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Saturday Q&A

Remember that today is a blend of questions from this week, and questions we weren't able to get to last week.

Current Events

J.P. in Vienna, Austria, asks: As an avid reader from across the pond, this sentence prompted me to write to you: "[Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema [D-AZ] has gotten big bucks from fund managers and, they will be pleased to learn, she stayed bought."

My question to you is this. How can it be that you—or anyone, for that matter—talk about something that can only be described as corruption in such a nonchalant way? How can it be that "money for votes" is such a normalized concept in the United States that it can be mentioned like this without any further explanation? How can a modern state—one which considers itself the leader of the "free world" no less—accept this sorry state of affairs?

This is not meant as a critique of you or your blog of course—I hope you won't understand it this way. I'm just very puzzled by the normality of what seems to me possibly illegal but certainly morally reprehensible and damaging to your democracy.

V & Z answer: Back in the 19th century, politicians were taking bribes from anyone and everyone, often while also plundering the government treasury (the latter was particularly common at the municipal level). There was little to no oversight of this pocket-lining, and very little public awareness. The most notorious robber-politician of the era was Boss William Magear Tweed, whose take was somewhere between $25 million and $200 million. That's 1860s dollars; in modern money that is between $780 million and $6.2 billion.

Given that context, a system in which a politician can take a somewhat limited amount of money, and they have to be above-board about it so that their voters can remain informed as to what is going on if they so choose, represents a vast improvement. The situation could be better, if the U.S. committed to full public funding of all campaigns. However, there are many lobbyist/corporate types who don't like that idea, and there are many voters who do not like that idea because they don't want to give tax money to politicians (particularly of the other party).

So, the U.S. is stuck with the current system. The two of us don't like it, and certainly don't approve of Sinema's willingness to take money from fat cats in the world of finance. However, we are both California voters, and have no power over her whatsoever. Which means all we can do is write snarky comments about how she's been bought and paid for.

S.M. in Chicago, IL, asks: In your item "We Have a Deal?," you asked: "What's going on with [Sen. Joe] Manchin [D-WV]?" and then speculated about the many possible reasons why Manchin might abruptly spin around and back the reconciliation bill. (I liked the Outmaneuvering-the-Turtle theory very much.)

But one possibility you didn't mention, which seems quite plausible, is that Manchin came to a sudden realization (through new polling numbers, insider whispers, or a crystal ball) that the Democrats are almost certainly going to pick up seats in the midterms, and his Democratic colleagues would soon be able to pass reconciliation bills without his participation. He then figured it would be better to pass legislation that he got to participate in crafting than to sit on the sidelines as his colleagues drew up bills and passed them, probably while thumbing their noses at him. I'm curious whether this occurred to you, and what you think about it. It's not mutually exclusive with the other ideas you advanced.

V & Z answer: We thought about this, but it is unlikely. Recall that all bills expire when Congress' term does. So, unless Manchin also had hypothetical polls convincing him that the Democrats were very likely to hold the House, in addition to the hypothetical polls about expanding their holdings in the Senate, then this maneuvering would make no sense.

In fact, to make things as clear and as simple as possible, there are three scenarios where Manchin's current leverage shrinks to near-zero: (1) the Democrats lose the House, (2) the Democrats lose the Senate, or (3) the Democrats gain seats in the Senate. It could be any one of these three. And the Senator is savvy enough that he shouldn't need polls to know that "one of these three things comes to pass" is vastly more likely than "the current status quo holds."

C.S. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: The January 6 hearings have shed light on Vice President Pence's role during the chaos. Can you explain how Pence was "giving orders" on January 6? While certainly he did what needed to be done, the Vice President is not the Vice Commander-in-Chief. It appears that since January 6 the process has changed, but I am still trying to figure out the legal basis for how the National Guard was eventually activated and deployed if President Trump was not acting.

V & Z answer: It wasn't strictly legal, but in times like these, there tends to be a fair amount of leeway for a little rule-bending. Nobody prosecuted Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger for telling the Department of Defense, at the height of the Watergate crisis, to clear it with him before following any presidential orders. Nobody prosecuted Secretary of State Al Haig for asserting that he was in control of the country between the shooting of Ronald Reagan and the arrival of George H.W. Bush at the White House.

