Dem 51
image description
GOP 49
image description

Saturday Q&A

We asked for history questions. And we got hundreds of them as a result. Needless to say, we can't answer that many in one week, but we chose a bunch and saved a bunch more for future weeks.

Current Events

M.B. in Granby, MA, asks: In Massachusetts, the budget of our popular Governor Charlie Baker's (R) was often referred to as a doorstop. The two branches of the legislature had their own priorities, and once they agreed, they could override any gubernatorial veto.

The federal government is not a de facto one-party state like Massachusetts, but isn't the president's budget also a doorstop? At least in a divided government? Whatever budget President Biden presented would be dead on arrival with the 118th Congress, which is holding the country hostage with the debt limit. What would a "serious" budget—one that the GOP would actually consider—look like?

(V) & (Z) answer: Truth be told, we don't think there is anything Biden could have submitted that the House Republican Conference would actually have considered. They are hungry for the political theater of a knock-down, drag-out fight, and are going to pursue that regardless of what the President proposes.

We suppose that, if we venture into Fantasyland, the Republicans might have agreed to a budget that, say, ends Medicare and doubles funding for the military. But such a budget proposal is never going to come from this White House, as it would be political suicide. And it wouldn't pass the Senate, anyhow.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Asking for my husband (who scored an impressive 8 points on the Presidents' Day quiz, BTW). When did Congress stop getting budgets passed on time? Had Congress been fairly capable and consistent during the 20th century, or was it as hit-or-miss, as it is now?

(V) & (Z) answer: Short answer: Blame Dick Nixon.

Longer answer: Broadly speaking, the budget train started to go off the rails a bit in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, when Nixon became president, he developed a brand-new tool for imposing his will on the budget. Basically, if he didn't agree with something that Congress had funded, he would just refuse to spend the money. This is known as "impoundment."

As a result of the problems that had emerged in the process, and in particular in response to Nixon's trickery (tricky dickery?), the leaders of Congress decided the time had come to overhaul the whole process (and to outlaw impoundment). The result was the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Among other things, that bill lays out a long and complicated process for adopting a budget. Here's the whole calendar, if you are interested:

First Monday in February: President submits budget to Congress.

February 15: Congressional Budget Office submits economic and budget outlook report to Budget Committees.

Six weeks after President submits budget: Committees submit views and estimates to Budget Committees.

April 1: Senate Budget Committee reports budget resolution.

April 15: Congress completes action on budget resolution.

May 15: Annual appropriations bills may be considered in the House, even if action on budget resolution has not been completed.

June 10: House Appropriations Committee reports last annual appropriations bill.

June 15: Congress completes action on reconciliation legislation (if required by budget resolution).

June 30: House completes action on annual appropriations bills.

July 15: President submits mid-session review of his budget to Congress.

October 1: Fiscal year begins

We have no idea what Congress was thinking back in 1974, but this convoluted process has two obvious consequences. First, there are nearly a dozen opportunities to miss deadlines, thus throwing off the remainder of the calendar. Second, there are nearly a dozen opportunities to squabble about the budget. Unsurprisingly, since this "reform" was adopted, the budget has been completed on time a grand total of four times: 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997.

R.D. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: I haven't read the entire text of President Biden's budget (not sure anybody has or will) but I have not seen any mention of eliminating, or at the very least increasing, the SALT limit of $10,000 per year. As a CPA, I have numerous clients and even family members this law has hurt from a tax perspective. Is there any mention of an increase or elimination to the law? Why isn't this a higher priority for Democrats? My thought was that, once Biden was elected, at the very least the limit would be increased. The law is not just hurting high-income tax payers but even middle-income taxpayers.

(V) & (Z) answer: SALT is something of a hot potato that Biden would prefer not to touch. The problem is that the deduction only affects about 10% of taxpayers, and those 10% are overwhelmingly blue-state Democrats. If Biden were to ask for an increase, he'd be open to charges that he's willing to make wealthy Republicans pay taxes but not wealthy Democrats.

Put another way, the SALT limit is largely only of concern to voters in a small number of states (most obviously California, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and New Jersey). As a general rule, it is not wise for presidents to do things that will be popular in a small number of states and unpopular in a large number. Especially when most or all of that small number of states are already in the bag for the president's party.

T.J. in London, England, UK, asks: Following on your item about the Supreme Court case to defund the CFPB, what are the funding arrangements for the Supreme Court? I suspect that there would be concerns surrounding checks and balances/oversight issues if Congress could defund the Supreme Court, so surely they also must have a alternative funding stream other than an annual appropriation from Congress?

(V) & (Z) answer: Actually, the entire judicial branch, including the Supreme Court, is indeed funded by an annual appropriation from Congress. That money is usually included in the annual Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act.

In an effort to maintain independence of the various branches, the judiciary has people who develop a proposed budget and who submit it without presidential input. And the general custom is that Congress gives that budget the thumbs up with limited or no changes.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: I've started seeing headlines like this one from The Guardian: "Justice department said ex-president could be held liable for physical and psychological harm suffered during January 6." How does think this will play out?

(V) & (Z) answer: Let's be clear that this was just an amicus brief filed by the DoJ in a court case brought by two officers who were injured on 1/6. AG Merrick Garland & Co. are not the deciders here; the federal courts are.

That said, we think it's very plausible Trump will end up being held partly liable (civilly) in this case. And if that does come to pass, he's going to be the subject of so many lawsuits that it will make the first 50 years of his adult life look like a walk in the park. People who were harmed on 1/6 are going to come out of the woodwork, either in search of the big bucks Trump allegedly has, or because they loathe The Donald and want to stick it to him.

S.P. in Harrisburg, PA, asks: In response to your item "Let the Foxlighting Begin," I ask anyone with 20 free minutes to watch Tucker Carlson's follow-up that aired on March 8: "TUCKER CARLSON: We knew there was a reason leaders hid the January 6 tapes."

