Senate page     Aug. 21

Senate map
Previous | Next

New polls:  
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: (None)

Saturday Q&A

As you might imagine, there were a lot of Afghanistan questions this week.

Q: In your view, what would have been the best case scenario for Afghanistan if the U.S. had basically done the opposite of what it did? Secular Turkey before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's crackdowns? Current day Iran or Pakistan? Iraq, pre-2003 invasion? Something else? Or is medieval Afghanistan just about the best we could have hoped for regardless of what we did there? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: Perhaps we lack imagination, but there are two fundamental realities that do not seem malleable to us. The first is that the Taliban, a group that is hostile to the United States, is, has been, and will be the dominant power within the country. The second is that Afghanistan is not industrialized, is relatively poor, and is in the middle of...everything. That guarantees that they will fall under the thrall of one or more of their neighbors; the only real question is: "Which?" (with Pakistan being the likely option, for reasons addressed in the next answer).

In short, the current outcome seems to be the only possible outcome to us. And if you want a nation that serves as a rough parallel, we would go with...Syria.

Q: All other authoritarian regimes have a man in charge. Putin. Bolsinaro. Xi. Orban. I could go on. However, the Taliban, as reported by the media, seem to be like the Borg. A collective that thinks and acts alike without a clear leader. Or is there one, who isn't a household name in the United States? Who is in charge and why haven't I heard of him?

Bonus points for a brief history of the Taliban.
R.L., Alameda, CA

A: We'll take those in reverse order. As you can imagine, we can only give a brief history of the Taliban, but they are a direct byproduct of the Soviet-Afghan War. That war, as you might imagine, served to radicalize many Afghans. The United States took notice of that, and funneled money and other resources to Afghan radicals, so as to make life harder for the U.S.S.R. That funneling was often done through Pakistan, specifically the Pakistani military. One of the (many) projects the U.S. undertook was the production of textbooks, written in Pashtun and Dari (the two predominant languages of Afghanistan), that encouraged radical interpretations of Islam, and that lionized, in particular, the practice of jihad.

The end of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1989 led to a civil war in Afghanistan, which in turn created a power vacuum. In 1994, Mullah Mohammad Omar—a student who had been exposed to the U.S. textbooks—joined with 50 of his fellow students to found the Taliban. That, in fact, is what "Taliban" means—it is Pashtun for "students." Because Omar and his fellows were religious leaders, and because they came from many parts of Afghanistan (as opposed to being associated with one region or tribal group), and because they had the backing of the Pakistani military, they quickly achieved ascendancy in Afghanistan. Omar had effectively taken over as that nation's leader by 1996, just two years after founding the Taliban, though he did not become a truly well-known international figure until he ordered the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.

You are right that the leadership of the Taliban is...murky. In part, that is because it is partly a religious group, partly a military organization, and partly a governing party. Those tasks tend to be overseen by different people, and the relative importance of each of those functions (and, thus, each of those people) is open to interpretation.

In addition, Taliban leaders have found it useful and necessary to remain shadowy figures. They have giant targets on their backs, as their many enemies (including the U.S. and its clients) would like to see them dead. On top of that, the Taliban has elements of a cult, and "mysterious leader" has a certain power to it, while also allowing the inner circle to keep it on the down-low when key people do things like, you know, die. Omar, for example, succumbed to tuberculosis in 2013, but his death was not made public until 2015, for fear that news of his loss would weaken followers' allegiance to the Taliban.

So, it is not surprising that you've never heard of the current leader, both because the Taliban tends to share authority (in a somewhat Borg-like fashion) and because the pooh-bahs tend to keep themselves hidden. It appears that the current supreme commander is Haibatullah Akhundzada, but it is unknown how much of a role, if any, he takes in governance. Further, he has not been seen in public in several years, so it is also unknown if he's actually still alive.

Q: How did you decide that Afghanistan under the Taliban is approximately 8th century? C.S., Madison WI

A: Well, we didn't decide that, it's a somewhat common way to characterize Afghanistan. It refers to the century in which Islam arrived in that nation, and is a way of saying that the practice and understanding of the religion hasn't changed all that much since.

Q: On Tuesday, you listed a number of people and groups who can share the blame for the mess in Afghanistan. You assign percentages of blame to Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden among other groups. Wouldn't it also be appropriate to go back prior to the war and assign a significant amount of the blame to Ronald Reagan? His actions in Afghanistan likely led to the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and to 9/11, which was the catalyst for the war in the first place. C.V., Raritan, NJ

Q: Why are you not including the Afghan people in your blame distribution? Surely they were given tools to defend themselves and chose not to. I would give them at least 50%. D.E., Austin TX

Q: I agree with putting at least 20% of the blame on George W. Bush, but I was surprised by what you left out of that paragraph. Don't you think that Bush's decision to also go into Iraq just a few years later played a big role in leaving Afghanistan a neglected mess? D.R., Portland, OR

A: We don't disagree with these observations. For purposes of keeping things manageable, we chose to keep our focus on Afghanistan and the Afghanistan War, and on domestic actors. If we added "distractions" to the list, then Iraq was a big one, but so was the economic collapse of 2008, a series of mass shootings, and the COVID-19 pandemic. If we considered non-domestic actors, then Pakistan should also be on the list, and Russia, and the various militant groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. And if we considered historical actors, then how about Charlie Wilson? Leonid Brezhnev? Osama bin Laden?

For what it's worth, if we were rewriting the piece, the addition we would be most likely to make is Reagan, just as a reminder that the seeds for the Afghanistan War were planted long before the first American boots hit the ground.

Q: If Republicans take control of the House next year, what's the over/under on investigations into the Afghanistan withdrawal (à la Benghazi hearings) and can I take the over? P.N., Austin, TX

A: That will be a very unfortunate side effect of a Republican takeover; the likely advent of a bunch of sham investigations that waste Congress' time purely in service of winning the next presidential election. Presumably, there will be a bunch of "election fraud" investigations, too.

