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Saturday Q&A

This one's on the short side. Blame the imminent start of the school year.

Current Events

P.S. in Arlington, TN, asks: What's the legal difference between Donald Trump using military funds to "Build the Wall" and Biden using an Executive Order to shift student loan spending to taxpayers? The amount of money Biden is spending here is exponentially more.

V & Z answer: There isn't a huge difference, legally speaking. Trump based his redirection of funds on the president's general ability to declare a national emergency under the terms of the National Emergencies Act of 1976. Biden based the student loan forgiveness on the HEROES Act of 2003, which gives the Department of Education authority to grant students relief from loan requirements during times of crisis. Obviously, the President is interpreting the pandemic as a "time of crisis."

This is going to end up before the Supreme Court, and the Court might well strike Biden's executive order down. That said, there are other legal justifications that the White House has not yet mentioned, but could in the future. For example, the Higher Education Act of 1965, which allows the Department of Education to cancel some debts, even in non-emergency circumstances. This is the law that has been used to justify the cancellation of debts incurred by students who attended predatory institutions.

S.L in Glendora, CA, asks: You point out that nobody is getting a check for $10,000 to help pay off their loans. The payoff amount has been reduced by $10,000, so their monthly payments will go down a little. My question is about all those Republicans who are whining about the working class now having to pay off the loans of college graduates. Are taxes going to go up as a result of loan forgiveness? Who is this money owed to, the federal government or banks? Is the government going to have to send the banks $10,000 checks to offset the loan forgiveness?

V & Z answer: Roughly 92% of student loan debt, about $1.75 trillion, is owned by the Department of Education. The money's already spent, so the Biden cancellation won't require new outlays or taxes (at least, not directly), it will just reduce the amount of money the government is taking in.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: I'm wondering if the student loan forgiveness will apply to currently enrolled students. I can't find this information anywhere among the coverage. I have a kid graduating next spring. They had a Pell grant and would have their entire loan (which is less than $20K) forgiven. I'd like to know if we should pop the champagne corks. Have you seen any information about students still in college?

V & Z answer: The White House said that any loans that originated prior to July 1 of this year are eligible, including loans extended to current students. The fact sheet issued by the Biden administration doesn't specify the July 1 cutoff date (that came up in a press conference), but does include this note: "Current students with loans are eligible for this debt relief. Borrowers who are dependent students will be eligible for relief based on parental income, rather than their own income."

B.T. in North Brunswick, NJ, asks: ´╗┐It seems like, over the years, I've read many stories about how California has rolling blackouts and other issues because the electrical grid cannot support the current demand, especially during the summer. If the grid is struggling to keep up with people running air conditioners, what California's plan to deal with the extra demand when everyone is charging their cars? Do they have plans to build new solar and wind power plants?

V & Z answer: To start, note that the rolling blackouts are overblown. They have happened very rarely in the last 10 years. Mostly, the government uses the possibility to scare people into scaling back during peak demand months.

And yes, the state does have plans to expand its electrical infrastructure. Further, the move toward electric vehicles will encourage private businesses to invest in wind and solar projects. Gasoline is slowly dying, and if an energy-based business has $1 billion laying around, they are much better off building a giant solar farm. After all, as you may have heard, California is pretty sunny.

It's also worth noting that, in contrast to things like air conditioning, the electrical demands of cars are spread out fairly evenly over the year. There are also ways to push car charging into off-peak times, like making electricity way cheaper at night.

The truth is that the biggest challenge will be building enough charging stations in time. As it is, with less than 5% of the state driving EVs, there are sometimes serious challenges with finding a place to plug-in (good luck trying to charge at a university at, say, 11:00 a.m.). As that 5% grows, the number of charging stations in densely populated areas will have to expand dramatically, while the charging infrastructure will also have to be extended more thoroughly to less populous areas.

R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, asks: I read your post about the upcoming retirement of Anthony Fauci, and it seems almost inevitable the Republicans will rake him over the coals for the rest of his life if they retake Congress. Even in 2020, when his knowledge was most needed, many of them were openly disdainful and dismissive of him. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) openly accused Fauci of lying to Congress at least twice during Senate hearings and said he was recommending him for arrest for perjury. Fauci's records are public and should be easy for him to refute charges of lying.

To someone like myself, who values experience and expertise, their scorn for him seems bizarre. He is the kind of expert most poorer countries would love to have and would showcase as an example of their education system. After Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), there is probably no one else today's Republicans loathe more than him.