If there were to be a prosecution in this case, then the targets would be Pence and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, since the former issued an order that he was not legally allowed to issue while the latter followed it. And what they would likely argue is that they believed, at that time, that Donald Trump was incapacitated as defined by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, and that there simply wasn't time to gather the Cabinet and to make that determination official.

H.N. in Cleveland, OH, asks: Is there doubt that at least some of the insurrectionists would have killed congresspeople if they had the chance? Maybe it was all bluster, but in my view, probably not. And if it's true, then the police at the Capitol, by holding back the mob, very much saved our country. What is your reaction to this ?

V & Z answer: An individual person can be smart. People, as a group, tend to be stupid. When the herd mentality kicks in, triggering some very primal parts of the brain, individuals do things that they would otherwise never consider (or would consider, but would never have the fortitude to move forward with). We have absolutely no doubt that if Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), or at least a dozen other recognizable alleged enemies of Trump had been surrounded by the mob, they would be dead now, for this reason.

T.B. in Leon County, FL, asks: You noted that the Sweden-Finland-NATO vote in the U.S. Senate was 95-1 with 1 abstention, and explained who the two "1"s represented. Many, many years ago while overseas for an extended period, I came upon a ship's flag with 11 red and white stripes and wondered what happened to two of the original colonies that rebelled from Jolly Old England. OK, it turned out that is the national flag of Liberia, not some nutcase Truther flag. But back to the Senate vote, in school I was taught there were 50 states (48 when I was born and 38 when my oldest grandparent was born), with each state having two senators, making 100 in total. So, who were the three non-voting senators and why? Sick? Paired off (and at home)? The dog ate their ballots?

V & Z answer: This is harder to determine than you might think, because while the Library of Congress puts roll-call votes for legislation online, they don't do so with roll-call votes for treaties. That said, the three missing senators were John Cornyn (R-TX), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Pat Leahy (D-VT). All three expressed support for the deal in the past, and all three said they were under the weather when the vote was taken. So, there's no statement-making here, it would seem, unlike with the "nay" (Josh Hawley, R-MO) and the "present" (Rand Paul, R-KY).


D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Will Democrats try to get referendums on abortion rights in every possible state now?

V & Z answer: This year? No. In the future? Some.

The problem with this year is that the deadline for referenda and initiatives has passed in nearly every state that allows them. The only states where it is theoretically possible are Colorado (August 8 deadline) and Oklahoma (August 30). There is no chance of coming up with 124,632 unique and valid signatures in Colorado in two days. If the Democrats really want to try for Oklahoma, they'd either need 94,911 unique and valid signatures (for a new statute) or 177,958 (for a constitutional amendment). That's a very tall order when you have 3 weeks, only 2,267,047 registered voters to collect signatures from, and the reddest state in the Union. If the blue team wanted to back the Brinks Truck up, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, they could probably make it happen, but that would be a lot of money for a small gain. So, they won't do it.

In the long term, the Democrats would be limited to just 24 states (and one capital) at most, because those are the only ones that allow referenda. Those are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and D.C. There are two additional states—New Mexico and Maryland—that do allow referenda, but only veto referenda, which overturn existing laws.

Even among the 24 states (and D.C.) where this is theoretically possible, there are some problems. For example, the Mississippi Supreme Court has found that the bar for getting an amendment on the ballot cannot currently be cleared. The bill was written based around six (or more) CDs, and right now Mississippi has only 5.

In any event, in states where it's viable, and where the law isn't already on their side, Democrats certainly will get pro-choice initiatives on the ballot.

A.T. in Elkton, MD, asks: With students loans set to go back into repayment at the end of September (though there seem to be a few indicators that there may be yet another extension), there's a question that's been rolling around in my head for the last few years of this that I was wondering if you might take a crack at: Who do Biden and the Democrats lose? I mean—really—who is the voter out there right now who will presently vote for the Democrats but for whom student loan cancellation will cause them to jump ship? And not just stay home but vote for the "red team" (as you call them)?

Conversely, to me it seems that some voters, who might be ambivalent or angry about Biden's wavering on this front, might actually get the push they need to go and vote.

