Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Saturday Q&A

There are some particularly interesting questions today, in our view.

Current Events

M.H. in Salt Lake City, UT, asks: It's clear that Donald Trump's only viable strategy for escaping justice is to delay any trial until after a Republican becomes president. We also know that he is as loyal to his attorneys as he is to his wives. What is to prevent him from simply firing his attorneys and demanding the extra time needed from the new ones to obtain security clearances and to be brought up to speed? Does a "normal" judge have guidelines on how to handle these kinds of tactics?

(V) & (Z) answer: Because there are so many judges and so many trials and so many defendants and thus so many different sets of circumstances, the federal rules for both civil and criminal procedure largely avoid laying out specific guidelines for judges' decision-making. There are exceptions, such as sentencing guidelines, but in general a jurist is guided by their good sense and by precedent.

And for the specific scenario you describe, there is vast precedent. It is almost always the case that delays work to the advantage of defendants. And changing attorneys can buy a defendant a fair bit of extra time, particularly when the case is complicated or involves things like classified information. Defendants know all of these things, and so firing one's counsel in order to drag things out is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Unfortunately for defendants, judges know these things, too. And so, once the process has begun, lawyers can only resign from a case with permission from the presiding judge(s). As a general rule, there has to be a heckuva good reason for the resignation, or the judge will say "no."

R.A. in Chesterfield, MO, asks: With help from your readers, you've put together an impressive display of all the things that might go right or wrong with jury selection and deliberations in T-Rump's trials, particularly the looming trial in Florida. But that led me to wonder: We assume all such trials involve a jury, but is it not T-Rump's right to have the trial adjudicated by the presiding judge, rather than a jury? I know this is the case in at least some state or local level criminal proceedings, as I was a witness on call in one such proceeding in Metairie, LA. If this is applicable at the Federal level, and T-Rump knows—or at least suspects/hopes—that Aileen "Loose" Cannon is in the bag for him, then trial by judge would seem to be a better bet for The Orange One.

I know that neither of you are lawyers, but I imagine the staff dachshunds are at least passably familiar with some legal beagle or another who could help out.

(V) & (Z) answer: First, let us take this opportunity to repeat something we've noted several times before. As a general rule, we try to allow those who submit questions and letters to retain their authorial voice. And so, while we would not use certain sarcastic renderings of, say, Donald Trump's name, we do allow readers to do so.

Second, we don't need to consult the dachshunds, which is good because they are busy sleeping off their steak dinner (well, steak, peas and carrots, kibble, and doggie probiotic powder). Trump is absolutely entitled to a bench trial, if he wants one. That said, recall the old aphorism about trying a case: "If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither the law nor the facts are on your side, pound the table." A bench trial makes the most sense for a defendant if they are absolutely confident the law is on their side. It also makes some amount of sense if the facts are on their side. On the other hand, if the battle plan is to pound the table, then that's far more likely to work with a jury. On top of that, if the plan is to delay, delay, delay, the jury adds a number of wildcards that open up additional opportunities for that.

Consequently, we would be shocked if Trump goes for a bench trial.

I.L. in San Diego, CA, asks: What are the chances this latest, and most serious, evidence of corruption on the part of Clarence Thomas will cause sufficient uproar to persuade him to take "early retirement" to avoid impeachment? And that this can happen in time for Biden to get a judge nominated and approved by the Senate before the 2024 election?

(V) & (Z) answer: Note that some people, including some non-right-wingers, believe that this is much ado about nothing. We'll have a letter on that subject tomorrow, but the short version is that there are a lot of social gatherings in Washington and costs are often split among the attendees.

In any event, no matter how bad Thomas' behavior is, he's made clear that he doesn't care what people think. And Senate Republicans have made clear they will not hold him to account. So, the only way he resigns prematurely is if he's charged with a crime, convicted and imprisoned. And even then, we'd guess it's 50/50 he gives up his seat.

P.M. in Port Angeles, WA, asks: Has (in)Justice Thomas ever recused himself from a case before the Supreme Court? For that matter, what do the court's records reveal concerning recusals of the current members? It may be constructive to review the number and rationales of the recusals recorded for the current court.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is difficult to draw direct comparisons between Thomas and most of his colleagues because a justice who is in the first 3-5 years of their career on the Supreme Court recuse at a disproportionate rate. This is generally because they either heard the case as a judge at the lower levels of the court system (which means they would be considering an appeal of their own decision) or because they were not a full participant in the Supreme Court's hearing process (for example, they weren't on the Court in time to hear oral arguments).

That said, there is no question that Thomas recuses far less than any of his colleagues. In his entire career, which is now at almost 32 years, he's recused about 50 times. In the most recent term, he recused two times, and in the four terms prior to that, he recused a grand total of zero times. By way of comparison, the second most senior justice is Chief Justice John Roberts, who at nearly 18 years in is well outside the "high recusal" window for new justices. Roberts recuses from about five decisions per term, and has recused from a total of 37 over the last five terms. And Roberts is less likely to recuse than any justice other than Thomas or Sonia Sotomayor (about four per term, and 30 over the past five terms).

