, of televangelist Peter Popoff, who has been selling "miracle water" and running other grifts for nearly half a century. Or Alex Jones, who makes most of his InfoWars money from the supplements he constantly hawks. There are also lots of people making money with "cures" for AIDS, cancer, arthritis, and other conditions.
Under these circumstances, then, it's not too surprising that some Americans would gravitate toward a treatment that (1) doesn't require a needle shot, (2) doesn't require a doctor's appointment, (3) doesn't involve doing what "the libs" want, and (4) would be generally available to rural dwellers. Why ivermectin, in particular? Well, it does help with some tropical diseases, and for some people, "tropical" means "anything unfamiliar to me." Also, this study, which tentatively suggests ivermectin could inhibit (but not cure) COVID-19, appears to have been significant, as it got a lot of attention on right-wing media after it was published in June of last year.
B.C. in Farmingville, NY, asks: While I am against war in general, it would seem to me that either political party would greatly benefit if they did something like invading perceived enemies, such as North Korea, Iran, or even "bad guy" countries like Philippines or Venezuela. It would seem to me that Joe Biden would greatly benefit his sagging poll numbers by doing something like invading these countries.
V & Z answer: To start, politicians are generally very risk-averse, and there are few things riskier than invading another country. Whatever happens thereafter, Biden and the Democrats would have to own. That includes something like North Korea lobbing some bombs at Seoul, or Iran doing the same at Jerusalem. Americans today are particularly leery of, and skeptical about, this sort of military action, especially if it is unilateral, thanks to the nation's experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Even in the past, war did not often have the political benefits that you anticipate. The White House changed hands, party-wise, during Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and shortly after World War I and the Persian Gulf. The only war in the last century that seems to have actually benefited the party of the president who was in the White House is World War II.
D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: You recently wrote that constitutional amendments often come in waves. Would you (or your crystal ball) care to offer a prediction of what amendments would be most likely to be ratified today?
V & Z answer: Obviously, the main hurdle is that 75% of the state legislatures would have to approve the new amendment. So something like protecting abortion rights, which might get the support of 75% of the citizenry, would never get through the necessary number of state legislatures.
Taking redistricting out of the hands of the politicians is something that has broad support in both parties, which is why we've seen both red and blue states do it. So, an amendment of that sort could pass. An amendment creating some sort of free-of-cost national ID might pass, since Republicans claim it's needed and Democrats would see it as a corrective to voter ID laws. An amendment trimming presidential powers—to order military strikes, to exert privilege, to make temporary appointments to the cabinet—might make the grade. Something making changes to the Supreme Court, like an amendment establishing 15 or 20-year terms, could attract the necessary amount of support.
M.M. in Leonardtown, MD, asks: With regard to your item "Trump 2024 is Clearly a Go," who do you think will be the #2 on this campaign? Clearly, Mike Pence is out, since he didn't subvert the Constitution in support of a coup, no matter how much he wanted to. I think Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is also out because (1) there's a potential 12th Amendment issue, (2) he's too much star power on the bottom of the ticket, and (2A) if reports are to be believed, Trump hates him (see #2). Does he go with an up-and-coming acolyte like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) or Lauren Boebert (R-CO), or a more competent, nuts-and-bolts fascist like Greg Abbott (R-TX) or Chris Christie? And are there any potential VP candidates that would politely decline and roll the dice on being seen as a de Gaulle-like figure in 2028 if Trump re-loses and the grip of Trumpism starts to fade after 2024?
V & Z answer: Trump wants just two things: (1) give me total loyalty, and (2) help the ticket. He chose Mike Pence because he guessed (correctly, for 3 years, and 11 months) that Pence would do whatever he was told, and because Pence firmed up the evangelical vote. Trump doesn't have problems with the evangelicals anymore, but he does have problems with women, so his likely choice—even if she wouldn't actually help him much with women—is Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD). Another option is Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who is higher profile than Noem and might help more in the Midwest.