Anyhow, to try to give an actual answer, we'll just assume that every standing House committee that can find an angle will launch an Afghanistan investigation. Here's a list of the current House committees; the ones we think can probably find an angle are bolded:

Armed Services
Education and Labor
Energy and Commerce
Financial Services
Foreign Affairs
Homeland Security
House Administration
Natural Resources
Oversight and Reform
Science, Space, and Technology
Small Business
Transportation and Infrastructure
Veterans' Affairs
Ways and Means
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth
Select Committee on the Climate Crisis
Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress
Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol

So, 10 investigations?

Q: You wrote: "[Biden] also made the observation, which seems fair to us, that there are even bigger threats to America, like in Syria and East Africa, but nobody talks about those."

Having lived in Tanzania for many years and travel extensively through out Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, and Zambia (plus Southern Africa), what East African country do you consider a "bigger threat[s]?
P.R.W., Middle Haddam, CT

A: Biden was clearly referring to Somalia. Like Afghanistan, it has a weak government that exerts almost no control over much of the country, and so the country has become a base of operations for numerous radicalized groups. Unlike Afghanistan, it is a coastal nation, and so is also the home base for many pirates.

Q: I clearly remember the start dates of the Afghan War, The Iraq War, and the Gulf War because there were highly publicized invasions by the U.S. But what is the start date of the Vietnam War? I find this of importance because a friend pointed out that all four wars were started by Republican presidents. In the case of Vietnam, the friend says, that was Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955. But I thought John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson was the president who started the Vietnam War in the 1960s. K.A., Miami Beach, FL

A: Just FYI, this particular nuance is really difficult for students to wrap their minds around.

In response to the developments of late 1949—to wit, the U.S.S.R. becoming a nuclear power, and China adopting a communist form of government—the Truman administration formulated a pair of geopolitical policy imperatives. The first was "domino theory," which posited that if one nation "falls" to communism, the others around it are in danger of "falling" as well. The second was "containment," which proposed that it was essential for the U.S. to stop dominos from falling, using political, diplomatic, economic, and even military means. Here's a graphical representation of all of this, if it helps:

Uncle Sam desperately tries
to hold up a domino labeled 'S. Vietnam,' the dominoes labeled 'Eastern Europe' and 'China' and 'N. Korea' have already
fallen, while the dominoes labeled 'Cambodia,' 'Laos,' and 'S.E. Asia' will be knocked over if the 'S. Vietnam' domino

When communist North Korea invaded democratic South Korea in 1950, it appeared that a domino was falling. And so, the U.S. (and its allies) sent troops to "contain" the menace. The fighting ended (although, technically, the war never did) with nobody having capitulated, and with the border between North and South Korea at the exact same place it had been before the war. Sounds like a waste of time to us, but to America's leadership in 1953 it seemed to validate that containment works.

Months later, in 1954 (not 1955), the Vietnamese were able to force France to leave the country after 67 years of colonial rule. As they exited, the French partitioned Vietnam in the same manner as Korea or Germany had been partitioned, giving part to the communists and part to democratic capitalists. The Vietnamese rebels that had ejected France under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh were communists, and had no intention of leading half the country. So, Ho immediately began planning the takeover of South Vietnam.

As far as the U.S. was concerned, a domino was about to fall. And consistent with the (apparently correct) theory of containment, it was necessary to stop that from happening. That said, a full-fledged war in Vietnam would have been the United States' third armed conflict in 10 years. Further, Eisenhower had run on a peace platform ("I shall go to Korea"). So, about a week after the French left Vietnam, the U.S. sent some guns and some bombs to the South Vietnamese army, accompanied by a hundred or so "military advisors" to help train the South Vietnamese forces. Slowly but surely, over the course of the next 10 years, the quantity of armaments and military advisors increased.

By the early 1960s, it was clear that the American mission to Vietnam was holding serve (at best), and that it was likely that the North Vietnamese would soon overrun South Vietnam. The choice was either to cut bait or to escalate. There is some evidence that JFK was ready to cut bait, but he was replaced by LBJ, of course, and LBJ was a devoted cold warrior. So, he cooked up an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, used that to secure the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964, and then, based on that authority, substantially increased the U.S. presence in Vietnam in each remaining year of his presidency. Here's a table covering 15 years' worth of deployments:

Year U.S. Troops
1959 760
1960 900
1961 3205
1962 11300
1963 16300
1964 23300
1965 184300
1966 385300
1967 485600
1968 536100
1969 475200
1970 334600
1971 156800
1972 24200
1973 50

As a result of all of this, there are two periodizations that are sometimes used for "The Vietnam War." One of those is 1954-75, which is "first U.S. involvement in Vietnam to last U.S. involvement in Vietnam." The other is 1964-71, which is "first major escalation to final major de-escalation."

Q: While it's appropriate to compare the fall of Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon in 1975, do you also see a valid comparison to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961? R.H.D., Webster, NY

Q: Yesterday Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense and CIA director under President Obama, speaking about President Biden and the Afghanistan fallout, told CNN's John King: "I think of John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. It unfolded quickly and the president thought that everything would be fine. And that was not the case."

What do you think of the comparison? Is it better than the Saigon analogy that has been flogged over the past 4 days?
D.Z., Esopus, NY

A: Well, Leon Panetta is certainly more of an expert than we are (or than anybody is, save perhaps a small handful of people). That said, we find the parallel to be salient: a foreign affairs mess for a president who was left holding the bag left to him by his predecessor(s), and who was given bad intelligence by the alleged pros. The one big difference: JFK could plausibly have put a stop to the Bay of Pigs, if he wanted to, while Afghanistan was already a done deal by the time Joe Biden took office.

Q: With everything going on in Afghanistan, we have been wondering: Why did the British ever go there in the first place? What was there that they wanted? J.S., Durham, NC

A: For much of the 19th century, and into the early 20th, the Russians and the British were in a competition for influence in Asia, and in particular central Asia. The Brits called it "The Great Game," and the Russians called it "The Tournament of Shadows," which means that between them they had come up with the title of the second Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie.

Britain's primary concern was India, which was a critical part of the British economy and its global defenses by the mid-19th century. The Brits thought that Russia was eyeing India (although it turns out that was not the case). And so, the British army endeavored to seize control of Afghanistan, to act as one of a series of buffers between Russia and India.

