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Saturday Q&A

The 1/6 Committee hearings were the subject of the week, as you might imagine. But before we get to that, we begin with a broader philosophical question.

Current Events

D.B. in Madison, WI, asks: I'm horribly depressed about the state of the country (DJT, January 6, do-nothing Congress, no common sense firearms legislation, etc., etc., etc.). While I'm of the progressive mindset, neither party seems intent on doing anything beyond making "the other" out to be horrible enemies. I don't see a way out, and all politics has become nothing more than "the ends justify the means" in my eyes, and I see no way out of this deep pit we as a country have dug for ourselves. I know you're not therapists, but can you please share any thoughts of realistic encouragement to help me feel all is not lost?

V & Z answer: Every era in U.S. history has major, often seemingly intractable, problems. Maybe it's sectional tensions, or international threats, or racial discrimination, or economic turmoil, or gender disparities, or all of the above. And while change feels instantaneous when you read about it in a history book, in real time is is invariably slow and hard-fought and usually follows a "two steps forward, one step back" pattern.

Further, as with an alcoholic, the country generally has to hit bottom before it gets "scared straight" and decides something has to change. It's hard to know in the moment, but it sure looks like the country is close to reaching bottom, yet again. And one can't help but notice that tolerance for some of the most dysfunctional elements of the democracy, like the filibuster, the Supreme Court, and gerrymandering, is growing thin. It would not be too surprising if the dam breaks in the next several years, especially given that there is a lot in common between the United States of 2022 and the United States of 1900 (i.e., the precipice of the Progressive Era).

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: What is the "Political Conversation Doctrine" that Greg Jacob, Vice President Pence's Chief Counsel, said that John Eastman, President Trump's "legal hack," was going to invoke if he had convinced Vice President Pence to throw out the electors on January 6?

V & Z answer: Let's begin with the observation that John Eastman was, in effect, drunk with power or his desire to win at all costs, or something. So, he was making a lot of claims and assertions that aren't especially grounded in reality.

What Jacob was alluding to is the political question doctrine, which is the notion that some questions are fundamentally political, and so not a matter for the courts to consider. For example, if the House decides to impeach a person, that is a political question and is beyond the purview of the courts. Similarly, it's up to the executive branch and the Senate to decide who gets to be in the Cabinet; the courts won't get involved.

There are some issues where the courts can't quite decide if a question is political (and thus non-justiciable) or not. The most obvious of these is gerrymandering, where the Supreme Court has flip-flopped between answers. At the moment, the answer is "gerrymandering IS a political question," thanks to the Court's ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause.

What Eastman was peddling, then, was the notion that if Mike Pence and several state legislatures were to decide to re-invent the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act, the Courts would have stayed out of the matter, declaring it to be something for the politicians to decide. Given that the Supreme Court has gotten involved in such questions before (e.g., Bush v. Gore), and given that Team Trump went to the courts more than 60 times to ask for the judiciary to get involved in the 2020 election, Eastman's proposition was clearly a fantasy, and it's hard to imagine that he actually believed it.

J.K. in Freehold, NJ, asks: OK, I'll ask the obvious. Aren't there cameras throughout the U.S. Capitol building? Seems to me that if any government building should have security cameras it would be the U.S. Capitol. Assuming there are security cameras, why can't denials from the likes of Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) be disproven and other representatives giving tours be proven? I know the Capitol was officially closed to tours, but is that a reason to turn off the cameras, assuming they exist, or were they trying to save money on the Capitol electric bill?

V & Z answer: There are cameras, they are on 24/7, and there is footage of Boebert, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-FL), and others giving tours that should not have happened. The members are not denying that the tours happened, since they can't; they're arguing that the tours were normal and harmless and had nothing to do with the 1/6 insurrection.

Incidentally, the U.S. Capitol is considered to be the third most recorded place in the country, in terms of security camera coverage. Any guess what #1 and #2 are? Neither is in Washington. We'll put the answer at the bottom of the page.