We think that you are right about Pence and DeSantis, and we also think there is no way that he'd choose Abbott (due to ableism) or Christie (due to disloyalty). Greene and Boebert are loyalists, and are women, but may be a little too unhinged, even by Trump's standards. Nikki Haley would have been the favorite at one point, but she's been disloyal, too, so she's out. There are undoubtedly people who would turn down the VP slot on a Trump ticket, but they are people he would never ask, like Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) or Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
J.E. in Boone, NC, asks: Understanding that President Biden is very fit at 78 years old, I'm still wondering the following: If he dies and Kamala Harris becomes president, the 25th Amendment says she appoints a new VP who must be confirmed by a majority of both chambers of Congress. Do you think Mitch McConnell would figure out a way to block it, as he did Obama's Supreme Court nominations? Should she choose a GOP Senator from a state with a Democratic governor, in order to secure another seat for the Democrats by appointment? And who do you think she'd be likely to pick?
V & Z answer: You never know what McConnell will do until he does it, but holding up the approval of a VP strikes us as something that even he wouldn't try. The Constitution is crystal clear on this point, and his obstruction would be plain to 100% of Americans, in contrast to something more abstruse like the debt ceiling. He would also struggle to invent some new "rule" about when it is, and is not, apropos to approve a new VP, since anything other than "as soon as possible" makes no sense.
There is absolutely no chance that, should this come to pass, Harris would pick a Republican as VP. That would infuriate the base, and would risk trading the presidency for a single Senate seat, which is a bad trade. Our guess is that, noting the reaction when a Black man became president, she would feel the need to choose a nice, soothing, white man as her #2. She'd probably pick a senator, and one from a blue state with a Democratic governor. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) would make a lot of sense, since he has executive experience, having served as governor of his state. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) is another possibility, although this depends on Terry McAuliffe winning in November. Kaine is so soothing he puts you to sleep when he talks. If she looks beyond the senatorial ranks, then maybe Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who also has executive experience, and who could be assigned to work on climate change.
If readers have thoughts about VPs for Trump or for Harris, send them along, including a brief explanation of your reasoning, and we'll run some of them.
R.M. in Baltimore, MD, asks: With her unwillingness to enunciate her goals or work with the Democrats, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) seems to be working against her party, the majority of her voters, and against her former interests. My impression, and apparently other people's impression as well, is that she is doing this to please big donors. I have heard she is acting as a heat shield to protect other reluctant senators, but I think that is a minor reason given the lack of reciprocity and her sinking poll numbers.
I understand the necessity of donations to get you elected in the next cycle, and maybe to influence other people by passing on funds to others. What I don't get is that her current strategy appears to be severely hurting her reelection chances. Are there other uses for donations? Can she legally make money off these corporate donations to feather the nest before leaving? I know Trump manages to personally plunder these funds, but his is a somewhat unique situation (having merch, hotels and voters who think he sits on God's right hand).
V & Z answer: It is difficult, and risky, for a politician to try to line their pockets with donations. If that was Sinema's game, she'd set up a PAC that she could run after leaving office, or she'd let it be known that she wants big-pay-low-work seats on corporate boards when she's done with politics. These things are possible, but we doubt they are the case.
It seems that Sinema's main concern is not the money, but is being "centrist" enough to get reelected on the strength of Democratic and independent and crossover Republican votes. It doesn't make much sense to us, and polls indicate it's not working, but she has gotten elected to the U.S. Senate and we haven't, so maybe she knows better than we do. After all, polls and conventional political wisdom both said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) was a goner last year, and yet she's still in the Senate.
On the other hand, there are plenty of politicians who live in a bubble, are surrounded by yes-men and yes-women, and who lose touch with the pulse of the electorate. Sinema has become rather notorious for being unavailable to her constituents. So, she could certainly be suffering from a politically fatal case of tunnel vision. Note also that her polls right now are far worse than Collins' ever were.
D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: Recently, I read an article about Kyrsten Sinema (?-AZ). In it, Sinema states that her actions of late are because she really understands the mood of the average Arizona voter. If so, what is her fellow Arizona senator, Mark Kelly (D), thinking about the Infrastructure Bills? Since Kelly's wife, Gabby Giffords, was a congresswoman for 5 years, one would think they would also have their pulse on the Arizona electorate.
I also read an article about Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) in which he said that he understands the progressives wanting to fight, but that he would advise them to get more candidates elected first. Beyond the condescension, it makes me wonder what is the breakdown of factions in the Democratic Party in the Senate? How about in the House? Since there is an actual group of conservative Democrats, the Blue Dogs, is Sinema or Manchin a member?