S.M. in Warren, MI, asks: Can Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) decide to cancel all weekends and holidays off and keep the Senate in session until the military block from Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) is resolved on promotions? I know it would piss off his own senators, but wouldn't it be a quick end to this fiasco?

(V) & (Z) answer: He certainly could, but the senators would be very, very unhappy. Not only are the weekends time to fundraise and campaign, in addition to maybe a little relaxation, but summer is not a pleasant time to be stuck in the office in Washington.

In any event, Schumer is unlikely to do this. He wants dissension in the Republican ranks, and this is certainly creating it. He also wants clubs to wield against the GOP in next year's midterms, and this is certainly providing one.

That said, this may not last all that much longer, as there's a provision in the defense spending bill just passed by the House that would give Tuberville what he wants (no more paying for military members to travel for abortions). That spending bill will fail in the Senate, and at that point, the Alabamian will have nowhere to go and will likely say something like "I fought the good fight, but there's only so much you can do when facing off against the communist socialist fascist Democrats."

R.S. in Columbia, SC, asks: I read (in more than one news source) that the forced repayment of student loan debts will effectively remove money from the economy. I'm certainly no expert on economics, as my professional and academic training is in physics and electronics. How does any debt repayment remove money from the economy? Why would this repayment be any different than my mortgage repayment, or an auto loan repayment, which I cannot imagine removes money from the economy?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's not true of all student loan repayments, but some sizable chunk of student loan debt is held by the federal government. When you pay back your home loan or auto loan, the note holder (usually a bank) turns around and loans that money out again. When you pay back your student loans to the feds, it just shrinks the total amount of outstanding student loan debt a bit. At least, that's how it appears on the government's ledger sheet.

That said, we all know that the federal government spends money like a drunken sailor. When a student loan is repaid, the connection between that event and the money being put back into circulation isn't as clear as it is with a bank. But in truth, the money still goes out the door again at some point. Put another way, if the nation's students collectively won the lottery 10,000 times, and unexpectedly paid $1 trillion in student debt back at a rapid rate, you can be damn sure that Congress would find a way to spend that windfall.


R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: I know you guys aren't psychologists, but maybe you can tackle this one anyway. Rep. Jim Jordan's (R-OH) performance of yelling at and about the FBI got me thinking. It seems to me that it is mostly Republicans who get accused and sometimes convicted of crimes. Yes, there are some Democrats too (see Blagojevich, Rod or Menendez, Bob), but it's mostly Republicans. The Former Guy. Rep Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Rep "George Santos" (R-NY). Former Speaker Dennis Hastert. And this is just off the top of my head.

My question is this: Is there something about the conservative mindset that makes a person more prone to bend the rules to the point of committing a crime? Are there statistics that back up the basis of my questions or am I suffering from confirmation bias?

(V) & (Z) answer: We've written about this before but, broadly speaking, at the municipal level, Democrats are far more likely to be accused/convicted of crimes. This is, at least in part, a matter of opportunity—cities, especially the ones with lots of money to potentially be pilfered—tend to be run by Democrats. At the state level, Democrats and Republicans are about equal when it comes to criminal activity. At the federal level, Republicans leave Democrats in the dust. We're talking something like 10:1 for the Republicans in the last half-century. This must certainly be a product of the mindset the party's leaders have adopted, which includes the notions that the ends always justify the means and that the government is the enemy.

Naturally, federal (i.e., high profile) criminals get more attention than a sleazy member of the city council. So, you're not suffering from confirmation bias, per se, since you're going to be exposed to way more coverage of Donald Trump's misdeeds or Clarence Thomas' misdeeds than those of Joe Councilman and Joan Comptroller. You just don't want to infer that Democrats are largely above criminal behavior, because that's not true.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: You wrote that for most American voters, the issue of climate change isn't important. What could change that? Maybe the drying-out of the Colorado River? What would be the political consequences if the Colorado River dries out? As far as I know, this could happen within the next 10 years or so.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is possible that some extremely high-profile environmental disaster will be the tipping point, but we doubt it. If American public opinion does change, to the point that the federal government is able to take substantive action, we would guess it will be a slow process driven by: (1) a long series of hard-to-ignore developments, like floods and fires and the like and (2) older voters being replaced by younger voters.

That said, let's not forget that a fairly large chunk of Americans are evangelical Christians. And in the Bible, the Lord's will is often expressed through extreme weather events. For these folks, these various disasters may be a feature rather than a bug, in which case their opinion may never change.