KD in Toronto, ON, Canada, asks: I have taken the time to watch much of the first two days of 1/6 committee hearings. Normally I don't listen to the orange one or people in his orbit speak—I just read your site and spare myself the grief. So it's my first time putting faces to names and hearing their own words. Many of the speakers are circumspect, but they are calm and unified on the point that they saw no evidence of voter fraud, expressed this view, and encouraged an orderly transition of power, both before and after election night. It seems to me they decided to throw certain people under the bus (Rudy Guiliani, Sidney Powell, etc.) and proclaim their own innocence. Do you think all these people really told the orange one clearly that he was wrong and should not declare victory? Or are they just saying what keeps them out of jail? I don't mean to exonerate the orange one, I'm just surprised at how steeped in reality their testimony sounds.

V & Z answer: We suspect that some of them, particular former AG Bill Barr, are exaggerating a bit when it comes to asserting how loudly and how frequently they stood up to Donald Trump and his acolytes. However, we don't think they are lying and, in particular, Gary Jacob and Marc Short both come off as very credible.

Z.C. in Beverly Hills, CA, asks: Is it possible the Department of Justice and 1/6 Committee are purposely doing a public show to seem at odds and thus appear less political?

V & Z answer: We think that is unlikely. If it were to come out that such a scheme was in place, it would do enormous damage to the reputations of both the 1/6 Committee and the DoJ. Further, the squabbling is kinda inside baseball, and is the sort of thing that only political junkies would know about. And political junkies are dialed in enough to reach their own conclusions without need for a show.

J.L. in Richmond, VA, asks: I'm very concerned that Merrick Garland is waiting too long to prosecute Trump for his various crimes. My specific fear is that Trump will soon announce he's running in 2024, since I keep hearing he's itching to get in the race to cut off Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and others from gaining ground. If Garland waits until after Trump announces he's running again, won't it appear to be a political hit job? I can just imagine Fox News running stories about "Biden administration uses DoJ to prosecute the Republican nominee." Granted, his supporters will go insane no matter when he's charged, but do you think if Garland waits it'll make it much harder to take that political leap of charging Trump due to the optics?

V & Z answer: Garland is required by federal law to pursue a case only if he is confident of a conviction. The DoJ will almost certainly go after John Eastman, and it may well go after Trump, but it can't do so until the case is a slam dunk. And it takes time to get to that point.

There is existing DoJ guidance that strongly discourages any actions involving a candidate for political office within 80 days of an election. That's the page of the guidebook that former FBI Director James Comey apparently did not read. Anyhow, if we somehow get that close, then Garland probably would defer any action. However, until that point, we doubt Trump's candidacy matters. Until proven otherwise, Trump is the presumptive 2024 Republican candidate, regardless of whether or not he formally declares. So, any action by the DoJ against him, whether it happens tomorrow or in mid-2023, is going to be presented by the Foxes of the world as a Biden-engineered political hit job.

E.B. in Georgetown, DE, asks: In the hearing on January 6 riot, mention was made of the role of three vice presidents in the counting of electoral votes. One was Thomas Jefferson. I do not remember the other two. What occurred in those elections?

V & Z answer: It was Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon and Al Gore. In Jefferson's case, due to a (since-fixed) flaw in the Constitution, he and Aaron Burr finished in an Electoral College tie, throwing the decision to the House. In the cases of Nixon and Gore, they both lost very close elections involving questionable ballots (in Illinois and Texas in 1960 and in Florida in 2000).

All three men were sitting vice presidents at the time that these problematic elections took place, and so all three were responsible for overseeing the certification of the outcome. All three had plenty of motivation to step in and monkey around with the electoral tally and all three had plenty of political (and, possibly, legal) cover for doing so. And yet, none of them did. This is powerful evidence that the vice president's role in counting the electoral votes is purely ceremonial.