He shows AG Merrick Garland claiming that five police officers were killed on January 6. Who were they? We are only publicly aware of the death one police officer, the details of which are not released. While tragic, it is only one officer. He also shows politicians from both parties continuing to claim that this was such a violent attack. With the release of the tapes, he showed video evidence of "relatively innocuous stuff." Why is there no video evidence to rebut Carlson's position? Why is there no evidence from, perhaps, later in the day to show how this "relatively innocuous stuff" turned into a violent insurrection? Yes, they broke into the Senate chamber, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) office, but this would probably be only considered mischief at worst. Carlson showed in his March 8 piece that a violent attack on the White House in May 2020 resulted in injuries to over 100 police. Your item gives no credence to Tucker's reporting, and you offer no evidence to the contrary, instead calling him an entertainer, and pushing the premise that he has no credibility (despite his video evidence). If video evidence won't do it, is there anything that would change your position?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, let us note that we did not watch the Carlson segment you linked to, nor do we plan to do so.

You see, even within your summary, there is abundant evidence of the aggressive and dishonest spin doctoring that Carlson engages in. Consider the portion about Garland. Here is what the AG actually said:

It was a violent attack on a fundamental tenet of American democracy, that power is peacefully transferred from one administration to another. Over 100 officers were assaulted on that day. Five officers died.

The AG does not actually say that five officers died on that day. And anyone who has followed this story and who heard or read that quote would understand exactly what Garland was referring to. One officer died during the insurrection, and another four lost their lives to suicides linked directly to the insurrection. Meanwhile, it is an outright lie that we don't know the identities of the dead officers. The one who died on the day of the insurrection is Brian Sicknick. The officers who succumbed to suicide were Jeffrey Smith, Howard S. Liebengood, Gunther Hashida and Kyle DeFreytag. This is not difficult information to find.

As to evidence of a violent insurrection, we struggle to accept that this is a serious question. Along with tens of millions of other Americans, we watched the violence live, as it unfolded. We wrote about it at length the next day. Our posting on Jan. 7, 2021, included a subsection entitled "Part II: Violence Erupts." We wrote over 1,000 words' worth of discussion of the violence and we also included eight photos of insurrectionists engaging in violent acts. And in case we forgot anything that we saw on that day, the 1/6 Special Committee presented copious amounts of additional footage that reiterated the point. After every one of the Special Committee's public hearings, we produced a lengthy commentary.

So no, there is nothing that is going to change our position. We believe our own eyes far more than we believe the web of falsehoods woven by someone who is known to lie openly on the air in his efforts to keep his audience both loyal and ginned up. Oh, and the reason we call Carlson an entertainer is because Fox told us that is what he is.

One last thing: If someone broke into your residence, would you be OK with it if the police declined to press charges because, in their judgment, it was just an "innocuous" break-in (and not one of them "serious" break-ins)?

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: There appears to have been more Fox text messages released, and I am wondering why one of them in particular is not getting more coverage, specifically this one from Carlson:

He was pushing voting fraud stuff. I have no doubt there was fraud. But at this point, Trump and Lin and Powell have so discredited their own case, and the rest of us to some extent, that it's infuriating. Absolutely enrages me.

Don't the words "I have no doubt there was fraud" get _ucker off the hook? I appreciate that he is not being sued in his personal capacity, but if one of the most prominent Fox hosts did in fact believe there was fraud, doesn't that sufficiently muddy the water?

(V) & (Z) answer: No. First of all, even a sincerely held belief is not a defense against defamation if the belief is formed with a reckless regard for the truth. You cannot go on TV, for example, and say "I really and truly believe that my next-door neighbor is a pedophile, even though I've never seen him engage in pedophilic conduct." Alex Jones claimed that he sincerely believed that Sandy Hook was a false flag operation, and look how much good it did him.

Second, Fox is being sued specifically by Dominion and Smartmatic. For Carlson to vaguely note that he believed there was fraud in general does not mean that he believed there was fraud perpetuated by those two companies.

P.S. in Mumbai, India, asks: I have a simple question regarding the ongoing lawsuit between Fox "News" and Dominion. If the primary defense of the Fox team is that it is an entertainment enterprise and not a "News" channel, then can they be forced to change their name? If they aren't called "Fox News" but called "Fox Entertainment," that will surely erase the veneer of them being a news outlet, when in reality they are a propaganda arm!

(V) & (Z) answer: We are not experts in this area of the law (or any area of the law, for that matter). But we don't see any way that Fox could be held either civilly or criminally responsible for their name, and so we don't see any way they could be compelled to change it.

The first problem is a free speech issue; people and businesses are free to adopt (almost) whatever name they see fit. If you want to change your name to Tall Genius Smith, even if you are neither tall nor a genius, the U.S. government can't stop you. The second problem is that Fox is a cable concern, and not a broadcast channel. The government, and specifically the FCC, have a fair bit of latitude with broadcast channels (since they use a public resource, namely public airwaves). But they have very little control over cable.

The third, and biggest, problem is that to go after Fox, it would probably be necessary to argue that they are engaging in fraud by calling themselves "Fox News." You cannot call your business "Your Health Is 100% Guaranteed to Improve Chiropractic" or "You Will Earn 15% Annually Stockbrokers" because those names make clear and false promises that could improperly cause people to give you their business. But everyone really should know what Fox is peddling at this point. Further, "Fox News" is a fairly vague name, and in an industry where many channels do not adhere strictly to the promise made by their branding. For example, The History Channel often has silly programs about hunting for alligators in modern-day Louisiana. TV Land sometimes runs movies. MTV (Music Television) has mostly reality shows that are music-free. ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) sometimes shows Chicago Bears games, which are neither entertainment nor sports.

