Dem 51
image description
GOP 49
image description

Saturday Q&A

We got a lot of questions about various legal messes that various Republicans find themselves enmeshed in, and a lot of questions about the debt ceiling. For whatever reason, we are reminded of Mark Twain's observation: "There is no distinctly American criminal class—except Congress." Swap "politicians" in for "Congress," and you might be on to something there, Sam.

Current Events

B.M. in Medford, MA, asks: I think you've changed the tone on the default date. You're treating it as drop-dead now, but I believe there have only been two statements from Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen: (1) We default by June 30 and, shortly after, (2) We could default as early as 6/1.

Am I mistaken? I thought the government runs outta money when it runs out of money, and it's difficult to forecast too far out (which is bananas).

(V) & (Z) answer: We don't think our tone has changed. In the end, we have consistently argued that whatever happens, Joe Biden simply cannot allow the U.S. to default. So, the folks in Washington can play debt-ceiling chicken or perform debt-ceiling kabuki or sing the debt-ceiling blues for however many days, but eventually they are either going to come up with a deal (more likely) or Biden is going to resort to extraordinary measures (less likely).

As to Yellen, she's said quite a few things, including that the ceiling wouldn't be reached until late summer. She stuck with the June 1 date for quite a while, but just yesterday she switched to June 5. We don't doubt that she's trying to be as accurate as she can. At the same time, any estimate is going to have some fungibility, and she and Biden are best served, politically, by announcing the most imminent date justified by the data. In other words, if Yellen has an analysis that says "It's now looking like the debt ceiling will be reached sometime between June 5 and June 9," she's not lying to announce June 5 as the date, but she is giving the most politically expedient version of the facts.

And note that the government isn't going to run out of money. It just won't have enough money to pay all of its liabilities. Undoubtedly, debt holders will be serviced. So the only real question, if no deal is reached, and no "money creating" measures are implemented, is who among the non-debt holders will be left waiting to get their money.

D.C. in Teaneck, NJ, asks: Your items on the imminent debt ceiling deadline, and the (remote) possibility of President Biden using the $1 trillion coin strategy has made me think in material terms.

For all the wonders of computerized production, I have to believe that the U.S. Mint cannot create a physical $1 trillion coin in a few hours. There has to be a design—two, actually: obverse and reverse. A die has to be created. Blanks of titanium, platinum, whatever, have to be cast. Probably a test pressing. And this, presumably, has to happen in Philadelphia, Denver or San Francisco. Said coin then has to be brought to Washington so it can be carried to the night-deposit slot at the Treasury and dropped in with the deposit slip made out for $1,000,000,000,000.00.

All of this takes time. Which is to say, in anticipation of such a need, there already could be a trillion-dollar coin or two or three minted and available for a moment like this. Is it possible this whole problem can be averted by Janet Yellen poking around the sofa cushions in her office?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, we will note that you omitted one of the four coin-producing facilities of the U.S. Mint, namely West Point. That said, assuming it comes to this, the coin would surely be produced in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia mint and the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve Bank are literally one block apart, and the distance can be walked in 4 minutes, according to Google maps. Philadelphia also has one other key advantage, which we'll get to in a moment.

Note that because this scheme uses a loophole in the law, the $1 trillion coin(s) would have to be made from platinum. Since the mint already creates platinum coins for collectible purposes, it would undoubtedly already have the blanks needed (which are properly known as "planchets"). And, in the year 2023, it wouldn't actually take very long to make the coin. The mint could easily use an existing design, and just change the value imprinted on the coin to "$1 trillion" or "$1T" (either is legal). Even if the mint wanted to use a new, unique design, the process is digital these days. The design is generally created on a computer, and then a die is created using a computer numerically controlled milling machine. However, the only mint branch that has this equipment is... Philadelphia.

So, it is improbable that the $1 trillion coins have already been minted, because there's simply no need for that kind of lead time. At most, it's nominally possible that there's a computer-rendered design sitting on a hard drive or USB stick somewhere, waiting to be loaded into the milling machine.