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: Ok, so I get why Dobbs will energize many people to get out and vote (for the blue team). And there have been tons of articles written about how Dobbs had a huge effect on the 2022 midterms and will have an effect in 2024. But what I don't understand is why an equal amount of ink is not being spilled about how climate change will also have a big impact in 2024. There are insane and unprecedented heat waves across the U.S.—including in Red States. Wont the electorate finally see that this is an existential issue and that the only party trying to do anything about it are the Democrats?

(V) & (Z) answer: The reason you don't see ink being spilled is that there's just no evidence that climate change will have a distinct effect on voting patterns in 2024.

The impact of Dobbs is very palpable—women who don't want to bear children are forced to do so. And the options for resisting Dobbs, like changing the composition of the Supreme Court, or finding ways to send abortifacient pills via mail, or passing referenda that protect the right to an abortion, are pretty clear. By contrast, the impacts of climate change are a little harder to bring into focus. They're real and they're perceptible, but they don't have a face in the way that a 13-year-old being forced to carry a pregnancy to term does. At the same time, it's much harder for people to see how one's vote, regardless of the party or candidate, is likely to make a dent in the problem.

D.C. in Bowling Green, KY, asks: You noted the following: "The effects of climate change are not distant and abstract. They are here and quite measurable. Around 1980, the average interval between weather events that caused $1 billion in damage was 82 days. Now it is 18 days, even when converting to 1980 dollars."

Do you have a citation for that? I googled and didn't see one right away, and I'd love to be able to use this.

(V) & (Z) answer: That was from Climate Central, and the report is here. As you can see, they have a year-by-year graph dating back to 1980, wherein the trendline is as clear as can be.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Why haven't the Republicans in Nebraska redistricted such that NE-02 is not automatically Democratic? If the district went Republican in 2024, it realistically could be the difference because, as you pointed out a tied Electoral College at 269 would virtually ensure a Republican in the White House.

(V) & (Z) answer: There are two answers. First, NE-02 isn't "automatically Democratic." It's about evenly split between parties, and is merely projected to go Democratic in 2024. If you look at the state's district maps, you'll see that NE-02 is essentially contiguous with the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area, which is pretty blue. It's surrounded by NE-01, which is only light red. The result is that it's not really plausible to redraw the map to make NE-02 red; the overwhelmingly Republican part of the states are all in the rural areas to the west. If you want, you can try to redraw the districts yourself. You'll see it's not very plausible to gerrymander for the Republicans more aggressively than is already the case.

The second answer is that Nebraska has very clear and detailed rules for the drawing of districts, making it illegal to break up political units (e.g., cities) and requiring that districts be as compact as is possible. So, if the legislature tried to create a Donald Duck-shaped district, there would be lawsuits and those lawsuits would be successful.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: You pointed out that winning the Iowa Republican caucus does not correlate well with winning the nomination—more of an anti-correlation, it would seem. But what about placing in Iowa, as opposed to getting totally blown away? Should a candidate try to have at least some presence there to avoid a post-caucus narrative that they have zero traction, or are the Iowa caucuses effectively an irrelevant distraction?

(V) & (Z) answer: A good way to think about the Iowa caucuses, as you infer, is that they are not great at identifying frontrunners, but they are pretty good at weeding out also-rans. Since they began in the 1970s, no Republican has ever finished worse than a third-place tie and then gone on to win the party's presidential nomination. To put a finer point on it, in years where there wasn't a sitting president on the ballot, the nomination went to the winner in Iowa twice (Bob Dole and George W. Bush), the second-place finisher three times (Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump), the third place finisher once (George H.W. Bush) and the tied-for-third finisher once (John McCain).

If you expand it to the Democratic side, the cutoff line is... fourth place. The party's nomination has gone to the the winner five times (Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton), the second-place finisher once (Jimmy Carter), the third-place finisher twice (George McGovern, Michael Dukakis) and the fourth-place finisher twice (Bill Clinton, Joe Biden). Again, we are excluding years with a sitting president, because the sitting president always wins in Iowa. Note also that the Democratic caucuses are a bit wonkier than the Republican caucuses, because the blue team allows people to vote for "uncommitted." So, for example, Carter finished second in 1976 with 28% of the vote, but the first-place finisher was "uncommitted" with 37%. Also, in 2020, the Iowa Democrats used a super-complex procedure that produced results that... still aren't entirely clear.

D.H. in Boulder, CO, asks: I was late to the party, not being an reader until about 2015. So I wonder, what were you saying about Obama's candidacy back in 2007? Were you giving his run a chance, or taking the position that he would never make it? I ask, because your positions on the current Republican candidates seem quite specific with respect to their chances, even as you indicate the election is a long way away.

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, the site has evolved a lot over time. Back then, the focus was entirely on numbers, with relatively little analysis of candidates' strengths, weaknesses, hopes for election, etc. These days, if a notable (or even semi-notable) candidate declares, we'd do a writeup of their announcement and our thoughts on their chances. When Obama declared, for example, this was our very brief write-up:

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is officially in the race for President now. Needless to say, there are stories everywhere about him and how he chose to announce on the steps of the state capitol in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous "House divided" speech on 1858." Of course, Lincoln wasn't a Democrat; he was the founder of the Republican party. How things change. In 1858 the Democrats were a conservative party centered in the South, whereas the Republicans were liberals from the North. Here are a few links to Obama stories...

