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New polls: FL WA
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: NV

Legal Setbacks All Around

When you get involved with the legal system, the general rule is that you win some and you lose some. Yesterday, folks on both sides of the political aisle experienced the "lose some" part of that equation.

Starting with the sitting president, the right-wing activists who oppose Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness finally found a (slightly) sympathetic court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which includes a grand total of one judge appointed by a Democratic president (Jane L. Kelly, by Barack Obama) has placed an administrative hold on the program while it considers the lawsuit filed by six Republican politicians (the AGs of Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and South Carolina and the governor of Iowa).

At the moment, the administrative hold doesn't matter much, as the Biden administration can and will continue to accept applications for relief. It will start to matter some in mid-November, when the first forgiveness decisions were to be implemented (in other words, the first loans were to be forgiven). It will matter even more if the hold is still in place in January, when COVID-paused student loan payments are set to re-commence. Of course, the White House could announce an additional pause if the administration deems it necessary.

Meanwhile, Biden's predecessor also got some adverse news on Friday. It would appear that the 1/6 committee, when they said they were going to subpoena Donald Trump, really meant it. Who knew? Anyhow, they officially sent the subpoena yesterday. It's not clear if it's been delivered yet, but if it hasn't, it soon will be. Really, the committee should have written "classified" on it; then they could be certain it would be in Trump's desk drawer within the day. In any case, it won't be easy for someone who is receiving Secret Service protection to avoid service. And then, as we wrote earlier this week, Trump will have to choose: testify, resist the subpoena in court, or ignore the subpoena entirely. Each option has its downsides, which we lay out in the linked item.

And finally, speaking of defying subpoenas, Steve Bannon was sentenced yesterday. His penalty: 4 months and a $6,500 fine. Bannon won't be reporting to federal prison anytime soon, though, as he's been allowed to remain out on bail pending appeal. The podcaster and presidential lackey will drag that process out as long as is possible, in hopes that he'll be able to convince a judge he was wronged (unlikely), or he'll be able to land a pardon from a Republican president on Jan. 20, 2025 (maybe, but also not too likely), or the sweet, sweet release of death will come for him before the long arm of the law can do so (probably his best chance of avoiding the hoosegow).

And that's the news on the legal beat. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

And things are pretty much back to normal. (Z)'s knee still hurts, but at least he can walk again. It was lots of fun delivering four lectures on one leg on Wednesday, though.

We had planned to have guest answers (from our usual correspondents) in response to some questions about British politics. However, we've decided to move that to the regular week. So, if you have British politics questions, there's still time to send them along.

Current Events

P.F. in Fairbanks, AK, asks: Why can't Joe Biden just not collect student loan payments? Instead of cancelling them, just defer them indefinitely. Is the next Republican president really going to say, "OK, now that I'm in charge, I'm turning the payments back on—with interest!?"

V & Z answer: We think your assumption about Republican presidents is incorrect. It is entirely plausible, and indeed likely, in our view, that a re-elected President Trump or a President DeSantis would announce, shortly after taking office: "If you are going to get the benefits of an education, you should also pay the costs of an education. And so, I am announcing that the federal government will expect payment of all loans it has extended to the nation's current and past students. There will be no more of this Biden socialism for the educated elite."

Beyond that, if a loan is on someone's balance sheet, even if everyone "knows" it will not be collected, it still affects their credit and their ability to qualify for mortgages, car loans, credit cards, etc.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: With President Biden announcing that 15 million barrels of oil will be released from the strategic oil reserve, how much oil remains in the reserve? What is considered the minimum amount needed in the reserve? Is there a plan to replenish the reserve to its level before the current crisis?

V & Z answer: The press release issued by the White House, after the latest drawdown, says that the U.S. still has about 400 million barrels of oil in reserve. This squares with the figure reported by other sources.

There really isn't a set goal for how much the U.S. should have, at any given time. However, the U.S. uses just shy of 20 million barrels per day. If World War III were to commence, and the U.S. were to be completely cut off from all foreign sources of oil, domestic production is around 12 million barrels a day. So, domestic production plus the reserve would be able to cover current consumption levels for about 2 months. However, the commencement of World War III would undoubtedly change use patterns, and would also lead to austerity measures, so in reality the country would be in a position to keep itself supplied for years.