B.H. in Frankfort, IL, asks: The talk about using a discharge petition to defuse the debt limit time bomb has died down. Is it still a possibility? Is it just a "silver bullet"?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's a possibility, but five Republican members of the House would have to cross the aisle. The first issue is that Republicans who defy the Party these days, particularly in high profile matters, place their careers and perhaps even their lives in jeopardy. The second issue is that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) would punish the apostates, perhaps by removing them from committees, or perhaps by cutting them off from reelection funding, or perhaps by recruiting a primary challenger.

Since Joe Biden has a number of potential options at his disposal, from the exotic ($1 trillion coin, Fourteenth Amendment) to the more mundane (prioritize payment of liabilities to avoid default, invoke the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, issue consol bonds, etc.), it is likely that even those House Republicans who don't really support what McCarthy is doing will say: "Hey, if someone is going to stick their necks out here and execute an end-run around the Speaker, let it be the President, and not us."

D.R. in Phoenix, AZ, asks: Politico writes "White House aides privately estimate they may need to deliver as many as 100 Democratic votes to ensure an eventual debt limit deal can pass the narrowly divided House," regarding a discharge petition. Why wouldn't almost all Democrats want to vote "Yea" on the discharge petition? I can't see any motivation on the Democratic side for not wanting it to go through, so what am I missing?

(V) & (Z) answer: You're conflating two things. A discharge petition would allow Congress (assuming 60 senators are agreeable) to raise the debt limit with no other conditions. House Democrats would surely support this unanimously, but without at least five Republican votes, it can't get through the House.

An actual agreement on the debt ceiling would, presumably, contain elements beyond just "the debt ceiling is raised." Since any concessions by Kevin McCarthy will infuriate the Freedom Caucusers, that's 30-40 votes gone right there. And since the Speaker is not likely to get more than a fraction of what he's demanding, a fair number of more moderate Republicans will defect, too. So, what the White House is saying is that it's got to find a deal that will attract something like 120 Republican votes and 100 Democratic votes in the House (and then will also get through the Senate). Not an easy task.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, asks: What if Joe Biden cuts a deal with Kevin McCarthy? What if he caves to McCarthy, for all practical purposes? Will the Speaker be able to get 218 votes for the deal he has negotiated? (That seems like a plausible plot twist to me.)

And what next if he doesn't get 218 votes? Would that be the best outcome? Biden says: "McCarthy has failed and has fallen as Speaker. Now, Congress is incapable of acting and the deadline is on top of us. I MUST ACT!"

(V) & (Z) answer: McCarthy will only be able to get 218 Republican votes if Biden gives in on everything. Not only is that not going to happen, but even if it did, it's unlikely the bill could get through the Senate. The moment that McCarthy gives in on even 10% of his conference's demands, he's lost dozens of Republican votes, and would then need substantial Democratic votes to get something through the House. And there's no way that dozens of Democrats, even the most centrist ones, are going to vote for a deal that gives McCarthy 90% of what he wants, or 80%, or 70%, or 60%, or even 50%.

If McCarthy and Biden strike a deal, and then it fails because McCarthy couldn't get his own conference behind it (especially if dozens of them defect), then that would certainly give the President a lot of cover to turn to extraordinary measures. Whether he would avail himself of that cover, as someone who clearly does not like to make bold, aggressive moves, is an excellent question.

F.I. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: Should the GOP allow the U.S. to default, how likely would voters blame Biden for crashing the economy? The details of debt ceiling are inside baseball to most Americans and voters tend to blame the sitting President for whatever happens during their administration. I fear that some in the House GOP are simply looking to crash the markets just to blame Biden.

(V) & (Z) answer: There are certainly people in the Republican Party who would like to see a default for this very reason. It's not a secret, no less than the Chair of the GOP said it openly this week. Oh, and the Party's likely 2024 presidential nominee, a fellow named Trump, has said it openly as well.

As we note above, it's inconceivable that the White House will allow a default. That said, even if the country does not actually default, there could be economic repercussions from this kind of game-playing. The Republicans are obviously counting on the President getting the blame, because that's what the voting public tends to do when there are economic repercussions of any type (high gas prices, inflation, recession, etc.). On the other hand, the last several times that Congressional Republicans have played these sorts of games, the majority of the voting public has taken a look at the situation, and decided the GOP is to blame. So, everyone involved here is playing with a bit of fire.

