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Saturday Q&A

Today has an unusually high number of questions, but also an unusually high number of short answers. Those two things are not unrelated.

Current Events

A.M. in Seattle, WA, asks: You made several references to Rudy Giuliani going to prison. But these guys never wind up in prison. If you did a "Predictions: How did they do?" item about news organizations saying people will land in jail, the batting average would be pretty low. Dont you think you are feeding the outrage machine with this? Readers will expect people to be going to jail. What happens in their minds when they never wind up behind bars?

V & Z answer: We think you might be experiencing a little confirmation bias, because many white-collar political lawbreakers have spent time in the crowbar hotel. A number of the Watergate conspirators. Three Illinois governors at the same time (most notably Rod Blagojevich). Former representative Jim Traficant. Former senator Harrison A. Williams and several of his ABSCAM co-conspirators in the House. Even several members of Donald Trump's inner circle have already done time, including Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and George Papadopoulos.

We are pretty careful about suggesting someone is likely headed to prison, because there's so many ways that prediction can go wrong. But Rudy Giuliani is in really deep trouble, and has left himself very badly exposed. The only plausible way he avoids the hoosegow, assuming he doesn't die, is if he strikes a plea deal. And that would almost certainly require him to dish dirt on the folks higher up the food chain, including Donald Trump.

S.P. in Tijeras, NM, asks: You wrote that seven states (i.e., Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico) were "close states" in the 2020 election, for which Rudy Giuliani led an effort to submit fraudulent slates of "Trump electors" signed off by someone in the state government.

In New Mexico's 2020 general election, Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden by almost 100,000 votes out of over 900,000 votes cast for president. That's 54% to 43% which, by New Mexico standards anyway, is a crushing defeat. Do you know why New Mexico was being classified as a "close state" lumped in with the other six?

Also, do you know the name of the person in New Mexico State Government who signed off on Giuliani's scheme?

V & Z answer: As to your first question, Rudy Giuliani said several times that he had evidence of "massive fraud" in New Mexico. He never explained what, exactly, he meant by that. However, it's a pretty good guess that someone on Team Trump put together "millions of undocumented voters" and "border state that is 49.3% Latino," and came up with "there must have been a bunch of phony ballots cast in New Mexico." After all, if 5 million "illegal" ballots were allegedly cast in California, then a couple hundred thousand is a drop in the bucket.

And the conspirators couldn't find anyone even vaguely legitimate to sign off on the New Mexico paperwork. So, all five of Trump's "electors" signed the certificate: Businessman Jewll Powdrell, businesswomen Lupe Garcia and Anissa Ford-Tinnin, former state GOP chair Deborah Maestas and former GOP national committee member Rosie Tripp. Powell signed first, and identified himself as "chair" of the delegation, implying that he is the person entitled to declare the document to be valid.

J.B. in Bend, OR, asks: Everyone around Donald Trump has either been subpoenaed or asked to talk to the various investigations except Jared Kushner. While it is remotely possible that he doesn't know anything about the various areas of investigation, he's still an obvious person to talk to about them. Why do you think he has not been named, invited or subpoenaed by anyone?

V & Z answer: Well, many of the subpoenas and other maneuvering involve the case in New York, which Kushner would have no real connection to, since he didn't work for the Trump Organization. As to the 1/6 Committee, what he knows would be pretty similar to what Ivanka Trump knows, excepting that Kushner reportedly made himself very scarce after the events of 1/6 while Ivanka did not. So, it could be the Committee decided that he isn't going to be able to tell them anything they can't get from her. Or, it could be that they decided it would be a little too aggressive to go after them both spouses at once. Only Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) & Co. know for sure.

M.B. in Overland Park, KS, asks: What is the status of Donald Trump's tax returns being turned over to Congress?

The matter seems to have been dropped. So, Trump won?

V & Z answer: Actually, at the moment at least, Trump lost. About a month ago, A Trump-appointed district court judge ruled that the former president had no case, and had to surrender the returns. You can read our item about it here.

The judge stayed his ruling so Trump could appeal, which Trump did. Since that appeal was filed, the courts were shut down for about a week for the holidays. Further, in contrast to presidential records case that Trump lost this week, the tax return case is much less urgent and so less likely to be accelerated by the court system. But it's definitely still a going concern, and Trump's odds continue to appear poor.