That said, we did sometimes comment on candidates' viability back then. For example, this posting, which (accurately) raised serious questions about Rudy Giuliani's presidential hopes. As to Obama, we consistently treated him as a top-tier candidate, along with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. We did that because his numbers supported it; he always polled in the double-digits, even early on, and usually up in the 20s and 30s. See this post, for example, which runs down the polling numbers for the top three Democratic and top three Republican candidates on May 28, 2007.

M.A. in Knoxville, TN, asks: It's looking like Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) will be crushed by Trump in the primaries, possibly even in Florida. And in 2028 (or later), he'll no longer be governor of Florida, so he can't keep pulling "anti-woke" stunts to make the MAGA base happy. If he is crushed, would DeSantis have any real future as far as presidential politics go?

(V) & (Z) answer: You never know, of course, but there's a pretty big difference between "He/she is a promising candidate, but [presidential year] just wasn't his year" and "he/she was put under the microscope, and came up way short."

A candidate in the first category can build on that kind of momentum, and make a return in the next cycle (or the next one after that). A candidate in the second category? Not so much. And it sure looks to us like DeSantis is much more in the second category than the first. He's running in a cycle where many Republicans desperately want a viable alternative to Donald Trump, and he's crashing and burning. Why should anyone believe he'll do better the next time out?

D.L., Springfield, IL, asks: Could you explain the comparison of Casey DeSantis and Lady Macbeth for those of us who couldn't understand a word of Shakespeare when we had to read it in high school?

(V) & (Z) answer: Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman who pursues power at all costs, and his Machiavellian tendencies are strongly encouraged by Lady Macbeth, who is in many ways the power behind the throne. That said, we do not foresee Ron DeSantis literally beheading either Joe Biden or Donald Trump, so the comparison is purely figurative.

M.J. in Granger, IN, asks: I know you guys aren't Poltifact and don't really do that type of analysis but in your travels have you run across any details on Casey DeSantis' cancer diagnosis? I keep hearing rumors that it is just "hinky" and that the timing of the diagnosis and the recovery don't make sense.

(V) & (Z) answer: The theory that DeSantis faked her cancer diagnosis is a somewhat popular conspiracy theory, particularly among those on the far-right who are pulling for Donald Trump. For example, certifiable nut job Laura Loomer is a proponent.

Needless to say, you want to be very careful when questioning someone's medical diagnoses, particularly when you're talking about something as touchy as breast cancer. Further, we've seen no evidence, beyond conspiratorial theorizing, that the diagnosis is phony. On the other hand, we've seen ample evidence that it's real. For example, the generally emotionless Ron DeSantis teared up when talking about it, and Casey DeSantis accurately described what chemo feels like.

R.M.S. in Stamford, CT, asks: I watch Fox 4-5 hours per week because my gym always has it on. One of the things they are attacking Joe Biden the most for is the state of the U.S. economy. They act like the sky is falling whenever they talk about it. Since 2021, they have been acting like the economy is in dire straits and the country is on the verge of bankruptcy. Inflation has been high over the past 2 years but so far it hasn't caused stagnation. The GDP grew by 2.1% in 2022 and is continuing to grow in 2023. The unemployment rate as of June is 3.6%, which is very low by historical standards.

Although I am not an economist, I have always believed that business hiring and layoffs are two of the most important indicators of the state of the economy. Businesses hire more when the demand for their goods and services is increasing, but they lay people off when they have too many workers relative to their business volume. It certainly doesn't seem like many businesses are laying people off. In fact, the opposite problem is happening. Consumer spending has risen so fast that many employers cannot hire fast enough to meet the demand. Unless businesses start laying off workers in large numbers, I won't view the economy negatively.

What do you think the chances are that the economy will enter a recession over the next year? Why do so many Americans have a negative opinion of the economy and what will it take to change that perception?

(V) & (Z) answer: The economy is so big and complicated, it's always possible to cherry-pick and find "evidence" that it's not doing well. This is especially true given that certain key indicators are basically in opposition, such that something like high unemployment almost always means high inflation.

What this means is that if someone wants to create some messaging about how badly a president is doing, it's always possible to make that happen, backed by impressive-sounding numbers and impressive-looking charts. Further, because perception is often reality in this area, repetition of "the economy is bad, the economy is bad, the economy is bad" can make people believe, regardless of how correct that belief really is.