Q: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released its report and it's not good. Despite the seriousness of climate change, it's just another politicized issue as covered by the media, including here, if it's mentioned at all. There will always be other "breaking" news/polls/fights to focus on instead.

My take is that humans are the comet hitting the planet and we know how that turned out. We are past the tipping point and are already experiencing this extinction level event. There isn't the political will or public demand to do what is necessary to prevent global catastrophe. You only need to look at President Biden's sort-of-pro-electric-car, sort-of-anti-gas-car-but-not-really messaging this week to see this political reality.

What is being discussed as doable by Democrats, and other world leaders, is the equivalent of using a bucket of water to put out a forest fire. Way too little, way too late, and unlikely to happen when faced against Republican obstruction and science denial. By the time that changes, if it changes, much of the planet and millions more species, including most humans, will be dead. And soon. We have decades left, at best.

What we have seen so far is nothing compared to what is coming. Those reading this will witness levels of destruction only previously experienced in disaster films. Not to mention the wars that will be triggered as access to resources and water dwindles. (Concerned about immigration? Just wait until 400 million people are heading north from South America because it will soon be too hot to be livable.)

How long does life on Earth have when there is no longer any coral reefs in the oceans? Or enough trees to convert enough carbon dioxide to oxygen? We're about to find out and spoiler alert, not very long.

There are also many known and unknown unknowns. Any one of which could possibly turn Earth into a lifeless barren planet. Our luck will run out. I expect most of the planet to be dead by the end of this century.

Am I being overly pessimistic? What is your take on climate change and where we're heading as a country and planet?
S.S., West Hollywood, CA

A: People tend to be pretty good at ignoring an existential crisis until it reaches a breaking point. And then, they tend to be pretty good at responding, since nobody wants to be part of a global extinction. It's smaller in scope, of course, but the damaging, and then recovery, of the ozone layer is a hopeful precedent.

Broadly speaking, most of the world is already plenty scared. However, nothing can happen without the United States, which is one of the most aggressive contributors to global warming. And the United States won't be able to do much until the Republican Party gets on board. At the moment, they are the only major political faction in the world that rejects man-made climate change. However, there was a story in The New York Times just this week reporting that many Republicans are finally getting scared, and that some GOP members of Congress have formed the Conservative Climate Caucus to twist the arms of their fellow Republicans. Maybe they will have some success. Or, maybe short-sighted people like Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) will be voted out of office. Apparently unaware that he represents a coastal state, and also that global warming exacts a terrible economic cost, Scott said this week that: "I'm not doing anything to raise the cost of living for American families."

Anyhow, we would guess that the GOP is near a tipping point, and that once they pull their heads out of the sand (or wherever they've got them stuck), the world will be able to get serious about the looming disaster. Some permanent damage is likely, but total disaster is not.

Q: I'm a bartender and one of my customers said Donald Trump did everything he promised. Can you give some examples where he didn't? B.D., Seabrook N.H.

A: Here's 10 examples, among many, in no particular order:

  1. He did not build a border wall; only a couple hundred miles of border fence, and Mexico did not pay for it.
  2. He did not propose, much less get enshrined into law, an Obamacare replacement.
  3. He still hasn't released his tax returns.
  4. He did not reduce the national debt, much less pay it off.
  5. He did not balance the budget.
  6. He did not propose, much less secure passage, of an amendment establishing term limits for Congress.
  7. He did not manage to deport all (or even very many) undocumented immigrants.
  8. He did not propose, much less secure passage of, an infrastructure bill.
  9. He did not withdraw from NATO.
  10. He did not cause Hillary Clinton to be prosecuted and imprisoned.

There are many, many others, given his propensity to say whatever comes into his head during campaign events.

Q: I was waiting at my local DMV to up date my license when I looked up and saw this painting on display:

A very mediocre oil 
painting that shows Donald and Melania Trump, apparently in the Oval Office, along with four men in suits, and 
what looks like a Christmas tree. There is a plaque beneath the painting.

I wont discuss my initial impulse (involving a sharpie and a knife as well as vomit). My question: are political displays allowed in a public place?
C.S., Linville, NC

A: The Hatch Act prevents federal employees from electioneering of any sort while on the job. And most states have a similar law, including North Carolina.

The painting is so badly executed that we do not immediately recognize the four men who are not Trump. And we can't read the plaque underneath. Either of those things might be helpful in determining the basis on which the painting is being displayed (like it commemorates four NC DMV employees being recognized for their service). However, our guess is that this is OK right now, since Trump is not an active candidate for office. If he runs for the White House again, the painting will likely have to come down.

Q: I consider myself well educated (BA in history) and reasonably above average in intelligence. Why can't I ever win an argument with a Trump fan? S.B., Narragansett, RI

A: The same reason that you can't win a basketball game with a deck of cards. It isn't true of all Republicans, or even all Trump supporters necessarily, but the folks you are referring to are "debating" by an entirely different set of rules than you are, with an entirely different win condition in mind. Their goal is to "own the libs," which is basically a form of trolling. And they don't care if their evidence is correct, or if they even have evidence. And even if you should corner them, they'll just move the goalposts.

In the event that it holds your interest, just to make sure that our answer was on point, (Z) initiated this "debate" on one of the social media platforms this week (lightly edited for length). You can probably guess which one was him (the parentheses list the various "tricks" we detect):

Harvard-trained lawyer: [Joe] Biden didn't really win [the 2020 election]. In contrast to Trump and his large enthusiastic crowds, during the campaign, Biden was in his basement for the most part and could not attract a crowd once he did emerge from the basement. (argument from incredulity)

UCLA-trained historian: Because you can TOTALLY judge how 150 million people will vote based on a couple hundred thousand people at rallies. In any event, using rally attendance—given that one candidate respected COVID-19 guidelines and one did not—is a laughable way to analyze the election.

HTL: So you are saying a doddering near-senile Biden, who could not attract a tiny crowd and had no connection with the American people, got a record vote? LOL. (deflection, personal insults)

UTH: Your "evidence" is that—as someone who did not vote Biden/Democratic—you cannot imagine 80 million people voting for him. It just doesn't make sense to you, even though you have no particular understanding of why people might vote Biden, or how people who don't hate him/all Democrats might perceive him. That sort of "evidence" would never, ever stand up in a court of law.