K.E. in Port Angeles, WA, asks: My question is in regards to the election fraud investigation headed by special council Jack Smith. Per a Washington Post article, Donald Trump spokesman Steven Cheung was quoted as saying, "Whenever prosecutors become fixated on the defense attorneys, that's usually a good indication their underlying case is very weak." And, "A spokesperson for Smith declined to answer." Although the article is lengthy, I could find no comments countering the quote given by Steven Cheung. My question is, does the comment by Steven Cheung carry any credibility?

(V) & (Z) answer: Not with us it doesn't. We wouldn't trust Cheung any farther than we could throw him. As with so many people in Trump's orbit, he is exceedingly dishonest, basically a less famous version of Jason Miller or Kellyanne Conway.

We will point out two obvious problems here. The first is that nobody really knows who or what Smith is focusing on, since he is quite appropriately keeping things close to the vest until he has to go public (See: "A spokesperson for Smith declined to answer.") Second, when it comes to the misdeeds that Smith is looking into, Trump's defense attorneys (e.g., Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman) were also his co-conspirators. So, it would be entirely apropos and necessary to focus on them.

T.S. in Memphis, TN, asks: Sometimes I wonder if what comes out in the toilet at Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee's (R) house is diamonds. He is so uptight when it comes to anything related to sex! Having spent time living in the U.K. a few decades ago, there was always some comedian on primetime TV dressed in drag, and that's when there were only 3 TV channels. Focusing on this side of the pond, though, isn't banning drag shows in public an infringement on the First Amendment?

(V) & (Z) answer: It sure is. The government is able to abridge First Amendment rights, but they have to make a clear and evidence-based case for why it's in the public good for them to do so. We've seen no argument for banning drag shows in public, other than the vague "they're sex perverts/pedophiles." But that's not evidence-based, and isn't going to fly in any court in the land. Well, except for Neomi Rao's court, maybe.

Meanwhile, if and when the government does exercise its ability to limit free speech, there has to be a clear standard for doing so. But the politicians in Tennessee clearly have not thought this through. If cross-dressing is no longer legal, does that mean people can no longer stage Shakespeare's plays? Because a number of those involve cross-dressing. Is it no longer OK to air reruns of Milton Berle on Texaco Star Theater? He was in drag almost every show. What about episodes of Bosom Buddies, The Drew Carey Show, M*A*S*H, Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, Key & Peele, anything involving Dame Edna, anything involving Tyler Perry, anything involving Suzy Eddie Izzard, or anything involving RuPaul? Are the movies The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mrs. Doubtfire and Some Like it Hot now off limits? The latter, incidentally, was named the greatest film comedy ever made by the American Film Institute. The point here is that there is too much "make your best guess" built into enforcement of the law.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: After reading about the recent remarks from Matt Walsh about trans people, I looked up who Dylan Mulvaney is on Wikipedia. Apparently, she's a trans activist who has been documenting her transition on TikTok since the beginning. She's been immensely popular and has been invited to meet with President Biden. I also learned that Caitlyn Jenner weighed in back in 2022 during some right-wing criticisms, saying "let's not normalize any of this, this is an absurdity" about Dylan Mulvaney.

I can't understand Caitlyn Jenner's position here. I know she is right-wing, and supportive of many right-wing positions and politicians. But she is also a trans woman herself, who has advocated for greater trans acceptance and has specifically called for people not to be judgmental of trans women's appearances. I can't understand at all why she would make those remarks. None of the reporting on it I could find made any sense. I guess this probably isn't in your wheelhouse but can you make it make sense?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's certainly in our wheelhouse this week.

Jenner was agreeing with a tweet from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). And Blackburn's tweet was in response to a video from Mulvaney in which Mulvaney (who is pre-op) talked about going to the mall in tight shorts, and being stared at because she presented as female from the waist up, but the shorts revealed a clear bulge. Mulvaney's ultimate point was that people need to accept that some women might have unexpected bulges, and it's not apropos to stare. Blackburn and, apparently, Jenner disagreed.

Our sense here is that Jenner is doing the same thing that we see from, among others, some right-wing Black folks. Essentially, they have a particular idea of the "appropriate" way to live the experience of being a minority (and sometime target of bigotry/oppression), and any other member of the group who does not adhere to this is a target of criticism. Jenner clearly believes that the right way to transition is to be a man, a man, a man, a man, then get surgery, and boom! you're now a woman. If that worked for her, then great. But, of course, her wealth and fame give her access to resources (like, say, gender reassignment surgery) that not everyone has.


C.P.S. in San Jose, CA, asks: Many fundraising emails include the statement that if the recipient contributes prior to some rapidly approaching, impending deadline, that contribution will be matched by 2X, 3X, 4X or whatever.

Are there any cases where this is really the case or is this simply a marketing technique to attempt to induce a higher contribution response rate. Presumably the wealthy donor who is the source of the matching funds has made a decision to contribute to a cause or campaign which he supports and would do so regardless of the actual amount of "matching" contributions.

(V) & (Z) answer: We've written about this before, but these marketing appeals are dishonest 99.9% of the time. It is true that if you donate $20 to Donald Trump or Joe Biden, that money will be matched two or three or four or ten times. However, the deliberately unstated implication that the match will happen solely because you donated is false. In other words, if you donate $20, they are going to collect another $80 (FOUR TIMES MATCHING!). But they are also going to collect that same $80 if you don't donate $20.

For federal campaigns in particular, it is impossible that some well-heeled donor is going to write a blank check based on how much money rolls in today or this week or whatever. That is because individuals are strictly limited in terms of how much money they can donate (usually, $5,800 per cycle). The only time where these pitches might be true is when they come from activist organizations or causes. Sometimes, an entity like the Gates Foundation will say that they will double-match any donations that, say, the American Cancer Society gets on World Cancer Day.

R.H. in St. Louis, MO, asks: Every time the topic of felon re-enfranchisement comes up commentators (including but not limited to your site) harp on the outsized percentage of felons that are minorities and imply that felons will vote for the Democrats. But felons are also disproportionately male and either evangelical or evangelical non-practicing, both of which are huge groups for the GOP in the post Trump world. So how sure are we that ex-felons will break for the democrats? Have you seen any actual polling?