BTW, I've taken to calling Manchin and Sinema the Regal Twins. You might have to say this out loud, but you have a Regal Manchin and a Regal Sinema! And no, I'm not quitting my day job.
V & Z answer: As we note in the previous answer, we don't fully understand what Sinema is doing. In fact, we don't understand it at all. However, Sinema is female, bisexual, and not a veteran. So, she may feel she has to do more to earn centrist/independent/crossover Republican votes than the white, male, veteran Kelly does.
As to Democratic factions, there are no formal groups like that in the Senate. In part, that is because the senators represent entire states, and usually can't afford to pigeonhole themselves. In part, that is because the Senate has fewer members, and so it's easier to get five or six like-minded senators in the same room than it is to get 40-50 like-minded representatives.
Even in the House, not all of the caucuses are built around left-right political factions. In fact, the largest House caucus is actually the Labor Caucus, which includes 114 Democrats from across the spectrum. Among the factional caucuses, the Congressional Progressive Caucus includes 96 members—94 voting representatives, 1 non-voting representative, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The New Democrat Coalition (centrists) has 94 members—93 voting representatives, and 1 non-voting representative. And the Blue Dog Coalition currently has 19 members. That's down from 59 members a decade ago, a trend undoubtedly due to the increased number of straight-ticket voters.
Trump Legal Blotter
B.H. in Florence, OR, asks: I understand the Department of Justice wanting to go slow when it comes to indicting Trump on some charges, like tax fraud. But I don't understand the reluctance to go after him on the same charge that landed Michael Cohen in jail. Trump was the principal in a principal-agent relationship, and the agent has already been convicted. The evidence against Trump is right there in Cohen's trial proceedings. Trump's signature is on checks. He's "Individual 1" in the court transcripts. In this type of situation, principals don't just skate away while agents go to jail. The only reason Trump wasn't also indicted was that he was a sitting president, and supposedly couldn't be. Now that he's out of office, what's keeping the DOJ from going after him on at least this one obvious charge?
V & Z answer: The feds don't like to go after anyone unless it's basically a slam dunk. And that's with faceless defendants, never mind someone whose indictment, arrest, and trial might trigger riots. Cohen was pretty easy because his fingerprints were all over the illegal acts, and because he turned state's evidence. Trump, by contrast, is very, very good at leaving himself with plausible deniability. Since he signed checks to Cohen all the time, he can claim he didn't know what the money was for, which would create a he said, he said situation, with one of the "he saids" coming from a convicted felon.
It's possible that the feds will still go after Trump, but they'd really rather that Georgia or New York pop him. That's much less fraught, and those cases may be more airtight. Also, getting Trump for cheating on his property taxes or lying to banks in writing is something that even Trump supporters understand is criminal, and it was done before he became president. Such charges are less likely to cause riots because it is tougher to convince people that cheating on your property taxes is legal.
L.B. in Atlanta, GA, asks: The other day I realized something disheartening. Even if Trump is indicted and tried in Georgia, he's almost certain to be acquitted.
What do you think the chances are there won't be at least one Trump supporter on the jury who refuses to convict, no matter what evidence is presented? And that person will almost certainly lie and say they're willing to convict, just to get on the jury, so they can do exactly the opposite.
V & Z answer: We understand your cynicism, and it may prove to be justified. However, potential jurors are questioned before they are empaneled. And while the juror is an amateur, the judges and the lawyers doing the questioning are pros, and are quite good at weeding out problem jurors.
We would also suggest that average Joes and Josephines may have more integrity than you think or, failing that, more fear of getting in trouble for misrepresenting themselves. If a person lies during the empanelment process, they can be popped for perjury. And finally, juries include alternates, usually several of them. If there's one holdout, particularly one who appears to be operating in bad faith, they will generally get kicked for one of the alternates.
J.S. in Durham, NC, asks: This week, you discussed the "progress" in the investigations of Trump in Georgia. But there has been nothing about Trump and the investigations into his tax shenanigans in New York. While I understand that DAs play their cards close to the vest, it seems that these stories have vanished. Are they still ongoing? When do you think we might hear something? It seems that there was a lot of talk and speculation for awhile—but now, nothing.