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, asks: With the election looming and time getting short, and so many possibly overlapping and interconnected crimes being investigated, could special counsel Jack Smith indict Donald Trump on some crimes while still investigating others he needs more time on? How likely is that?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, he could, and we'd say it's more likely than not. If multiple crimes are related, it's generally best to unravel all of them before charging any of them. But the Mar-a-Lago documents have nothing to do, as far as we know, with the events of 1/6, or with possible emoluments issues, or... whatever else Smith is looking at. So, we think it's entirely plausible that a documents-related indictment comes down long before any others do.

D.P. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: Do you think there's a chance Donald Trump will actually go to prison for his possession of classified documents and/or his obstruction of justice related to this?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, we do. And we're not the only ones. George Conway, who is anti-Trump of course, but as a Washington lawyer is also more knowledgeable than we are, has said it's likely the former president will go to prison for this. And Trump's former AG Bill Barr, while more circumspect, has implied that he thinks similarly.

E.S. in Maine, NY, asks: Of Texas AG Bill Paxton, you wrote: "There is also credible evidence that he used his power to assist multiple fat-cat donors who found themselves in legal trouble. Oh, and he's also been under indictment for securities fraud for the last 8 years (the trial is still pending due to his being a sitting officeholder)."

REALLY? Please explain this more. I have wondered why this has taken so long but have never seen any explanation. I thought it was a federal indictment, so why would they care? Congresspeople have trials fairly regularly.

This is so dangerous, giving incentive for crooks to be/stay in office by whatever means necessary. It is horrible for Justice Department to refuse to indict the president, but a state AG? Why in the world?

(V) & (Z) answer: That was a little over-simplified because we have to be somewhat brief when it comes to secondary points or else the writing will get bogged down and the site will go live later than it already does.

First, it's not a federal indictment, it's a state indictment, courtesy of a Collin County Grand Jury. And Paxton has successfully dragged things out in a way that even Donald Trump should be impressed. There have been a whole bunch of issues that have been litigated, including "Should the trial be tried in the county where Paxton lives or the one where he works?," "Can a sitting officeholder get a fair trial?," and "Can Paxton accept donations from out-of-state supporters to fund his defense?"

Not all of the issues that have come up in court have to do with Paxton's official position, but a bunch of them do. And if he no longer holds that position, well, those issues go away and he gets much closer to his day in court. Although his next obvious move will be to argue that too much time has passed, and that witness testimony is no longer reliable. So, don't necessarily assume that he'll be in prison in short order, even if he is impeached and removed.

And on that point, in our original version of that item, we latched onto a sentence in the Politico piece we linked to that said that Paxton would be removed from his office if he is impeached by the Texas House. It turns out that Texas law says that if someone is impeached, they have to step down until tried by the state Senate. If convicted, they're out. If not convicted, they go back to their job. Politico eventually updated their item to clarify this, and we corrected ours, as well.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You wrote that Steve Bannon is moving closer to going back to jail for defrauding supporters with the "build the wall" fund.

Isn't that what he was convicted for back in 2018ish? Didn't he get pardoned by Donald Trump before he could serve time? Why is this happening again? Am I misremembering?

(V) & (Z) answer: You are slightly misremembering. Bannon was never put on trial for this particular act of fraud because Trump issued a pardon (in 2020, actually, not 2018) before a trial could commence. The good news for Bannon is that means he'll never be federally tried for this. The bad news is that because he was never tried, double jeopardy does not apply, and he can face state-level prosecution for the same crime. The case we wrote about is being brought in New York State court by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, and not by the feds.


M.A. in Knoxville, TN, asks: In your item about Donald Trump's potential second-term plans, you mentioned he'd use executive power to fire officials who accredit universities. From what I understand, accrediting agencies are private organizations, and under no obligation to fire employees due to any president's executive orders. If he issues that order and the right wingers on the Supreme Court give it their blessings, would anything actually happen at that point? To me it seems like a situation where Trump would end up looking ineffectual because the agencies ignore his orders. Am I missing something?

