Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Saturday Q&A

Blame it on the chargers.

No, not the football team. Many readers noticed that yesterday's posting was on the short side, was missing the usual Friday features (This Week in Schadenfreude/Freudenfreude), and was written by (V) rather than (Z), and so wrote in hoping that nothing was wrong.

Your concern is appreciated and, we are happy to report, nothing is wrong. At least, nothing long term. However, some time-sucking personal business left (Z) in a town about 50 miles from his residence, until a little after midnight, and with a car that had only 10 miles of electricity left in it. He went to the only chargers in range, and they kept delivering a few miles of electricity and then quitting and claiming there was a problem with the car. It took more than double the necessary amount of time to get enough juice, and with it past 1:00 a.m. and with 50 miles still to go, the baton had to be handed off unexpectedly and at the very last minute.

Those who have EVs know that chargers can be quite finicky and prone to strange behavior (or, for our British readers, strange behaviour). Since (Z) was able to fully recharge the car without issues at a different charger on Friday afternoon, he has to assume that the problems Thursday evening were the fault of the charger, and not the car. Anyhow, normal order resumes today.

Current Events

T.K. in Columbia, MD, asks: I've always resented the notion that Democrats are responsible for national debt. A while back I came across a site that tallies the amount of "new debt" accumulated each year, so if last year's national debt was $10.5 trillion and this year's end debt is $10.6 trillion then the current president "accumulated" $100 billion in debt in his year of office. It shows pretty clearly that debt tends to be run up under Republican administrations and tends to go down under Democrats. It also illustrates how big is the Trump component that got the boo birds flying in the SOTU. I understand that COVID-19 hit and this had an outsized impact, but as a general rule is this a good way to look at the debt? I know math, but I'm not an economist.

(V) & (Z) answer: If you really want to assign blame for the national debt, you have to do a pretty close analysis of legislation that: (1) was passed at the instigation of a particular president and (2) significantly affected the federal government's balance sheet. Not all fiscal bills are the same, of course. Some, like the Trump-era tax cut, quite clearly added to the deficit and thus to the debt. Some, like the CHIPS Act, are much closer to being revenue-neutral. And some, like the auto bailout, actually improved the government's balance sheet. Meanwhile, things like the annual defense spending bill have relatively little to do with the person who is president at the time, as that money is getting spent regardless of who is in office.

The issue with "in [X] year(s), the debt increased by [Y] amount, which is therefore the responsibility of [Z] president," as you note, is that there are many potential externalities that could be playing a role. The emergence of a national crisis, like COVID-19, is one of those. The overall condition of the economy, whether good or bad, is another. Spending that was appropriated under previous administrations is a third.

With that said, the more years you include in the assessment, the greater the likelihood that such externalities even out. So, if a president sees a huge jump in the debt over 4, or particularly over 8, years that's probably at least a little instructive. Similarly, if most or all presidents of a particular party seem to oversee large increases in the debt, that probably also tells us something.

C.G. in Santa Cruz, CA, asks: During the State of the Union address, one of the Republicans yelled out "you caused it" or "it's your fault" when President Biden started talking about fentanyl. Can you explain why they think the fentanyl problem is his fault? Is it one of their conspiracy theories? Or is there something else I don't know?

(V) & (Z) answer: Apparently you are unaware that the TV show Breaking Bad was loosely based on Joe Biden's life story, and that, in the 1980s, then-senator Biden funded his campaigns for office by running a large-scale fentanyl-production ring.

OK, maybe not. In truth, folks on the right have adopted the narrative that the fentanyl crisis is due primarily to undocumented immigrants, who are allegedly sneaking large quantities of the drug into the U.S. There is a small amount of truth here, but only a very small amount. Some meaningful percentage of the illegally used/distributed fentanyl in the U.S. does come from Mexico, but most of that is brought into the United States in large shipments managed by drug cartels, not by individual immigrants.

America's fentanyl problem has, of course, hit red states and cities/towns particularly hard. Finding a way to shift the blame to brown people is a way to avoid pointing the finger at the addicts themselves. After all, drug-addicted Americans can vote, while undocumented immigrants cannot. It would be nice if, instead of searching for someone to blame, we could all think of this as a disease that needs treating. But some folks aren't there quite yet.