V & Z answer: We actually had an item this week about developments in New York that hint at proof of Trump's malfeasance. So, that story is definitely still unfolding.
Put it this way: It took 2 years to investigate the Manson Family murders, and that was with people who were very guilty, who left behind all sorts of evidence, and who lived in an era with less red tape. Patience is called for here.
T.S. in Memphis, TN, asks: In "TrumpWorld Legal Blotter, Part I: Georgia," you wrote: "Either way, it's not usually a good thing to be the target of both a state-level and federal-level investigation at the exact same time, for the exact same thing." Maybe the Orange One is being looked at six ways to Sunday, but doesn't double jeopardy prevent him from actually be tried by both entities for the same crime(s)? I'm not a lawyer, and don't play one on TV.
V & Z answer: Nope. The principle of dual sovereignty dictates that double jeopardy does not attach if the charges come from different sovereign governments. In other words, if the charges come from a state government and from the federal government, then you can't claim double jeopardy. Probably the best-known instance of this is the Rodney King officers, who were acquitted in state court in California, but were later convicted in federal court for the same actions.
C.L. in Durham, England, UK, asks: Suppose all the lawsuits against #45 went against him, could he be made personally bankrupt?
V & Z answer: This week, Forbes estimated Trump's net worth at $2.5 billion. So, if you are asking: "Are there $2.5 billion worth of legal claims being made against Donald Trump right now?," the answer is "No."
However, that $2.5 billion is just a guess, and it may not be a great guess. Much of Trump's net worth is tied up in his brand, which has taken a beating, and in his properties, which are losing money. Plus, he has nearly half a billion dollars' worth of loans coming due. So, he may be much closer to broke than Forbes thinks. Heck, he may already be broke, or very close to it. And if so, then yes, there are enough claims against him to finish the job.
D.C. in Brentwood, CA, asks: In your item on Karen Bass running for LA mayor, you mentioned the racial breakdown of her seat, and used it to suggest an outcome for the by-election.
In the past, many implications have been made on this site that people vote by race, while you've also pointed to counterexamples, such as in the Democratic primaries in 2020.
Is there any reliable data on how much just the variable of a candidate's race can affect voting patterns across different electorates? I imagine this would be difficult to analyze, due to the low ratio of candidates to confounding factors. I'd like to see numbers on it, rather than rely on intuition that assumes racial affinity, as opposed to, say, class affinity, or good old policy affinity.
V & Z answer: Your question hits on the problem with "reliable data." There are only so many elections, and so many candidates, and each election has many different moving parts. When Barack Obama ran for president, he got 93% of the Black vote and 40% of the white vote. This strongly suggests that his race was a factor in the voting, but teasing out how much is not terribly doable.
The best way to study this—even if it's imperfect—is to conduct simulated elections where the only variable is the candidates' race, or their gender. You can see a study of this sort here; like nearly all studies of this sort, it finds that some voters pay attention to race more than others, and that for those who do pay attention to race, they are often using it as a tiebreaker between two otherwise similar candidates, or as a shortcut to compensate for a lack of information.
Note also that there is a different but related phenomenon, wherein turnout for a candidate tends to be higher among voters of the same racial group, or religion, or gender. That speaks to the potential advantage of nominating a candidate from a lower-turnout group.
A.M. in Eagle Creek, OR, asks: Trump is freshly appalled by McConnell's "big blink" on the debt limit and has renewed calls for his ouster from the Senate leadership. In any way doable?
V & Z answer: Is it technically possible? Yes. Is it realistic? No. Overthrowing a party leader in Congress mid-term is like committing mutiny on a ship: You better be damn sure you've got the majority on your side, or your career is over.
For this reason, no party leader in the Senate has been overthrown in the century or so since they started electing party leaders in the Senate. The Senate party leaders who have stepped down mid-term have done so either because they were running for president (e.g., Bob Dole), or they were ill (Oscar Underwood), or they died (Everett Dirksen).