(V) & (Z) answer: Another example of us having to simplify a secondary point a little bit. It is true that the accrediting organizations are private entities. Further, the leadership of these organizations (the equivalent of their Board of Directors) is made up of people who are appointed as representatives of other organizations. To take an example, the universities that awarded our PhDs are both accredited by ACS WASC. And the commissioners of ASC WASC include the appointed representatives of the Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of Independent Schools, the California Teachers Association, the Hawaii Government Employees' Association, and the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, among others.

So, a president does not have direct power over the accreditation process. However, presumably inspired by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and consistent with his approach to other issues, Trump might try to find a way to impose himself nonetheless. And the one thing a president does have some power over is federal student aid, which is tied to accreditation. So, for example, Trump could make an announcement along the lines of: "This is a list of non-approved staffers of regional accrediting agencies, who have been found to be woke/deep staters/communists/pro-LGBTQ/lab-created Hillary Clinton clones/Chinese operatives/critical race theorists/whatever. As long as these people are employed, the accreditations from their organizations are not valid, and any school with a non-valid accreditation is not eligible for student aid."

This would be a gross overreach, and would be extremely questionable in terms of legality, but when has that stopped Trump before?

J.N. in Freeland, WA, asks: Is it likely—or at least reasonably possible—that Nikki Haley has already struck a deal with TFG to be VP on his ticket? And that's why she's "running for President," mainly to help splinter the "not Trump" vote, helping TFG to win the nomination by plurality?

(V) & (Z) answer: Possible, but not very likely. We wrote, this week, about the memo that Haley issued that blasts Ron DeSantis. And while it's technically complimentary to Trump, the compliment is backhanded, because the basic point of the memo is that DeSantis is an even worse version of Trump, with all of the liabilities and none of the strengths. If Haley was a Trump mole, she would be only singing the former president's praises, because that is what Trump demands.

On top of that, anyone who does the hard work of campaigning for 9-15 months based on a promise from Trump that he'll bestow the VP slot would have to be a damn fool. His word isn't worth a plug nickel. And while Haley may be many things, she's not a damn fool.

N.W in Atlanta, GA, asks: So Chris Christie seems all but certain to be throwing his hat into the ring for president, and seems fully committed to doing what needs to be done to stop Donald Trump from being nominated again. But is he really the guy to unify the non-Trump side? Or is he so blinded by stopping Trump, he doesn't realize he may be splitting the vote enough to hand the former president the nomination?

(V) & (Z) answer: Like Nikki Haley (see above), Chris Christie is many things, but he's not a damn fool. As we have noted, it is possible that Christie thinks he might actually win this thing. If so, he's wrong, but that wouldn't be foolish as much as it would be delusional. And lots of very bright politicians have delusions about their prospects for a promotion.

If Christie is being straight, and his goal is merely to take down Trump, then he's not thinking of himself as the guy who can unite the Republican Party. No, he's thinking of himself as the guy who can embarrass Trump during a nationally televised presidential debate. The former governor basically took down Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) singlehandedly during a debate in 2016, and he may well think he can do it again to The Donald. The problem is that Trump is considerably more bulletproof, considerably more unflappable under that kind of pressure, and may not participate in the debates, anyhow.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Are you sure Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) isn't running in order to establish a national profile and make a serious bid in 2028? The segment of the Republican Party that abhors Trumpism really wants a path back to normalcy. Scott is genial, genuine and the antithesis of angry extremism. Maybe they think voters will go for a "nice guy" for a change. Think Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg versus Scott 2028.

(V) & (Z) answer: Maybe. We'll say one thing for Scott: He's the only person in the Republican field that, when he talks, really believes what he's saying. The rest of them are just pandering to the base. (Ok, maybe Asa Hutchinson is being truthful, too.)

That said, even if Scott's eye is on 2028, we think he's fooling himself. As we noted this week, he's got no record to run on. He's also way too far right for most of the country. And he's a member of a party that has plenty of racists in it. Not all Republicans are racists, of course. And even some of those who have less-than-progressive views on the subject are willing to vote for "one of the good ones." But we absolutely guarantee you there are sizable numbers of Republicans who will not vote for a Black man under any circumstances. And when you're in the minority party (or, more precisely, the anti-minority minority party), you can't afford to leave those votes on the table.