C.L. in Papillion, NE, asks: Will Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) get some kind of discipline for her "Liar" outburst during the State of the Union? Joe Wilson get in trouble for yelling "You Lie" to President Obama, but that was while the House was in session. My understanding is that the House rules say you can not call the president a liar or say he is lying while the House is in session. Would these same rules apply during the SOTU?

Also, I find Greene's (and other people's) outbursts extremely embarrassing for the country as a whole. I may lean right on some topics, but any outburst of this kind should have some type of punishment, at least in the form of a hefty fine. Our country is supposed to be more civilized than this.

(V) & (Z) answer: Here is what one member of Congress had to say:

We have rules for a reason. Just because one party is in the majority... doesn't mean that the rules don't apply to them. The rules apply to all of us, just as we're passing laws here that ought to apply to all people fairly across this country. The reason we have these rules is so that we can rise above the fray.

We have disagreements on this Floor. What's great about this country is we have the ability to come and battle over the disagreements, but we shouldn't get into personality conflicts on this Floor. We shouldn't be trying to accuse people of one thing or another disparagingly on this Floor. That's why we have these rules, so that we can actually debate the issues that people care about rather than engaging in this constant barrage of personality attacks that we've seen week after week after week.

You will notice that the issue is being on the floor of the House and making personal attacks, it's not whether the House is formally in session or not.

Now, these remarks were not offered up this week. In fact, they come from then-house minority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) after the Democrats said some mean things about Donald Trump while on the floor of the House in 2019. For consistency's sake, he should be equally outraged by the behavior we saw during the State of the Union this week. But do you think he is? Yeah, us either. And while Greene could theoretically be censured for her behavior, do you think Scalise or any other GOP member of the House would actually support doing so? Again, us either.

J.E. in Boone, NC, asks: : It's been interesting and amusing to read about and watch Joe Biden's back and forth with the GOP during the State of the Union—and priceless to see them walk right into his trap on Social Security and Medicare. I might add that it's rather funny to see the GOP caucus "thumb their nose" at Speaker Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) assertion that the GOP would follow traditional ethics and decorum.

My wife and I have actually enjoyed watching the Prime Minister's Questions from time to time and can see why many commentators would compare this year's SOTU to it. My question is this: Do the MPs go so far as to call the PM a liar or shout "bulls**t!"? Perhaps our fellow fans across the pond could chime in!

(V) & (Z) answer: Ask, and ye shall receive:

G.S. in Basingstoke, England, UK, answers: What is banned and what is permitted in Parliament is largely determined by the discretion of the Speaker (the nominally non-partisan "referee" of debates). Historically, directly calling another member a liar has been banned—as an MP may not deliberately mislead Parliament, and they would be expected to resign governmental positions if they had. You may recall the former (and believe it or not, now current) Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, resigning after "inadvertently" misleading Parliament during the death throes of Liz Truss' premiership, for example. That said, the SNP MP Ian Blackford was briefly allowed to directly accuse Boris Johnson of doing so during PartyGate. This article contains a useful answer to the specific question, namely that "while it is perfectly in order for the honourable members to question the veracity of the prime minister's responses to the House cited in the motion, it is not in order to challenge more generally the truthfulness of the prime minister or any other honourable member. Good temper must be maintained in parliamentary language."

That said, there are all manner of ways to question the, er, veracity of a member's assertions without resorting to what John Kerry called "the strongest word" and happily, I have an excellent book called Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History by a former MP, Matthew Parris, containing many records of what has and has not been allowed. The list below were NOT allowed and had to be retracted by the Member responsible: false, hardly credible, resorting to trickiness, dishonest and hypocritical, flippant mendacity, wilful falsehood, perverter of the truth, dishonest evasion, untrue, fiddling the figures, numerological inexactitude, telling porkies, a load of bulls**t.

The following, however, were allowed: a calumnious (sic) statement, devoid of any truth, cooking the figures, shameless lack of candor, claptrap, nonsensical twaddle, utter crap. Also, "absolute bollocks" (after the Speaker ruled it could not be verified on the audio recordings).