Curious your thoughts on this on-going (and seemingly unending) issue!

V & Z answer: Far and away, the bloc that Biden is most concerned about is blue-collar workers who still vote Democratic.

W.R.S. in Tucson, AZ, asks: I'm sitting in Arizona, waiting for the primary results to roll in. I've been reading your coverage of the Arizona races for the past few days and I had a couple questions: First, why did you list only Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) among Democratic candidates for governor? She has a primary opponent on the ballot. His name is Marco López and it is quite likely that by the time you receive this question he will have been defeated, but there is a race on the Democratic ballot tonight.

Also, is there any way to quantify the impact of having someone—anyone—running in every race? What I mean is this: The Democrats keep cheering that we are going to "Turn Az Blue" this year. But I look at our state House and Senate races, I look at our U.S. House races, and I see lots of seats where no Democrat is running. Wouldn't it increase our chances of turning the State blue if the party made sure to get at least one candidate on the ballot for every race?

V & Z answer: When we preview a primary day, there are anywhere from one to ten states casting ballots, anywhere from half a dozen to multiple dozens of races on each state's ballot, and anywhere from zero to 30 candidates in each race. Oh, and there are two major parties. All of this can easily run into hundreds of races and thousands of candidates in each primary. To keep things manageable for us and for the readers, we have to prune aggressively. So, we try only to include races that are interesting/meaningful, and to include candidates who are reasonably viable. There were actually three candidates in the Arizona Democratic gubernatorial primary: Hobbs, López and Aaron Lieberman. We didn't mention the latter two because it was a busy day and a dense pose and neither of them had a snowball's chance in Arizona of winning.

As to your second question, there are two primary benefits to running a candidate in a hopeless race: (1) to have someone there to benefit if the other party's nominee gets caught in bed with a goat, and (2) to give that person some name recognition and experience with campaigning. The former circumstances only happens once in a blue moon, and as to the latter, there are so many races out there that anyone who really dreams of a career in politics has plenty of opportunities to get their feet wet. As such, finding a live body for every single race has a very, very small value.

These days, both parties have learned that they need to make sure to keep an eye on every viable race, from U.S. senator to deputy assistant dogcatcher, and to make sure to find a candidate for those races. If any seat is unopposed, except maybe sometimes at the local level, it means that the seat was hopeless for the opposition party.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: If Stacey Abrams loses again in the Georgia gubernatorial election this year, do you think her political career is over? Or could she repeat the playbook of Richard Nixon during the 1960s?

For me, if she doesn't win this year, her best course for elective office would be through the House. By traveling this path, she could build some capital, rise through the ranks, and eventually become a leader, possibly including Speaker one day.

V & Z answer: Abrams is too young and too talented an organizer to be finished off by a loss in this year's gubernatorial election. She won't go away if she loses this year.

We doubt that a House career is in her future, however. She could have already had that if she wanted it, and it would be something of a step down, given her name recognition. More likely to us is a position that is political, but appointed. She could become a cabinet secretary in a second Biden term, and she's also a ready-made DNC Chair once Jaime Harrison is done. She might also assume a high-profile public service position. She could retain leadership of Fair Fight, but could also end up running something like the ACLU.

J.N. in Durham, NC, asks: You wrote: "the noose around Trump's neck gets tighter and tighter. And that also means that the day that he announces his 2024 candidacy, in hopes of making himself prosecution-proof, gets closer and closer."

My understanding is that the Department of Justice rule/guideline is that DoJ officials should not announce information, including indictments, near an election and that "near" means 60 to 90 days before an election. How and why does this apply to TFG in 2022? I can't come up with a reasoning. He is not up for any election in 2022. Are they interpreting the rule as "60 to 90 days before any election"? As you said recently, if the DOJ interprets their rule to apply to TFG now, over 2 years before the next presidential election, anyone who thinks they might be charged with a crime would just declare their candidacy and be immune from prosecution, at least until the next election.

V & Z answer: Let us first distinguish between "what Trump thinks" and "reality." We think he believes that AG Merrick Garland would not indict a presidential candidate, and that he might jump in based on that understanding. That is the perspective from which we wrote that sentence.