R.S. in Tonawanda, NY, asks: I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Trump Junior's video rant that you wrote about is for real. But it is so ridiculously bad... can he be that ignorant of the meaning of words? Is he playing Constable Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing? I just wonder: Could it have been a deep fake? We'll be seeing more and more of them, I'm afraid.

(V) & (Z) answer: We wondered that, too. Not so much because of his words, but because the scuttlebutt about him is that he's a heavy user of the ol' nose candy, and he was showing so many signs of being under the influence of that particular substance. Saturday Night Live couldn't have done a better job of portraying someone who just did a hit of Bolivian marching powder.

So, before we posted that item, we confirmed it's real. Trump Jr. really does have an online show called Triggered, and that really was a segment from the most recent episode. You can see it for yourself here; skip ahead to 3:40 to see the bit we wrote about. If this was a deepfake, then the deepfaker would not only have to have produced a 90-minute-long video (including 60 minutes with Trump Jr. and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-AL), but also would have to have managed to upload it to the official page for Triggered.

J.L. in Baltimore, MD, asks: I've been thinking for some time that the next SCOTUS nominee from a Democratic president would probably be an Asian American, since there's never been one on the Court. (At least, I don't think so, going by the names.) Judge Amit Mehta has been in the news quite a lot because of his rulings in significant cases. What do you think are the chances of him being nominated if an opening occurs? Obviously, all the Republicans would attack him, just as they did Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, but there's probably nobody who would be acceptable to both parties.

(V) & (Z) answer: If Biden does get to appoint another justice, he might very well go with someone of Asian descent, which would indeed be a first. And it certainly could be Mehta, but we think there are a few factors that would probably rule him out. First of all, Jackson was 51 when she was nominated, which is very close to the upper limit for a nominee, since the hope is that they'll serve 30-40 years. Mehta is 52, and would probably be 54 or 55 when and if a seat came open. Second, Mehta has ruled in a bunch of the 1/6 insurrection cases, and the Biden administration might not want to take on a political potato that's quite that hot. Third, and finally, Democrats have seated a grand total of one male justice in the last half century (Stephen Breyer).

So, if Biden does get a chance to make another pick, and he does go for someone who is Asian-American, our guess is that he looks for a woman who is in her mid-to-late 40s, and who has been far removed from the touchy matters that come before the D.C. circuit. Someone like Roopali Desai, for example, whom Biden appointed to the First Circuit (Pacific Southwest) in 2022.


D.H. in Portland, OR, asks: If Joe Biden wins reelection in 2024, when would he have to resign due to "wanting to spend more time with family" in order to allow Kamala Harris the ability to finish his term and be allowed to run in 2028 and 2032?

(V) & (Z) answer: We suspect you'll see a lot of thought pieces about Biden resignation scenarios. Don't buy into them; gaming the system like this would be very bad for the Democrats, and would make Harris very nearly unelectable.

That said, if this was the scam, Biden would have to hold on until January 21, 2027 in order for Harris to be eligible to finish his term and then serve two terms in her own right. That would mean one party holding the White House for four straight terms, something that has not happened since the Great Depression.

R.M. in Lomita, CA, asks: I was thinking about the relative unpopularity of President Biden, and a theoretical (but, I assume, pretty unlikely) scenario occurred to me: What is to stop Biden from selecting a popular former president as his running mate—say, Barack Obama—and then making a campaign pledge to resign the presidency immediately after taking the oath of office, letting said popular ex-president assume the presidency?

I realize that there are certainly a lot of political reasons why this would be a bad idea. But from a purely legal standpoint, the text of the Twenty-Second Amendment would seem to indicate that limits are placed only on who may be elected president, not on who may serve as president. And since the individual in question has already served as president, there can be no question as to whether that individual meets the other constitutional requirements for the office (thus satisfying the Twelfth Amendment).

Is there any legal barrier I'm not seeing that would prevent this scheme from working?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, the Twelfth Amendment also says: "[N]o person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice President of the United States." If you define "constitutionally ineligible to the office of President" as "ineligible to serve as president," then Obama would be OK, since he's clearly 35+, a natural-born citizen, and has been a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years of his life. However, most people define "constitutionally ineligible to the office of President" as "ineligible to be elected as president." In that case, Obama can't be vice president because he can't be elected president.