M.V. in San Francisco, CA, asks: I know that the likes of Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), et al., are voted/chosen by their colleagues in their respective parties, but how come in most cases the result of such votes is known by the media well in advance? How come the likes of Mitch McConnell don't get challenged by other Republicans? I would assume other Republican senators are ambitious folk and would love to take Mitch's spot instead of just voting for him. For instance, when Harry Reid was perceived as weak, why didn't Schumer become the leader of Democrats in the Senate?
V & Z answer: Becoming a party leader requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Not only networking with one's colleagues, but usually fundraising for them as well, as well as service in lower-tier leadership positions. Generally speaking, there are only a handful of members who have put in the legwork.
On top of that, there are only certain members who even have the potential to become part of leadership. They have to want it; not all of them do. They have to have the temperament. And they have to come from a very safe district/state, because they are going to have to take some bullets on behalf of their colleagues. Anyhow, given the relatively limited list of potential candidates, and the years' worth of hustling involved, it's not usually much of a secret as to who the leader-in-waiting is.
As to seizing the throne early, see the above answer. If Reid was willing to step down—and he might well have done so, since he was having health issues—then Schumer would have been happy to ascend immediately. But in the absence of a willing transfer of power, Schumer was far better off being patient than trying to overthrow Reid.
W.R. in Tysons Corner, VA, asks: As we experience the ongoing gridlock in our federal government, I have to wonder: Why is the U.S. Constitution completely silent on the role of political parties? I find this completely baffling. It's not like the people who drafted the Constitution were unaware of the phenomenon. Great Britain had political parties (Tories and Whigs) from the 1680s. And only a few years after the Constitution was ratified, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist parties had formed in the U.S. We've had a two party system ever since. How did the Founders not see this coming? Were they naive or did they just conclude they could do nothing about it?
V & Z answer: Great Britain did indeed have political parties, and the Founders believed—with some justification—that partisanship had played a role in the behavior that alienated the Americans in the first place.
That said, one should not assume that the fellows who wrote the Constitution were in lockstep on the issues or, even if they agreed on something, that they agreed for the same reason. Some of the framers were indeed idealistic/naive, and hoped that parties would not form in the U.S. Others were not so naive, but they knew they had to sell the Constitution to a population that was not fond of parties, and would not be pleased to see their return outlined in black and white. And still others preferred to keep the Constitution as barebones as possible, and to let the new government adapt as it evolved.
C.C. in St. Paul, MN, asks: I'm not sure if you take questions that are out of the blue, but here's mine: if everyone in the U.S. tried to withdraw all their liquid accounts in cash, is there enough U.S. cash in existence? So, savings accounts, stocks, etc., but not CDs or IRAs, etc. Also assume, for the sake of this question, that this sudden run on the banks somehow doesn't throw the economy into complete chaos.
V & Z answer: Separating out "stocks" from CDs/IRAs is not so easy, because such investments are often bunched together as part of Americans' non-cash portfolios. That said, we can tell you with certainty that there's not enough cash available for everyone to, well, cash out. At the moment, the U.S. has about $2 trillion in currency in circulation. And just counting bank accounts, Americans have about $17.4 trillion on deposit. So, the available currency would be long gone before we ever got to the stocks and other non-cash assets.
R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: In 2021, the president clearly has more power than the other two co-equal branches. Congress has little power because (1) it is dysfunctional and (2) it has repeatedly ceded its power to the executive branch. The Supreme Court is clearly on the decline, as justices have spent their summer giving speeches about how they are not partisan hacks.
Has there been a historical ebb and flow of power between the three branches? What has that looked like over the years?
V & Z answer: Yes, there has. The Supreme Court has never been the preeminent branch, but the other two have taken turns as "first among equals." As a general rule, the legislative branch is/was stronger in the 19th century, in times of domestic tranquility, and when there was a weak president in the White House. The executive branch is/was stronger in the 20th and 21st centuries, in times of domestic turmoil, and when there was a strong president in the White House.
It's true that the executive branch has generally been the most powerful in recent years, but is it universally true? Are you certain, for example, that Donald Trump was playing a more important role in governance from 2017-21 than Mitch McConnell was?