A.P.B. in Ljubljana, Slovenia, asks: Seeing as it appears more and more obvious that VP Pence was the literally the last remaining line of defense of U.S. democracy on Jan. 6, is it time to retire Cactus Jack Nance's quip about vice-presidency not being worth a bucket of warm piss? It sure looks like it was worth its weight in gold, regardless of Mike Pence's other faults and misconceptions about, well, almost everything.

V & Z answer: Kamala Harris has already cast 23 tiebreaking votes; we'd say that's even better evidence that, at least under the right circumstances, the vice presidency is worth something more than a bucket of warm piss.

As to Pence, let's not go overboard with the "last line of defense" stuff. If Pence had played along with the Trump scheme, it would have been scandalous, and it might have created uncertainty about the transition of power, and it could have prompted a temporary constitutional crisis. But that's still a long way from Trump actually staying in power and it's a long, long way from the collapse of democracy.

There are dozens and dozens of ways the Trumpworld scheme could have gone wrong, but we'll give two quick ones. First, the process for counting the electoral votes is governed by the Electoral Count Act. Congress could have passed an updated act that clarifies the VP's ceremonial role, and makes clear he has no power to reject EVs. Alternatively, Congress could have adjourned until January 21. At that point, with no duly-elected president or VP in office, the job of presiding over the EV count would have fallen to President Pro Tempore of the Senate Pat Leahy (D-VT).

K.R. in Austin, TX, asks: On Jan. 5, 2020, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) announced that he'd be overseeing the certification of the votes because Mike Pence wouldn't be there. His office quickly "corrected" the statement to mean that he was just saying what would happen if Pence couldn't make it.

Do you think he knew the plan ahead of time and accidentally said something he shouldn't have?

V & Z answer: We doubt Grassley was a co-conspirator, if that's your meaning. However, he's certainly one of the most dialed-in Republicans in the country, and he must have known what was being talked about in the White House. And Grassley must also have known what was being talked about at Number One Observatory Circle.

Recall that Pence showing up on Jan. 6 and insinuating himself into the EV-counting process was the linchpin of the Trumpworld scheme. One possible response from Pence, given his unwillingness to play along, was to do what he did and to show up and refuse to interfere with the results. That, of course, is the choice he made. However, a second possible response from Pence was to skip it, protecting himself and his family, and punting the duty to Grassley as then-pro tempore of the Senate. Presumably, the Iowa Senator had reason to believe the latter option was under consideration.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: If the January 6 mob had made contact with Mike Pence and appeared intent on attacking him, would his Secret Service detail have fired on them? They are armed and assigned to protect the VP. I assume that would have been sufficient to protect him since they are well trained and well armed.

V & Z answer: We do not have the slighest doubt the USSS would have opened fire if they believed Mike Pence was in danger. They are trained not to hesitate in those circumstances, as hesitation can lead to dead presidents and vice presidents.

D.B. in Kirkland, WA, asks: I've often wondered what the country's response to the Jan. 6 insurrection would have been had the rioters actually caught and seriously injured or killed a member of Congress (such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA) or the VP. Do you think such an act would have so horrified the MAGA crowd that they would be forced to see the insurrection for what it truly was? Or would they find some way to justify that and hold to their position that it wasn't a big deal?

I'm especially curious how a media outfit like Fox would have handled that—killing a lawmaker is so serious that I think they'd be forced into actually reporting what really happened rather than trying to justify it. Or maybe not?

V & Z answer: It would not be easy to explain away the murder of a sitting member of Congress, or of the Vice President of the United States. Maybe impossible; that particular circumstance has never come to pass, so we're left to hazard our best guess.

But our best guess is that the MAGA crowd, and their allies in the media, would find a way to gaslight the murder away. It might take a while, but they've already managed to do it with the insurrection, spinning it as a "dust-up" or "just a standard political protest" or "tourists getting rambunctious." If a government official had been killed, we suspect it would have been blamed on "a few bad apples" or "bad luck" or "just being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Maybe the more ambitious right-wing pundits would have blamed Antifa.