Why do you think today's Republicans hate him so much, and what can the Biden administration do to defend him once he retires?

V & Z answer: Today's Republicans hate Fauci so much because Donald Trump hates Fauci. And Trump hates Fauci because they are polar opposites. Fauci is very educated, Trump is poorly educated (despite his Penn degree). Fauci dedicated his life to public service, Trump dedicated his to the pursuit of wealth. Fauci follows the data, Trump follows his gut. Most importantly, Fauci is respected and liked in a way that Trump never can be. And once Trump became the face of "What pandemic?" while Fauci became the face of "This is a pandemic of historic proportions," the nature of their relationship was carved into stone.

Incidentally, much the same is true for Rand Paul. He may be even more of a quack than Mehmet Oz; Paul's certification as an ophthalmologist was granted to him by a licensing board that was founded by... Rand Paul (Kentucky is the only state where this is possible). And the primary goal of Paul's medical career has been to advance his political agenda, not to treat patients. Fauci's medical credentials are, of course, legitimate, and he's not only focused his life on treating patients, he's done so with more success than perhaps any other doctor currently living.

In retirement, Fauci will retain the protective detail he already has, probably for several years. The government will also defend him in any lawsuits Republicans bring, and will provide him with counsel in any situation where he's being grilled about his government work.

R.P. in Northfield, IL, asks: Obviously, TFG and his lawyers (even the incompetent ones he seems to have resorted to) will stretch all the federal investigations out for a good long time. Assuming that all of their delaying lasts until the 2024 election, isn't it the case that, if a Republican becomes President in 2024, then as soon as they are in the White House, they would pick their own Attorney General, and that person would just quit all the investigations against TFG. Then it's all over, so he skates?

V & Z answer: We think your cynicism, while reasonable, is not entirely on the mark.

First, Trump is very badly exposed in Georgia. A Bill-Barr-like AG, who is in the bag for the Republicans, won't help the former president on that front.

Second, we are not certain that a non-Trump Republican president would want to spend the enormous amount of political capital that would be involved with pardoning Trump. Everyone knows what happened to Jerry Ford.

Third, federal judges and prosecutors are not stupid, and are well aware of Trump's foot-dragging tactics. So, they run a pretty tight ship in order to frustrate such machinations. Consider how quickly Trump's "special master" request was dealt with (about a week, if the ruling comes down on Monday, as expected). Heck, Mar-a-Lago was searched just 19 days ago, and yet there's already been time for legal wrangling about, and the release of, the search warrant followed by legal wrangling about, and the release of, the affidavit.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Is Russia really a second-tier military power? Yes, their army sure seems to be unable to project power and win moderately sized wars. But don't they still have lots and lots of nuclear weapons they can use to target any place on Earth? Shouldn't that qualify them as something more than a second-tier military power? And if Russia truly is a second tier power, does this mean that the U.S. is the only true first-tier military power?

V & Z answer: Note that we were quoting an expert, and that even he was not making a blanket statement. Here's the exact passage:

Phillips O'Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said the war shows that Russia "is not able to run complex operations in the way the British or French or Israelis can do, so in those terms it isn't even a second-tier military power."

In other words, he was speaking about a conventional war. Russia may well be first-tier when its nukes are considered, although the risks of using nukes are so great that no country has done it since 1945. A weapon doesn't matter all that much if you're not willing/able to use it.

The Global Firepower Power Index, compiled since 2006, still has Russia in second place. Close on their heels is China. After that is a big gap, then India, Japan, South Korea, France and the UK, in that order. We suspect that the Chinese military may have some of the same problems the Russian military has, and that those would be exposed if China launched a war. So, it is entirely possible the U.S. is the world's only first-tier military power, if we limit our focus to the ability to conduct a conventional war.


S.N. in Santa Clara, CA, asks: You have written multiple times that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has made significant errors, such as pulling all Republicans from the January 6th Committee. If Republicans take control of the House, should Democrats hope McCarthy becomes Speaker rather than someone who might be more effective in the role? Or, if the Republicans' primary goal is simply to launch numerous investigations, does the identity of the Speaker matter?

V & Z answer: The identity of the Speaker probably doesn't matter that much since anyone chosen for that position will, due to the nature of the modern Republican Party, be in the thrall of the Trumpers/tea partiers.