A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK, answers: Referring to another MP—including the prime minister—as a liar on the floor of the House is considered unparliamentary language, and is therefore not permitted. The specific parameters of what constitutes unparliamentary language are left to the Speaker to decide, but the U.K. Parliament's website offers the following brief definition:
Unparliamentary language breaks the rules of politeness in the House of Commons Chamber. The Speaker will direct an MP who has used unparliamentary language to withdraw it. Refusal to withdraw a comment might lead to an MP being disciplined—for example, the Speaker could 'name' the Member [discipline a member for breaking the rules].

Words to which objection has been taken by the Speaker over the years include blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor.
Referring to another MP as a liar is unparliamentary. Even suggesting that an MP deliberately misled Parliament can lead to the Speaker disciplining a member. A prominent recent case came in January 2022, when Ian Blackford, the then-leader of the Scottish National Party's Westminster MPs, directly accused then-PM Boris Johnson of lying and misleading Parliament. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle gave Blackford several chances to withdraw his remarks, and when he refused—indeed strengthened his language—the Speaker moved to suspend Blackford, though the SNP's Westminster leader walked out first. A video of the exchange is available here, though Blackford's language—though undoubtedly strong—may seem decorous to Americans used to the antics of Marjory Taylor Greene; Blackford was also better dressed.

Another famous exchange involves 19th-century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Told to withdraw his assertion that half the Cabinet were knaves (Disraeli was in opposition at the time), he agreed to withdraw, and instead merely asserted that half the Cabinet were not knaves.

S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK, answers: It might be worth mentioning that MP's are not supposed to lie to the House of Commons and should they inadvertently do so they are supposed to correct the record at the earliest opportunity. Such a shame that no one appeared to pass on that message to former PM Boris Johnson. The parliamentary inquiry as to whether Bojo deliberately mislead the Commons over the infamous parties is still ongoing. Apparently the MPs, led by Harriet Harmon, the "Mother of the House" (Longest continuing serving female MP), are having great difficulty obtaining phone records and some witnesses are reluctant to give evidence in the absence of anonymity, in view of Boris's vengeful nature.

One famous parliamentary example of getting round the lying accusation is Winston Churchill's use of the phrase "terminological inexactitude" way back in 1906, which was allowed and has been used since. Back in the 1980's the then-head of the U.K. civil service, Sir Robert Armstrong, when accused of lying, came up with the wonderful defense that he was merely "being economical with the truth."
Thanks, chaps!

T.M. in Downers Grove, IL, asks: You wondered if Republicans in the audience for Joe Biden's State of the Union address would behave like grown-ups or small children, while also calling then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi's tearing up of Trump's speech "bold." What made Pelosi's actions bold rather than childish?

(V) & (Z) answer: Note, first of all, that "bold" was a pretty carefully chosen word that doesn't necessarily mean we endorse her choice.

That said, let us imagine that Trump was an unusually malignant president whose actions were doing serious harm to individual Americans and/or to the country as a whole. In those circumstances, it is helpful for those being harmed to know that at least some of the people in power understand what is going on, and are fighting the good fight against such malignancy. If you accept these propositions—some readers will, and some won't—then Pelosi managed to communicate a useful, and even hopeful, message in a matter of a couple of seconds, while millions of people watched.

We don't think there are too many presidents, Republican or Democrat, where such an overtly disrespectful display in that context would be apropos. But it is possible that Donald Trump is one of the few (and maybe George W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, too). To this day, we're still not 100% sure we agree with the choice Pelosi made, but we think it's potentially justifiable. And, given her long track record of skillful political maneuvering, when we're 50/50 on some choice that she made, we tend too give her the benefit of the doubt.

B.K. in Dallas, TX, asks: How many people actually watched the GOP response to the State of the Union? How many decided to watch another episode of Seinfeld instead?

(V) & (Z) answer: The audience for the response was about half the audience for the SOTU, which means about 14 million people watched Sarah Huckabee Sanders speak. Programs that evening that drew similar, or better, numbers: two NBA basketball games (Suns-Nets and Thunder-Lakers), Inside the NBA, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, 1,000-pound Sisters, Anderson Cooper 360 and The Curse of Oak Island. So, the governor had pretty stiff competition. Lucky for her, she didn't have to face off against The Real Housewives of Arkansas.