And replenishment is built into the way in which strategic oil sales are conducted. In essence, if a petroleum company wants some of the oil being released, they have to bid in barrels of oil. A valid bid for 1 million barrels, for example, would be 1 million barrels plus [X] barrels of high-grade sweet crude, with the [X] barrels being the de facto interest. Usually, these payments are made within a year.

In addition, the White House has announced that the federal government may start making direct purchases of oil to increase the oil reserve, if prices drop low enough.

D.H. in Boulder, CO, asks: Obviously, the current format for the January 6 Committee would never fly under a Republican controlled House. But is there a way that they could re-form the committee with an all-Republican cast and do everything they can to tell the "alternate facts" version of the story? You know, it's the one where the Republican patriots zealously protected the Constitution from the wretched excesses of nefarious Democratic partisans like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). I can picture Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) getting his chance to either lob softballs to his fellow crackpots, or crank up the flamethrowers aimed at anyone trying to hold people accountable. I'm sure they can link it to Benghazi and Hunter Biden for extra mileage. Thoughts?

V & Z answer: One word: Gatekeepers.

Assuming the Republicans gain control of the House, they are free to set up whatever committees and hearings they want, including sham committees and hearings. However, a circus of propaganda where they just repeat right-wing talking points is not really newsworthy. The gatekeepers—news outlets, C-SPAN, newspapers, blogs like this one—gave a great deal of attention to the Select Committee hearings because those hearings featured real witnesses with real insights and real information that was not previously known. If Jordan and his fellow Republicans can't offer anything that is both new and evidence-based, then they won't get coverage from anyone other than NewsMax, OAN and maybe Fox. And that is not especially useful to the GOP, since it would just be preaching to the choir.

To be even more specific, if Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Jordan and a few others of that ilk were to announce the creation of the (even more) Select 1/6 Committee, and were to schedule a hearing, we would tune in and watch. And the next day, we would almost certainly write: "It was exactly what you would expect; Republicans repeating their 1/6 talking points, without offering anything new or compelling." And then, having given them their chance, we would never watch again.

J.N. in Freeland, WA, asks: If TFG actually testifies before the 1/6 Committee, do you think there is any possibility of a "Colonel Jessup" moment?

V & Z answer: For those who have not seen the movie A Few Good Men, the climactic moment of the movie comes when Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) manages to goad Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) into angrily admitting that he ordered a "code red" (a beating of a misbehaving soldier) that caused the death of the victim. This admission means that the low-level soldiers who inflicted the beating are still guilty of a crime, but that Jessup is much more guilty, and will certainly be heading to the brig for a nice, long stay (it's the brig, and not the stockade, because Jessup is a marine).

Like Jessup, Trump is a hothead. And like Jessup, Trump is convinced that he is righteous, regardless of what the rules technically say. So, we think it is entirely possible the former president could be goaded into saying something very damaging to himself (which is why he should not show up, under any circumstances). As an added benefit, a major source of tension in the movie is that if Jessup is not goaded into an admission, then Kaffee will be guilty of slurring a high-ranking officer, which is itself a court-martial offense. But Trump is a civilian and a committee hearing is not a court martial. So, the members of the committee could goad away without risk to themselves.

N.M. in West Chester, PA, asks: Mike Pence won't condemn Trump, despite Trump (allegedly and obliquely) attempting to have him killed on January 6. Other Republican members of Congress also won't condemn Trump, despite Trump putting those members in harm's way on January 6th. I don't know how to pose this question more delicately, so: Would the country be better off if some of our elected officials had been killed by the mob that day? Would the country have realized what a coup actually looks like? Or would it simply have whetted the appetites of the right wing?

V & Z answer: The extent to which Trump apologists have been able to gaslight their way out of this is truly remarkable. A police officer was killed, as was a Trumper. Numerous other officers succumbed to heart attacks or to suicide. And yet, there remains a sizable portion of the American public convinced that this was a peaceful demonstration, or was just rowdy tourism, or was the work of Antifa/BLM/Nancy Pelosi/some other right-wing bugaboo.