(V) & (Z) answer: Very sure. There have been many studies (not polls, which would not be the correct instrument for this kind of question). And those studies show that Democratic felons outnumber Republican felons somewhere between 2-to-1 and 3-to-1.

When we bring this up, however, we generally aren't speaking to what will actually happen. We are speaking to what politicians think will happen, which thus drives their decision-making (e.g., Democrats enfranchising them in Minnesota, Republicans disenfranchising many of them in Florida). The truth is that while felons skew Democratic, they are also extremely unreliable voters, such that they are not likely to affect many election outcomes.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: Why do so many journalists "play it straight" when reporting on any of the stunt bills introduced by Florida Republicans? Most articles about the "blogger registry" law seem to report on it uncritically, describing the potential impact, as if this was a "serious" bill. Nobody seems willing to point out that this is bad-faith legislation, with no expectation that it will withstand a court challenge. No one estimates how much taxpayer money will be wasted on legal fees.

In 2016, reporters were unwilling to use the term "lie" to describe the things Donald Trump said (they eventually came around). Do most news organizations have similar editorial policies, that prevent them from describing performative legislation as a "stunt"?

P.S.: I really appreciate that you guys took an appropriately dismissive tone when describing this nonsense. I wish other sites did the same.

(V) & (Z) answer: Here are the explanations we have, ranked from most to least likely:

  1. Stories about scary legislation that allegedly "might" happen attract more eyeballs/clicks than stories about legislation that will never happen
  2. The outlets you refer to are worried about looking biased
  3. The outlets you refer to are in the bag for the Democrats and want to make the Republicans look as bad as possible
  4. The outlets you refer to don't understand the political process very well

We would guess it's mostly a combination of #1 and #2.

D.B. in New York, NY, asks: Beyond Texas (which always seems to be so close and so far away at the same time), which currently Red states (red since at least 2000) do you see trending towards the Democrats the quickest? Who's next after Georgia, Arizona and (maybe) Texas?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, the obvious answer is North Carolina, which is basically 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, but is dominated by Republicans (outside the governor's mansion) due to gerrymandering and other maneuvering. It's a reddish-purple state right now, as a result, but could certainly be a blue state in 10 years.

Alternatively, if you want a dark horse, how about Alaska? They've just twice elected Rep. Mary Peltola (D), and even their Republican officeholders (e.g., Sen. Lisa Murkowski) are pretty centrist. Alaska has a strong populist streak, and with its new ranked-choice voting system (not to mention its fairly small population), it would not stun us if it became a blue-purple state within a decade. We're not saying it's likely, but it's plausible, much more so than, say, Wyoming or Oklahoma.


D.C. in Brentwood, CA, asks: I was thinking about candidates who are in fundraising limbo, because they don't know if they should declare when there's a possible incumbent who would run.

Could they declare, raise funds, and if the incumbent declares, pull out and repurpose those funds? If so, could people declare candidacy for lots of different positions, in order to raise the maximum for each role, each time pulling out to repurpose their funds for the race they actually care about? In short, can bailing on campaigns be a strategy to avoid campaign finance caps?

(V) & (Z) answer: Nope. Non-federal campaigns, generally speaking, don't have contribution limits. So, there would be no point to the dodge in that case. And for federal campaigns, you can only accept $5,800 per donor (unless there is also a runoff, in which case it's $7,700). It can be money that was donated for your current federal campaign, or money that was originally donated for some other campaign. But you can't say "I spent $5,800 that Bob Smith donated for my U.S. Senate campaign, and another $5,800 that Mr. Smith donated for my mayoral campaign, and another $5,800 that Mr. Smith donated to my campaign for dogcatcher of East Cupcake." If you could, that would be the biggest and most obvious loophole in the history of campaign finance.

S.R.G. in Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica, asks: Recent news around "national divorce," the northern-most counties of Idaho and "Freedom Cities" cause me to wonder: Would it be possible for a group of counties to secede from a state, and declare their own new national government? Is this similar to the West Virginia split (without seeking statehood)? Are there any historical examples of counties or regions attempting such a thing in the past?

(V) & (Z) answer: Is it technically possible? Yes, because a territory who seceded like this would no longer be subject to American law. But, in this case, might would make right. And the new nation of North Idaho would have no plausible way to defend their independence when the U.S. Army showed up to end the attempt at secession.

There have been many, many attempts, with various degrees of seriousness, at secession. The most famous predates the Constitution; it's the nation of Franklin, which lasted for 4 years, and was eventually absorbed into the state of Tennessee. And, of course, both Texas and California seceded from Mexico (the latter only briefly) before becoming part of the U.S.

West Virginia is a very special case. In effect, it was considered, for a couple of years, the legal embodiment of the state of Virginia. And then, after the Civil War, the separation was maintained. This was of dubious legality, but because Congress signed off on it, nobody said "boo."


M.R. in New Brighton, MN, asks: Having led a coup attempt, Donald Trump is hands down the president most hostile to democracy in our history. But who is #2? Of our presidents, who takes the dubious honor of having been democracy's second worst enemy?

(V) & (Z) answer: The quick and easy answer is Richard Nixon, who did some very undemocratic things (spying on enemies, weaponizing the government, defying Congress) and did a fair bit of damage to the country as a result.

Also in contention is James Buchanan. He meddled in the business of the Supreme Court, illegally, and thus helped take a national situation that was tenuous and turn it into something that was effectively unrecoverable. Also, once it was clear that the South was seceding, he sat on his hands for months and did nothing, allowing the soon-to-be-Confederacy to seize federal weapons and other resources that were essential to their war effort. If Buchanan had actually shown some backbone, the Confederacy might not have survived for more than a few weeks.