S.B., in New Castle, DE, asks: In your item "Panama, Meet Pandora," you speculated that passage of the ENABLERS ACT might lead to "an end to the Trump Organization's last real source of income." While I won't speculate on whether Trump's mega-ego (MAGA-ego?) is more inflated by his money or his MAGA Rallies, I have to think that once all the lawsuits are played out, he will eventually regret having been elected to that office.
Assassinated Presidents aside, are there men who suffered sufficiently from their term as President to the point that they regretted ever having had the job?
V & Z answer: Well, let's see. Joe Biden is the 45th man to serve as president (he's #46 overall, but Grover Cleveland was both #22 and #24). His term is still underway, of course, and there were the four assassinated presidents and the four who died of natural causes. So, that's nine men for whom regrets were not possible, or are not yet possible. That leaves us with 36 possibilities.
There are definitely presidents, particularly some of those who served long ago, who did not much enjoy the job. That list includes George Washington, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Cleveland, and William Howard Taft. And though he did not survive to formally document regrets, there's no question that the office exacted a huge toll from Abraham Lincoln. Though it's not true that he said: "I need this job like I need a hole in the head." (Too soon?)
We think these aren't exactly the sort of president you are asking about, though. You're really asking about people who might otherwise have been happy to serve, but who were soured on the job because of specific harms they suffered. We would say there are a handful of presidents like that, in two different categories.
First, there are presidents whose health was adversely affected by their service. James K. Polk basically worked himself to death, in that he never took breaks and left himself with a severely compromised immune system. He contracted cholera shortly after leaving office, and so became the shortest-lived ex-president, lasting only 103 days post-term. Similarly, Chester Arthur's service exacerbated his Bright's Disease, and he died just 1 year, 259 days after leaving office. That makes him the second-shortest-lived ex-president, assuming Donald Trump holds on for another 362 days. Woodrow Wilson also wrecked his health, and while he probably didn't regret his service, he probably did regret pushing himself too hard.
Then there are presidents who suffered personal tragedies that they otherwise would not have suffered but for their presidential careers. Franklin Pierce's son was killed in a very violent manner in a train crash. The trip in question was necessitated by Pierce's election, and both Franklin and Jane Pierce wondered if it was God's punishment for his having run for the office. Calvin Coolidge's son, Calvin Jr., played tennis on the White House court on June 30, 1924, and developed a blister. The blister became infected, Cal Jr. developed sepsis, and he died on July 7, 1924, at the age of 16. You could also put Lincoln on this list; his son Willie died during Abe's presidential term, likely from drinking the typhoid-infected Washington water. In all three cases, the death was not directly due to the presidency, but also would not have happened but for the father being elected.
M.M. in Leonardtown, MD, asks: Building on the answer to J.L. in Los Angeles, how do you think the theoretical elections would have shaken out in 1960, 1988, 2000, 2008, and 2016 if the incumbent had run for a third term? Also, do you think the Twenty-Second Amendment will ever be repealed?
V & Z answer: Here are our best guesses:
- 1960: Dwight D. Eisenhower was still popular, but it wasn't a secret that his health was shaky, since he basically disappeared for a year while recovering from a heart attack. He would have had trouble campaigning, and would almost certainly have ended up against the young and vigorous John F. Kennedy. Ok, Kennedy wasn't actually vigorous—he was reliant on powerful drugs, and had a bad back. However, he looked vigorous. And it's likely he would have won a close one.
- 1988: Ronald Reagan was also still popular, but his approval rating was slipping, he may have had difficulty escaping the specter of Iran-Contra, and he would have been almost entirely unable to campaign. That would have put the Democratic candidate, presumably still Michael Dukakis, in a position to define Reagan as corrupt, too infirm to run, etc. It would have been very close, but Reagan would likely have eked out a third win.
- 2000: Al Gore was uninspiring and a terrible campaigner, and he was still almost able to ride Bill Clinton's coattails to a term as president. Clinton himself would have out-hicked George W. Bush, would have won more votes and more states than Gore (including Gore's home state of Tennessee) and would have been reelected easily. Not today, in the post-Me Too era, but back then.
- 2008: George W. Bush was wildly unpopular, and Barack Obama got Democrats very, very excited. It would have been Obama in a walk.