W.R. in Tyson's Corner, VA, asks: Former presidents get Secret Service protection for life, but what about former vice presidents? It seems like Mike Pence could use some bodyguards, maybe for the rest of his life, since he is a pariah to Trump supporters who include some pretty extreme people.

For that matter, do former Speakers of the House also get some kind of security detail? Nancy Pelosi will probably need one too.

V & Z answer: By the terms of the Former Vice President Protection Act of 2008, former vice presidents get protection for 6 months after they leave office. They can be granted additional protection any time thereafter at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security (or the sitting president). It is not known if Pence is currently being protected, as the USSS does not make a habit of announcing such things.

As to Pelosi, she is entitled to protection by the Capitol Police while she is in office (along with the majority and minority leaders in both chambers and the majority and minority whips). Thereafter, the chief of the Capitol Police is able to grant additional protection at his or her discretion.

M.B. in Brunswick, ME, asks: Why is everyone talking like it's a fait accompli that Roe will be reversed? Has there been anything more than the leak of a draft opinion? I assume these opinion statements are regularly written to test the waters for future action, and that there is no evidence other than this draft. And it has been argued that there are inherent weaknesses in the legal logic of the paper. Why, then, are the media and the politicians (and even women's health clinics) acting like it's a done deal?

V & Z answer: First, because this is the exact result that would be expected from this court. Second, because draft opinions are not supposed to see the light of day, and so are not written to be trial balloons that "test the waters" or gauge public opinion. Third, because Politico and The Washington Post both have sources inside the Court, and those sources confirm both the substance of the draft and the 5-4 vote.

D.R. in Omaha, NE, asks: Maybe you two can shed some light on this Big Burning Question?

At the peak of the big gas price run-up in 2008, crude prices peaked just under $150 per barrel and the average street price at the pump peaked at about $4.15. This week, we have crude going for about $125 and a US average pump price of about $5.05. The ratio of pump price to crude price now in 2022 seems to be way out of proportion to the ratio back in 2008!

What's wrong with this picture? Where is the money going? I think it's safe to say that it's not going to the retail dealers, nor does it appear to be going to the crude oil producers. Am I missing something here? Where is all of that money going? Any ideas?

V & Z answer: When the price of crude oil goes up, the price of gasoline goes up immediately thereafter. When the price of crude drops, the price of gasoline tends to follow suit eventually, but not very quickly. The formal term for this is asymmetric price transmission, while the more informal term is the "rockets and feathers" effect (because gas prices rise quickly like a rocket, but fall slowly like a feather).

What this implies is that the price of gas is related to the price of crude oil, but that the price of crude oil is not the only factor. The other big cost, and the missing piece of the puzzle you laid out, is the cost of refining the crude oil into gasoline. And at the moment, the cost of refining oil in the United States is about double what it was in 2008. That's due, in part, to 14 years' worth of inflation, but it's due even more to competition for labor (and thus higher labor costs) and to competition for refinery capacity (which is limited not only by shortages of labor, but also by the unavailability of Russian refineries).


C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: Do you think Maryland could work well as an early primary state? A quick glance at census data shows that the state's racial demographics are roughly the same as the overall national demographics.

V & Z answer: Well, the Maryland Democratic Party thinks so, which is why they applied to the DNC to be one of the early states. And the DNC Rules Committee did not find that to be totally absurd, since they allowed Maryland to advance to the second round of the process.

That said, any state (or district, or territory, or group abroad) that the DNC chooses will necessarily favor some types of candidates over others. Democrats in Maryland are heavily concentrated in the vertical corridor that runs from Washington D.C. northward through Baltimore and up the middle of the state. So, a would-be president would spend all their time in that corridor, and would have to do very well in Baltimore, which is a pretty expensive media market, and which is 62% Black. A candidate like Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) would like that arrangement very much; a candidate like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN), less so.