For those who are determined to believe that the economy is bad, and thus that Joe Biden is a failure, there is nothing likely to change their minds. However, those people were never voting for Biden anyhow. For everyone else, barring a very noticeable recession, the election will probably be decided by other stuff, like abortion, culture wars, Donald Trump's misbehavior, etc. This would continue a trend seen over the last couple of decades, where kitchen-table issues seem to be less important in shaping voter behavior than they once were.

As to the odds of a recession, the people who know this subject far better than we do, like the analysts at Goldman Sachs, say it's around 20% in the next year. That sounds good to us. Certainly, we are in no position to substitute our judgment for theirs.

T.M. in Downers Grove, IL, asks: My sister-in-law in California reports that she was recently in the locker room at her local YMCA when a man wearing a woman's swimsuit entered the room. After complaining to management, she was told there was nothing they could do due to state law. Is this true? I don't believe this is commonplace, but can anyone enter any locker room or bathroom they want?

(V) & (Z) answer: There have been a few high-profile stories like this in the past year, nearly always involving California and nearly always involving the YMCA. When studying urban folklore, such mathematically unlikely patterns are generally instructive. In particular, note that both the state and the organization have a reputation for permissive attitudes about sexual identity. California has earned that reputation with its laws and its jurisprudence. As to the YMCA, we suspect it has a lot to do with the song of that name from the Village People (which is, of course, about heading down to the local Y for some casual gay sex).

The first, and most widely circulated, story of a trans woman in the YMCA women's locker room involves 17-year-old Rebecca Phillips, who claimed that a trans woman entered the Santee YMCA locker room and made her (Phillips) very uncomfortable. The right-wing media picked up on this, and it became a big thing in that particular bubble. Phillips' story kept evolving; sometimes she said she saw a penis, other times not. Sometimes she said she was crying and shaking due to how upset she was, other times she was merely uncomfortable.

And now, the truth of the matter. By all accounts, Phillips really was in the Santee Y's locker room, and a trans woman, Christynne Lili Wrene Wood, really did enter. There is no possibility of a penis sighting, however, as Wood is post-op. It's also not clear how long Phillips and Wood were in each other's presence, nor exactly how Phillips knew Wood is trans. It's worth noting that Santee is one of the most ruby-red and reactionary communities in California, such that it's sometimes called "Klantee."

So, while YMCA policy and California state law do allow people to use the locker room that matches their gender identity, the Phillips situation looks like one that was specifically exaggerated to create a scandal. If Phillips really and truly did feel threatened, YMCA policy also allows people to move to private dressing rooms. Phillips did not pursue this option. It's also worth noting that pre-op trans people generally avoid situations like this, not only as a courtesy to other patrons, but also for their own safety. (Z) knows more than one pre-op trans person who either just uses the locker room that matches their birth certificate, or who avails themselves of the private room, or who changes at home.

In short, we think that the version of Phillips' story being told on right-wing media conveys a grossly misleading impression of what really happened, perhaps with Phillips' knowing participation, perhaps with her as an unwitting pawn. Further, we must say we also doubt your sister-in-law's story. It seems quite the coincidence that she would have a near-identical experience to Rebecca Phillips, and it's quite common for people to insert themselves into stories like these in order to make the underlying claims (these trans women are out of control!) seem more plausible.


J.S. in Toronto, ON, Canada, asks: In response to A.S. in Black Mountain, you wrote that alleged website designer Lorie Smith could "discriminate against Jews, Muslims, people who had pre-marital sex, people who were previously divorced, people who say 'I want a goddamn website' and therefore take the Lord's name in vain, and people who wear eyeglasses," since "there is plausible scriptural support for all of those."

My question is whether the same "plausible scriptural support" rationale would apply if Smith wished to discriminate against black people, invoking historical claims that they are either the cursed descendants of Noah's son Ham (Genesis 9) or that they bear the Mark of Cain (Genesis 4), and are therefore to be shunned.

Would one party's right to be free from discrimination on the basis of race supersede another party's right to exercise racist religious beliefs?

(V) & (Z) answer: Needless to say, courts are asked all the time to decide who comes out on top when two people's or entities' rights are in conflict. During the Civil Rights Movement in particular, people tried many, many times to use religion as a way to continue discriminating on the basis of race. And those people lost nearly all the time. So, if Smith or someone else tried it, they would lose since there is a vast body of case law that says "religious freedom" does not include the right to discriminate on the basis of race.

D.R. in Tetovo, North Macedonia, asks: You mentioned there is "plausible scriptural support" for a Christian website designer refusing to do business with prospective clients who wear eyeglasses. Could you please explain what Bible verse could be interpreted as forbidding the use of glasses?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are a number of them; we'll go with Matthew 6:22-23:

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

That's from the Sermon on the Mount. Clearly, Jesus wasn't talking about eyesight, but instead the eyes as a mirror of the soul. That said, one of the most common paths for misinterpreting scripture is to read it too literally.

D.C. in Tampa, FL, asks: You have made mention many times about the various legal limits for campaign contributions, which I believe are currently $3,300 per candidate per election ($6,600 total for primary and general). My question is, what are the consequences for contributing more than the legal limit?