H.R. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: Although the move by Fani Willis to empanel a special grand jury is welcome news, I am troubled by the possibility that, even if Trump is found guilty in that state investigation, someone like Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), in the sad circumstance that he fends off Stacey Abrams, could pardon Trump for his crimes. I know that Kemp and Trump have had quite a serious falling out, but is there any better way for Kemp to get back in Trump's graces than to pardon him?

Please reassure me that I am being paranoid, because the Georgia investigation seems to be the one that puts Trump in greatest peril, much more so than those of the Manhattan DA or New York AG Letitia Williams. Please note that I have zero expectation that Merrick Garland will rise to the occasion at a federal level—he seems to have put his spine in the same lock box as Mitt Romney!

V & Z answer: Let us start by pointing out a couple of things. First, Merrick Garland agreed to prosecute contempt of Congress charges, has overseen the filing of some very serious charges against the leading Oath Keepers from 1/6, and gave a speech making clear that more is coming. So, you may want to reserve judgment about his spine. Second, then-Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance and Tish Williams combined their investigations several months back, so that's now one big investigation.

As to Georgia, you're not being paranoid, necessarily. Politics is a dirty business, especially as conducted by many members of the modern Republican Party (and a few members of the modern Democratic Party, though the most Machiavellian living Democrat was probably Harry Reid, who has been out of office for several years, and is now dead). Anyhow, the point is that very little is beyond the pale.

That said, you don't have to worry here. In Georgia, the governor is not empowered to grant pardons. That privilege is invested in the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Yes, it is true that the members of the Board are appointed by the governor, and so could be subject to his influence. However, Kemp would be taking a terrible risk if he tried it, exposing himself to impeachment and criminal charges. On top of that, he'd have little reason to pardon Trump after the election. Kemp's problem is all the potshots that the former president will take during the campaign.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: You have written that Sen. Joe Manchin (D?-WV) would be willing to back a bill that allows Medicare to negotiate on drug prices. However, his daughter runs a pharmaceutical company and has contributed to his campaigns. Given that, why do you think he would allow Medicare to negotiate on drug prices?

V & Z answer: In the end, his daughter is a lobbyist. She may have a bit more pull than your average lobbyist, but the bottom line for lobbyists is that they spread their money around, and they do their arm-twisting, and then they take their chances. They may get some concessions, but they cannot expect to completely dictate policy. Well, unless they are oil lobbyists and the senator is Ted Cruz.

Anyhow, at 16%, West Virginia has one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. And one of the things that is most difficult for very poor people to swing is the cost of prescription drugs. Even with Medicare, they can get pricy, particularly if the drugs are newly developed or if the person has numerous prescriptions. So, one of Manchin's signature issues—for literally decades—has been lower drug prices, achieved by allowing Medicare to negotiate. This was the case even when the Senator's daughter was in high school. So, she's not going to be able to move him off this particular plank, no matter how hard she lobbies.

A.L. in Orlando, CA, asks: Instead of starting with mandating large businesses to require vaccinations, is there anything keeping President Biden from mandating that anyone receiving SSI be vaccinated? It seems like this would be low-hanging fruit that would be a lot easier to mandate. We could either get them off the government dole, or increase the percentage of the vaccinated (and many of these people come from rural parts of red states). I don't think that community has lobbyists or lawyers on retainer that would fight back.

V & Z answer: The terms by which someone qualifies for SSI are set by Congress. The president cannot change them by fiat. And we find nothing in the rules that could be "interpreted" to allow him to try. For example, if the rules said "To qualify for SSI, you must be doing everything in your power to maintain a healthy lifestyle," he might try to argue that going unvaccinated means the person is not doing everything they could to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and thus is disqualifying themselves. However, the rules don't say anything like that.

Even if Biden were able to do this (and again, he's not), we don't actually think it would have that much impact. There are about 8 million SSI recipients right now. Undoubtedly, many of them are already vaccinated. Further, given that to qualify for SSI, you either have to have a disability that is expected to linger for more than a year or else a terminal condition, many recipients are undoubtedly immunocompromised and would be legitimately entitled to decline vaccination.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: This may seem like an extreme measure but do you think the CIA might arrange an early death for Putin? They have done such things in the past and it might solve quite a few problems. I know there are more than a few dictators in the world who would make good targets.

V & Z answer: This will never, ever happen.

To start, it is the official policy of the United States government that it will not attempt to assassinate foreign leaders. This was first established by Gerald Ford's Executive Order 11905 and reiterated and strengthened by Jimmy Carter's Executive Order 12036.