We also think Trump is very wrong if he believes a declaration of candidacy actually matters. If Trump were to be the 2024 Republican nominee, that decision would be formalized at the RNC in July. There's no way that Garland waits until August or September (i.e., 60-90 days) in that scenario and then drops the hammer. At the same time, it is simply not believable that if Trump were to declare tomorrow (or next week, or next month), Garland would throw up his hands like a 1930s villain and say "Ack! Foiled again!"

So, we believe the reality of the situation is that Garland has a deadline in mind to fish or cut bait; probably sometime late 2023 or early 2024. Nothing that happens before then will deter him. Again, we suspect Trump believes otherwise, and that may affect the former president's decision-making. It wouldn't be the first time, of course, that he deluded himself into believing something that is not true.

M.S. in Orange, NJ, asks: I often see blocking others from entering the race mentioned as a reason Trump may announce early. This seems counterintuitive. With a strong hold on a plurality of the base, but not a majority, I would think a large early field would work to his advantage, much as it did in 2016. What do you think?

V & Z answer: In 2016, Trump was up against a bunch of very similar Republicans, while he was the orange sheep. And so, while a motley crew including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee—and, of course, Jeb!—fought for the same basic voters (and also fought to avoid relegation to the kiddies' debate), Trump essentially created and occupied his own lane. For a long time, until the field narrowed, he was claiming around one-third of the Republican vote. But that was enough to lead and, given that most Republican primaries use a winner-take-all system, he was able to claim most of the delegates.

This time around, Trump would be in a lane with a whole bunch of Trump clones. If he were able to outpace all of them, then he could once again claim most of the delegates with 30-40% of the vote. But if he falls behind, say, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), even by a few points, he's in deep trouble (again: winner-take-all). So, he really needs to make sure to stay ahead of DeSantis, which might mean declaring early.

K.S. in Jefferson City, MO, asks: You wrote: "The former president does have an Achilles heel, however: money. He loves, loves, loves it and depending on whose analysis you believe, he may not have much of it anymore."

If he has grifted more than $250 million from his followers, how can that be?

V & Z answer: Trump had at least two massive loans coming due, this year and next, totaling something like $800 million. It is possible that any money he's taken from his followers has been offset by money he spent to satisfy his debts. The Trump Organization is so opaque, it's hard to know where things stand.

A.H. in Grand Junction, CO, asks: How often do they do this CPAC thing? It seems like every couple months, there is a news story on another one.

V & Z answer: The main event used to be annual, but they've recently upped it to twice a year. Further, there are lots of satellite events, with names like CPAC Hungary or CPAC West. It turns out there is no shortage of: (1) people willing to pay $300 or more to hear a bunch of speeches about owning the libs and (2) right-wing politicians/media figures in search of attention. Those are the only two things needed to make a CPAC event a success. Well, that, and cattleman's balls.

C.L. in Papillion, NE, asks: How is the new Forward Party that Andrew Yang, Christine Todd Whitman, and David Jolly are starting going to be different than the Libertarian party and Green Party?

V & Z answer: They will advocate for some policy ideas different from those two, and they will begin the 2022 and 2024 cycle with considerably less infrastructure in place. We have seen absolutely nothing to suggest that Forward will break through in a way that the others have not. Anyone who points to the involvement of a former state governor should note that the 2016 Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld included two former state governors.

K.C. in West Islip, NY, asks: Like you, I'm not inclined to expect that Andrew Yang's new party has any chance at winning (m)any elections, ever. I also agree that their best chance at having an impact in 2024 is to play spoiler, but I would disagree that the role of spoiler would inevitably screw the Democrats. Supposing she loses her primary, a 2024 Forward ticket of Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), placed strategically on the ballots in some key states, would certainly siphon far more Republican votes away from Trump than Democratic votes away from Joe Biden or whoever ends up running. Can you convince me, unequivocally, that this is not in any way the possible thinking of Andrew Yang, Christine Todd Whitman, et. al., and that they really believe this is a long term viable party in a system where third parties stand absolutely no chance of winning a presidential election? In my mind it seems like the perfect plan to provide nearly 100% certainty that Trump never sniffs the White House again, but maybe it sounds smarter in my mind than it does in reality.