D.H. in Boulder, CO, asks: I read this quote from Donald Trump today: "I said what's wrong with being impeached. I got impeached twice and my poll numbers went up!" Assuming it's true, has that been the pattern with other impeachments?

V & Z answer: Donald Trump's first impeachment concluded in February 2020, the second concluded in January 2021. His approval ratings varied within a very narrow range, but if you look at FiveThirtyEight's tracker, he dropped about a point (to 42%) in the weeks after the first impeachment and about five points (to 38%) in the weeks after the second. So, Trump's claim about himself is not truthful. Big surprise.

Only two other presidents have been impeached. Andrew Johnson's impeachment took place close to a century before approval ratings existed. Bill Clinton's approval jumped by 10 points (to 73%) when he was impeached by the House, and was about 3 points higher when the trial concluded (67%) than it was before impeachment.

So, the pattern is that 25% of presidential impeachments have led to an improvement in approval ratings.

K.C. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: In your recap of Tuesday's primaries, you suggested that Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) "is probably the most endangered Democrat up this cycle." That surprised me, as I have long thought that Maggie Hassan (D-NH) is the most endangered Democratic incumbent going before the voters in November. What are you seeing that makes you more confident of Hassan's reelection than Masto's?

V & Z answer: Masto has a higher-profile challenger than Hassan (Adam Laxalt vs., very likely, retired general and perennial candidate Don Bolduc); preliminary polls have given Masto a 4-point lead and Hassan a 4.5-point lead; and Nevada is a bit more purple than New Hampshire.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: In the final paragraph in "Notorious RBG Taking a Nosedive," you proposed giving a president one Supreme Court pick per 4-year term. That sounds fine and dandy, but there is one big part you left out of the equation, the Senate.

How would you expect to have this proposal work if the President is of one party, and the Senate is controlled by the other? I can't see this working if President Biden wins re-election and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) returns as Majority Leader. It'll be Merrick Garland all over again.

The last time we had a justice appointed by a president of one party and confirmed by the Senate controlled by the other was none other than Clarence Thomas in 1991. The Judiciary Committee chair of that time was none other than then Sen. Joe Biden.

V & Z answer: Well, if the rules for appointing Supreme Court justices are changed, it is likely the legislation would also include provisions designed to prevent the "McConnell Maneuver." For example, the law could require the Senate to vote on the nomination within, say, 60 days. If they didn't do so, the nomination would be de facto confirmed.

That said, even if no such provisions were adopted, recall that McConnell managed to keep a seat open for a little less than a year. That's a lot, but it's also way less than trying to do it for 4 years. The Republicans may not be willing to deal with the fallout from such a stunt, especially since they would be asked about it constantly for all 4 years.

Also, if the Republicans blocked approval of a president's rightful pick, then they'd get the same treatment when the shoe was on the other foot. And if the Supreme Court ends up with enough vacant seats (four), it would no longer have the quorum needed to conduct business.

A.C. in Aachen, Germany, asks: As recent comments in the Sunday mailbag indicate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) seems to resonate well with your readers. And you have also listed him among the potential presidential candidates for 2024.

Now for real, wouldn't Fetterman be the ideal candidate? Authentic, charismatic, successful as a mayor (though in a pretty small town), his outer appearance alone gives him tons of working-class credibility while at the same time having a Harvard-background and being so articulate that he is able to sell Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) points without being Bernie-esque, married to a Latina—what else could the Democrats ask for? He would be able to represent both wings of the Party, lock in the area formerly known as the Rust Belt, and appeal to Trump Democrats as well as to the more traditional layers of the party.

I know its a bit premature, but after all this is a platform for political junkies and speculating is fun. So, if Fetterman wins the Senate race convincingly and Biden doesn't run in 2024, what is your assessment about his chances to claim the nomination? Could a Fetterman landslide in November be even the reason for Biden not to run, because he then knows, that there is a guy out there, who would do much better in 2024 than he would do himself?