It is true that Joe Biden could issue an executive order of his own that supersedes those of Ford and Carter. However, he hardly seems like the kind of person to go in for something like this. Further, even if he was so inclined, and even if he tried to keep the E.O. a secret, it would almost certainly leak out. And that would generate the mother of all political scandals. He would almost certainly be impeached, and would probably be convicted and removed from office.

And finally, even if you dismiss all of this, and decide that Biden might just find a way to make it happen, he would never, ever, ever target Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narenda Modi, or anyone like that. Assassinating a nation's leader, or even attempting to do so, is an act of war. If the United States' involvement was discovered—and it almost certainly would be—it would be treated as such. This is why, even when the CIA was in the business of trying to assassinate other nations' leaders, it only went after the leaders of much weaker nations (Cuba, South Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Chile, etc.). The United States does not fear a war with Chile or the Dominican Republican. It is scared to death of a war with Russia, China, India, or any other large nation with a nuclear stockpile.


J.L. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: Earlier this week, Senator Josh Hawley (ARGH-MO) appeared on Fox "News" discussing Joe Biden's comments about election integrity in America. Hawley told Pete Hegseth, "What I heard was what Joe Biden said loud and clear, which is he's already making excuses for why he's going to lose in November. That's what all this is about: Democrats don't accept elections that they don't win. ... To try to say that whatever decision the American people come to in November is illegitimate because you don't think you're gonna like the outcome of it, boy, that is playing with fire."

My question regards which adjective is best to use when describing this comment: ironic, hypocritical, ballsy, clueless, obnoxious, insulting, idiotic, duplicitous, sinister, or vomit-inducing?

V & Z answer: Our answer would be different if we were talking about one of the real dopes who is in the GOP conference, like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) or Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). However, Hawley is very smart, and he crafts his spin very carefully. So, that removes many of your proposed words, like clueless and idiotic and ironic.

Probably the two best options are "duplicitous" and "insulting." It's duplicitous because he is knowingly equating "It sucks that someone who lost the popular vote gets to be president" grumbling with "Trump didn't win the popular or electoral vote, but he is entitled to be president anyway." The former was not an assertion that Trump was not actually the legal president; it was just a lament from the losing side. The latter most certainly was an assertion that Biden is not actually the legal president; it is pure fantasy that has already been used to justify an attempt at insurrection. In fact, the dynamic that is most similar to the attacks on Biden's legitimacy is not Democratic bellyaching about the Electoral College in 2016. It's the Obama birther conspiracy theory, which was a different way of arguing that a president was not legally entitled to hold his office.

Hawley is perfectly well aware of the difference here; he's just spoon-feeding the Fox audience what they want to hear. And that brings us to insulting, because he is making a clear judgment about how stupid and/or deluded his base is. These are the same people whom he claims to champion, and who he wants to elect him as president.

We could also be talked into "sinister," since this sort of gaslighting is partly geared at laying the groundwork for future coup-like efforts.

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: While I lament the fact that you do not have as many Trump-free days as one would have hoped for, do you think that is only because he could still run in 2024? Say he couldn't run because the Senate convicted him in the impeachment trial—would he be any less of a threat (and hence less of a source of political news)?

I remember seeing an interview with Nate Silver from 2020 on 538 (pre-election) wherein he ridiculed the idea that Trump could possibly have any sway over the GOP if he lost the 2020 election (along with eye-rolls directed towards the other correspondent who suggested that this was a possibility). Frankly, I am still waiting for Silver to publicly apologize for pretty much the most wrong prediction ever. There is no doubt that Trump remains the GOP King—but would that still be the case if he could not run in 2024?

V & Z answer: Starting with your observation about Silver, he made his bones by making confident (and ultimately accurate) assertions about elections based on his careful number crunching. However, he's gotten into the habit of making confident assertions about things where there are no numbers to crunch, and where he doesn't have any particular expertise. He used to slam journalists for their carelessness, and now he's guilty of the same all the time. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, he declared that school closures were just as harmful as the invasion of Iraq. Yikes.

Anyhow, we rarely write about a potential future Trump presidential campaign because there's rarely any real change on that front. That story is stuck in "Will he or won't he?" mode for at least the rest of this year. The two things we do write a lot about are: (1) his various legal problems, and (2) his efforts to influence the Republican Party, which are often successful. If he had been impeached and disqualified from office, #1 would still be just as much of a focus for us, and possibly even more so. And #2 will be something we will write about as long as he is able to influence his base, and thus is able to demand fealty from politicians who need votes from his base. So the question is, if he'd been convicted in the impeachment trial, would he have lost his base, and thus his power to influence other politicians? We doubt it, since two impeachments, involvement in an insurrection attempt, and countless other misdeeds, big and small, did not serve to alienate the base.