Not that this will happen, but the best thing for the Democrats would be for someone like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) to become speaker. That would be such a clown show it would discredit everything House Republicans did during her tenure, and might even eat away at the foundations of the Party. Perhaps the worst thing would be for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) to gain the Speaker's gavel. She appears to be competent, and at the same time appears to have no limits on what she will say or do in the pursuit of power. Even McCarthy has a few no-fly zones (like trying to get Donald Trump to call off the 1/6 insurrectionists).

M.B. in Singapore, asks: People only seem to point to the fact the Rep.-elect Pat Ryan (D-NY) outperformed Joe Biden in 2020, while ignoring the fact that Democrat Antonio Delgado won the 19th district seat by 9+ points two years ago. Ryan only won by 2 points. By this metric, the Democrats have lost ground. Why is this being viewed as a Democratic overperformance? Please speak to this.

V & Z answer: We specifically noted that we're not especially keen on drawing broad, national conclusions based on one special election (or even two, or three). However, the key here is that the circumstances under which Ryan ran this year are likely to be similar to the circumstances of this year's midterms. Not so for Delgado's successful election in 2020, which took place under very different conditions.

If you do want to look to Delgado's career for insight, it's better to look at his 2018 midterm campaign, when he won by 5 points as a non-incumbent. In other words, Democrats may not be as well off in 2022 as they were in 2018 (a Democratic wave year), but they're not that far off, and they might be just strong enough to hold the House.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Reading your item about John Fetterman and his visiting every Pennsylvania county twice during the primary, I was reminded of the Maxmin and Woodward approach described in Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It and employed successfully twice in rural Maine. Why do you suppose more Democrats are not following what appears to be a proven model to do better in rural areas?

V & Z answer: First, the "visit every county" approach takes a lot of energy. Some politicians, probably more than you would think, are actually kind of lazy, especially when it comes to campaigning. Second, this approach takes a lot of time. If you're out of office (Beto O'Rourke) or your only duty is to call the governor's mansion every morning to see if he's still breathing (Fetterman), it's more plausible to do this than if you have to be in Washington for votes and committee hearings on a regular basis. Third, not all states are set up, infrastructure-wise, to allow reasonably easy travel to every county. Iowa is pretty small (Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA) and Pennsylvania is pretty well criss-crossed with roads and other transportation options (Fetterman). Good luck trying to get to all the counties in Alabama, though, or Florida. Fourth, this approach only works well if the candidate has charisma, and is good at shaking hands, kissing babies, eating funnel cakes at the county fair, answering questions that may come out of left field, etc. Many politicians are not great at these things.

W.K.D. in Houston, TX, asks: Since (V) & (Z) took note of Evan McMullin's "independent" candidacy, I wondered, "But gee, who is Evan McMullin really and what does he stand for?" If one peruses, one can find out exactly who Evan McMullin says that he is. There are two instructive links on his site; "priorities" and "principles." Long story short, he's a left-leaning centrist's dream candidate. I'd like to think that he'd be a slam dunk to win any election for any office against any other candidate. If he ever managed to get on the presidential ballot in my state, I'd vote for him, but given the current state of affairs in our nation, it seems likely he'd be flatly rejected by the mainstream Republican electorate and also the progressive wing of the Democratic electorate. What do you think his chances really are in a general election in Utah?

V & Z answer: He's got a puncher's chance. Polls have him down 4-10 points to Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), which doesn't surprise us. LDS church members, who dominate Utah politics, aren't particularly keen on Trumpism or on Lee. McMullin's biggest problem is that he's promised not to caucus with either party, so that he can't be accused of being a closet Republican or a closet Democrat. But that also means he wouldn't be in a position to help the state as much, particularly in terms of bringing home the pork. He might be well served to announce that he will caucus with whatever party wins a majority, so as to guarantee Utah will have a seat at the table when decisions are made.

Incidentally, both McMullin and Lee are LDS church members. If McMullin was and Lee wasn't, McMullin would probably be the favorite. Utah hasn't elected a non-LDS U.S. Senator since George A. Sutherland won a second term in 1910.

A.G. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: You have stated Kris Kobach (R) is unelectable, but he is running for Kansas AG this year. What do you think his chances are?

V & Z answer: He's probably a little better than a coin flip to win. There's been one poll of the race, and it had him up by 3 points, which was in the margin of error. We suspect Kansans might be willing to grant him an office with less power than a governor or U.S. Senator has. Also, he seems to have toned down his nutty stunts. On the other hand, we already know how the people of Kansas feel about abortion rights, and his opponent, Chris Mann (D), would be committing political malpractice if he did not point out a thousand times how much power a state AG has over that area of law and policy.