If Mike Pence, in particular, had been captured and hanged—right after Trump called for that outcome—then it would have been orders of magnitude more difficult to gaslight that away. But we are not willing to say that it would have been impossible, given how much other really bad behavior by Trump has been waved away by his supporters.

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: For some reason, the media are making it seem extremely important that Christian Secor, a 24-year old from Costa Mesa, who was just sentenced to 3-1/2 years in prison for his participation in the January 6th insurrection, attended UCLA. See, for example, here, here, here, and here.

That he founded and/or was President of America First Bruins at UCLA (depending on which story you read) does seem relevant, but why is "UCLA" in the headline of each story? If he had gone to, say, (picking some other SoCal school at random) USC, would that have made it into the headline? There are far-right students at almost every college and university in the United States. Is it so shocking that one of them was at UCLA?

(When I was an undergrad at MIT, one of my dorm-mates was active in Young Americans for Freedom. He wasn't in my circle of friends, but we all knew who he was.)

V & Z answer: (Z) noticed that, too, and also finds it odd. There are certain universities that, if they are connected to anything sordid or shocking—a kidnapping, a murder, political extremism, a sports scandal—are all-but-guaranteed to be mentioned in every headline. UCLA is one of those, Berkeley is another, Stanford is a third, and the Ivies (especially Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) are also on the list. There's another group, including MIT, Caltech, USC, Duke, Notre Dame and UCSD that often get mentioned, but it's not as automatic for them as it is for the group on the first list.

The primary reason has to be, for lack of a better term, stereotypes about those universities in particular, and about large universities in general. The presumption is that the student body is overwhelmingly young, liberal, high-achieving, well-adjusted, etc. and so when a particular member of the student body reveals themselves to not be one or more of those things, it's presumed to be man bites dog territory, and is worthy of a mention.

Of course, anyone who actually attended one of those universities (or, really, any large university) knows that the student body is very diverse, and includes all types, including older students, conservatives, students who are just barely getting by and who don't really want to be there, and students with significant emotional or psychological issues. The first time (Z) taught a really large lecture course (300+), a colleague pointed out that one student in a hundred has what the university defines as "significant mental health challenges," which means that a 300-person lecture course has, on average, three such students. The point was that one might not encounter, say, a schizophrenic in daily life. But if a student in a class like that shows signs of schizophrenia, it's very possible that is what is going on, and so it is essential to notify the university immediately.

In addition, there are probably some practical issues in play here. Many outlets, when running national news, just pull the AP story. And they usually borrow the AP's suggested headline. So, if the AP puts "UCLA" in its suggested headline, then UCLA is going to show up in a lot of outlets' headlines. Also, if a university's name seems like a useful nugget of information, it's more likely to find its way into the (very tight) space allocated to headlines if the name is short. UCLA, Yale, Cal, Harvard, MIT, etc. are far easier to fit than "University of Tennessee" or "Johns Hopkins" or "Washington University in St. Louis."


J.M. in New Glasgow, NS, Canada, asks: With 17 days to the midterms (at time of writing) I think getting some impressions of the race today could make for an interesting comparison after the fact.

Let's pretend right now the Democrats have a really bad night, what are the reasons for that you're writing about Wednesday morning? Same story with the GOP. After elections you normally have a "this is why we think this happened" post-mortem and doing the post-mortem pre-mortem could be instructive.

V & Z answer: All right. Here are three potential opening paragraphs for our write-up the day after the elections:

  1. If the Democrats Do Well: Historical trends suggested that, with a shaky economy and a not-so-popular Democrat in the White House, the Republicans should have had a great day yesterday. It didn't happen. The GOP continues to be weighed down by Donald Trump—and by the mediocre candidates he recruited and backed. On top of that, in one of the great unforced errors of modern political history, the GOP gave the Democrats an early Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice/Festivus present in the form of the Dobbs decision. This was not entirely by design, in the sense that the people who run the Republican Party did not expect to score this big a "win" at this particular point in the cycle (i.e., just months before the midterms). On the other hand, when you pack the Supreme Court with anti-choice judges, and you promise your base over and over that abortion will be outlawed, you can't claim surprise when something like Dobbs comes to pass. That election in Kansas back in August was clearly a bellwether, one that was forgotten by most pundits far too quickly.