In short, then, we don't think our amount of Trump coverage would be all that different, even if he had been disqualified from future officeholding.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Is it just me, or is there a mismatch between Gov. Ron DeSantis's (R-FL) appearance/demeanor and his voice? I've only heard him speak twice but was surprised by the timbre. To my ear, he comes across as the tough guy with a squeaky voice, that mainstay of cartoon humor.

Granted this is a superficial consideration, but I'm thinking first impressions on a national stage if he chooses to run in 2024.

V & Z answer: His voice is certainly very nasal (see a clip of him here). And in the television/Internet age, it is certainly the kind of thing that can undermine a candidate a bit, on a subconscious level. That is probably particularly true of Trump Republicans, many of whom appreciated the former president's "macho" nature. It's hard to sell "macho" when you are endowed with a voice like DeSantis'.

P.L. in Denver, CO, asks: Any chance that Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) would run as an independent if she loses the GOP primary? That worked out well for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Also, where do you think Cheney would head if she is out of the House after the next election? I suspect at some point she wants to run for POTUS.

V & Z answer: Wyoming, like most states, has a sore-loser law that forbids a candidate from losing in the primary and then appearing on the general election ballot as an independent or a member of another party.

That means the only option available to Cheney would be to run as a write-in candidate, as Murkowski did. Wyoming law places no restrictions on write-ins; it's one of the few states where that is true. So, if Cheney loses the primary, she might well try that route. A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans might just be enough to reelect her.

And you're right that she pretty clearly has her eye on the White House. If Cheney does end up being booted out of office, she'll want to find something high-profile so she remains in voters' minds. She's persona non grata at Fox, etc., but she'd slot in pretty well as one of the conservative talking heads on CNN. Or, she could take over the seat on The View that was vacated by Meghan McCain. Alternatively, Cheney might go to work with a prominent conservative think tank, like the Heritage Foundation or the Council for National Policy.

P.F. in Sherman Oaks, CA, asks: Filibuster reform is dead. Voting rights reform is likely dead. Build Back Better, even if it passes, will be much less than $3.5 trillion and will not be as transformational as promised. The Democrats underperformed in the 2020 Senate elections and could very well lose their majority in 2022. If they do, would Senate Democrats consider replacing Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as their Leader? It certainly seems like he has talked a much bigger game than he has walked over the last 5 years. What accomplishments can he point to that would justify him remaining as their Leader?

V & Z answer: Schumer has whipped votes as furiously as any party leader in recent memory, but Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin proved to be granite blocks that could not be moved even by the President of the United States, armed with the power of the bully pulpit and more patronage than you can shake a stick at.

Meanwhile, Schumer did manage to get the big COVID bill done, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and some version of BBB is still likely. He's also managed to keep the government from shutting down, which is more than current minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) can say. The New York Senator has also pushed judges through at a blistering pace.

Perhaps the biggest question, however, is this: Who would replace Schumer? Unicorns don't exist; you can only work with the horses you've actually got. And we don't see a member of the Democratic caucus who would be an obvious upgrade. Maybe Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), is replacing a New York pol with a Chicago pol much of a change? Certain junior members, like Cory Booker (D-NJ) or Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), could be one day, but probably not yet.

S.S. in Detroit MI, asks: You wrote: "Most of the actual movement has been among people who identify as independent (many of whom aren't really independent)..."

I was wondering what you meant by "aren't really independent"

I consider myself independent, with no lean. The problem is that there are so few Republicans that, I feel, deserve my vote. In 2020, I voted for two Republicans—one a township clerk, and the other a county public works commissioner. I was judging both on past performance, and, insofar as I'm able to determine, they have not disappointed. But I will not give my vote to anyone who spouts craziness.

What, in your view, makes one truly independent as a voter?

V & Z answer: "Independent" is an amorphous term, and can't really be reduced to black and white terms. However, Pew Research Center did a major study a couple of years ago, and found that most people who identified as "independent" (84%) conceded that they lean toward one party. Further, those voters tend to hold the same basic attitudes as the party they lean towards, and tend to vote primarily for candidates of that party.

Clearly, there are some folks (about 16%, according to Pew) who really are independent. Although the study notes that most of those are actually low-information voters who don't care all that much about politics and don't often vote. In other words, they're not so much "independent" as they are "uninterested." That means that you, as a politically engaged person with no lean, are rare, indeed.