V & Z answer: We cannot convince you unequivocally of anything regarding the mindset of Yang, et al., because we had no idea what their mindset really is.

What we can tell you is that your proposed plan, if that is what Yang & Co. are thinking, makes little sense to us. It is true that a hypothetical Cheney-Kinzinger ticket will attract Republican votes overwhelmingly. But it will be the votes of Republicans who hate the idea of voting Democratic, and also hate the idea of voting for Donald Trump (or some Trump clone). We would guess that the majority (and probably the sizable majority) of these voters—again, Republicans who really, really don't want to vote for the Republican candidate—are hold-their-noses-and-vote-Democratic voters, unless they are given a nice, easy way to have their cake (vote a Republican ticket) and eat it, too (but not a Trumpy Republican ticket).

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: I was hoping you could help me make sense of the FiveThirtyEight Senate race ratings, especially in light of your piece entitled "Scott Concedes that Republican Senate Candidates Have Money Problems." You wrote that Republicans J.D. Vance (Ohio), Herschel Walker (GA) and Mehmet Oz (PA) are particularly weak candidates and that Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is no great shakes. However, 538 places the chances of winning for these candidates at 83%, 56%, 43% and 70% (respectively). Meanwhile, in the other competitive race you mentioned, Rubio's chances are listed at 93%!

I don't understand how this could be. Biden won Wisconsin, yet Johnson has a 70% of winning? I assume that is because of incumbency but then why is Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) an underdog (as the incumbent in a state Biden won) against the pathetic Walker? And why is Vance at 83% in Ohio which (while drifting redder) is still a swing state? Meanwhile Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), an incumbent in another state Biden won has barely more than even odds (53%) of winning? Does this make any sense, or should we just ignore 538 as a lot of noise (at least this early on)?

V & Z answer: We want to start by acknowledging that FiveThirtyEight has looked at these races much more systematically than we have, and so their assessments may be more correct than ours. But, truth be told, we doubt it. We are watching the polls, and the polls thus far support the conclusion that these candidates are having trouble. The words and actions of Republican operatives also support this; they've nearly abandoned Oz, and Warnock could be next.

We, and in particular (Z), have been less impressed with FiveThirtyEight's recent work than we were with their early work. One issue, we would say, is that the site is trying to do too much, with analysis and commentary and policy discussion, and covering not only politics, but sports, and entertainment, and the economy, etc. It's hard to find enough good people to cover all of that, and it may be instructive that many of the site's best staffers moved on pretty quickly.

We also think Nate Silver is part of the problem. At very least, he's spread too thin, and he's not able to give close attention to everything he should give close attention to. He also seems to be very concerned these days with protecting his image as a rebel and a wunderkind. The former concern causes him to shoot from the hip and to, quite frankly, speak with "authority" about things he really knows nothing about. The latter concern causes him to make milquetoast predictions, such that no matter what happens, he can say "See? I told you."

Certainly, there have been some very high-profile failures for the site in recent memory. The day before the NBA season began last year, FiveThirtyEight projected that the Golden State Warriors would go 36-46, would finish with the eighth-worst record in the NBA, and would miss the playoffs. The site gave the team a 0.4% chance to make the Finals and 0.1% to win them. Of course, the Warriors did win the title, which means that either a 1,000-to-1 shot came to pass, or else FiveThirtyEight's preseason calculations were crappy. In case you're wondering, the Warriors went 53-29 in the regular season, meaning an error of 14 games for the site.

To give another example, the expectation that the Kansas abortion vote would be close was based primarily on a poll from co/efficient (which we will be writing about next week). Well, that poll was designed, in part, by FiveThirtyEight. The site then published a lengthy commentary on the poll, failing to express any concerns that the numbers might be wonky.

Whatever number-crunching the site has done for this year's Senate elections could very well be off. In the end, Silver and his team try to build models based on long-term trends. The trouble is model making is much more subjective than Silver would like to admit. Should fundraising be part of the model? If so, should it be weighted 0.10? 0.15? 0.20? Something else? Should the won-lost record of the campaign manager be a factor? Should the model give you demerits for being a carpetbagger? Does the candidate lose points for being caught in outright lies? Should the number of endorsements count? How much? There are dozens of potential factors that can (arbitrarily) be included and (randomly) weighted. Any model can be run with data from previous elections and be calibrated to be good at predicting past elections. But as they tell you in the financial industry, past success does not guarantee future success.