For example, say I send $6,601 today to Joe Biden's campaign for the 2024 presidential election. I presume they would direct $3,300 of that to his primary campaign and $3,300 of it to his general campaign, leaving $1 that I have over-contributed. Would his campaign simply return the excess money to me? Would they direct it somewhere else that can legally receive it? Could I personally face legal consequences for exceeding the contribution limit? If so, what kind? What if I had sent $10,000 or $100,000 or $1 million? Has an individual contributor ever faced serious legal penalties for donating in excess of campaign finance limits?

(V) & (Z) answer: It is not a crime to donate in excess of campaign limits. And if you do exceed the limit, then the campaign will send you a refund. That is why they collect certain information about you when you make the donation. It would be illegal for them to redirect the funds without your permission (though there are sometimes things in the disclaimers that give your "permission" unless you explicitly say "no.").

Nobody goes to prison for exceeding campaign limits, per se, because again, it's not a crime. People do go to prison sometimes for various frauds meant to subvert the rules about donations. For example, pretending to be a U.S. citizen when you're not is illegal (foreign nationals cannot donate to federal campaigns). Similarly, "structuring" one's donations is also illegal (say, arranging it so that you and each of your 100 employees all donate $6,600 to the same candidate), and you can get popped for it. That said, it's very hard to prove the latter crime unless you're really stupid about it.

One other thing to keep in mind. Some candidates may well be unethical and/or careless. However, there are lots and lots of people out there who don't like [Candidate X], and who want to help bring [Candidate X] down. So, a candidate and/or campaign that gets careless about following the rules is likely to eventually accept one or more donations that are not legal, and that are the work of someone who is looking to blow the whistle. That risk tends to keep the shady campaigns honest.

J.E. in San Jose, CA, asks: If Rudy Giuliani were to die before being disbarred, could/would he still be disbarred posthumously? What are the ramifications of such an act, if it is possible in the first place?

(V) & (Z) answer: Being disbarred just means you cannot practice law in a particular jurisdiction anymore. Since death achieves the same result, and with 100% effectiveness, there is no point to disbarring someone who is deceased.

This is not to say that posthumous disbarments never happen. But they happen because the people making the decision don't know that the attorney is dead (see here for an example). Undoubtedly, if Giuliani died, the members of the Bar would know it, as it would be major national news. Plus, they'd hear the music from all the parties.

There was, incidentally, a case last year where a shady attorney, knowing that disbarments don't go forward when the person is deceased, tried to fake his own death in order to keep his license. It didn't work, of course.

P.S. in Gloucester, MA, asks: What is the best strategy for the Biden administration and/or a Democratic-controlled Senate to follow, to counter the Republican/right-wing propensity for venue-shopping cases they want to bring to Federal judicial districts with a single (right-wing) judge, in hopes of getting nationally-scoped rulings?

Can they counter by bringing cases to federal districts friendly to them, in order to set up competing rulings, which ostensibly would prevent these district-level right-wing rulings from applying nationwide?

Or is the only remedy the slow but more permanent way: Fill vacancies so that there are no single judge Federal districts left?

(V) & (Z) answer: You may be assured that liberals also do plenty of venue shopping. This is why so many cases get filed before Ninth Circuit judges.

The fact is that both sides like to have the ability to venue shop when it serves their purposes. So, don't hold your breath waiting for a change. If there is going to be a change, somehow, some way, it is largely not going to come from filling vacancies. That is because some areas of the country, mostly large and sparsely populated ones, only have one judgeship. Congress would have to either make sure that each venue has at least two authorized judgeships, or would have to otherwise change the rules (for example, if a case is filed before the Ninth Circuit, it is randomly assigned to any one of the district judges on that circuit).

M.H. in Seattle, WA, asks: What happens to the Dutch bureaucracy during the parliamentary interregnum? Is it like one of the government shutdowns we've had here in the States, where most federal offices lock the doors and turn off the lights except for essential services, or do most government functions carry on as if there were a continuing resolution, only the legislative process is stalled? The States seem to go years at a time without being able to pass any meaningful legislation, but (with a few exceptions) most government services have continued despite that. How does this compare to what is happening in the Netherlands?

I am none too sanguine about the odds of seeing big reforms to the practice of government here in the States, but I still love hearing about how others do it. Too bad there isn't an international version of!

(V) & (Z) answer: Until a new government is installed, the cabinet continues in place but it can only finish projects already started. It is not supposed to take on new projects. That is generally how it's done in most parliamentary systems where the government might fall unexpectedly.

And we are glad you like to hear about the story outside the U.S. sometimes. That's why we write up those items (sometimes) and why we turn to people who know those countries better than we do (sometimes). Look for an upcoming item on the British elections happening later this week.