HTL: If a Court chose to have an evidentiary hearing instead of ducking (as the courts have been doing), the evidence would hold up. No, Biden did not get 81 million legal votes. You aren't dealing with the facts that make that a laughable proposition. (misdirection, more argument from incredulity, gaslighting)

UTH: I notice you didn't respond to the substance of my comment at all. Short version, so you can understand it: Your feelings are not, in any meaningful way, evidence. Anyhow, I will take this as prima facie evidence that you have no answer, and that you know you're full of crap.

HTL: Biden is showing how incompetent he is as we write with the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan, which is but one catastrophe of the Biden Administration. And you are posturing how the American people gave a record vote to Biden, 16 million more than Hillary in 2016 and Obama in 2012? No, the American people did not. It is LOL what you write. You are the one full of crap. (relevance fallacy, more argument from incredulity, more gaslighting)

UTH: Do you realize how logically inconsistent your position is? You simultaneously assert that the electorate COULD NOT POSSIBLY be bigger in 2020 than in 2016, and yet you completely ignore that Donald Trump's vote total grew, too. So, which is it? Was the electorate bigger, or did Donald Trump also accrue a bunch of fraudulent votes?

HTL: You had no substance to your comment. The notion that Biden got a record vote is ridiculous. (more deflection, more argument from incredulity)

UTH: "It's ridiculous!" Great evidence. Let's try this again: How could Donald Trump pick up nearly 12 million votes in 2020, and yet it makes no sense for Joe Biden to get more votes than Hillary Clinton did?

HTL: I review the evidence which you ignore and then you posture. Pathetic. (more deflection, more gaslighting, more personal insults)

There is no winning with someone like this, obviously.

Q: Why do Black conservatives vote Democratic? T.M. in Downers Grove, IL

A: Well, some of them don't. See (Gov.?) Larry Elder, Allen West, Candace Owens, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), etc.

That said, the most common orientation of Black voters is socially more conservative, fiscally more liberal. And a great many of them have decided that if they can only have one of the two, they prefer the latter.

Further, Black folks can hear dog whistles, too. And they are well aware that every Republican president since Richard Nixon, with the possible exception of George Bush the Younger, ran on a dog-whistle-racist platform. Further, it is not difficult to take notice of which party courts white, Southern conservatives, and doesn't seem to mind too much if it also attracts the votes of out-and-out white supremacists.

Q: Florida's primary is a year away and the general election longer, so a lifetime in politics, but given this week's St. Pete poll, how would you rate Rep. Val Demings' (D-FL) chance of defeating Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a swingy state? What needs to go her way? M.L., Gainesville, FL

A: We would guess that the key to her victory is...Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). He is quickly morphing into Donald Trump, the sequel. Some Floridians support him fanatically, and badly want him to remain governor. Other Floridians loathe him, and would rather have nearly anyone else as governor. And then add to that the fact that everyone knows a win will boost his presidential hopes, while a loss will damage them badly. So, we imagine that a very sizable number of voters is going to show up to register an opinion on DeSantis' future. And if the anti-DeSantis faction is larger, then Demings will ride that to a promotion. We wouldn't want to put a percentage on it quite yet, because the DeSantis response will depend a lot on what happens with COVID in the next few months.

Q: Thank you so much for answering my questions. I just wanted to give you the link to the website that says that 60% of doctors are not vaccinated. I bing'ed "How many doctors are vaccinated?" and this was the second hit to come up: "SURVEY: Most doctors are skipping Covid-19 vaccine | Sharyl Attkisson." Your answer confirmed most of what I was thinking, but it's still confusing when you see articles like the one linked giving different opinions, facts, lies or who knows what. P.H., Minneapolis, MN

A: Ah! We wish we had found this link when we tried to look last week. Still, that doesn't stop us from ripping it to shreds this week. This article has three strikes against it and, unlike baseball, any one of them constitutes an "out," in our view:

  1. Sharyl Attkisson: Attkisson is the "reporter" for this piece. Her brand, which she reiterates endlessly, is that she's fair, and balanced, and non-partisan. Indeed, the header of her site promises "FEARLESS, NONPARTISAN REPORTING." Whenever someone wears something like this so aggressively on their sleeve, and then they make a point of constantly waving that sleeve around, it's a case of "she doth protest too much, methinks." Such folks are invariably quite partisan and, when the specific claim is about being "fair" or "balanced," are invariably right-wingers. Bernie Goldberg is another example, John Solomon is a third, Andy Ngo is a fourth.

    You don't have to take our word for it. Take a look at the "censored" page of her website, which lists some of the folks she strives to give coverage to, because they have been unfairly censored by the media. Some of them are people you haven't heard of, but the ones you have heard of include Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ron DeSantis, Larry Elder, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), and the MyPillow guy. The only prominent Democrats listed are Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Dr. Seuss, and you know full well why they're on there.

  2. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS): These are the folks who conducted the survey. Sounds like a perfectly respectable professional organization, right? In truth, it is a political lobby that includes Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) as a member, and that is in the business of promoting medical "information" that "pushes back" against the alleged liberal biases of the American Medical Association (which is an actual respectable professional organization, and is not liberal). Among the AAPS's stated positions are that abortions cause breast cancer, handguns save lives, hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19, homosexuality is a form of mental illness, tobacco use does not cause cancer, HIV does not cause AIDS, and that undocumented immigrants put Americans at risk of leprosy.

  3. Survey Monkey: The poll was not conducted by a polling organization, or following any sort of scientific standard for polling. Instead, the AAPS put up an anonymous, online form using Wufoo by SurveyMonkey and then sent it to its members. That means that the sample was not representative of the broader population of physicians; in fact, the folks being asked are a self-selected group who specifically joined a PAC dedicated to fighting against "liberal" medicine. Further, conducting the survey in that manner both (1) encouraged responses from only "true believers," and (2) allowed those folks to reply as many times as they wished. It is entirely plausible, and perhaps even likely, that one anti-vaxx doctor submitted 50 "I'm not vaccinated" responses.