J.F. in Ft. Worth, TX, asks: Proceeding logically from your remark about what Donald Trump could do about his mounting legal troubles ("... the former president's best hope may very well be to delay, delay, delay...") and your answer to the question from J.B. in Hutto about whether he can run for president and win while in prison (Answer: yes), the obvious follow-up question would seem to be: Can Trump run for president, win, and hold the office while living in a foreign country?

Based on your "three (or five) qualifications" criteria, it would seem that nothing prevents him from running for president while living abroad. He could do his rallies via satellite and the GOP leadership already essentially pre-cleared him to skip any debates. There might not even be any Republican primaries if he runs, so he doesn't have to be physically present for that.

Being sworn in while abroad wouldn't seem to be a big issue, and it wouldn't seem like he'd have to be physically in the States to sign legislation or executive orders. So would there be any real reason why he couldn't rule while "in exile", as it were?

V & Z answer: If he can get elected that way, then yes, it's legal.

The thing is that most laws are passed in response to obvious issues that need to be addressed. There's no reason a law anywhere in this ballpark would be on the books, because there's never been a reason to consider it as an issue that needs addressing.

Beyond that, even if Congress saw the need at some point, it would be very difficult to write such a law in a way that allowed for the legitimate freedom of movement that most presidents require, while also forbidding "presidency in exile." And if Congress did somehow crack that puzzle, the law would probably be struck down as a violation of the separation of powers.

M.U. in Seattle, WA, asks: Apparently, any senator can just walk up to the Secretary of the Senate and say they'd like to file cloture and the Secretary will say, "OK." Chuck Schumer did this in September of 2020 and Tom Coburn did it once, which, I read, made Harry Reid livid. So if any senator can file cloture, what gives? Why all the rigamorale around 60 votes?

V & Z answer: We're not sure exactly what you read or heard, but it's not the case that individual members can file a cloture motion at their leisure. In fact, a valid motion requires the signatures of 16 senators.

So, if we imagine that a senator has the proper paperwork in their hand, and walks up and hands it to the secretary, what's the problem? Well, the cloture motion gets precedence. Further, it can be debated for up to 30 hours. So, if the majority leader is trying to get stuff done, that can be a real wrench in the works.

A.S. in Bedford, MA, asks: If the talking filibuster were reinstated, how do you think it would differ from the old days now that every senator has a smart phone and laptop? I can imagine it becoming an opportunity for senators to multi-task and/or live-tweet, and I'm wondering what effect that would have on the process.

V & Z answer: The advent of all these tech gadgets wouldn't have much effect. For the person who is actually filibustering, they still have to talk, talk, talk, and they are still subject to the limits of human endurance when it comes to going without sleep, food, or potty breaks. A laptop wouldn't solve any of that. And as to the other members, they generally used to leave the Senate chamber during a talking filibuster anyhow. They're not required to be there until a vote is taken, and they have no need to listen to the Alabama phone book being read. Unless they're trying to figure out how to call Forrest Gump.

D.G. in Bradenton, FL, asks: During the debate over the voting rights bill, once the vote for cloture failed, Chuck Schumer offered his proposed rule change to require a "talking filibuster" only for this bill. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who was presiding, said the chair ruled that the motion "was out of order." Schumer then asked for a call of the roll to overrule the decision, which, as we all know, came up short.

Very simply, who is "the chair"? If Leahy was presiding, isn't he "the chair"? Is it the parliamentarian? Please clarify.

V & Z answer: The chair and the presiding officer are the same person. If the vice president is in the room, then it's her. In her absence, it's the president pro tempore of the Senate (in other words, Leahy), or whatever member is designated by the president pro tempore.

So yes, Leahy was referring to himself in the third person. That's how parliamentary talk works, just so it's clear in which capacity someone with multiple offices (e.g., presiding officer, senator from Vermont, etc.) the person is acting.

K.L. in Bronx, NY, asks: I would imagine that many are still upset by the Supreme Court's dunderheaded rejection of Biden's vaccine mandates for large companies.

My question is: what if their decision proves to be a disaster, and things only get worse? If, by some fluke this causes the reactionaries on the Court to finally see the light, can they reverse their own ruling?

V & Z answer: Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No.

In the American system of jurisprudence, it is possible for a petitioner to refile a case, and ask a court to reconsider their verdict. And the court can grant a document called a writ of coram nobis, which essentially boils down to: "We were wrong, here's why, and here's our new ruling."