B.D. In San Mateo, CA, asks: I read recently that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is holding onto her seat because Republicans would block her replacement/successor from being allowed to sit on the Judiciary Committee (essentially halting any further approval of judges). Is this true? Could the Democrats force them to accept a nominee to the committee, or does the minority have this much power to wield over the operations of the country?

(V) & (Z) answer: You probably read about this because Hillary Clinton said this very thing in an interview this week.

It is true that if Feinstein resigns, the Senate would have to pass a new organizing resolution that had someone else taking her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is also true that this resolution would be filibusterable. So, if Republicans were really willing to go to the mat, and they got buy-in from two members of the Democratic caucus (e.g., Sens. Joe Manchin, D-WV and Kyrsten Sinema, I-AZ), then they could stop a Feinstein replacement from being seated and could grind the Committee's operations to a halt.

Clinton's words notwithstanding, there is zero chance that this would actually happen, though. First of all, Manchin and Sinema both insist that they are traditionalists and institutionalists, and both should therefore be outraged at such an affront to normal order. It only takes one of them to agree to a filibuster carve-out for organizing resolutions. And, at that point, the Republicans' chicanery would fail.

Further, if Republicans did this, they would be striking at the very foundation of Senate operations, namely that the majority party gets to... be in the majority. The next time the Republicans had the majority, they'd get payback a-plenty from the Democrats, starting with filibusters of everything (including the organizing resolution). Yes, the Republicans could create a million carve-outs, or they could kill the filibuster entirely. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) does not want to do that, because he knows that the Democrats are vastly more likely to hold the trifecta, and killing the filibuster would give the blue team the power to go hog wild the next time they controlled the whole show.

M.B. in St. Louis, MO, asks: In his Twitter spaces event, Ron DeSantis mentioned Florida's high ranking in education. Later he mentioned the low crime rate. I was skeptical of these comments due because he gave no other references to studies or data that supported them. I then read in your report this morning that Florida is near the bottom of these issues, but also, not data or studies are cited. I am confused about who is right. Is it one of those "depending on which study you read" scenarios?

K.F. in Austin, TX, asks: You wrote that Florida is "the third worst state in the country in murder and rape."

Where did you come up with that statistic? I can't find evidence for that anywhere. Not that it isn't believable!

(V) & (Z) answer: Speaking of Mark Twain, he did not coin this phrase himself, but he was fond of observing that there are three kinds of lies: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics."

As to education, DeSantis is undoubtedly referring to the rankings produced by U.S. News & World Report, which does indeed rank Florida first among the states when it comes to education.

However, U.S. News is rather famous for building its algorithms around data that is easily obtained and is entirely objective. That means relying heavily on things like standardized test scores. It also means that there's potential for manipulation. For example, a big part of the publication's rankings of universities used to be "What percentage of the alumni donate money each year?" Taking note of that, a few schools would contact alumni and arrange for them to give an "ongoing gift" of $1/year.

When you switch the approach, you often get very different results. For example, when looking at K-12, Scholaroo considers not only test scores and graduation rates, but things like how much bullying is reported, how much money is spent per pupil, how many students are assigned to each teacher, etc. They have Florida rather lower than #1; according to their metrics the Sunshine State comes in #42. To take another example, the Educational Opportunity Project (EOP) at Stanford University measures how much students actually learn and retain from year to year. Put another way, how much education students actually get. They have Florida rather lower than #1, as well. In fact, they put DeSantisland at #50, and it's not especially close (only Alabama is even within shouting distance).

As to various crime statistics, it is an objective fact that Florida is third in the country in terms of total number of violent crimes, fourth in total number of murders, and third in the total numbers of rapes. Of course, Florida is also the third-most-populous state, so we would expect them to be third in these various totals (though Texas is second-most-populous, and yet is first in rapes and violent crimes and dangerously close to first in murders).