Finally, you can make a case for John Adams. Recall that the Founders were not really fans of democracy; they tended to be almost as suspicious of the "teeming masses" as they were of monarchs. While president, Adams put many of these predilections into action, most obviously signing the Alien and Sedition Acts into law.

L.J.D. in Orlando, FL, asks: Since you asked for a history question, I've got one for you. As you know, former president Trump is running for the Presidency in 2024. When was the last time a former president ran for the office? Bonus points for not Googling it.

(V) & (Z) answer: We must point out that if we were unable to answer this question without help from Google, then we would have no business writing this site.

Anyhow, if you run through the various presidents who have served in the last century or so, you'll find that the number of them who plausibly could have run again after leaving the White House is actually fairly small. If we start with the year, say, 1900, that gives us 22 presidents. Of those, William McKinley, Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy died in office. Meanwhile, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were disqualified from running again by the Twenty-Second Amendment. And Joe Biden is still in office.

That leaves us with just 11 possibilities since the start of the 20th century. In order, they are Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Trump. We could further narrow it down, if we wanted, by eliminating presidents who left office in wretched health (e.g., Wilson), or thoroughly sick of the job (e.g., Taft), or both (e.g., Coolidge).

In any case, if we define our terms very loosely, then the answer to the question is Gerald Ford. He was a semi-serious candidate for the vice-presidency in 1980, and the notion was that he and Ronald Reagan would serve as "co-presidents." That arrangement has no legal meaning, and the powers of the presidency would still have been vested in Reagan. As we said, this is the answer if we define things very loosely.

If, on the other hand, our definition is "staged a full-fledged presidential campaign, and got votes for that office," then the answer is Theodore Roosevelt. He left the White House in 1909, went to Africa and killed a bunch of animals, came back and wrote some books, got bored, and ran for a third term as the Progressive/Bull Moose candidate in 1912. TR got 4,122,721 popular votes and 88 electoral votes; both of those tallies outpaced the sitting Republican president, namely Taft (who got 3,486,242 popular votes and just 8 EVs).

A.S. in Hanover, NH, asks: In light of the Fox "News" stories, could you give some history of private-sector political propaganda in the U.S.? I have always thought of political propaganda as state-sponsored and am wondering if Fox is a new phenomenon or just a continuation of an old tradition.

(V) & (Z) answer: State-sponsored propaganda is relatively new in origin (ca. World War I, or so). Private-sector propaganda, by contrast, has been a part of American culture since before the United States existed as an independent nation.

People are going to use whatever mass medium happens to be available to them to try to propagandize people in favor of their political beliefs. If you were to ask someone to name the most influential work written by an American, they would probably choose either Common Sense by Thomas Paine or Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. You know what those works have in common? They are both propaganda. And Paine's is just the most famous example of Revolutionary-era propaganda pamphlets, while Stowe's is just the most famous example of Civil War-era propaganda books. During Stowe's time, both pro- and anti-slavery advocates produced mountains of propaganda in support of their beliefs. Interestingly, the most effective pro-slavery propaganda was probably... Uncle Tom's Cabin. Copyright law largely didn't exist back then, and Southerners rewrote portions of the book (and the play based on the book) to be pro-slavery. Remember, the main bad guy, Simon Legreé, is from the North.

Newspapers are probably the most direct historical antecedent to Fox. In the early days of the U.S. (and in the colonial era), newspaper subscriptions were largely only in the budgets of wealthy people, and every paper had a staunch partisan lean dictated by its customer base. In fact, in the early republic era, newspapers were often funded by the political parties, either directly, or through the awarding of government printing contracts. Once newspapers became cheap enough for the masses (the 1850s, roughly), they still retained a very clear partisan lean. To take a famous example, during the Civil War, The New York Herald was the paper of working-class Democrats and so was anti-war, The New York Tribune was the paper of middle-class Republicans and so was pro-war, and The New York Sun was the paper of liberal, working-class Republicans (often German immigrants) and so was staunchly pro-war. The editors and writers of those papers would say things about the political opposition, and about the editors and writers of the other papers, that would turn your hair white.

When the radio era dawned, it was pretty quickly brought into the propganda fold. To take one famous example, the Rush Limbaugh of the 1930s was Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio program reached 50 million people per week. He was strongly anti-FDR and strongly antisemitic. (Coughlin, not Limbaugh, though we can see how you would be confused).

Perhaps the least propagandistic era in U.S. history was the early years of the television era. In part, this was because there was a limited number of channels (due to limited space on the electromagnetic spectrum), and so those channels that did exist had to cast their nets wide. In part, this was because there were federal laws that worked against TV journalists getting too political and too fast and loose with the truth. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the federal laws were gotten rid of and cable TV sprung into existence. And so, the stage was set for our current era of radio and TV cable propaganda. The emergence of the Internet in the 1990s just made things all the worse on that front.

J.I. in Regina, SK, Canada, asks: Which Veep has cast the most tie-breaking votes? You didn't even do the usual "For the answer, see the end of this page." Inquiring minds want to know!

(V) & (Z) answer: Oops, we meant to do that for that item. It's John C. Calhoun, who had the benefit of serving as VP under two presidents, and at a time when the Senate was much smaller.

D.G. in Fairfax, VA, asks: How were senators elected pre-Seventeenth Amendment? Given the dysfunction in Congress in the past two decades, might repealing that result in better compromises? Have they become too directly connected to the various whims of the public, more like representatives?

(V) & (Z) answer: They were elected by state legislatures, which meant that senators had, in effect, 20-40 constituents. This did not cause senators to be highly responsive to the needs of their actual constituents (i.e., the residents of their state). And it also left open all sorts of opportunities for corruption (i.e., it wasn't too difficult to buy a Senate seat). So, the Seventeenth Amendment was definitely a step in the right direction.

K.H. in Maryville, TN, asks: We were recently fortunate to see the touring production of Hamilton. We also spent considerable time in the weeks leading up to the show learning the soundtrack so as to more fully appreciate it. This in turn caused us to make many visits to the U of Wikipedia. In the end, we thoroughly enjoyed the show, and learned a lot, too!