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: In her rebuttal to Joe Biden's State of the Union address, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR) drew a contrast between her youth and Biden's age. She then went on to say, "It's time for a new generation of Republican leadership." She also never mentioned Donald Trump once during her speech.

I don't doubt that her main goal was to tear down Biden and the Democrats, but isn't it possible that the speech was intentionally written to subtly undermine Donald Trump as well?

(V) & (Z) answer: Very unlikely. She is joined at the hip with Trump, by virtue of her high-profile service in his presidential administration. And, by all indications, she is part of the base (or the cult, if you find that to be a more accurate discriptor).

Politicians in general, modern Republican politicians in particular, and Trumpy modern Republican politicians even more particularly than that, often say whatever they think their voters want to hear. They do not concern themselves with consistency, and if they think the voters want to hear [X] now, and 1/[X] 2 days, or 2 hours, or 2 minutes later, then they will say [X] and have no compunction about following that with 1/[X], even if the two statements are utterly inconsistent. The Trumpers are obsessed with Biden's age, just as they were obsessed with Barack Obama's birth certificate, and so Sanders threw her audience red meat about Biden's age. We do not know if it doesn't occur to Sanders/the Trumpy base that Donald Trump is only a few years younger than Biden, or it does occur to them but they don't think age matters in The Donald's case, or if they just don't care about being hypocritical.

In any case, we definitely do not believe the Governor was playing 3-D chess.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Your mention of the designated survivor got me wondering if there is a plan in place to reconstitute the government if the almost unimaginable occurred and an attack on Congress during a SOTU resulted in the entirety of the three branches of government being killed. What would that look like?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is a plan, but it essentially amounts to: "Make sure at least some people survive, and then they will have to figure things out."

For the executive branch, of course, there is the designated survivor. This is the most important precaution, as it makes certain that someone with a legal claim to the presidency will be alive.

For the judicial branch, it's rare for all nine Supreme Court justices to attend the SOTU (four skipped it this year, as we noted). But even if all nine were to be lost, it wouldn't be particularly debilitating for the U.S. government. They really aren't a part of the daily operations of the government, and it would not take too long to repopulate SCOTUS with promotions from the lower levels of the federal judiciary or from other appropriate places.

For the legislative branch, it's important that there be someone left to exercise congressional authority, and also to retain and pass along the institutional memory of how things work (remember, both chambers have a lot of arcane rules and traditions). For a period of time, there were "designated survivors" for both chamber of Congress—one for each party in each chamber. However, the leadership eventually came to the conclusion that the SOTU never gets 100% attendance from members of Congress, and such measures are therefore unnecessary.

If the unthinkable did come to pass, there would undoubtedly be some significant relaxing of formalities, and some bending or outright breaking of the rules. Certainly, the president would declare martial law, at the very least. It's also likely that the timeline for electing new members of Congress would be shortened dramatically, perhaps by executive order, on the theory that the president would be exercising the extraordinary, but ill-defined, wartime powers granted by the Constitution.

M.B. in St Andrews, Scotland, UK, asks: When reading about Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk and the abortion suit against the FDA, I can't help but wonder what point there is in ordering the FDA to revoke the mifepristone approval. The Biden administration is unlikely to go around and confiscate all the pills out there, and doctors in California and New York aren't likely to stop prescribing and providing them; he could threaten to hold them in contempt, but enforcing that would likely require the cooperation of the (likely uncooperative) Attorney General and Justice Department. Surely all that stunt would do is show Kacsmaryk's court to be relatively powerless in this matter?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is something that federal judges, and in particular the Supreme Court, should be very nervous about. The judicial branch has no power to enforce its own rulings. And even if the executive branch is willing to engage in enforcement (which it probably would not be, in this case), it's not especially possible to police mass rebellions against a particular law or ruling.