Furthermore, this is a very unusual election, and we fail to see how you can model the impact of the abortion bombshell. Or, for that matter, the impact of a Republican field that is populated with an unusual number of gaffe-prone, politically inexperienced candidates. We seriously doubt that there's ever been a year where the GOP nominated candidates in, arguably, the four most competitive races that, between them, have zero days of experience in elective office.


D.C. in South Elgin, IL, asks: Assume that Joe Biden suddenly dies of his COVID re-infection and Kamala Harris is promptly sworn in as president. Harris then nominates her choice as VP, person (X). The Senate votes 50-50, there's no VP to break that tie, and nomination fails. Then, the process repeats for any/all subsequent VP nominations.

How is the slot filled?

The corollary: How does any legislation pass a 50-50 Senate, with no VP available to break those inevitable ties?

V & Z answer: We want to begin by emphasizing that it is very unlikely that all 50 Republicans would be willing to block the appointment of a new vice president. Yes, they did block a Supreme Court justice, but a VP is a rather more weighty matter. Further, it took only one person to block Merrick Garland, namely then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. None of his fellow Republicans had to back that play with an actual vote, meaning he could take much of the heat. By contrast, current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would most certainly bring a new VP up for a vote. And so, each of the 50 Republicans would have to go on record, over and over, as personally playing a role in interfering with the succession of office.

That said, if the Republicans did remain unified, there is no provision for resolving the logjam. So, the vice presidency would remain vacant. Similarly, to pass the Senate, a bill must earn a majority. So, a 50-50 bill fails.

S.J. in Taipei City, TW, asks: Does the Logan Act apply to members of the legislative and judicial branches, such as in the case of Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan? It seems to be a clear-cut violation of the Act, and undermines Biden's approach to U.S.-China relations (of course, he may have given his OK to Pelosi behind closed doors).

As a side note, as a permanent resident of Taiwan, I'm pleased to see Pelosi visit, and hope this gives China notice not to encroach on Taiwan's sovereignty.

V & Z answer: The Logan Act has been rarely enforced (only twice, neither in the last 150 years) and rarely litigated, so nobody exactly knows the ins and outs of how this 220-year-old bill should be interpreted. However, a very similar situation came up in 1975, when then-Sens. John Sparkman (D-AL) and George McGovern (D-SD) traveled to Cuba to chat with officials there, over the (alleged?) objections of the White House. The State Department took a look at the situation and declared:

The clear intent of this provision [Logan Act] is to prohibit unauthorized persons from intervening in disputes between the United States and foreign governments. Nothing in section 953 [Logan Act], however, would appear to restrict members of the Congress from engaging in discussions with foreign officials in pursuance of their legislative duties under the Constitution. In the case of Senators McGovern and Sparkman the executive branch, although it did not in any way encourage the Senators to go to Cuba, was fully informed of the nature and purpose of their visit, and had validated their passports for travel to that country.

So, Pelosi is definitely in the clear.

F.L. in Denton, TX, asks: No one knows how long the January 6 Committee hearings will go on. It could easily stretch into next year.

But, in the electoral world, things are looking rather grim for Liz Cheney (D-WY), who is very much a leader in this important endeavor.

In past posts, it has been mentioned that the Speaker of the House does not necessarily have to be a sitting member. If Cheney loses her seat, is it possible that she can continue as a vice-chair of the committee? Or could she, at least function in an advisory capacity?

V & Z answer: Under current House rules, only sitting members of the House can be committee members. The House, should it stay under Democratic control, could change the rules, but that won't happen. However, Cheney would be allowed to remain as a consultant, if she wished. In fact, that already happened with former representative Denver Riggleman.


J.H. in Bloomfield Township, MI, asks: I see ads on Political Wire for a Hillsdale College publication called The Great American Story: A Land of Hope. The ads say that this publication is "Real. American. History. The unbiased, true story of America's past." Have you read it, and, if so, do you agree with the ad's description?