V & Z answer: Fetterman is certainly intriguing, since he combines a bunch of selling points in a package very different from most politicians. This election in Pennsylvania will be important as proof of concept, since if he can't win against Mehmet Oz, that's a bad sign for his prospects nationwide. Another wildcard is his health, which he has apparently neglected.

As to the presidential election, it's tough but possible to build a viable candidacy in less than 2 years. After all, Donald Trump did it. However, Joe Biden won't base his decision on the competition, he'll base it on his own electability, as he judges it.


K.W. in Sydney, NSW, Australia, asks: My two kids (aged 10 and 12) have recently stumbled across a YouTube thing called "OverSimplified," which is basically cartoon histories of major events. It's played for laughs to some extent, but underneath that it's pretty straight history. My kids love it, and I have to say that they've learned more about the Civil War than I knew about before well into adulthood.

Just wondering if the staff historian has seen any of these and what his view is. Assuming that he's not out on the town again with the staff mathematician.

V & Z answer: (Z) watched a few of them, and they are pretty good. Any lecture in any history class is, by its nature, oversimplified. And an advanced understanding isn't possible until a person has a grasp of the basics, which these videos do a pretty good job of providing.

(Z)'s only concern is that the videos, in search of profit/entertainment, include things that are clearly not true. For example, Part I of the World War II video begins with a commercial for Skillshare that imagines all the things Winston Churchill could have accomplished on his laptop if he'd used that site. Adults would understand that this is an exaggeration for comic effect and that laptops came decades after Churchill. But do kids understand that? And there are at least 15-20 other things in that video, often much more subtle than that, that are not meant to be taken literally. Again, are kids able to distinguish those things from the factual material?

C.S. in Madison, WI, asks: You all have previously discounted the idea that a civil war could happen in the United States today because conservatives and liberals don't live in distinct enough geographical areas.

I'm currently visiting London; hearing a lot about Oliver Cromwell and a little about the English Civil War motivated by religion (Catholic versus Protestant). Is the English Civil War an example of a civil war which occurred despite the factions being mixed geographically? Isn't this what is brewing in the U.S.? Fundamentalist Christians versus everyone else? And the government was successfully overthrown.

V & Z answer: First, so we don't get letters correcting us, we will note that the English Civil War is really three (or more) wars that are all lumped under that general label.

Second, the competing sides in the English Civil War(s) may have been organized along religious lines, but they were also pretty clearly delimited by geography. The royalists were found in rural areas and in the north and west, the parliamentarians were found in urban areas and in the south and east.

Third, the United States is roughly 40 times larger than the U.K. To the extent that the forces in the English Civil War(s) were geographically scattered, it was considerably easier for them to coalesce than it would be in the U.S.


A.J. in Baltimore, MD, asks: Since Joe Biden was sworn in, who have you mentioned more times on this site: Him or Donald Trump?

V & Z answer: Biden, by a fair margin (even including the use of terms like "Trumper" and "Trumpublican"). We actually have something on this subject that's been on the back burner due to time constraints, but that will move to the front burner soon.

W.H. in San Jose, CA, asks: For your June 10 "This Week in Schadenfreude," you wrote that Media Matters made a clip highlighting Fox News's hypocrisy regarding Pride month.

But, as I understand it, schadenfreude requires the target to suffer misfortune. Is there any evidence at all that Fox News has suffered any misfortune due to this video? Watching hypocrites get away with hypocrisy without suffering any real consequences, well, that doesn't make me happy at all.

V & Z answer: It may be just a small scratch on their armor, but for Fox to be a subject of derision is certainly misfortune. Further, if we don't use a fairly loose definition of "schadenfreude," that feature will get very repetitive very quickly.

The second-most recorded place in the country is Las Vegas casinos, and the most-recorded is... Disney theme parks. Give yourself credit if you chose a specific casino or a specific Disney park.
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