My question: President Alexander Hamilton? I like to think he would have been a good one and the country was robbed too soon of his intelligence.

(V) & (Z) answer: He was undoubtedly a hardworking guy, and he was whip-smart. But we are inclined to guess he would not have been an effective president. First, he tended to step on a lot of people's toes because of his brash manner (see, shot by Aaron Burr in a duel). Second, he tended to be an ideologue and inflexible. Not good, particularly since some of his ideas were unorthodox for the time (he was, for example, antislavery).

Our conclusion, then, is that Hamilton was better suited to behind-the-scenes work, rather than being the person in the big chair.

T.M.S. in Benton, AR, asks: You've recently used the term "traitor" to describe Robert E. Lee and some other Confederate leaders. I am no Confederate apologist, but given your careful word choice generally, I wonder what criteria you use to decide whether a person is a traitor. Would George Washington qualify? Benedict Arnold? Boris Yeltsin?

(V) & (Z) answer: They betrayed their governments, so they are traitors, too. However, not all traitors are wrong.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: What would the Lincoln presidency have looked like if the Southern states hadn't founded the Confederacy?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, Abe probably still would have secured passage of his economic package, like the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act. Then, he would have been forced to turn to the issue of slavery. He'd been elected on a promise to halt the spread of slavery, and the whole question was a mess thanks to the Dred Scott decision. Lincoln would probably have pushed for something like a new Kansas-Nebraska Act that strictly protected slavery in the Southern states where it already existed, and strictly banned it everywhere else. And that would surely have been enough to cause the South to secede.

In short, the Civil War would probably still have happened; it just would have started a bit later. However, unlike James Buchanan (see above), Lincoln would not have allowed the South to seize vast amounts of federal arms and other materiel. So, the war might well have ended much earlier than it did in reality.

M.G. in Stow, MA, asks: It's been 157 years since the end of the American Civil War. What could we have done differently in that time to prevent being where we are at now with respect to race relations, white supremacy, and ignorance of the causes of the war?

I hear people defend those who say hateful things and false things, claiming we cannot risk trampling on our first amendment rights, yet Germany has a very reasonable law that makes denying the Holocaust illegal. I also hear people defend the existence of Confederate statues and flying of the Confederate battle flag, because "we cannot change the past" (to which I usually say, "No, but we can change the future."). Again, though, we don't see the swastika flown in Germany, and there aren't any statues of Adolf Hitler in Germany.

So, did we just do things wrong because we didn't want to hurt people's feelings, or did our Constitution prevent us from making the progress that should have been made?

(V) & (Z) answer: Abraham Lincoln was far more qualified than we are to assess the situation, and he saw no viable solution other than relocating Black people from the South, thinking that they could never be accepted as equals by white people. Lincoln was forced to back off that position, for various reasons, but an examination of the years 1865 to present suggest he was right in thinking the problem to be close to intractable.

The difference between German antisemitism and Southern racism is that the antisemitism was just one thread of German culture. A very noticeable and destructive thread, yes, but still just a thread. The German way of life was not fundamentally built on antisemitism. By contrast, the entire Southern economy, social system, political system, etc. was built on racism. Congress was actually pretty aggressive in trying to address that after the Civil War, but without a lot of success, and we really don't see anything that could have been done to substantially change the course of events.

M.B. in Montreal, QC, Canada, asks: What did the South hope to gain by attacking Fort Sumter? What would have happened if the South had refrained from attacking union forces? It seems to me that after 10 or 20 years, the two sides would have settled down to two effectively separate countries.

(V) & (Z) answer: What you must understand is that nobody was really sure if this "secession" thing was actually viable. That included many, many Southerners. And without broad support from the Southern populace, the Confederacy had no hope of fighting off the inevitable Northern effort to put down the rebellion.

Fort Sumter was a very, very important symbol. If Abraham Lincoln had allowed the South to seize it without challenge, he would have looked weak, and it would have undermined the Northern war effort. On the other hand, if the Federal government was able to retain control of the fort (it was then under the command of U.S. Army Col. Robert Anderson), then the Confederacy would have looked like a paper tiger. If the CSA was unable to prevent the USA from holding onto the most important military installation in what was then the Confederacy's most important state, then how could anyone take the Confederate government seriously?

The Southerners really hoped that they could take the fort without violence by laying siege to it and forcing the federal garrison to capitulate for lack of food and water. Lincoln understood well what was going on, and so he announced that he was sending an unarmed supply convoy to re-provision Sumter. This left the Confederates with two choices: (1) fire on the convoy and be the aggressors, or (2) allow the fort to be resupplied, thus making clear to the entire world that the CSA was indeed a paper tiger. Under those circumstances, #1 was the only real choice, and the South made it at 4:33 a.m. on April 12, 1861.

P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: Last week I was watching Finding Your Roots and there was a piece of information given that I was pretty stunned about. It turns out that one of former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson's ancestors had multiple children with one of his slaves. Those children also became the ancestor's slaves. How could anyone classify their own child as their slave is beyond me, but it got me thinking: Am I putting today's values on yesterday's behaviors? This has come up on your site in the past, and as a history professor, I would assume it is something you have to teach. So, my question is: How you would ensure you don't judge someone unfairly? How would you determine that behavior X was acceptable in time period A but unacceptable in time period B, and what would define the change in acceptability?

(V) & (Z) answer: Indeed, (Z) has an entire lesson, built around Father Junípero Serra, about the difference between holding someone to the standards of our time versus holding someone to the standards of their time. That said, in that lesson, (Z) also points out that we can figure out the standards of any particular era, and we can identify some behaviors that we find problematic and that people of [past era X] also found problematic.