  2. If the Republicans Do Well: "It's the economy, stupid." James Carville never actually said those exact words, but this nonetheless conveyed one of the core messages of the Clinton campaign in 1992, as the popular George H.W. Bush was felled by a vicious recession. Now, just a shade over 30 years after Clinton was first elected to the White House, the shoe is on the other foot. A majority of voters dislike (or outright hate) Donald Trump. A majority of voters believe democracy is in danger. A majority of voters oppose the Dobbs decision. None of that mattered nearly as much as the cost of a gallon of gas or a loaf of bread. It's the economy, stupid.

  3. If the Results are Mixed: An irresistible force (weak economy, unpopular president) met an immovable object (discontent over Dobbs, unpopular former president), and neither quite carried the day. Under those circumstances, fundamentals matter (hence J.D. Vance winning in red Ohio), but candidate quality matters, too (hence John Fetterman winning in purple Pennsylvania). The Republicans will control the House, though we still wait to see how big a margin Kevin McCarthy has to work with. And once again, the Senate is up in the air pending a runoff in Georgia.

There you go.

N.E.H. in Rochester, NY, asks: This year, I'm interested in watching more than just my local election results come in. I've been hearing about critical elections in other localities from and other sites all year. Is there a single site that compiles all election results in the U.S.? Or a site that provides links to each state's state and local elections?

V & Z answer: The best source, usually, is The New York Times. A few days before the election, they will put up a bunch of election results pages; a main one that highlights the big stuff (control of the Senate, control of the House, etc.) and then pages for every state. The state pages will have the most interesting elections highlighted at the top, and then will have results for the House, state legislatures, etc. below that.

No site, including the Times, will have everything, though. The Times, The Washington Post and FiveThirtyEight will also have live chats, or aggregations of tweets from their staff members, or both, and those often contain nuggets related to lower-level elections. Also, the various webpages of the state secretaries of state (or the equivalent office) will have results for individual states.

J.P.R. in Westminster, CO, asks: You've commended, extolled, and lauded Ann Selzer for her methodology many times over the years. Is the latest poll from her firm, showing a scandaled (but otherwise electable in a red state) Democrat Mike Franken within the margin of error of the multi-term incumbent Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) telling us that she is capturing something the other polls are not? Something, perhaps, that Michael Moore is also tapping into? Incidentally, I just revisited Moore's 5 Reasons Trump Will Win... chillingly incisive, even now (and were I able to go back in time 6 years, I'm still not sure I would believe it).

V & Z answer: Ann Selzer is subject to the same mathematical rules that everyone else is, which means that even she sometimes produces a result that is an outlier. So, we'd feel better if she'd released two or three polls of the race, or if there was another nonpartisan poll that backs her conclusions. Unfortunately, she's only polled the race once so far, and all the other polls of the race are partisan or come from houses that have had a distinct lean this cycle (e.g., Emerson).

So, we wouldn't want to bet too much money that Selzer is right, because of the risk that this result is an outlier. But if you made us pick one of the six polls of this race that have been done so far, we would certainly pick hers. Grassley's advanced age appears to be a serious concern for some voters. The abortion issue, and the fact that he said he would not support a national ban, may also be hurting him.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: What is the likelihood of the Georgia Senate race going to a runoff? I heard there was a Libertarian candidate running too. If it does, who benefits the most: Herschel Walker (R) or Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA)?

V & Z answer: There is indeed a Libertarian, namely Chase Oliver. And virtually all votes for Oliver will come out of Walker's hide. So, Warnock would definitely be best served by getting 50% of the vote on Nov. 8. If there is a runoff, which is more likely than not, then the Oliver votes will mostly come home to Walker, and Warnock will have a much tougher hill to climb.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Why wouldn't Democrats want Barack Obama to campaign in more cities in battleground states like North Carolina with Charlotte (32.5% Black), Greensboro (40% Black), Durham (35% Black); Pennsylvania with Philly (40% Black); and Ohio with Cleveland (47% Black) and Cincinnati (42% Black)? Is there just not enough time to cover all these areas for the former president?