S.R. in Kansas City, Missouri, asks: Would a rapist have any parental rights of his child if his victim was forced to give birth?

V & Z answer: Yes. In 18 states, those rights are absolute. In the other 32 states, plus D.C., a rapist can have their parental rights terminated; in about half of those cases it requires "compelling evidence," and in the other half it requires an actual conviction. You can read a state-by-state breakdown here, if you wish.

We have no idea what the 18 states that will not cancel rapists' paternal rights are thinking. As to the others, they are making sure that an accusation of rape does not become a slam-dunk way to quickly and easily win custody cases.

B.K. in Dallas, TX, asks: Who decides who can see National Security stuff? Can the executive branch decide that a judge does not have access? Does a judge have the right to see the launch codes, for example?

V & Z answer: While judges can get security clearance, if they wish, it's actually not required for them to view documents that are essential to trials they are conducting. The judges do have to review the documents under highly controlled conditions, and they have to keep the documents in a safe when they're not viewing then, but they can read them without a clearance.

The decision about whether or not to share with a judge is made by the classifying agency, usually the FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Defense. Often, they will try to get by with a summary of the classified document, rather than the document itself. If that won't get it done, then the classifying agency and the Department of Justice have to work out a solution, possibly with the White House running interference.

A judge plausibly could look at the nuclear codes, though they would have to be germane to a legal case, and it's hard to imagine what that legal case would look like. Note that having them/knowing them is not enough to launch a nuclear strike. The Pentagon would figure out very quickly that they weren't talking to the president if a judge tried it.

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, asks: I'm hoping that, as a historian, you can enlighten me on something that has always puzzled me. Why exactly do we have statutes of limitations? You mentioned it again in relation to the Mueller report. It has always seemed to me to be a device to allow criminals who are good at hiding evidence and dragging things out to avoid paying for their crimes. I'm sure there must be a legitimate reason for these laws, but I'm having trouble finding it. It seems like powerful and high profile people are the ones who are able to lever this to "get away with the crime."

V & Z answer: To start, just to make sure everyone is clear, the statute only applies to being sued civilly or being charged with a crime. As long as the process starts within the statutory limits, it doesn't matter how long it takes for it to be resolved.

As to your question, the purpose of statutes of limitations is to be fair to defendants. Let's take a very cut-and-dry example. In most cases, the IRS can only go after you for tax evasion for 3 years. Under particularly extreme circumstances, it's 6 years. That is because it is not reasonable to ask individuals and businesses to keep all of their records for 10, 20, or 30 years.

Similarly, if you are involved in a low- to medium-level legal issue—say, a car wreck—it's not only unreasonable to ask people to keep records forever, it's also not fair to expect them to retain perfect memories of their experience forever. Another problem is that it would waste a lot of the courts' time, since the odds of such a suit being successful say, 8 years after the fact, are low. If someone has a legitimate case, they have to either move forward or decide not to pursue it.

Note that very serious offenses have very long statutes of limitation, or none at all. Murders, for example, will often be prosecuted years or decades after the fact.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, asks: You noted that a member of the Senate is required to wear a coat and tie to appear on the floor of the Senate. I am assuming that this is an arcane Senate rule they made for themselves, and not any a law. But I am pretty sure female members are not required to wear a coat and tie! You had to know a trans person like me was gonna bring this up! Is there an equivalent dress code for female members?

I digress now, but one of the best things about transition was never again having to wake up every morning and tie a noose around my neck. Yes, we women have many uncomfortable clothes, but as far as I am concerned, nothing is so uncomfortable as a tie. Scarves are okay, because they can be put on in a way that is loose around the neck. Getting back to my point, though. I know the Senate has a number of rules and traditions they make for themselves (the filibuster being one of them) and this rule about a coat and tie would seem to be one of those, but what accommodations to that have they made for female members?

P.S. Danica Roem for President!

V & Z answer: It is indeed a Senate rule, and not a law. And the rules were updated for female members in 1932, when the first female senator was elected (Hattie Caraway). She wasn't the first female senator overall, but the one before her, Rebecca Latimer Felton, was appointed to a one-day term in 1922. There is hardly a need to update the dress code for a one-day senator.