In short, you have a dubious reporter, a political lobby that tries to hide its right-wing politics behind a neutral-sounding name, and a survey method that would earn you an F in "Polling 101." And even then, the rate of vaccination was still 60%, which is rather high when the deck is stacked like that.

Q: While on Taegan Goddard's site, a link to this article was highlighted.

When I look at the animation at the end, to my eye the difference in the slope—which is to say, the difference between red and blue county vax rates—really started to accelerate around May. Can you recall any event, in hindsight that might have triggered that? Or is the differential over time just which case, why do you think it is accelerating?
E.S., San Francisco, CA

A: There wasn't a specific event, per se, we would say. For the first several months of vaccination, shots were only available to people who had priority (healthcare professionals, educators, the immunocompromised, etc.). Then, in mid-April or so, the list was thrown open to everyone, and there was a rush among those who did not have special claims, but who wanted the shot(s). The point is that through May, pretty much 100% of available slots were claimed and utilized in every place.

It was in May-June that supply began to catch up with, and even exceed, demand. In blue cities, counties, and states, there was still enough of a backlog to keep the immunization clinics busy for several more months. In red cities, counties, and states, there was much less of a backlog because a smaller percentage of the population wanted to be vaccinated. So, the gap began to show itself.

Q: Can my governor be removed from office for not mandating masking/vaxxing? Gov. Mike Parson (R-MO) swore an oath to (among other things) "promote the general welfare of the people." It would seem that a mask/vaxx mandate would go a long way to promoting the general welfare of Missouri's citizens, but he didn't do it, soooo...can we kick him out for failing to fulfill his obligations? J.B., Springfield, MO

A: Is it possible? Sure. Missouri law dictates that a governor may be impeached for "Crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense of moral turpitude or oppression in office." That is so broad that, if a majority of the Missouri House decides a governor should be impeached, whatever reason they come up with is probably covered. At that point, Parson would be tried by a group of "seven eminent jurists," and if five of them voted to convict, he'd be out.

Of course, while it may be possible, there's no way it actually happens, at least not in Missouri.

Q: If the California recall succeeds and Larry Elder becomes governor with a plurality of votes, can't the California legislature simply impeach him? There are veto-proof supermajorities in both houses of the California legislature. As I read the California Government Code, impeachment requires "misconduct in office." Given that Elder has pledged to reverse all statewide vaccine and mask mandates, that should be enough "misconduct" for the legislature to impeach him. M.B., Menlo Park, CA

A: They sure can. As with Missouri (see above), and the federal government for that matter, the standards for impeaching someone are broad enough that an impeachable act boils down to "whatever the legislature thinks is an impeachable act."

To impeach Elder would require 40 votes in the California state House (where there are 59 Democrats). Convicting and removing him would require 27 votes in the state Senate (where there are 31 Democrats). And if he were impeached and convicted, then Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (D-CA) would become governor. The Democrats would have all the political cover in the world to do this, pointing out that: (1) Elder only gained the office through shenanigans, (2) the process should have elevated the Lieutenant Governor anyhow, and not the winner of a fluky jungle-style election, and (3) Kounalakis, who got 56.6% of the vote, much more clearly represents the voters of California than someone who got [some percentage well less than 56.6%]. Alternatively, the Democrats could start the process to recall Elder.

As a sidebar, what on earth are we going to do, terminology-wise, if Elder, a Black man, wins a jungle-style election? That's considerably worse than "voodoo economics."

Q: Election results are not really "official" until the state certifies the results. If the early reported results make it clear that the Governor will be recalled, could still-Governor Newsom resign on election night? Even after all votes have been cast?

When the election results are later certified, would now-Governor Kounalakis be removed from office? She was not recalled. The office of Governor is not vacant, so would the elected replacement ever take office?
D.T., San Jose, CA

A: The courts might have to get involved here, but this is not likely to work. The presumption would be that, even if the result is not immediately known, it was settled the moment the deadline for submitting ballots arrived. So, if Newsom is recalled, his governorship would legally end at that moment, and not when the results are formally announced and certified.

Q: What would it take to change the recall process in California? Is it part of the state constitution or is it just state law? If state law, do you expect the legislature to change the rules (or eliminate the option) after this recall concludes? Since Democrats have a supermajority and the Republicans continue to waste resources by hitting on this same nail over and over, I would think the Democrats would try to scrap it. Z.C., Beverly Hills, CA

A: It is part of the state constitution, which would have to be amended. And while a constitutional amendment on the federal level is a huge undertaking, it's not such a big deal in California. In fact, since the current state constitution was adopted (in 1879), it's been amended 516 times. That's about 3.5 times a year.

Amendments require the voters to approve a ballot proposition; the only question is how the proposition is placed on the ballot. The legislature can pass the proposed amendment and add it to the ballot, or private citizens can gather signatures and add the amendment to the ballot. We suspect the legislature will take the initiative; if they don't, then private citizens almost certainly will. This is probably the Republicans' last shot at his particular loophole, especially if Larry Elder wins with a percentage of the vote in the 20s.

Q: So, given all the publicity around the recall of Gavin Newsom, I was just thinking about a recent attempt to recall Gov. Jared Polis (D) in Colorado. This in turn got me to wondering how often Democrats initiate recall efforts vs Republicans. Given the risk to human life that both the Florida and Texas governors are creating, I would have thought they would be perfectly valid recall targets. While Doug Ducey is being subjected to a recall attempt, it seems to be driven by Trump supporters.

So, is there really a lack of recall efforts by Democrats or is there really no difference?

In a related question, has anyone been the subject of an unsuccessful recall vote and gone on to have a successful political career?
P.R., Arvada, CO

A: Let's start by noting that recalls are only permitted in 20 states (and the list does not include Florida or Texas, so the governors of those states are safe). Even in the states that do allow recalls, the list of offices subject to recall sometimes varies.

It's not always clear which faction is driving a recall (and, in some cases, it may be people from both major parties). Just to get a sense of things, here is a list of governors that were subject to at least one recall petition last year:

That's nine Democrats against three Republicans, which may suggest that Republicans are more likely to use this trick. However, the states where recall is even possible skew Democratic, so maybe not. And if we included all the local officials that were subjected to recalls, the partisan balance evens out a lot.