E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: The question of the week from J.B. in Hutto reminded me of a something about the Founding Parents that I have been meaning to ask for some time. If you were magically able to talk to them about former President Trump, who would be the most apt non-politician to use as a frame of reference? Which shady-celebrity-businessman-ideologue from their time would be the most similar to the Great Orange Menace?

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, we will note that the 18th century really didn't have celebrities in a way that the modern era does. The country was very big and the mass media were in their infancy. And nearly anyone who did have a high degree of fame ended up in some sort of political office for some portion of their life. Patrick Henry, for example, checks some of the boxes on your list, but he was governor of Virginia for a couple of terms. Benjamin Franklin checks some of the boxes, too, but he was an ambassador and a participant in the various continental congresses.

If you really and truly insisted on using someone who was not a politician to help them understand, then you would probably need to use a literary figure (say, Shakespeare's version of Richard III) or a historical personage (say, the Roman emperor Commodus). The Founding Parents were all well steeped in classical literature and history, and would understand those references (we assume here that we're not counting birthright monarchs as politicians).

That said, there was a contemporary of the Founders who:

We think if you said to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson: "This Trump fellow is very much like your Aaron Burr," they'd grasp things pretty quickly.

M.V. in San Francisco, CA, asks: Given its supposed importance in tanking the political career of a Democrat, how come the fake Canuck letter's contents aren't available anywhere, and its contents are only alluded to? Given its historical importance, and the fact it was supposedly sent to a newspaper, that would suggest that an archive would exist somewhere no? Or is it possible that this letter never existed?

(V) & (Z) answer: For those unfamiliar with the story, during the 1972 campaign, liberal Democrat and presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, then a U.S. Senator from Maine, had a contentious relationship with William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, which served the neighboring, and then-still-purple, state of New Hampshire.

Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect to the President, which never met a dirty trick it didn't like, took note of this and decided to do some ratfu**ing. So, they faked a "letter" to Loeb, which Loeb was more than happy to print. Here's the text:

Mr. Loeb, Manchester Guardian

I saw you on TV the other night and my friends [sic] father gets your newspaper. We went to Ft. Lauderdale as [sic] meet Sen. Muskie we were right beside him at Seed House, when one of the men asked him what did he know about blacks-and the problems with them-he didn't have any in Maine-a man with the senator said, "No--not blacks but we have CANNOCKS."

"What did he mean?" we asked-Mr. Muskie laughed, and said come to New England and see. Could you right [crossed out] write me the answer. Or print it in your paper—my friend gets it from you.

Paul Morrison, Deerfield Beach, FLA 33064

You can see the actual letter here, if you want.

In response to the publication of this missive, Muskie gave a tearful speech on the steps of the newspaper's headquarters in which he insisted he'd never said those things. The speech probably did more harm than the letter, as it made it seem as if Muskie didn't have control of his emotions. His campaign imploded within a month of that speech.

Obviously, the letter is real, and it's at least possible to find it, if not easy. We would guess that its scarcity is because it's ultimately something of a footnote (it wrecked a primary campaign, not a general election campaign, and that was over half a century ago), and because it doesn't really stand on its own. You have to explain the context, and once you do, there's no real need to quote the largely unreadable letter itself.

Alternatively, and also very plausible, is that the Cannocks have taken steps to suppress the letter so as to throw Americans off the scent of their plan for North American domination.


M.C. in Santa Clara CA, asks: Why do you continue to capitalize words for certain races, and not ALL races (or, equivalently, no races)?

(V) & (Z) answer: The short answer is that we follow AP style on that particular point.

The long answer is the general rule is that ethic and cultural designations based on a proper place name (Chinese, Latino, European) get capitalized, while those not based on proper place names (white, bushman, easterner) are left lower-case. However, about 5 years ago, the AP, The New York Times and many other outlets embraced the argument that Black people and Native American people have a shared historical and cultural experience that makes them, in effect, a nation. So, those became exceptions to the rule (along with other terms for various native peoples, including "First Nations," "Aborigine" and "Indigenous"). By contrast, capitalizing "white," and thus implying the existence of a white nation, would echo the arguments of white supremacists.

When we switched to this usage several years ago, we posted a notice. Though the AP's explanation is more thorough.

C.E. in San Francisco, CA, asks: I'm not sure if you've seen this already, but it's been all over my social media feeds. Someone got ChatGPT (despite ChatGPT's objections) to "create a table ranking the US presidents by absorbency":

It has a top five of Taft (fat), Trump
(fat, lots of hair), Washington (wig), Lincoln (hat), and T. Roosevelt (mustache).

Do you agree with the rankings? Personally, I don't think Taft would be that absorbent, but I'm no historian.