- 2016: Barack Obama was still popular, and was really good at timing upticks in his approval rating with election season. Having him on the ticket would have made it even easier for Trump to ride a whitelash to the Republican nomination, and it would have been an ugly, ugly campaign, with the New Yorker moving from dog-whistle racism, to dog-bullhorn racism, to dog-air-raid-siren-with-amplifier racism. This increasing desperation would have served to frighten voters into seeing him as a dangerous reactionary. Take that, plus the fact that Obama was never anywhere near as unpopular as Hillary Clinton, and Obama wipes the floor with El Donaldo.
So, that's three Democratic blowouts, one close Democratic win, and one close Republican win.
And the Twenty-Second Amendment is here to stay. First of all, there are too many term-limits fans out there. Second, at any given time, there is one faction that thinks the Twenty-Second Amendment is helping them, and want want to keep it.
D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: (Z): Does your course cover the Screwing Of The Working Class from 1975-2020? By that, I mean the massive concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the shredding of the safety net, the reduction in pay (especially lower end, like the minimum wage), and the smashing of union power. I didn't see any explicit title in the topic list for this, but maybe you discuss this within the other topics.
V & Z answer: There is, of course, only so much time. Further, (Z) is in the large majority of professors who tries not to turn the lecture podium into a soapbox for political screeds. Also, he's not a labor historian, and this isn't his speciality.
That said, there is a bit at the end of the class entitled "The New Gilded Age," in which the storylines introduced in the first lecture—changes in women's roles, subjugation of the natives, political corruption, concentration of wealth and exploitation of workers, racial oppression, and rapid and sometimes destructive technological development—are revisited in the context of the 21st century. And during that, there is a brief discussion—with some charts—of how the wealth gap is larger now than it has been at any time since the original Gilded Age.
M.G. in Chicago, IL, asks: J.T. in Greensboro is correct and I have never written a syllabus. Further, after shepherding my children through 13 years of school and 100 or more teachers, I have an appreciation for teachers (well, 95 of them) that I previously lacked. That said, I still pose the question: Are the 74 million Dear Leader followers a product of the current educational system, or the nature of who we humans are, and we must wait for some type of evolution to move forward?
V & Z answer: Well, if you force us to choose between those, we choose "evolution." There are a lot of very educated people who are head-over-heels for Donald Trump, so Trumpism isn't just about ignorance.
That said, we do think education is a part of the equation. It's easy to point to schools and teachers and scapegoat them, and there are certainly some things that would be better if Americans knew their civics better. However, the bigger impact of a poor education is limited marketable skills, and thus poor economic prospects. There are many states where, if more people had more learning, there would be fewer people capable of working only in industries that are dying or that are slashing pay. And if there were fewer people like this, that would reduce the potential for Trumpism to take root.
B.D. in St. Agatha, ON, Canada, asks: I am a U.S. citizen, living in Canada for 35 years. As I was reading last Sunday's mailbag, I became totally depressed and worried about the future. I considered not reading the news any more and even giving up reading E-V.com. Of course, reason prevailed, and I quickly decided against the latter option. But I was wondering if you could give me some hope for the future. Is there anything you see of a positive nature for politics in your crystal ball?
V & Z answer: We ran an item this week pointing out that the amendments to the Constitution basically came in four clusters. And those clusters were right after the Revolution, right after the Civil War, right after the Gilded Age, and right after the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement.
People in general, and Americans in particular, are not proactive, particularly when it comes to big changes. But when they are "scared straight," things start to happen. It's not a coincidence that the four greatest periods of domestic turmoil presaged the four greatest eras of reform. That piece from earlier this week made the case that we may well be on the cusp of a fifth era of reform. (Z) not only agrees, he's been making that argument for years on this site. See this item, from June of last year, for an example. (And for D.A. in Brooklyn, that piece includes one of the wealth-gap graphics Z uses in his "New Gilded Age" lecture).
Anyhow, it really is darkest just before the light. Change is coming, and for the better; it's just a question of how long it takes, and how bumpy the process is. And because the American people tend to need a real scare, it may well prove to be a good thing, long term, that Donald Trump and his ilk are doing their very best to fuel fears of a fascist takeover of the U.S. government.