Anyhow, the rule is that if a female member is wearing a dress or skirt, she must wear a blouse that covers her shoulders. And if the female member is wearing slacks, she must wear a blazer (a tie is not required, though).


H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: Donald Trump has succeeded in making today's Republican party all about grievance and confrontation, but who really started the trend of rejecting actual conservative policy: Sarah Palin in 2008, maybe, or Dan Quayle in 1988, or Spiro Agnew in 1968?

[Note: I guess Trumpism is now the accepted term for this political shtick, but I always preferred the word Trumpery, because of its original meaning of nonsense and deceit. I also like to call his fans Trumpkins, an homage to the writing of L. Frank Baum and C.S. Lewis.]

V & Z answer: For 200 years, there has been a whackadoodle fringe element to whatever party was the conservative party of its era. The KKK, the Redeemers, the Bald Knobbers, the KKK again, the America First Committee, the White Citizens' Councils, the KKK a third time, the John Birch Society—they're all a part of that sordid history.

If you really wanted us to pick a single person who is responsible for first steering the GOP train off the rails, we'd probably go with Barry Goldwater. Remember the George Will quote about the election of 1980: "They've just finished counting the votes from 1964, and Goldwater won." Goldwater himself was, by all indications, a man of principle. However, his basically libertarian outlook caused him to champion policy positions (like opposition to civil rights legislation) that empowered the nutty element in American society, including the far-right evangelicals. And once the evangelicals were calling most of the shots (something that Goldwater himself lamented and railed against), it was a short trip to George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

D.P. in Oakland, CA, asks: When's the last time a majority of people were eagerly awaiting a vice president's run for higher office? Or that a vice president's popularity was above water? Never?

V & Z answer: Vice-presidential approval ratings have only been polled for the last 35-40 years, so it's not like there is a vast body of historical data to draw upon. On the other hand, the vice presidency only ceased to be worth something more than a bucket of warm pi** about 30 years ago, so maybe historical numbers wouldn't change things very much.

Anyhow, you're right that vice presidents tend to be not terribly popular, and Kamala Harris' current 40-45% approval is pretty much average. Of the vice presidents whose popularity has been measured by polling, there are two who spent substantial time above water: Al Gore and Joe Biden. We know how their presidential aspirations worked out (Hint: 1-1).

You didn't ask, but far and away the least popular VP was Dick Cheney, who was usually stuck in the 20s and 30s, approval-wise. Maybe that is why his commercials were not enough to save his daughter's seat in Congress.


F.J.V.S. in Acapulco, GR, Mexico, asks: I have seen you use the Cook Partisan Voting Index (Cook PVI) to evaluate the lean of House districts. You also mentioned the FiveThirtyEight index, which I do not think you use.

Why do you not use both of them? Is the Cook PVI more practical? Are there flaws in the FiveThirtyEight index that make you dislike it?

V & Z answer: That is almost entirely a product of familiarity. Anyone who reads this site has seen enough Cook PVI numbers to be able to roughly contextualize any number we might note. For example, if we asked you to name one of the two states that Cook has at R+20, you'd probably recognize that as a pretty extreme number, and so might well pick one of the two correct answers (North Dakota and Oklahoma). And even if you guessed wrong, you'd probably pick a state that was in the ballpark, like Idaho (R+18), West Virginia (R+22) or Wyoming (R+25).

By contrast, if we asked you to name one of the five states that FiveThirtyEight has as R+20, you might not get it, even though there are more correct answers. According to their scale, R+20 means "solidly Republican" but not "extremely Republican," and so the five are Indiana, Montana, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Kansas. On their scale, Wyoming checks in at R+49.7.

We would indicate both numbers if we believed some readers were conversant in one scale and other readers were only conversant in the other (as would be with case with, for example, miles and kilometers). But we don't believe there's anyone who is only conversant in the FiveThirtyEight scale.

C.J. in Branford, CT, asks: We are now less than 75 days from Election Day, but you don't have any updated information concerning the Senate races or any current polling data on your map. Thinking back to the past, I do not remember ever being this deep into the election cycle without already having provided this information in detail. What gives?

V & Z answer: We answered this question last week, but it was asked again at least a dozen times this week, so we'll answer it one more time. Serious polling, particularly by the high-quality polling houses, does not really gear up until September. At the moment, our database doesn't have enough polls that we believe in. That problem will rectify itself soon, and we'll be able to start updating the map.

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