As to your other question, there have been a few folks subjected to a recall and who then went on to successful careers. Probably the best known is the woman who survived a recall in 1983 while serving as mayor of San Francisco. That, of course, would be Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Q: When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was a candidate to be Joe Biden's vice president, one of the arguments against this was that the Republican governor of Massachusetts would name a Republican to replace her. Then I read that the state legislature could work around this by passing a law that would mean the governor could only replace a senator with a person from the same party, and would be given a list of names to choose from. So in the event of a Republican replacing Gavin Newsom, surely the California legislature could do the same thing to ensure a Democrat replaces Dianne Feinstein if she dies? N.H.R., London, England, UK

A: Nope, they can't. In California, that would require a constitutional amendment which, as we note above, would have to be approved by voters.

Q: Wow, what a fascinating answer regarding what happens with Kamala Harris as a Senate tie-breaker if Joe Biden dies. I have a couple of corollary follow-up questions: Let's toss a Supreme Court nomination into the mix and suppose that Breyer has resigned but it is still prior to a new justice being confirmed. If Harris has not yet been sworn in as the new President, would she still be able to exercise her Senate voting authority to help confirm a nominee to the SCOTUS? Or supposing that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was convinced that it really was worthwhile to hold his entire caucus together in order to prevent a Breyer replacement, could Harris declare herself indisposed and not available to be sworn in, thus paving the way for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to either be sworn in or become acting president, with Harris as her vice president? If McConnell did decide to be recalcitrant, who would be most likely to break ranks and fill the VP slot even with SCOTUS on the line, beyond the usual suspects like Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), or possibly the retiring Pat Toomey (R-PA)? D.H., San Francisco, CA

A: If Joe Biden dies, resigns, or is impeached and convicted, Kamala Harris immediately becomes the President of the United States. She cannot exercise the powers of the office until she's taken the oath (probably; a few people argue her VP oath is actually enough). However, the promotion is automatic and instantaneous. On becoming president, she could resign, or she could declare herself to be temporarily incapacitated, either of which would allow the next person in the line of succession to become president (permanently in the former case, temporarily in the latter). However, the only way Harris could be VP again would be election or appointment to the post.

And if you take the moderates off the list, the senator most likely to break ranks is probably an institutionalist like Chuck Grassley (R-IA), or possibly Ben Sasse (R-NE), who appears to have convictions he's willing to act on, and is not always guided by political expediency.

Q: Can the pope unilaterally reverse the Catholic church's position on abortion? In the 1990s, a friend of mine once said "The pope is old. The next guy will reverse the stance on abortion." How far off the mark was he? Can you answer the question in theory, in practice, and perhaps any historical precedents? S.L.C., Arlington, VA

A: For more than a millennium, popes sometimes claimed to be infallible. And in 1870, the First Vatican Council confirmed that they are indeed infallible, but only in limited circumstances. They have to declare that they are speaking ex cathedra, which literally translates to "as the chair," and means the pope is invoking his authority as the occupant of the chair of St. Peter (a.k.a., the first pope). In addition, the pope must be speaking on questions of faith or morals, and must be issuing a directive that is to be followed by all Catholics.

Clearly, announcing a new position on abortion would be a question of faith or morals, and would affect all Catholics. So, the pope could do it. However, as you infer, it's unlikely in practice. In the end, a big part of the pope's job description is "politician." And overturning a core doctrine by fiat like that would be...impolitic. Adherents would be furious, much of the priesthood would push back with all their might or would resign, donations to the church would decline, splinter factions would form, the pope's soft power would be gone, etc. Many Catholics went nuts when the Church made Latin optional, and that is a relatively minor choice compared to this.

The politically fraught nature of invoking infallibility means that the total number of historical precedents, since the practice was formalized as part of church law, checks in In 1950, Pius XII infallibly declared that "We proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven." This is called the Assumption of Mary. Most Catholics found this to be fine and dandy. And yet, despite the not-so-controversial nature of the declaration, Pius still checked with a bunch of bishops and cardinals before moving forward.

If the Church's position on abortion is to change (very unlikely), it will be by small degrees, with a succession of popes making smallish declarations about the practice, in the manner we see Pope Francis making occasional smallish declarations about LGBTQ acceptance.

Q: I have a theory related to abortion and I'm looking for a historian to tell me if I'm onto something or missing something. My grandmother once told me that in her family, the youngest child was simply known as "Sister" or "Brother" until the next child was born. It make me wonder if raging over abortion is a more modern phenomenon than people realize, simply because childhood mortality used to be so high that people stayed emotionally detached from young children. Infanticide as a practice goes back into antiquity, yet the only direct reference in the Bible to this was prohibiting human sacrifice of children to an idol. It seems like there would be more in there if it was a big a deal as anti-abortion activists make of it. My question is: In America in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the availability of abortion a concern of the general public/politicians/religious authorities, and if not, did the change in attitude have anything to do with declining child mortality from improved prenatal care, antibiotics for childhood disease, and vaccinations? Are we putting children on a taller pedestal now? R.T., Arlington, TX

A: Sorry, but your theory is mostly off the mark.

This is a very general overview but, until the early decades of the 19th century, most Americans viewed abortion as a necessary evil, not unlike having bad teeth extracted.

The anti-abortion movement began in the 1820s and 1830s as a public health movement, and was led by doctors. The issue wasn't morality, it was that abortions were dangerous (true) since they were often performed by non-professionals using risky techniques or chemicals (also true). So, limits began to be imposed at that time, and abortion became largely the province of physicians.

The real crackdown came after the Civil War, when shifts in religious (especially Catholic) doctrine, and the spread of Victorian morality, led to a crackdown on all sorts of things vaguely connected to sex and sexuality, including abortions, pornography, and prostitution. These new restrictions are known as the Comstock Laws.