While driving, my wife and I listen to the Great Courses series The History of the United States. Have you heard it or read it, and, if so, what do you think of it?

V & Z answer: There is one word in the title of the Hillsdale College course that reveals all, and that word is "Great." You might have guessed the word "Hope," perhaps, but "A Land of Hope" is an argument, and can be assessed with evidence. You could also teach an evenhanded, evidence-based course subtitled "A Land of Prosperity" or "A Land of Racism" or "A Land of Unfulfilled Promise." On the other hand, "The Great American Story" is a clear value judgment, and makes 100% clear that you're going to get a story of American triumph and exceptionalism. That is a narrative that, 100% of the time, also includes a generous dollop of Jesus.

So, we pretty much already knew what we were going to get when we looked into it and learned that Hillsdale College is Christian and right-leaning, and the professor leading the course is Christian and very right-leaning. The course may still be worth your time, if you go in with eyes wide open about the interpretative perspective. If you wanted to, you could pair it with a leftist narrative, most obviously Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and see how the same events can be seen in very different ways, depending on which scholar is doing the looking.

And (Z) is familiar with some of the Great Courses, particularly the 19th century/Civil War ones. They are very good, and are much less infused with a modern-day political agenda than The Great American Story: A Land of Hope will be.

P.M. from Edenton, NC (currently in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur, Philippines), asks: After having spent the past month in the Philippines, I have been curious about the history of the American involvement in developing this nation. The Philippine Constitution is modeled very closely on the U.S. Constitution, with the Bill of Rights included within its text (but with the right to bear arms conspicuously missing), and the people here are very much into their politics. My question is: What books would you suggest to the readership who might be interested in the history of the American involvement in the Philippines? The Philippines are essentially the only American colony which was granted its independence (not counting Liberia, which has a different history—though, book titles about that might be of interest, too), so it has a unique position among countries in the world.

V & Z answer: On the Philippines, the definitive work for a couple of generations has been H.W. Brands' Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines. Brands is an excellent writer, and the book is a manageable 400 pages. It is 30 years old, however, so if you must have something more up-to-date, take a look at Christopher Capozzola's Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America's First Pacific Century, which is just a couple of years old.

As to Liberia, there hasn't been much work recently. However, there is one high-quality work of recent vintage, which is all you really need. That would be Jim Ciment's 2014 book Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It. In the interest of full disclosure, (Z) has co-authored a book with Ciment (although not this one).

B.B. in Dothan, AL, asks: You wrote: "There are, always has been, and always will be, violent and extreme elements in American society."

Can you recommend a reading list? I'd be very interested in the history of this.

V & Z answer: You might want to look at Routledge's Studies in Extremism and Democracy. That series is up to 75 volumes, some of them U.S.-centric, like American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement and Confronting Right Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA.

That said, those works are likely to be a bit dry. So, the very first book we'd suggest for you is Andrew Burt's American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States. He's a reporter, and so knows how to make things engaging. And he's able to give a pretty good overview in just 240 pages.

S.F. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: When the viability of third parties is discussed, it is often said that while Ross Perot was the most successful in recent times he was not nearly successful enough. The 1992 presidential election was one election before I was old enough to vote but I paid a lot of attention to it.

One thing I remember is that in June of 1992 a Gallup poll showed Perot leading and shortly after he dropped out of the race due to what he claimed—if I remember correctly—threats from the Republican Party. If he had not dropped out, do you think he might have done even better and possibly won any electoral votes?

V & Z answer: Probably so, but not a lot better. It's true that Perot was basically leading in the polls when he dropped out (mid-July). However, it is also true that: (1) He had a habit of saying and doing impolitic things, and probably would have hurt himself a bunch of times if he'd been an active candidate during the three months he was on the sideline, and (2) When Perot dropped out, it was just 5 weeks after Bill Clinton locked up the nomination. Clinton would certainly have sucked away some meaningful segment of Perot's support after unifying the Democratic Party and pivoting to a national campaign.