As to the people born to relationships between an enslaved person and their master, this would not generally have been seen as rape back then, as it would be today. Nonetheless, it was a behavior that most people looked askance at. In the North, many people actually did see it as an act of violence, and a few of them would have gone so far as to use the word "rape." In the South, the behavior was not condemned openly. However, there was use of coded language that made clear it was something of an embarrassment. Specifically, the offspring of such sexual relationships were described as "yellow." or "griff(e)." At slave auctions, this was considered a selling point.

Incidentally, Southern law decreed that enslaved status derived from the child's mother. Conveniently, that meant that the children of white male masters and Black female slaves (a very common situation) were enslaved, while the children of white female masters and Black male slaves (virtually unheard of) were free.

A.R. in Raleigh, NC, asks: I came across this article, which reports that the original script of Gone with the Wind presented slavery much more harshly than the final movie did.

I couldn't help but think that (some of) the artists who worked to make Gone With the Wind initially sought to portray history in a particular way, and then for some reason the film was filmed/cut/edited in a way that was ultimately quite different. My suspicion is that the artists had one objective and the studio had a different goal (perhaps political, possibly financial). Historically, has there always been tension in the arts between the objectives of the various individuals (funders, curators, artists, etc)? Were artists in Florence at odds with their funders? Did Shakespeare or Jane Austen need to curate what they wrote so that it could be produced/published? And, lastly, is this tension getting any better or any worse, with the perceived greater ease for people to share their art more easily in the modern era?

(V) & (Z) answer: First of all, anytime you have a production that involves a team of people (a play, a film, a TV show, etc.), they are going to have different visions for the work that are not in sync.

That said, you've identified two of the most important tensions that exist in any artistic endeavor. The first is economic. In general, the people who fund the work want to maximize profits. The people who produce the work might be entirely on board with that, or partly on board with that, or not on board with that at all. There are plenty of artists known for making their works as salable as is possible (boy bands, authors like J.K. Rowling, many comic book artists, filmmakers like James Cameron). And there are plenty of artists who were famously anti-commerce (Frank Zappa, authors like William Faulkner, punk rockers, filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, etc.).

Meanwhile, every artist is subject, at least somewhat, to the politics of their era. In 1971, the Rolling Stones recorded "Brown Sugar," which seems to be about having sex with enslaved people. Mick Jagger insists it isn't, but the band nonetheless recently pulled the song from its setlist. On the other hand, someone like Sam Smith gets away with gender-bending stuff on stage today that would have been very problematic in 1971.

As to Gone with the Wind, the movie was right on the cusp of what we might call the proto-Civil Rights Movement. Producer David O. Selznick gambled in 1939, and won, but if he'd waited a few more years, the film might well have flopped. Indeed, in 1946, Walt Disney made a film that portrayed Black people in a very similar way (Song of the South) and it failed. It's the only Disney movie that is not for sale in the United States.

Finally, William Shakespeare is an excellent example of an artist who took great pains to consider both commercial potential and politics in his work (without having to be urged to do so by some producer or other higher-up). He packed his plays with dirty jokes, so that working-class folks (a.k.a. "penny stinkers") would show up and buy tickets. And he really needed to keep the monarch on his side, so his plays are very flattering to the Tudors and very unflattering to their enemies. This is why, for example, Richard III (of the House of York, rivals to the House of Tudor) is portrayed as a real bastard in Richard III.


M.H. in Salt Lake City, UT, asks: I am hoping others besides me have made this request. I think a wonderful new feature for would be a reader's forum. I used to be a frequent contributor to my local newspaper's letters to the editor. I always enjoyed reading the comments that others would make. Some were insightful; most were inane.

I assume your readership is a bit more sophisticated and respectful than what you might find in a high-circulation newspaper's readership. I would hope there would be less trolling and more serious content.

When you publish a provocative comment, many people respond, but you have to curate those responses. A reader's forum would relieve you of that extra work. Of course, you can always select some comments for your site.

(V) & (Z) answer: We've certainly pondered it, and we've always rejected the idea.

First, we've talked to other folks whose sites have comments sections (e.g., Taegan Goddard). They invariably tell us they are a nightmare to moderate. We would guess that 98% of our readers, regardless of their politics, are very decent, respectful, thoughtful people. But it only takes a few bad apples to wreck a comments section, and we definitely get e-mails on a regular basis from people who are being very nasty and mean-spirited.

Second, every time this has come up and we've commented on it, we've gotten many e-mails from readers who thank us for not having a comments section, and for having curated feedback instead (e.g., the Sunday letters). We figure that if people really want to discuss things in real time, they can go to Taegan's site or some similar outlet that does do commenting.

T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ, asks: I was wondering if buttons could be added for likes and dislikes to either articles/questions/comments. I don't doubt this is technically possible, but it could be something you've thought about and decided not to do for various reasons.

(V) & (Z) answer: We've thought about it, but are disinclined. Most sites that have "thumbs down" available have discovered that they drag down the overall tone and tenor of things. So, we would never do that. Having thumbs up might be a bit more useful, just because it would give insight about what subjects/items are of the most interest. But we pretty much already get that from the mailbag. That is to say, when we get 50 letters about Roald Dahl or 400 letters about trans hate, we feel like that's a pretty good indication that we've come up with something that is of interest to readers.

S.B. in Mason City, IA, asks: You seem to inadvertently refer to Senator Mitch McConnell as "Senate Majority Leader" even though he hasn't held that post since early 2021. Is this a Freudian slip? Wishful thinking? Trying to undo 6 years of habit? Turtles do move slowly...

(V) & (Z) answer: It's definitely the third; trying to undo 6 years of habit. It's certainly not a Freudian slip. As the master himself once said, "Sometimes a turtle is just a turtle." At least, we think that's the quote.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: Suppose you are an adviser for Vice President Kamala Harris. What advice would you give her to be seen as a more effective VP and improve her standing with the electorate? Do you think it is even possible?

And here some of the answers we got in response:

J.E. in San Jose, CA: Reduce the dependency on ties in the Senate so you can do other things, which will raise your profile.