Thereafter, fighting for the re-legalization of abortion became the province of feminists (for obvious reasons) and doctors (who switched sides, recognizing that outlawing abortion didn't stop the practice, but instead shifted it to unsafe back-alley providers). These folks fought an uphill battle for several generations, but had much success from the 1940s to the 1970s, culminating most famously in 1973's Roe v. Wade.

Around that time, with folks like Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly leading the way, right-wing pushback against abortion returned with renewed vigor; it was a powerful issue for church leaders, and it was also a way of pushing back against those pushy feminists in particular, and against modernity/social change in general.

You might plausibly put together evidence and write a book demonstrating that changing ideas about children played some role in this process, but that would be a backdrop. The main driving forces were the other sociopolitical factors outlined above.

Q: Your mention of the Era of Good Feelings was interesting, as I am currently reading a biography of James Monroe. I found it fascinating that Monroe, as Minister to France, had a deep and never-reconciled falling out with his former Continental Army commander, President George Washington. Partisan politics at its worst. From your perspective, how would the heroes of the Revolution and the early republic era do in the modern partisan age of cable news and social media? Would we as a nation have survived? C.S., Philadelphia, PA

A: They actually had their own version of Fox News/MSNBC, as newspapers back then were pretty much all party organs, dedicated to saying overwhelmingly positive things about one political faction and incredibly nasty things about the other. The sniping between the Jeffersonians and the Adamsites in 1800, carried out through the pages of these journals, was so unpleasant that Adams refused to attend Jefferson's inauguration. The sniping between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, also carried out in the pages of the partisan press, ended with Hamilton being killed by Burr in a duel.

Put another way, as the fellows who inspired their people to rebel, the founders were skilled propagandists. And they would have used, with great skill, whatever tools a particular era presented them, whether newspapers, or radio, or television, or cable news, or Facebook. Since the republic survived the nastiness that they actually did come up with, we have to presume it would have survived even if they had different tools for communicating that nastiness.

Q: You wrote:

Most readers are familiar with the "Lost Cause" version of Civil War history, wherein Southerners made themselves feel better about losing by asserting that they coulda won, and they woulda won, but for [X], where [X] is the North's overwhelming industrial might, or the butchery of Ulysses S. Grant, or the poor performance of James Longstreet at Gettysburg, or whatever.

Is the North's industrial advantage not an accurate historical fact? Is it really part of the Lost Cause narrative? I grew up in a very liberal area, had a teacher who went to church with the girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist church bombing, and a brother who's a history major and Civil War buff. I've been to Gettysburg and Antietam multiple times. I thought I was pretty educated about the lost cause narrative, but now I'm caught wondering if my understanding is accurate. P.N., Austin, TX

A: Let's begin by pointing out that the Lost Cause, as with any set of ideas, was given shape by a large number of authors and artists, from Jubal Early to Sallie Pickett to John Bell Hood to George Bagby Matthews. And it found its way into the hearts and minds of millions of people. So, there's going to be some variety in terms of understanding, emphasis, etc. depending on who we are talking about (and where, and what time period).

Beyond that, in its initial formulation at least, the Lost Cause had two purposes. The first was to make a case for the readmission of the Southern states to the Union as equal partners. The second was to help Southerners to cope with their defeat. It is the second of these that is relevant to your question.

When someone loses—whether a war, or a football game, or at poker, or whatever—it can make them feel better if they tell themselves that they did a heck of a job, and they almost won, but for [a bit of bad luck, one small misstep, inappropriate behavior by the opponent, etc.]. However, it can also make them feel better if they tell themselves that they never could have won, and that it was never a fair fight, and they achieved a "moral" victory in having the bravery to at least give it a try.

Lost Cause thinkers definitely embraced both of these ways of thinking. The North most certainly did have a vastly superior industrial capacity; there were more factories in New York City alone than in the entire Confederacy. The North also had more people, more money, unrestricted support from foreign powers, more railroads, more telegraphs, and a host of other visible advantages. So, it's easy enough to claim that David never could have beaten Goliath, but it sure is impressive that he tried.

At the same time, Lost Cause thinkers also suggested that the South nearly did win the war, but for one or two bad breaks. Most obviously (as we discussed with a couple of readers via e-mail this week), these folks focused a lot of attention on the Battle of Gettysburg, which is part of the reason it's so very famous. The argument was made, in particular, that if Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell hadn't screwed up on the first day of the battle (failing to occupy Cemetery Ridge), or if Lt. Gen. James Longstreet hadn't screwed up on the second day (failing to coordinate his attack properly with the other wing of the Confederate army), or if Longstreet hadn't screwed up again on the third day (failing to figure out a way to make a frontal assault like Pickett's charge work), then the South would have won that battle and probably would have won the war. That is why the spot where Pickett's forces most fully breached the Union line on July 3, 1863 has been celebrated as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Put another way, David very nearly did beat Goliath, but for a bit of bad luck in July 1863.

These two views are obviously contradictory—it can't be true that the South couldn't possibly win, and yet also be true that they nearly won. And the viewpoint that is considerably more correct is that...they almost won. It is easy enough to point to the Union's advantages, which were very real. But the Confederacy had some major advantages, too, the most important of which was that they had a much easier endgame. The Lincoln administration had a daunting task; it had to re-conquer 11 Southern states. The Davis administration had a much less daunting task; they merely had to hold on for (probably) 4 years. The Confederacy did not actually need to win a single battle; it just needed the Northern public to decide the war wasn't worth it, and to replace Lincoln with a president willing to let the South go. The key event that swung the election in Lincoln's favor, namely the capture of Atlanta, came on Sept. 2, 1864, just a couple of months before Election Day.

Q: F.S. in Cologne, Germany writes that the KGB "murdered far more people than all intelligence agencies in western countries combined." Is this an accepted fact? Is it even knowable?

Only slightly related question: How many of these history questions can you mostly answer based on your preexisting knowledge, and how many do you mostly answer via research in response to the questions?
A.J., Baltimore, MD

A: Yes, it's accepted, and is knowable. First of all, it isn't really the style of the Western democracies' intelligence agencies to murder people. It's politically problematic if the truth comes to light, and they also tended to have bad luck with that particular technique when they did use it. What MI6, the CIA, the DGSE etc. did do was arm "friends" like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (when they were just "freedom fighters") and to let events take their course. But that's not the same thing as targeted assassinations.