Courts don't do this very often. First of all, the bar for a writ of coram nobis is very high. Not only does the court have to conclude that serious errors were made, they also have to conclude that there is no other remedy but for them to reverse themselves. Beyond that, courts are not eager to say "I'm sorry." Most writs of coram nobis involve judges who are correcting their predecessors in that seat/that court, and not correcting themselves.

The bar is particularly high when we talk about the Supreme Court. The number of SCOTUS rulings that have been reversed with a writ of coram nobis can be counted on one hand with fingers left over, and they all involve 40-years-later reversals of decisions relating to Japanese internees.

So if this is what Biden is counting on, he shouldn't hold his breath. His only actual hope would be to somehow cause a case to be brought that, if decided in the administration's favor, would supersede the current decision.

J.G. in New York, NY, asks: There's an issue that seems to be self-evident to everyone but me. It's the assumption that, as long as the president is a Democrat and the Senate is Republican, no SCOTUS nominees will even get a hearing, let alone approval. And that's legal, because who says the Court has to have nine members, right?

So let's say the GOP takes back the Senate in 2022. In 2023, Stephen Breyer retires. Mitch McConnell doesn't fill the seat. Then another nominee dies or retires in 2024. No replacement.

Then Biden is re-elected, and the Senate stays Republican. More vacancies, no replacements. Kamala Harris wins in 2028, but that stubborn Senate won't budge.

Now we're down to three SCOTUS judges. Now two. Now one.

Reductio ad absurdum? OK, give Ron DeSantis the win in 2028, but the Democrats retake the Senate. They, too, see no reason to approve the opposing party's nominee to the court. Same result.

At some point, the Senate has to replace judges, yes? How can the White House, whichever party controls it, force the issue?

V & Z answer: We are not lawyers. By contrast, Barack Obama is a lawyer, and he had many hotshot lawyers from fancy law schools working under him, and they couldn't come up with anything to cause the nomination of Merrick Garland to move forward.

The Constitution is very clear that the appointing of judges requires the "advice and consent" of the Senate. It is plausible, we think, that if a seat goes unfilled for multiple years, a president might bring suit and argue that it is implied that a nomination must be taken up in a timely manner. And a court might even order the Senate to get to work. But there is nothing that can be done to force the Senate to approve candidates. The senators might be told they have to make a decision within 60 or 90 or 120 days, but they could then just vote down candidate after candidate, and achieve the same end.

The only thing we can think of, and it's doubtful this would work, is a president choosing an already approved judge at some other level of the court system and "promoting" them to the Supreme Court. That president would argue that the Senate already "advised and consented" to that judge, and that it's not actually necessary for them to weigh in a second time. Again, not likely to work, but if Joe Biden got us on the phone right now and asked for our best suggestion, that's what we'd tell him.

The more likely resolution is that the obstruction would become so politically poisonous that the party that tried to pull it would be punished at the ballot box, which would in turn give the new majority party the political capital to potentially fix the rules.

P.N. in Austin, TX, asks: If the Democrats manage to pick up two or more Senate seats in 2022, what would stop them from making voting in federal elections compulsory? Is there anything unconstitutional about compulsory voting, or, say, a fine for not voting?

V & Z answer: Compulsory voting is potentially legal and constitutional in the United States. Or, perhaps more precisely, it is not obviously illegal and unconstitutional. The Brookings Institute has been pushing the idea for years.

That said, if the government can't get everyone to wear masks or get vaccinated, it will be none too easy to get them all to vote. If such a law was passed (extremely unlikely), we would be treated to the sight of Tucker Carlson ranting about how important his freedoms are to him, with none of them more important than his freedom to not vote.

J.T. in Greensboro, NC, asks: You wrote that the Democrats are going to have an "all-hands-on-deck meeting of their caucus."

This may be the silliest possible question to ask about this meeting but I'm going to ask it anyway. 50 is a lot of people to have present at a meeting. Where do they hold these meetings? Do they all gather around a very long table (I hope so), or is the meeting held auditorium style, or like a faculty meeting? Are there codified rules for such meetings? Other interesting tidbits?

I realize that this has gone from the silliest possible question to the silliest four possible questions.

V & Z answer: We don't think this is silly. Everyone knows what the high-profile stuff looks like—State of the Union addresses, high-drama votes on the Senate floor. We're not often exposed to the more basic nuts and bolts of everyday business in Congress.