M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Related to the influence Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura had on black children in the 60s, my husband asked me about the first female action character. My personal role model was Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel in The Avengers. Watching today there doesn't seem to be anything particularly remarkable about the role, but in 1965 it was breathtakingly revolutionary. She was brilliant, well educated (Physics Ph.D.), and always, always behaved as any man's equal! She was never coy or flirtatious. She spoke in a low voice, had a sly, wry sense of humor, and could kick any heavy's a**. While she sometimes needed rescuing by her secret agent partner, Steed, more often it was Mrs. Peel rescuing him. To top it all off, she wore kicka** cat suits and drove a Lotus Elan.

So much for the female TV action star, but what film role established women action figures? The earliest we could come up with was Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien. Prior to that women were window dressing in supporting roles to male protagonists. Can you think of anyone earlier?

V & Z answer: There is no shortage of articles arguing that Ellen Ripley was, indeed, the first action here (see here and here for examples). So, maybe you hit on the right answer right off the bat.

That said, there are alternative possibilities. It matters, obviously, how you define "action hero," but we will bring the following to your attention:

As always, we're happy to hear suggestions for what we missed.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: (Z) recently referred to himself as one of the enlightened because he was able to purchase an electric/hybrid car. Since ownership of such a vehicle is now a political statement, would you share your opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of ownership.

V & Z answer: That was meant as a joke—electric, enlightened... you know.

Anyhow, the advantages are that the car is very quiet, has great pickup, and is awfully budget-friendly to operate. The electricity is way cheaper than gasoline on a per-mile basis, and in many places, it can be had for free from the government (or from good-samaritan businesses). (Z) is particularly fortunate in his positioning (free LADWP fast charger around the corner), such that in roughly 6 months, he's spent a grand total of about $40 on charging. There are no oil changes, so the only regular expense is insurance. Well, plus paintballs for trips that pass USC, of course.

The downsides? The cost to acquire a vehicle can be steep, although with government subsidies, some models are very competitive with gasoline-powered cars. They're also hard to get right now. Once you actually own a car, the biggest problem is that you have to recharge, and it takes some time. Roughly 30-60 minutes at a fast charger, 4-8 hours at a slow charger, and 16-30 hours trickle charging off of a regular outlet. Many folks have home chargers they can use while they sleep. But failing that (or if you want that sweet, sweet free electricity), you sometimes have to take some time out, find a public charger, and bring a book or an iPad. Also, for this reason, EVs are not great for long-distance trips.

J.M. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: I read the item "Russia Throws Fire on the Gasoline," and wondered: What kind of a person/vehicle needs to buy 112 gallons of gas at once?!?! Do you know where that graphic came from and who was fueling up what?

V & Z answer: A lot of the photos like that on the Internet feature comically large amounts of gas being purchased. Clearly, people are snapping the photos when things are particularly extreme.

The consumer vehicle with the largest gas tank is, apparently the Ford F-Series Super Duty, which checks in at 48 gallons. There's no way, even with a spare tank in the bed, to push that to 112.

So, this picture—and others like it—likely came after commercial vehicles (like semi trucks) fueled up. It's also possible someone was filling barrels for home use; say, for a rural generator. And sometimes, large military vehicles fuel up at civilian gas stations.

B.B. in Birmingham, AL, asks: is about novels???

V & Z answer: Well, no, but when you have a 102-degree fever and you have decided to pick one interesting question, sometimes you go off-script. Further, if there's a great novel that's not at least somewhat political, we've yet to see it.

I.K. (definitely a Blanche!) in Queens, NY, asks: Since you mentioned having The Golden Girls on TV, which of the four do (V) and (Z) identify with?

V & Z answer: (V) doesn't watch the show, but (Z), as a teacher with a sardonic wit, is clearly a Dorothy.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: A.L. in Highland Park noted that one of you is an astrophysicist. Is that true? I thought (V) was a computer scientist, inventor of MINIX, and (Z) was a historian specializing in the US Civil War.

V & Z answer: (V) is a computer scientist, but that wasn't available as a major when he was in school. He did teach himself to program in PDP-1 assembly language though (also PDP-11 assembly language, but that came years later). So, his actual degrees are in physics. His Ph.D. is in astrophysics, with his favorite star being—the sun. Lack of a degree in computer science is true of many computer scientists who matriculated at that time.

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