If you consider these various crimes on a per capita basis, Florida is middle of the pack, somewhere between #23 and #27 on all three lists. At very least, that's not a feather in Ron DeSantis' cap, since Florida is one of the richest states, and so has the resources to be better than average. Further, there are some who argue that crime statistics for urbanized states give a prettier picture than is really true, because it's easier to get away with various crimes when police departments are stretched more thin and have greater responsibilities.


D.V. in Columbus, OH, asks: I guess my ADHD is getting the better of me today since I pondered an odd question when listening to the daily site posting and the stock portion with the Sunday mailbag address came up, so I thought it would be good to refer to the staff historian.

What is the origin of the term or practice of "letters to the editor" as a widespread published concept? Obviously, journalism didn't have the best track record for a long time, and the further you dive back into the 20th and 19th Centuries, the more onerously bad it gets. For example, I don't know a ton about William Randolph Hearst, but I'd imagine a concept such as "letters to the editor" would actually be worthy of the quotations in the hands of someone as prone to yellow journalism as him, as I could probably see someone like him using it to publish a fake, ego-stroking fan-letter page or something.

Was this practice started when journalism had any shred of integrity? And if not, when did peoples' actual letters to the editor begin to be published in news outlets in a widespread manner? Inquiring minds would love to know!

(V) & (Z) answer: Letters to the editor considerably pre-date news coverage in newspapers.

Understand that gathering news and getting it into print in a timely fashion is no easy thing, and was not especially possible prior to the invention of telegraphy and steam-powered printing presses. It was not especially profitable until urbanization packed tens of thousands of people (i.e., customers) into relatively small areas where quick, widespread distribution was possible. The first news-driven newspapers emerged in the 1850s in New York City.

Prior to that, newspapers were mostly opinion driven. Indeed, the "news" was relegated to the back pages, and the front pages were devoted to editorializing and, yes, letters to the editor. This surely did not cross your mind when you wrote in, but the most famous letters to the editor in American history were... the Federalist Papers, which were all "signed" by the author "Publius." Of course, we know now that Publius was really Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Somewhat less known, but still important, were the Anti-Federalist Papers. Those were not the work of a single collective, and carried the pseudonyms Centinel, Pennsylvania Minority, Federal Farmer, Brutus and Cato, among others. In some cases the identity of the author is still not known to a certainty.

This business of writing letters to the editor under a pen name remained commonplace for many, many years. Abraham Lincoln was a particular master of it, though in 1832 he managed to aggravate a fellow politician named James Shields, and at the same time managed to blow his cover. This resulted in Abe, then in his early thirties, being challenged to a duel. The future president "won," in a manner of speaking, by taking note that the person challenged was entitled to set the terms of the duel, and by further taking note that he was much taller and much stronger than Shields. So, Lincoln chose to have the duel with long, heavy cavalry broadswords. This caused Shields to ask for a truce. You can read the full story here, if you wish.

S.B. in Winslow, ME, asks: Is Donald Trump an American icon? When Trump was running in 2016, he said "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn't lose any voters, okay?" As we head into what appears to be a Biden/Trump rematch, that truth appears unchanged. Regardless of what crime he may commit, his followers remain rabidly faithful. It's as if Trump is more a symbol than a man, like Gandhi with peace, Hitler with hate, or Tiger Woods with golf. And if he is an icon, what does he symbolize?

(V) & (Z) answer: The historical figure most analogous to Trump is surely Andrew Jackson. Both were rough around the edges, both had a strong populist bent, both were xenophobic, both were wealthy men presuming to be champions of the poor, both were faux Christians, both were not especially erudite, both were prone to making vicious personal attacks on enemies. Jackson is the only person to have an era of U.S. history named after him (the Jacksonian Age), and he is certainly an icon. This being the case, it does not seem unreasonable to say that Trump is (or will be) an icon, as well.

We're not sure you can really boil down what Trump represents into just a word or two. But if you absolutely insist, we'll go with whitelash.

F.J. in Brussels, Belgium, asks: I was curious to know: According to you, based on their political values and their achievements, who are the five most progressive presidents of the United States for their time? And the five most conservative?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are three tricky things about this question, though you've resolved one of them for us. The first, and the one you've resolved, is what to do with presidents who were progressive in their hearts, but were limited in their ability to act on that by their lack of political skill, or by the circumstances under which they served. John Quincy Adams, for example, was plenty progressive in his outlook, but was not a particularly skilled manipulator of men, and served at a time when the president was expected to defer to Congress. So, he certainly did not impose any sort of progressive agenda.