Meanwhile, murder was a primary tool in the KGB toolkit. They also tended to target certain sorts of people, and they tended to kill with certain signature techniques (e.g., polonium tea). Sometimes, they even took credit. So, there are over a hundred confirmed "kills" for the Soviet/Russian government in the last century, and two or three times that number that are suspected.

And with historical questions, it depends if they are U.S. history or non-U.S. history. With the U.S. history questions, (Z) writes most or all of the response off the top of his head, sometimes confirming a specific date or detail or the wording of a quotation, but rarely doing more research than that. Among the previous three answers, he had to look up the precise decade in which anti-abortion emerged as a public-health concern, but otherwise wrote that answer, the one on the Era of Good Feelings, and the one on the Lost Cause without needing to look anything up. With non-U.S. history, he usually knows the broad outlines, but needs a refresher on the nuances. For example, he knew the basics for the pope/abortion answer, but needed to look up the year of the First Vatican Council, and the specifics for the solitary ex cathedra dictum since then.

Q: Upon finding out that (Z) went to school with Mayim Bialik, I just had to ask: What does he think of the recent controversies surrounding the announcement of the new "Jeopardy!" hosting arrangement? And does this mean that he's a former child star himself? And can you please put it in the form of a question? And am I now stuck with this goddamn rising inflection permanently? K.M., Olympia, WA

A: Not a child star, just surrounded by a fair number of them in college.

We almost wrote about this during the regular week because this story illustrates something also useful to thinking about politics, namely that Twitter users are very loud, but are also a small and unrepresentative segment of the citizenry. If you followed the online chatter, LeVar Burton was the clear choice (and would have been Z's pick). However, the producers of "Jeopardy!" did focus groups, and learned that their viewership vastly preferred someone more milquetoast like Mike Richards. This may have something to do with the fact that Twitter's user base skews young and progressive, whereas the "Jeopardy!" viewership skews in...the other direction. A few years ago, the producers learned that the average age of their viewers was 70 years old. So, they added a bunch of younger-people-friendly stuff like the "Clue Crew," and more video clues, and more questions about pop culture, and the like. And as a result of this, they got the average viewer age all the way down to...65.

Of course, it turned out that Richards has some skeletons in his closet, and so he managed to last for one day on the job before stepping down. They'll shift back to guest hosts again, at least for now, but the odds are that the next permanent host (or "permanent" host) will be another milquetoast type. As to Mayim Bialik, who is still set to host special editions and spin-offs, she's an anti-vaxxer, and really ought to have been disqualified on that basis. One would assume that there has never been a person who knew more about hosting "Jeopardy!" than Alex Trebek, and yet the show has not auditioned the people he suggested as his replacement. Maybe they ought to change that?

We couldn't make the whole thing work as a question, so is it enough that we at least finished with two questions? Or three? Or four? Or five?

Q: You wrote: "...though (Z) is happy to report that the rich kids at his high school took their $2,000 SAT prep classes and they cheated during the test, and he still leveled them all."

Dying of curiosity: (1) How did these dopes cheat and how did Z find out? (2) What were Z's SAT scores (if that's not too personal)?
J.M., Silver Spring, MD

A: Note that it's been a long time, and the SAT has changed a lot (it's now computerized, right?). So these cheats presumably wouldn't work now, although they did work back then.

Anyhow, what happened when (Z) took the test was that the proctor handed it out maybe 10 minutes before the start time. And while the test booklet was closed—and possibly sealed—it was printed on cheap, disposable paper. The paper was thin enough that people could see through it to the first page. Knowing full well that (Z) had the largest vocabulary in the room, a number of folks asked what the meaning of [X] word is. Not realizing what was going on, due to being focused on clearing his mind and getting ready to take the test, (Z) probably answered five or six questions of that sort, all accurately. It wasn't until the test commenced, and he saw that all the words he'd been asked about appeared in the first 10 questions, that he understood what had happened. The same basic thing happened at the start of each section of the test, but he didn't answer any more questions for the cheaters. So, they were forced to debate among themselves as to the information they wanted.

Ultimately, that is a pretty amateurish form of cheating. However, there were much more systematic approaches in use, at least at that time. There were companies that would hire people to take the test in Guam (or whatever the furthest east time zone available was), note the answers, and then call them in, so they could be shared with people taking the test in later time zones. There were numerous variants of the test in order to combat this, so these companies had to have a bunch of people in Guam to make it work.

In addition, the tests were administered—usually—by faculty, or by other folks associated with the school (like parents). That meant that the testing administrators had the exams hours (or maybe days) in advance of the test period. Sometimes those folks looked, and then shared answers with test takers before the test.

And finally, there were also people making a lot of money taking the test on behalf of other people. In particular, there was a trend of obviously Asian people getting IDs that said they were "Joe O'Brien" so that they could take the test on behalf of Joe O'Brien. This was so systematic at some schools that college entrance offices tended to discount SAT scores from those schools. In (Z)'s county, Sunny Hills High (a rich kids' school) had several cheating scandals while he was in high school, including a massive SAT cheating operation. The incongruity of a bunch of Asian "kids" who didn't look to be 17, and who had Irish/German/Italian names was actually what blew the lid off the whole operation.

As to (Z)'s score, it's a funny thing. He didn't actually tell anyone at the school what he scored, and yet everyone knew he'd outscored all the other test takers by a minimum of 200 points. The school administration got a report from the College Board of all the test takers' scores, and clearly someone in the admin office leaked that information.

Also, he doesn't actually remember what the score is...right now. When he first took the test and got the scores, it was 700 verbal and 760 math, for a total of 1460. However, at least two times over the years (and maybe three or four), he's gotten a letter from the College Testing Service explaining that they had to redo their curve to fix the distribution across years. And so, the score has gone up several times (never down). At last report, it was something like 776 verbal and 792 math, for a total of 1568. Not quite a perfect 1600, but if he waits another decade or so, who knows?

Note also that this got mentioned only because one has more credibility in criticizing standardized tests if one has done well on standardized tests.

Previous | Next

Back to the main page