V & Z answer: Obama is coordinating with the White House and the DNC as he decides where to visit and where not to visit. And both Obama and the Democratic pooh-bahs have experience and polling data that we do not have.

Considering Philadelphia, for example, the votes there are already largely in the bag for the Democrats. On the other hand, just west of Philly is where the Alabama portion of the state (according to James Carville) or the Kentucky portion of the state (according to Pennsylvania residents) begins, and where Obama can be weaponized against the Democrats. So, he could very well do more harm than good.

Even if our specific guess isn't quite right, surely the blue team has some rational basis for deciding where the 44th president is a net positive and where he isn't, and is scheduling his appearances accordingly. The issue is definitely not that Obama doesn't have the time, or the energy, or the willingness to campaign. He'll go when and where the Party tells him he's needed.

A.S. in Bedford, MA, asks: If the Democrats lose Congress in November, could they pass a voting rights bill and Supreme Court reform during the lame duck session? Maybe abortion rights, too? Or rather, what are the chances considering at that point Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) will see that they will never have so much power again and they might as well do some good on the way out the door? Just a dream I had. I realize this would mean reform to the filibuster too, but it could be worth it to fix these big structural issues.

V & Z answer: We think this is very, very unlikely.

First, nobody knows for certain what the motivations of Manchin, and particularly of Sinema, are. They might really be filibuster fetishists, but that might actually be cover for something else.

On top of that, the Democrats are not going to set things up so that they get a month or so without the filibuster, and that's it. They will want as much of 2 years as is possible once they cross that bridge. In particular, if the Republicans were to regain control of both chambers, then the death of the filibuster would set the GOP up to send show bill after show bill to the White House, putting Joe Biden and the Democrats in a consistently problematic position. "How come the President opposes funding for puppies and rainbows?" they would wonder, while neglecting to mention that the legislation in question would also ban abortions in hospitals nationwide.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: I read a few months ago that it might actually be a good thing for Democrats if Republicans take control of Congress in this 2022 election because they will make such a mess of things for two years and discredit themselves, that it will cause many more people to vote Democratic in 2024. Do you think that is a serious possibility?

V & Z answer: Yes, it is a serious possibility. Though the Republican base enjoys political theater and other shenanigans, the American public as a whole does not. Hence the voters' punishment of the GOP in in the 1998 midterms, in the midst of the Clinton impeachment fiasco.

If, in 2024, the Democrats run on "when we were in control, we took steps to build roads, preserve the planet, and help students in debt, while the Republicans just used their time in power to launch 8 investigations into Hunter Biden's laptop," then that could certainly work out for the blue team. Especially since presidential years tend to favor the Democrats anyhow.

A.S. in Orlando, FL, asks: I live in Florida, and I am all-but resigned to the fact that DeSantis and Rubio will win their respective races, continuing Florida's trend of electing people who will devolve our state into fascism. The only thing that gave me hope was that Democrats could at least maintain control of the Senate, preventing the nation from going full fascist.

I constantly doomscroll 538 and other sites for the latest projections (which is giving me ulcers), and now I am seeing that the GOP has a decent shot at getting both chambers. With no hyperbole on my end, I am seriously concerned that we are seeing the end of our democracy.

So, I come to you with a simple yet important question (for me, at least): what hope can I hang my hat on to get through the next few weeks until the election? I realize that these issues will persist beyond November 8, but I am taking this one event at a time.

I apologize for the rant, but I am truly, truly scared and could use some positivity to keep me going.

V & Z answer: Well, even if the Republicans take control of both chambers of Congress, the Democrats will control the White House until Jan. 20, 2025, at the least.

Further, as we note above, 2 years of shenanigans from the Republican Party could backfire on them. Badly.

And finally, people in general, and Americans in particular, don't generally get roused to action until there is an actual crisis. Look how long it took to do something about slavery, or to launch a war against the Nazis, or to respond to the hole in the ozone layer. We suspect that, if Republicans gain power in 2022, then by 2024 the majority of voters will be seriously concerned about the threat to democracy, and will assert themselves accordingly.