And, in these circumstances, it is not just that one particular ruling would prove to be ineffectual. It's also that the failures of that ruling would cause private citizens and politicians both to rebel against other federal judicial rulings.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, asks: Maybe I'm missing something, but why did the administration tell us about the Chinese surveillance balloon? News reports indicate that there was at least one previous balloon incursion of U.S. airspace during the Biden administration and at least three incursions during the Trump administration. The public didn't know about the prior incursions until now. What makes this incursion different? Was the balloon spotted by civilians, and so made its way into the news? Was this incursion more brazen than the others? Was the administration deliberately disrupting U.S.-China relations?

(V) & (Z) answer: You have hit on the key point: This balloon was not only spotted by civilians, it was filmed and photographed, and that material made its way onto social media. This did not happen with the previous balloons.

Incidentally, the first civilians to spot the balloon were Canadians, which certainly raises some... important questions.

D.C. in Clayton, GA, asks: The Biden Administration, via, just reported that at least three Chinese balloons overflew the U.S. during the Trump Administration, and Donald Trump kept it a secret and did not shoot them down.

I'm reminded of the apocryphal story about the two letters Stalin left for Khrushchev—the first saying: "Blame everything on me," and the second saying: "Write two letters."

Now that Biden has released this information about Trump protecting the Chinese (who Trump publicly claims to hate), my question is: Has a U.S. President ever released secret information withheld by the just-previous administration, particularly of the opposite party, for the purpose of justifying its own actions or minimizing criticism?

(V) & (Z) answer: We think your framing here might be a little off the mark. First, the story thus far has been that the Trump administration was unaware of the balloons, because the U.S. did not have the ability to track them until "gaps" in the country's surveillance were recently rectified. It is not that Trump was aware of them and chose to look the other way. Also, this information was released by a senior DoD official (Gen. Glen VanHerck); it's not clear that he did so on orders from the White House. And whether the President was involved or not, it seems to us that the primary message here was not "Don't blame Joe Biden because Donald Trump screwed up even worse" but instead "There's nothing to be alarmed about; this happened before and no harm was done."

As to your actual question, it's not especially unusual for a presidential administration to share information that, among other things, gives cover to the sitting president at the expense of one of his predecessors. The Kennedy administration slowly but surely let slip details about the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the Eisenhower administration's involvement in orchestrating the plan. The Carter administration shared some of the hard truths about the Vietnam War, as it was conducted by Richard Nixon (admittedly, there was a Gerald Ford interregnum in between Nixon and Carter). Those hard truths helped justify Carter's decision to pardon draft dodgers en masse. The Obama administration released information about some of the things that went on at Guantanamo Bay under George W. Bush. Although Obama was unable to deliver on his promise to close Gitmo, this did put him in a position to release some of the folks being held there.

Incidentally, if a sitting presidential administration really wanted to get some truly sensitive (and possibly classified) dirt about a previous administration out there, it wouldn't come in the form of a high-ranking official of that administration holding a press conference and spilling the dirt on the record. Instead, it would be leaked to reporters off the record.

D.A. in Parish, NY, asks: If the fighter pilot who downed the Chinese balloon shoots down four more, will they qualify as an "ace"?

(V) & (Z) answer: Note that "ace" is only semi-formal, and is not recognized by all militaries (or by all branches of the U.S. military, for that matter). For example, the Air Force will acknowledge that a pilot is considered an ace, but the U.S. Navy doesn't do that. And even among those military organizations and branches that do recognize aces, the definition is fungible and has often varied over time.

That said, the general notion is that a service member must be responsible for the defeat of five enemy aircraft in order to be considered an ace. Note that says "five enemy aircraft" not "five enemy pilots." So, shooting down a balloon or a drone or a missile counts as a "kill." In fact, there is a pilot in Ukraine who, quite recently, became not only an ace, but also an "ace in a day" by shooting down five Russian-operated drones in the span of 24 hours.


P.H. in Tallahassee, FL, asks: There's been word of a lot of behind the scenes angst of GOP insiders worrying about TFG getting the party's presidential nomination for a third time. They reportedly believe he can once again get the nomination in a split field with 30% to 35% of the primary vote and will lose to Joe Biden again. They're acting like there's nothing they can do about it.

It seems to me there's any easy solution to this: Change the primary process to stop having winner-take-all contests. If 30% of the vote only gets 30% of the convention delegates, then TFG's nomination is less assured.

I'm wondering if there's some underlying reason the RNC won't take this action.