(V) & (Z) answer: Without getting into exact rankings, we can think of at least five presidents we'd add to the list to make a top ten: (1) Martin Van Buren's mutton-chop whiskers would certainly be quite absorbent; (2) Franklin Pierce drank so much liquor they said he had a hollow leg, so surely he could suck in a bunch of water, too; (3) conversely, Rutherford B. Hayes was a teetotaler (in part, at his wife's insistence) who was used to taking in lots of water because that's all he was allowed to drink (well, that and lemonade); (4) when it comes to retaining water, there is scuttlebutt that Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lot of experience with dikes; (5) Richard Nixon would surely be good at retaining water, since he always had his Plumbers around him to plug any leaks.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: If we could magically bring the Founding Fathers to modern America, what about our current politics and government (aside from the altered status of women and people of color, obviously) do you think would surprise them the most?

And here some of the many, many answers we got in response:

T.B. in Detroit, MI: Hawaii. The very first questions any Founding Parent would ask, after discovering that the United States still exists, would be: (1) how many states are there? and (2) which is the most recent? And then they would be astounded to learn that it's a place 5,000 miles from the nation's capital that they had likely never, or barely, even heard of (as it was only discovered by Europeans in 1778).

J.W. in Folsom, CA: This exact question came up on a recent episode of This Day in Esoteric Political History podcast. Their answer was "That the Supreme Court is loaded with Catholics."

W.V. in Andover, MA: Taking just one aspect, I think the Founding Fathers would be most surprised at the Supreme Court having decided the Second Amendment applied to individuals and not to militias, giving individual citizens the right to bear arms, apparently including most any weapon, and bearing such weapons almost indiscriminately.

J.B. in Montgomery, IL: That's easy.

"Why does the entire citizenry walk around staring into glowing hunks of plastic, metal, and glass?"

G.C. in Plymouth, MA: I think they would be most astonished by the low level of public discourse about modern problems, the over-hyping of tragedies as news in the media, and the fixation on celebrity in society as a whole. They would quickly want to get out (except Franklin; he would love it here).

R.A. in Chesterfield, MO: I think they would be most surprised—and unpleasantly so—at the idea of "originalism." I think it is clear from both their writings and their general dispositions that they believed the Constitution was a "living" document, intended and designed so that its interpretation and implementation would evolve with the times. They would find the notion that present-day jurists must somehow divine the "original intent" of the document to be absurd and at cross-purposes with the values of the Enlightenment.

M.M. in Alexandria, MN: What can be done with technology to campaign and message. Especially internet video and deep fakes!

G.C. in San Diego, CA: I would guess they would be shocked at how often they are misquoted, or see to quotes ascribed to them that they never uttered.

B.J. in Bolton, MA: I think a Founding Father (or Mother) would be so overwhelmed by being brought into present times—by skyscrapers, cars, televisions, airplanes, computers, and the thousands of items for sale in stores, that it would be a long time before they would be able to focus in on just the changes in politics and government.

S.C. in Roosevelt, UT: I believe that the amount of money involved in elections and the enormous levels of time and energy put into fundraising would both shock and dismay the founders.

D.W. in Los Angeles, CA: "WTF? After us, you took another 130 years to grant women their natural right to vote?"

T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ: All of it. They'd be stroking their chins and say "Hmm, that's not what we meant at all. Especially that thing about the Second Amendment. Are you guys insane?"

J.S. in Germantown, OH: I've been saying for years that most of our Founding Fathers, and specifically Franklin and Jefferson, would be excited to see how we have improved and updated the Constitution. They would then be appalled to find that we haven't. I imagine a response along the lines of, "You do realize that your world has changed so much in over 200 years that our document is virtually worthless? Are you insane?"

J.L.H. in Los Altos, CA: The fact that much of the world looks to the United States and this Constitution as an ideal which they wish to emulate.

D.C. in Portland, OR: Our modern relationship with time would render them dysfunctional. The speed of communication and news, coupled with the general lack of deliberation and the endless, instantaneous verbal combat, would send them into a temporal tailspin.

K.M. in San Diego, CA: I think that folks from the middle of the 18th century could scarce imagine anthropogenic climate change. The world was a big place back then: Woods were dark and deep, seas were vast, continents uncharted, strange lands unknown. (Captain Cook arrived in Australia in 1770. The first recorded sighting of Antarctica was in 1820. The ill-fated voyages of the Erebus and Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage, began in 1839.) And the Industrial Revolution was in its infancy. The very idea that humanity could become so numerous and its impact on nature be so great as to imperil life on Earth would have seemed impossible.

P.D.N. in La Mesa, CA: The space program that put a man on the moon.

J.E. in New York City, NY: Hair dye fails.

Here is the question for next week:

T.B. in Bozeman, MT, asks: In his opinion on the recent emergency mandates to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, "these measures were perhaps the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country."

I immediately began thinking of the many instances of "intrusions on civil liberties" in American History (race-based slavery, anyone?). But then it occurred to me that perhaps this claim would serve as a good crowd-sourced question for your readership. What do your readers think is "the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country"?

Submit your answers here!

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