C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: The item about billionaire donors made me think about campaign finance law. Why hasn't Congress passed laws mandating public funding for all elections, thereby eliminating the need to rely on donors altogether?

V & Z answer: Note that there already is some public financing of campaigns. It's just a drop in the bucket, relatively speaking.

The reason there is not full financing is that Americans have generally shown little ability to grasp the second- and third-order consequences of their policy positions. So, many liberals oppose public funding because they don't want their tax dollars helping to elect a Richard Nixon or a Ronald Reagan or a Donald Trump. And many conservatives oppose public funding because they don't want their tax dollars helping to elect a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama or a Joe Biden. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and that money is going to come from somewhere. If politicians are forced to go to private donors, hat in hand, they often end up beholden to those donors in ways that cost the American people vastly more money than the publicly financed campaigns would have.

For example, the amount of extra money that the pharmaceutical industry has collected from the federal government because the government could not negotiate drug prices (until this year) dwarfs the amount that would have been spent on political campaigns. Specifically, the CBO estimates that the non-negotiation policy has been costing the American people about $45 billion per year. And if the lobbying money had been cut off and replaced with public funding 20 years ago, then that $45 billion would have stopped going out the door 20 years ago.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: You've mentioned several times lately that candidate campaigns pay less for ad time than PACs and so forth. How and why is that? I can't imagine that the market cares who's behind a given ad buy.

V & Z answer: Well, the market might care, in that gouging the people who hold political office, or who are about to hold political office, could have unpleasant repercussions.

That said, it's actually a matter of federal law. 47 CFR Sec. 73.1942 is kind of complicated, but what it says is that political campaigns have to be charged at the cheapest rate that a TV station or network offers for a particular slot. So, let us imagine that Sneed's Feed and Seed (formerly Chuck's) gets a 20% discount for being a loyal customer of WMBD-TV in Peoria, and another 20% discount for buying commercial time in bulk, and so pays $500 to broadcast an ad during the 8:00 farm report hour. If that is the case, then WMBD-TV has to charge political campaigns $500 during that same hour, even if the campaigns are not regular customers and are not buying in bulk.

The law does not apply to super PACs, nor to online ads, neither of which existed when it was passed in 1942.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: I was overjoyed to hear about subhuman filth Alex Jones getting penalized for close to a billion dollars! My only regret that it wasn't $2 billion or better yet $100 billion (Do I hear $101 billion?). What I was wondering is: Why don't the Sandy Hook families now go after the advertisers, who are the main source of Jones' income now? His advertisers are a bunch of snake oil salesmen, who have run afoul of the state and federal laws, due to their misleading claims to their supplements. Since it is undeniable that Jones is peddling in harmful lies, isn't their giving him money for advertisements a form of tacit approval or is there some sort of law that was written in the time of James K. Polk that gives them immunity?

BTW, I don't think the Sandy Hook families are doing this for the money but rather to prove a point. If more cases like theirs and Dominion's exact a heavy toll, maybe since the Right has ditched all moral and civil decency, a severe blow to their prophets will make them change their ways.

V & Z answer: Holding Alex Jones' advertisers liable for what he does with their money opens up a can of worms that would be very problematic. What if, for example, you dine at a local restaurant with a mafia-sounding name like "Don Vito's Italian Trattoria," and the owner takes the money you pay for your lasagna and puts a hit on the owner of the restaurant down the street? Should you be on the hook for attempted murder because it was somewhat foreseeable that Don Vito was a violent crook?

That said, the Sandy Hook families could use some of their judgment money, if they ever get it, to go after Jones' advertisers directly on the basis of illegal business practices. But we suspect that it would not be easy to prevail. Snake oil salesmen and saleswomen tend to be very familiar with the law, and what they can and cannot get away with. For example, there is a world of difference, legally, between "Taking ginkgo biloba supplements has been shown to be a heart-healthy choice" and "Taking our ginkgo biloba supplements will prevent a heart attack."

On that note, when shady operators get taken down by their own hubris and their own stupidity, there's almost always someone to replace them. And the new shady operators tend to learn from the mistakes of the fallen ones, and so avoid making the same mistakes again.