(V) & (Z) answer: We've addressed this before, but it comes up often enough that it is worth addressing again.

First, if the RNC changed the rules in a manner obviously designed to undermine Trump, he and his devoted followers would be furious, and millions of their votes would be lost to the Republican Party in 2024 (and possibly for a long time thereafter). Recall what happened with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and the DNC back in 2016, and then multiply that by ten.

Second, if the RNC changed the rules for this cycle, they'd have to stick with those rules for multiple cycles, and they do not want to do that. The Party prefers a system that allows the nominee to be chosen as quickly as is possible. If the RNC members did try to change things back in 2028, it would be even more obvious that they were putting their thumbs on the scale to promote favored candidates/hurt Trump, and there would be another round of outrage and of Trumpy Republican voters sitting the election out.

J.P.D. in San Francisco, CA, asks: Sen. Mitt Romney's (R-UT) rebuke of Rep. "George Santos" (R-NY) before the SOTU Tuesday was yet one more example of the Utahn's seeming disgust with the current iteration of the Republican Party. Could his voting record of late (impeachment conviction votes, infrastructure, Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS Act, etc) and a "somewhat" lean away from Trumpism in Utah (Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT, beat Evan McMullin by 14 points instead of the usual 40+) result in Romney (if not officially) caucusing with Senate Democrats to help keep the lights on? Is this something Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would tacitly approve? And what, if any, are the chances Romney would declare himself to be an independent, like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), voting as he sees fit, but reducing the Republican numbers? It would fit within his morality, and politically, I don't see how it hurts him. Thoughts?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, to start, politicians who are already in office very rarely switch parties to be true to themselves, or to be more honest with voters. They switch because they believe that the base has shifted beneath their feet and they think a different affiliation will make them more re-electable. That's why Sinema did it; she had almost no hope of winning the Democratic primary in 2024.

And while Utahns may be more open to voting for independents than residents of other states, at least when the other option is an obnoxious "look at me!" type like Mike Lee, there is no way Romney is more re-electable as an independent than he is as a Republican. In fact, doing that would split the right-wing vote, and would be the only way that a Democrat would have even a slight chance of winning a Utah Senate seat.

Further, even if Romney was interested in being true to himself, the fact is that he is thoroughly Republican. A Reagan-style Republican, no doubt, but still much more a Republican than a Democrat. So, he might well vote with the Democrats on certain key issues, like the debt ceiling. But he will do that because it is consistent with his Republican ideals. For example, non-nutty Republicans believe strongly in not wrecking the economy of the U.S. There is no need for Romney to switch parties, or to register as independent, to do this. And we can't really imagine that he would.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: All of the revelations about Rep "George Santos" (R-NY) have me thinking: What on earth were the DCCC and the New York Democratic Party doing during the whole 2022 midterm campaign? Why didn't they do their due diligence and check out "Santos'" incredible life story beforehand? Even if they dropped the ball, what about the campaign of "Santos'" opponent Robert Zimmerman (who in retrospect, perhaps should have said he WAS that Robert Zimmerman)? Also, "Santos" ran in 2020 and lost to Rep Tom Suozzi (D-NY). How did all of this not come out back then?

Given the lean of the district, do you think that "Santos" would have beaten Zimmerman anyway if these revelations had come out before he was elected? For campaigns and PACs and national committees who have more money than Croesus, spending on thorough oppo research for each and every campaign seems to be worth way more than running a few more annoying political ads. Moving forward, it what ways might the "Santos incident" change the way campaigns are run?

(V) & (Z) answer: We've addressed some of this before, but Zimmerman did know that "Santos" was lying about a lot of things, and he tried to get the media interested. However, no reporters would bite. You can, on some level, see why this was the case. It's pretty easy to wrap your head around something like "[Candidate X] misrepresented his military service" because we've seen that story many times before, and it's only one part of a person's biography. But "his whole life story is nothing but lies and more lies"? We've never seen anything like that before, and any reporter who ran with it and was wrong would be humiliated. And there isn't a lot of time to vet that much stuff, in a short timeframe, for a lower-tier election, when news budgets are already stretched thin.