Also, demographics are slowly but inexorably changing the electorate, with older white rural men (and women) being replaced by urban racially diverse young people whose politics are quite different than the folks who will not participate in the 2024 or 2028 elections.
A Question of Character
L.G. in Thornton, CO, asks: In your item about Morning Consult's recent poll on the ethnicity of the next James Bond, you propose that the poll results indirectly suggest that white Republican men hate the idea of James Bond being anything other than a white man, thus making the poll an indirect statement of racial bias. Isn't it at the very least plausible that the respondents were instead rejecting the implausibility of any MI6 agent being anything other than white, since MI6 agents have historically been white? That agency has been roundly criticized of late for being an all-white "men's club." The Ian Fleming character was obviously a white man. So maybe Bond-loving poll responders just wanted a believable character in the role.
V & Z answer: Well, the obvious thing about James Bond was that he was a Brit. And there are certainly Brits of color. We also understand that some of them are women.
It is true that a mismatch between actor and character can be distracting—an Asian Leonardo da Vinci, a female Abraham Lincoln, a Native American Joan of Arc. On the other hand, in the original cast of the Broadway smash hit "Hamilton," Alexander Hamilton was Latino and George Washington was Black, so maybe not. In any event, if there had been no partisan difference among the people who want a white James Bond, then any conclusions might have been more tenuous. But when members of the party of Donald Trump were vastly more likely to express opposition to a non-white James Bond, well, it's somewhat harder to argue that there's no element of racial discomfort there.
C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: Since you posted about the new James Bond film, I feel obligated to ask: what is the Official E-V.com Ranking of the James Bond actors?
V & Z answer:1. Sean Connery
(very big gap)
2. Daniel Craig
3. Pierce Brosnan
4t. Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton
6. David Niven
7. George Lazenby
We're not counting Barry Nelson, although his portrayal—performed while Ian Fleming was still alive—suggests that Bond doesn't necessarily even have to be a Brit, since Nelson played him as an American.
J.M. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: You wrote: "To his students (including this week), (Z) often says: 'It is not the privilege of the artist to dictate what people see in their art.'"
I am curious what you think of George Lucas' "revisionism" or "retrofitting" of the Star Wars movies. It seems to me that Lucas feels he has just that privilege.
Personally, I am of the "Han shot first!" school of thought.
V & Z answer: (V) is not much a "Star Wars" fan, but (Z) agrees that Han shot first. That said, if George Lucas wants to go back and have Greedo shoot first, or to replace the force ghost of old Anakin with the force ghost of young Anakin, that is his right as the author of the work. Similarly, Leonardo is entitled to paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa, William Shakespeare is entitled to make Hamlet a drag queen, and Elton John is free to turn a song about Marilyn Monroe into one about Princess Di. Admittedly, only some of these things actually happened.
What (Z) is speaking about is not content, but interpretation. If someone wants to read "Star Wars" as a movie about the Cold War in general, or about Vietnam in particular, or about Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, or about the Civil Rights movement, or about Richard Nixon, then it doesn't matter if George Lucas says, "No! That's not what it's about."
J.K. in Bremen, Germany, asks: What caused Mitch McConnell's dark hand last year? The dark hand reminded me of some other dark hand I had seen attached to a shrewd old man. Did Mitch also destroy a horcrux and got a lethal injury from it?
V & Z answer: McConnell is almost certainly taking blood thinners, and likely developed a leak in one of his veins. It happens to just about everyone who is on blood thinners eventually.
That said, we do not summarily reject the notion that there are Harry Potter-esque qualities to the Minority Leader. The Dumbledore parallel doesn't work, we think, because Dumbledore quickly realized that lust for power was his weakness, and he refused to pursue political office ever again.
McConnell does not value evil for evil's sake, so he's not Voldemort either. And he's not certifiably insane, so Bellatrix LeStrange doesn't work. There's no evidence that the Senator is secretly working for the Democrats, so he's not a double-agent like Severus Snape. There's a fellow in the Harry Potter world who ended up in the not-so-nice wizards' house, not because of his commitment to pure evil, but because of his utterly shameless self-promotion and his willingness to brownnose anyone if it suits his ends. In other words, isn't McConnell really just Horace Slughorn?
In any event, we have a pretty good guess as to what McConnell's patronus is.
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