J.M. in Norco, CA, asks: Is a "Q level" security clearance a real thing, or is it another complete fabrication from nut-world... or perhaps something in between?

V & Z answer: It's a real thing. The federal government has, for a long time, had Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret clearances. When the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was adopted, it specified special Department of Energy clearances. Q level is essentially the DOE equivalent of Top Secret, and L level is essentially the DOE equivalent of Secret.

To be clear, though, Top Secret and Q are not interchangeable. There are things a Top Secret clearance holder cannot see—basically, nuclear secrets. On the other hand, a Q clearance holder can see everything a Top Secret clearance holder can see, plus the nuclear secrets.


E.L. in Manassas, VA, asks: I once read a history book that covered the years between 1492 and 1620—those well-known birthing years of the country. The book observed that no one talks about the years between those two dates. I thought this book was written by Bill Bryson, but cannot locate it.

According to what I remember, the native Americans on the East coast were annihilated in that period. It was a book that was hard to read. But, everyone should know it—least I would say so. Have either of you got an idea about what book I'm thinking of?

V & Z answer: Well, the bitter truth of the period from 1492 to 1620 is a major element of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. However, the book is not limited to that period, nor is anyone likely to confuse Zinn with Bill Bryson.

So, we would guess the book you're thinking of is Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America. That book explicitly covers the years 1492-1620, and is very similar to Bryson in approach and style.

J.S. in Germantown, OH, asks: It is an undeniable conclusion that the right-wing propaganda machine's anti-science approach to COVID-19 is resulting in a far higher mortality rate among its consumers than of those that don't follow them. I find it beyond the pale that most of those pushing these false narratives do not understand that they were lying and are not aware of the likely outcome of people following their advice. It seems to me that, historically, propaganda is used either to target an external group for harm explicitly or, at best, that result is a by-product. Are there any historical examples where it was used to intentionally hurt the "in group" with no harm to an external group and no obvious upside other than the acquisition of power?

V & Z answer: We would start by observing that the purpose of COVID-19 denial was not to hurt the "in group." It was a way of trying to deflect attention from a crisis that Donald Trump and other politicians, mostly Republicans, felt unable to handle. The fact that a fair chunk of the base was sickened or died as a result of this programme of denial was a side-effect, not a desired outcome.

And if we think in terms of politicians sticking their heads in the sand, and downplaying major threats, even at the peril of their supporters and their country, there are plenty of historical examples. Kings and emperors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who downplayed how unhappy their people were. Leaders of liberal democracies in the 1930s, who insisted that Adolf Hitler was not bent on world domination and could be reasoned with. Dictatorial leaders, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, who got in over their heads by leading their nations into ill-conceived wars, and kept insisting all was well. Modern-day Republicans, who pooh-pooh the damage that will be done by climate change.

B.D. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: I don't know if you saw the Reddit thread that asked: "If you were to get every USA president in history and put them in a free for all gladiator pitt (sic) and there can only be one winner, who would win?"

When I saw it, I thought of (Z). I am curious what you think. Personally, as a former Illinoisian, I go with Abe.

V & Z answer: Lincoln is indeed the correct answer, and it's not even close. He was the tallest of the presidents (possibly tied with Lyndon Johnson) at 6'4". Further, he was a physical freak; one time when he was president, there were three sailors trying to lift the anchor on a ship that was carrying Lincoln so they could toss it overboard. When the sailors couldn't do the job, Lincoln went over and did the job by himself without breaking a sweat. And even on his deathbed, the attending physician was shocked by how fit and muscular the 16th president was. Finally, Lincoln had extensive experience in combat sports, as someone who won more than 600 wrestling matches while losing only one.

The only way some other president wins is if they hold back from the original scrum, and then wade in once Lincoln is tired. TR is the type of guy to think tactically like that, and he was a powerfully built and talented amateur boxer, so he might be able to take down a semi-gassed Lincoln.

M.M. in Plano, TX, asks: Sometime back you ran a quotation from John Adams: "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

I have a "hobby" of collecting evidence against the "Christian nation" lie. What is the source for this quotation? Is there a particular document?