In the future, we imagine that the DNC and RNC both will, at very least, verify the easy-to-verify portions of candidates' résumés—educational background, work history, etc. This assumes they aren't already doing do, which they may well be. Significantly, it will be much easier to get reporters on board because now parties/candidates can say: "Guess what? [Candidate X] is another 'George Santos'."

And Santos won a fairly narrow victory. Had this stuff come out before the election, it probably would have flipped it to Zimmerman.

L.B. in Savannah, GA, asks: The Hill (a moderate right-wing source) reported a poll of 2,194 people by an organization called "Premise," that found in a Democratic field without Biden, VP Harris has 32% support while Hillary Clinton has 20%. I've never heard of Premise. The article doesn't say who commissioned the poll or how the respondents were weighted (things I've learned are important from you guys!). So is this legitimate? Does Clinton really have more support than Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) or Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg?

(V) & (Z) answer: Premise is not a political pollster, they are primarily a marketing firm looking for some cheap PR. So, that's a red flag right there.

Beyond that, we are at the point in the cycle that many poll respondents don't really know the non-famous candidates. And if you exclude Joe Biden, then it's not surprising that a fair bit of his support migrates to another moderate, longtime-Democratic-establishment-type candidate. We don't think Clinton's result means much of anything, or that she's a more viable candidate than Buttigieg or Newsom.

J.E. in Boone, NC, asks: My wife and I watched Judy Woodruff's interview of Joe Biden following his appearance at the Laborers' Union training facility in DeForest, WI. We noticed that, as Biden was walking toward her, his gait was not robust. He held his right hand and arm stiffer, like he was trying maintain his balance. During the interview, he spoke more haltingly, and there were long pauses as if it took him longer to put his thoughts together. And he seemed to repeat answers/talking points. (I understand some of that may be wanting to pound the points home.) All-in-all, he just seemed very tired from State of the Union prep, SOTU speech, flying to Wisconsin, and doing the union event. Add two more years, and at 82, I question whether he can keep up a campaign pace.

But it made me wonder about the "relative age" of Presidents. My great-great grandfather died at age 61. In photos of him then, he looks like he could be 81 or even 91. In other words, people were older at a younger age. Here are my questions: Has anyone done any comparison of the "relative age" of Presidents? Could we say that there has been a President whose age, at the time, would be akin to 80?

(V) & (Z) answer: To really answer this question would require some substantial comparative actuarial analysis of data from over 200+ years of American history. We're not certain anyone has compiled the necessary data, much less done an analysis with an eye toward this particular question.

Sometimes, you will see this math done based on life expectancy. For example, the average male had a life expectancy of about 40 years in Abraham Lincoln's time, but now has a life expectancy of about 76 years. Ipso facto, add 36 years to 1860s ages to get the modern equivalent. However, this is very misleading because high infant mortality rates drove the overall life expectancy way down.

If you want a very crude approximation, the average life span for an American who reached adulthood has gone up by about 20 years in the last two centuries (from about 60 to about 80). So, each decade works out to about one year of aging or de-aging, depending on which direction you go. Using that method, then we can suggest that the presidents who were "older" than Biden at their inauguration were William Henry Harrison (85 in modern years) and James Buchanan and Zachary Taylor (both 81).

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: You wrote on Thursday that Jill Biden's presence at the Super Bowl will indicate "to Arizona voters that Joe is very interested in the state." How much so, I wonder? How many voters will make that connection? Or will voters think Jill Biden showed up for the photo-op and her presence doesn't signal much else? Or worse yet, for President Biden, will voters think that he doesn't care enough about them to be here himself? More generally, do voters really think that the presence of a politician's spouse sends the signal that the politician cares about them?

(V) & (Z) answer: Very few people, if any, consciously compute "Jill Biden was here; I shall have to adjust my voting patterns." However, visits from notable members of the administration do get a lot of attention. And if one side of the presidential contest has regularly dispatched emissaries to a particular state while the other side has stayed away, some voters will most certainly be left with the overall impression that the side that visits places value on the state and the side that does not visit does not. And that overall impression will definitely affect some votes.

C.D. in Chattanooga, TN, asks: We're already seeing comments about how awful the Senate map is for Democrats in 2024 and 2026. This is right after 2022, which was supposed to be a bad Senate map before they scraped by.