E.D. in Nunda, NY: Just like Jill is getting more involved with Joe's stint as president, I'd love to see Doug get more involved.

I went through Kamala and Doug's tax return for 2021. They file returns in nearly every state, which means he is very involved with this nation. He may have a lot of perspectives we don't know about.

Z.K. in New York City, NY: Accept a role as secretary of state for term two (foreign policy chops for 2028). This would allow Joe Biden to choose a new, young running mate that will energize 2024 voters. Govs. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) or Andy Beshear (D-KY), or Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).

J.G. in Chantilly, VA: Apart from breaking tie votes in the Senate, your function seems to be standing behind the President and cheering. You have to do better than that, especially if you want his job someday. They gave you immigration. That's a loser issue because you will always upset half of the country and not really accomplish much without legislation.

I suggest you go to the boss and negotiate a new scope of work. Here are two issues you should lead on: (1) Reproductive rights. That is a political winner for the Democrats, and it should be led by a woman, a non-Catholic, and someone under the age of 80, and (2) Police reform and community safety. This would provide an alternative to "defund the police" or "back the blue" posturing and promote real solutions such as community policing, use of crisis intervention, programs to help youth at risk, de-escalation strategies, better vetting of officers, etc. These reforms lead to lower crime AND fewer police abuses, and if you can show a few success stories in a year or two, you have something to run on. You have the right background for this as a former prosecutor and AG. You could also make trips to Central America and Mexico to reinforce anti-gang and organized crime policies, and build your foreign policy cred as well.

Always happy to help!

D.S. in Fort Worth, TX: Kamala Harris needs to establish herself as a moderate just like Joe Biden. Targeted hippy punching is a tried-and-true method by Democrats to win swing voters.

I would recommend she play up her history as a district attorney and criticize the "defund the police" crowd (just like Joe Biden). I'm not saying she should go all "back the blue" but instead insist that enforcing laws and prosecuting criminals are good.

She can then pivot to emphasize white-collar crime like IRS enforcement and/or show sympathy for victims of police brutality while criticizing police unions for protection of bad cops. Once she has established she is for law and order, Harris can then position herself as someone who can reform (not abolish) police based on her past experiences.

C.L.C. in Petaluma, CA: As a prosecutor, you locked women in cages for prostitution, which should be decriminalized. You should resign in shame.

J.D. in Greensboro, NC: I don't like to admit this, because I am a woman and want more women in politics, mainly because women make better use of power. But Kamala has a way of speaking that seems snarky and even her body language says "know-it-all." I suppose she had to be this way to be taken seriously in the man's world of politics, but the right wing will have a field day with it if she ever runs for POTUS, much like they did with Hillary. My advice is to take on projects that give her an opportunity to show her compassionate side—something like being a champion for women and children around the world. She is more than capable of doing a terrific job and even though it is not sexy, it would be unassailable by the Tucker Carlsons of the world.

R.B. in Chicago, IL: Slow down your delivery. Rule #1 in public speaking 101 is to SPEAK slower.

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI: Either Kamala Harris' rhetorical style has to improve, or she has to deliver in some larger way. Improving on her Rhetoric is seemingly the easier of the two, but given that she is a terrible, woody speaker, that seems a poor investment. If I were her image coordinator, I would have her drop the professional pomp and circumstance, grab the sneakers, and get her hands dirty with the fixing side of the house.

She should set up shop in East Palestine, OH, and help meter out first aid, team assistance, Red Cross, etc. Forget about whether it looks presidential, or vice presidential for that matter. Be humble, ask how to help, and coordinate federal and nonprofit agencies to help break through. Help long enough to see some singular accomplishments and investments start to pay off and then move on. Then, go back to Congress and work to help put some concrete elements into helping these people. Then, it's worth trying to go in and figure out what can be done to help people suffering maybe in Mississippi or maybe DeSantisland. There have to be plenty of things one can do to make vulnerable people suffering in Florida from suffering a little less. This is tricky, as it takes real smarts to fight a dreadful governor. Luckily, the governor in Mississippi isn't very good and the situation in Jackson sounds quite bad. It would be easy to spend some quality time down there and change things for people there. Forget whether it pays off in votes or electoral votes. She just needs to do something productive.

C.S. in Tucson, AZ: The media needs simple, low cost stories. "Reporting" that Harris is ineffective or that Biden is too old meets this need.

My recommendation: Do a Bob Dylan. Do your very best, and ignore the press.

T.T. in Minden, LA: The only thing(s) Kamala could do to gain ground with the GOP electorate is to go through gender reassignment, and then do whatever Michael Jackson did to become lighter-skinned. Because unless she's a white male, she'll never get anywhere with them. On the other hand, then he/they would be trans, so they'd hate him/them for that.

M.A. in Park Ridge, IL: It's not possible. Can't change the leopard's spots. And this is coming from someone who supported her—at first—3 years ago.

P.D.N. in La Mesa, CA: No, it's not possible. The job is a dead end and always has been. No one has ever liked it or been able to do much with it. Even bigger-than-life Lyndon Johnson couldn't make it work. He actually wanted to move his desk into the Oval Office with JFK! Kennedy rebuffed him and looked for ways to get Lyndon out of his hair (foreign trips, NASA, etc.). Being VP isn't hurting Harris—and it's not helping her either. As a possible presidential candidate, she'll have to make it on her own. Did being VP make a difference for George H.W. Bush? Not really. He had a weak opponent and an electorate content to continue the Reagan legacy.

Here is the question for next week:

G.O. in New York City, NY, asks: Who will be the first female President of the United States? I am just now reading an article on Rep. Katie Hobbs (D-CA), who doesn't seem to have a big national profile (yet). Curious who you (or readers) think it might be.

Submit your answers here!

This item appeared on Read it Monday through Friday for political and election news, Saturday for answers to reader's questions, and Sunday for letters from readers.                     State polls                     All Senate candidates