Anyhow, most of the time, meetings of the Democratic caucus/Republican conference are held in the Kennedy Caucus Room, which is named after the three Kennedy brothers who served as U.S. senators. It is large enough, and the Capitol has staff enough, that it can be configured any way the party leadership wants it. However, this is what it usually looks like for caucus/conference meetings:

It's a large room, with marble pillars,
tall maroon curtains, blue and red and yellow carpet, and rows of red chairs arranged like a movie theater. There are chairs and a 
podium at the front.

The room is not in the Capitol, incidentally, It's in the Russell Senate Office Building, across the street. We couldn't find any footage of the caucus meeting where the Democrats argued about the filibuster this week. However, we did find footage of Joe Biden talking to reporters talking to reporters after meeting with the Democratic caucus last week. You can clearly see the entrance to the Kennedy Room behind him, including (though it's blurry) this plaque:

It says: 'Pursuant to Senate Resolution
264, this room is designated the Kennedy Caucus Room in honor of Senators John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Edward Kennedy.'
It also lists their years of service in the Senate.

As to the rules governing a caucus meeting, they are usually led by a chair, and they generally follow basic parliamentary rules, particularly as regards who has the floor and who does not. Think "school board meeting."


M.B. in Granby, MA, asks: At your recommendation, I'm reading Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, I'm literally amazed at the number of similarities between then and now. I feel like we're experiencing America's unfinished counterrevolution.

Aside from the racism that is still in play today, there is the violence against people trying to cast votes or even support the Republicans. Most of this was directed at African Americans, but it was directed at white Republicans too. Upcountry Southerners opposed the power of the plantation owners; many joined the Union, but seemed to eventually capitulate to the same class of people.

My question: How much of today's politics, attitudes, and political groupings are due to our unfinished revolution?

V & Z answer: Glad to hear you are finding the book illuminating; Foner is very good. And certainly, if Reconstruction had gone differently, the nation might be a little (or a lot) further along the path toward racial equality.

That said, most of the problems we see today have their genesis in the original revolution—the one that involved George Washington. In the 18th century, the "United States" was really two pretty different nations: the industrious, religiously liberal, urban-centered North, which had an economy built mostly on free, white labor, and the agricultural, religiously fundamentalist, rural-centered South, which had an economy built mostly on enslaved labor.

Much of the blue-red divide that exists today can be traced straight back to the cultural, political, and economic divisions that were plain 250 years ago. Mind you, this is not a suggestion that a more skillful generation of leaders might somehow have "solved" this problem, and that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, et al., were just a bunch of hacks. There is no way that the Southern states or the Northern states were going to abandon their way of life because a bunch of guys in Philadelphia said so. The only option available to the Founders was to mash two very different sections together and hope for the best.

Oh, and if you wanted to say that the U.S. was really three countries, with the mid-Atlantic states a hybrid of the other two sections, we wouldn't argue too much.

P.S. in Marion, IA, asks: Today I learned a bit about Lyndon B. Johnson's anatomy, despite being nearly 40 and having a poli sci degree.

Apparently the "B" stood for "Big." Some of his behavior seems wildly outlandish, bizarre and blatantly harassing, even by 1960's standards. How has this been kept under wraps for so long? Wasn't this at all controversial? It seems like there's enough just in the linked article to make the Starr Report look like a G-rated Disney movie. What gives?

V & Z answer: Johnson had less modesty—in every sense of that word—than any other politician in U.S. history. And he found that making people follow him into the bathroom, occasionally deliberately urinating on people's feet, waving around his... well, Johnson, etc. were useful displays of dominance.

There's a pretty famous story about a reporter who wanted to know why the United States was in Vietnam. Johnson gave him an answer based on geopolitics, and the reporter wasn't satisfied. So then Johnson gave an answer based on domestic politics, but the reporter still wasn't satisfied. At that point, the frustrated president unzipped, pulled out "Jumbo" (as he called it) and snarled: "THIS is why we are in Vietnam." That apparently answered the reporter's question, because he didn't follow up again.

This behavior isn't a secret; it's all over the place in the Robert Caro and Robert Dallek biographies. Heck, (Z) heard the Vietnam story in lecture from Dallek himself. That said, it's not the sort of thing that can easily make its way into things like History Channel documentaries.