I guess my question is: In a 50-50 Senate, how are three bad maps in a row even possible? Are the red states just so red now that Democrats are incapable of having a good map?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, you're mixing apples with oranges a bit. The 2024 and 2026 maps are indeed tough for the Democrats. In 2022, the issue wasn't the map, it was the environment (e.g., inflation, midterm election, etc.).

Second, what dictates how good or bad the map is isn't red vs. blue states, per se. It's the election returns from 6 years previous. If the Democrats had a good year in 2018, and won a number of competitive seats, then the 2024 map is going to be rough for them because they will have to defend those competitive seats.


B.W.S. in Pleasant Valley, NY, asks: From the item about non-Mexican Mexican standoffs (or as we like to call them, sparkling stalemates): "DeSantis, for his part, also spewed some vinegar yesterday, launching some vague, but entirely unspecific, attacks on 'the media.'"

Vague, but entirely unspecific"? Was the staff thesaurist down the pub with the staff mathematician that day?

P.H. in Davis, CA, asks: You wrote "And now, as a counterpoint to the previous item, we give you a judge who sees abortion very differently than does Matthew Kacsmaryk. That would be Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who is currently presiding over a criminal case involving several defendants who blocked access to an anti-abortion clinic."

What is an anti-abortion clinic? Is that a place where they surgically implant the aborted fetus back into the uterus?

(V) & (Z) answer: When you write, you revise and tweak various words, phrases and sentences. And when you write a lot, particularly on a deadline, you sometimes make small adjustments and don't realize the overall phrase, sentence or paragraph no longer makes much sense. It's a wonder these don't slip through more often.

J.E. in San Jose, CA (class of '93, scoring a 3 on the Calculus AB AP test), asks: In response to the letter from J.K. in Bergen, you mentioned that (Z) took five classes as a high school senior. Isn't the requirement typically 6?

(V) & (Z) answer: In (Z)'s time, the minimum was five. Had six been required, it could have been a problem, because there weren't many classes left for him to take. He took every math, science and historical subject available, as well as 4 years of theatre. He also took, or tested out of, the various skills-based classes, like typing. The presence of ceramics on the schedule, in particular, was because there just wasn't much of anything else to take.

To graduate high school, at least at that time, required the completion of something like 180 units. (Z) graduated with considerably north of 300; enough that the administration joked that they should have awarded two diplomas.

T.B. in Leon County, FL, asks: Does the staff vestal virgin attend your... um, how do I put it politely... floozy and sugar parties? Or do you bring on a new one after each get-together? Sordid minds crave to know.

(V) & (Z) answer: Like Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell, she's a born-again (vestal) virgin. We'll let you fill in the rest.

S.G. in Fairfax, VA, asks: It's time someone asked you a hard-hitting question that really matters: If the Electoral College were disbanded and the national popular vote were adopted, would your site retain the name "" or would you change it?

(V) & (Z) answer: 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) kept the name even after it became obsolete. And if it was good enough for them...

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: It seems like more and more of your Sunday comments are responses to other submissions. The responses are respectful, so they can't be called "flames" but still, is this what you envisioned when you began publishing readers' comments? I myself have been both a target and perpetrator of this.

(V) & (Z) answer: That was precisely what we envisioned. We are both teachers, and we both incorporate significant elements of discussion into our lectures. The Sunday mailbag is the written equivalent of that.

Reader Question of the Week

We're having a little bit of technical difficulty right now (no, not a broken EV charger) and need to get today's page posted. So, we will run answers to the podcast question sometime during the week. Meanwhile, here's the new reader question, which will definitely have its answers run next Saturday:

M.M. in Leonardtown, MD, asks: Enjoyed yours and readers' differing opinions regarding the 22nd Amendment and whether Lincoln and Roosevelt could run again in the present day, lack of aerobic status notwithstanding (personally I found the nay argument more persuasive). However, it got me imagining hypothetical election matchups if death and term limits weren't disqualifying factors. Regardless of party, which candidates who never faced off would you most like to see run against each other? And what do you think would be the major campaign dynamics/narrative of the particular matchup?

Submit your answers here!

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