V & Z answer: There is, though it's complicated. The quote comes from Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, which was an agreement with (some of) the Barbary pirates meant to get them to stop attacking American ships. Adams had a voice in the wording of the treaty, and it was he who persuaded the Senate to adopt it, and it was he who signed it into law. But the quote wasn't from one of his private letters or diary entries.

On top of that, those who wish to undermine the legitimacy of this statement point to two things. The first is that because the treaty was being negotiated with Muslims, the authors of this particular verbiage had motivation to say/write things that they didn't necessarily agree with, but that were essential to consummating the treaty. In this case, America's diplomats wanted to make clear that they were not interested in launching a modern version of the Crusades, and that their concerns were solely economic in character.

The second issue is that, for reasons that have never been fully explained, the Arabic version of the treaty doesn't actually contain Article 11. Was that page lost? Was it destroyed by someone? Was there some sort of miscommunication when it came to various drafts of the treaty? Was there some other issue? We will likely never know.

J.W. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: Do you happen to have a score card on special counsels? My limited memory suggests that the process has been used for political purposes: once as tragedy (Starr vs. Clinton) and the second as farce (Durham vs. what, FBI? Windmill?) But surely the process has a legitimate purpose and has been used as such.

V & Z answer: Special counsels have been used for 150 years, and generally for legitimate purposes. The first special counsel was appointed to look into and expose the Whiskey Ring, and special counsels were used to get to the bottom of the Crédit Mobilier scandal, the Teapot Dome scandal, Watergate and Waco, among other controversies. It is only recently that Republicans have weaponized special counsels for political purposes, with Starr and Durham. Of course, some Republicans would argue that Robert Mueller was another example of a special counsel who was appointed solely for political purposes.

M.R. in Atlanta, GA, asks: I appreciated your comment about the "Young Turks": "How is it possible for Uygur to get away with calling his program The Young Turks? The original Young Turks are quite literally the group that was responsible for perpetrating the Armenian genocide. This is not dissimilar from calling one's program 'The Young Schutzstaffels' or 'The New Hitler Youth.'"

I had no idea. Yowza.

It reminded me of the band "Joy Division." I know punk bands were into "edgy" names (Dead Kennedys, et al.) back in the day, but my understanding is that the band named themselves after the Jewish women subject to repeated rape in Nazi concentration camps. Please correct me if I'm wrong—I would really love to be.

In the mean time, thank you for informing your readers that "young turks" is a term decent folks ought to reject.

V & Z answer: A number of readers took that as an attack on Cenk Uygur, and it wasn't. It was really an observation that some verbiage is out-of-bounds and some verbiage isn't, and it can be hard to understand why the line exists where it does.

In any case, it's true that "Joy Division" was the name used for Jewish "comfort women" victimized by the Nazis. However, this did not take place in the real world. It took place in the 1955 Israeli novel House of Dolls.

So, is that just "edgy," or did it cross a line? It would seem that most people decided it was merely edgy. We guess it's kind of like calling your band "Doc Johnson" (real dildo) or calling it "Steely Dan" (fictional dildo from The Naked Lunch). You can get your records into stores under the latter name, but maybe not the former.


K.H., in Kerrville, TX, asks: So I've been wondering this for a while: do you prefer questions be submitted early in the week or later in the week?

V & Z answer: We have no preference, per se. That said, early-in-the-week questions are more likely to be rendered moot by subsequent events, or by items we write, or both. For example, there were a number of questions submitted early this week about whether or not PM Liz Truss would have to resign (Our answer: Yes!).

Also, people are welcome to re-submit questions that don't get answered the first time. Sometimes, the reasons they don't make the cut one week won't be applicable in a subsequent week.

Today's Senate Polls

Nothing too shocking here. Val Demings needs to hope there is something systematically wrong with the polls this cycle, or else Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is going to ride incumbency and the Cuban vote to another term. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Florida Val Demings 42% Marco Rubio* 48% Oct 12 Oct 16 Florida Atlantic U.
Washington Patty Murray* 49% Tiffany Smiley 41% Oct 14 Oct 19 SurveyUSA
Washington Patty Murray* 52% Tiffany Smiley 42% Oct 19 Oct 20 PPP

* Denotes incumbent

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