And people in the 1960s recognized that the behavior was boorish, and degrading, and not very presidential. But the idea of sexual harassment as an actionable offense didn't exist then. Depending on whom you ask, the first sexual harassment case in American legal history was in 1974 (Barnes v. Train) or 1976 (Williams v. Saxbe). By then, LBJ was not only out of office, he was dead.

It's not too over the top (we'd say it's PG), but if you want a little taste of Johnson's "earthiness," you can listen to this 4-minute phone call he had with a tailor.

J.C. in Oxford, England, UK, asks: You noted the recent retirement announcement of the first paraplegic member of the House.

I was surprised. If I'd been told there'd been one paraplegic president, and a half dozen paraplegic senators, and asked to guess how many House members, I'd figure logically a few dozen by weight of numbers.

What gives? Is it that the disadvantages of paraplegia are greater when running for the House than in some other careers, so people do other things first and then transition across when they're already on the Senate level, where campaign staff are more plentiful? Seems too stark to be random chance.

V & Z answer: There have now been two representatives who were paraplegic, because Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) has joined the list. And there have been the half-dozen senators, all of them due to either war injuries or polio. Those are small enough sample sizes that "random chance" might well be the correct answer.

Consider, for example, John Porter East, whose legs were paralyzed by polio. He ran for the U.S. House and lost. Then he ran for North Carolina Secretary of State and won, followed by running for and winning a term in the U.S. Senate. He very well could have served in the House; he just didn't.

We would say the real dynamic here is that for most of U.S. history, the conditions/life events that might lead to paralysis were unsurvivable, or else were debilitating to the point of precluding a public career. Those folks who served with disabilities were extreme outliers, often aided by family money.

Today, however, medicine has advanced to the point that many more victims of serious illnesses/accidents survive, and can lead a high-functioning live, even if their mobility is diminished. It is estimated that 5 million Americans today have some level of reduced function in their limbs. So, it's probable that the numbers will balance out over the next generation or two, and the Senate-to-House ratio will be a little less stark.


M.A. in West Springfield, MA, asks: I've noticed a growing number of international questions and comments on Saturdays and Sundays on the website in recent years. Do you have any ideas or data on where the biggest international traffic is coming from?

To those questioners and commenters, why do you find U.S. politics so interesting? Can you recommend websites like where I can learn about the politics of your countries?

V & Z answer: We have enough information to say that the most common nations of residence for readers, other than the United States, are: (1) Canada (presumably advanced scouts preparing for the invasion), (2) the U.K., (3) Australia, (4) The Netherlands, (5) Germany and (6) Ireland. Not too surprising to see nations where many/most people speak English.

As to your other questions, if international readers have comments on the reasons for their interest and/or recommended websites, we'll certainly run some of them.

P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: So, last week you were saying that you don't receive any stupid questions and stroked everyone's ego by saying your readership "is undoubtedly above average in terms of education, intellect, etc.".

This week when reviewing reader prediction you were less charitable by pointing out the batting average was terrible but still better than the Pirates.

So, are your readers above average intellect, or are they scraping the barrel and lucky not to be demoted into the ranks of chimpanzees? Perhaps what you were really saying is that your readers are here for the love of the game and not glory hunters attaching themselves to something that won a lot in the past?

V & Z answer: Well, many readers recognized that more assertive predictions make for more interesting reading, and so adjusted accordingly. Further, we avoid running the same prediction multiple times, so the easier/more likely ones may have been submitted several times but only showed up once. Finally, we went through the predictions this year, since we ran them so late, and removed many that had already come to pass.

In short, the batting average on the predictions is being artificially depressed a bit, especially this year.

D.H. in Boulder, CO, asks: Do you actually type each word or do you use an electronic transcriber? There are lots of words in each issue, it would seem that dictating (my old school word) would be more efficient. Maybe that's just because I'm a hunt and peck them myself.

V & Z answer: We have occasionally worked with dictation when circumstances (i.e., injury) made it somewhat necessary. But, in general, we use enough names and unfamiliar words that dictation software makes a lot of mistakes, and doesn't save much time.

A.Z. in Somerville, MA, asks: I always look forward to seeing questions from J.B. in Hutto, TX, selected. Is J.B. a real reader? Or are you creating and posting questions under a clever nod to a great bluesman?

V & Z answer: J.B. is a real reader. We've noted, a couple of times, that if we make up a reader for purposes of submitting a question/comment, the faux reader will have the initials and hometown of a 19th century U.S. president. We've only done it twice; you can look for one of them here, if you wish.

Maybe we'll sneak another one in sometime soon, just to see who notices and writes in.

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