The second tricky thing is whether we mean "progressive" in a narrow sense (i.e., pursuing the policies favored by the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century) or in a broader sense (i.e., moving the nation forward in some dramatic way). We're going to go with the latter meaning because, otherwise, all presidents before 1900 would be effectively off the table.

The third tricky thing is exactly what is meant by "conservative." In this case, we are going to embrace a more classic definition, namely: "Generally opposed to an assertive federal government, and leery of change in general."

And with all of that said, here are our five most progressive presidents, in chronological order, with brief explainers:

  1. Abraham Lincoln: Emancipation Proclamation, Thirteenth Amendment, land for universities
  2. Theodore Roosevelt: Trustbusting, environmentalism, civil service reform, Pure Food and Drug Act
  3. Franklin D. Roosevelt: New Deal
  4. Lyndon B. Johnson: Civil rights, Great Society
  5. Jimmy Carter: Environmentalism, Department of Education, pushed for world peace, diversified judiciary

And the five most conservative presidents, in chronological order, with brief explainers:

  1. James Buchanan: Thought secession was wrong, decided government had no power to stop it; anti-Black
  2. Grover Cleveland: King of the vetoes, hated all government spending
  3. Herbert Hoover: Did next to nothing while the economy collapsed, blasted New Deal
  4. Ronald Reagan: Lambasted "welfare state," deregulation, badmouthed government in general
  5. George W. Bush: Deregulation, cut domestic spending, cut taxes, ran on opposition to gay marriage

Donald Trump does not make the latter list because we don't think he qualifies as a "conservative" in any meaningful way. He's a reactionary populist, and possibly a fascist, but he does not have a coherent ideology.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: Should Ron DeSantis somehow get elected president in 2024, where would that put him as the youngest man elected rankings? I know he's older than John F. Kennedy (43 in 1960), but younger than Obama (47 in 2008).

Also, if DeSantis is the GOP nominee and President Biden is the Democratic standard bearer (81 on Election Day 2024), would that be the largest age difference between the two major party candidates in a presidential election?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, note that while JFK is the youngest elected president, the youngest president of any sort is Theodore Roosevelt, who was 42 when he assumed the office on the demise of William McKinley. DeSantis would slot in right after those two and, at 46 years, 126 days on taking office, would be just slightly younger than Bill Clinton (46 years, 154 days) and Ulysses S. Grant (46 years, 311 days).

And Biden, if nominated, will be the oldest major-party candidate to carry his party's standard in a U.S. presidential election. There have been older third-party candidates, like Harold Stassen (85 when he ran in 1992), but no major-party candidates. That means that when it comes to age gap, the only question is whether JFK or TR ran against someone in their late 70s. They did not; JFK's opponent was Richard Nixon (who was 47 in 1960), while the just-slightly-younger-than-DeSantis-when-he-ran-for-reelection Roosevelt was up against Alton B. Parker (who was 52 in 1904). So yes, the DeSantis-Biden gap would be the largest ever.


D.O. in Denver, CO, asks: You wrote about former VP Mike Pence, "...whose chances of becoming president are only slightly better than ours are."

If you ignored constitutional presidential candidate requirements and ran on a joint ticket, who would run for president and who for VP? Would you run as "V" and "Z," or use some other DJ-style names?

(V) & (Z) answer: We are both constitutionally eligible to be president, the only problem is that we are both officially residents of California when it comes to our U.S. addresses. So, one of us would have to establish residency in another state.

(V) has been in academic administration, and so definitely has more of the cat-herding skills needed to be a president. (Z) is considerably more suited to attack dog duty, which is traditionally handled by the VP, during the campaign. So, that would be the ticket. Unfortunately, while (V) and (Z) have served well for our purposes on this site, most states require you to use the name on your birth certificate, as James Earl "Jimmy" Carter found out the hard way.

L.V.A. in Idaho Falls, ID, asks: You wrote: "Sensitivity analysis is well understood in statistics and we think we could explain it to an audience in which 20% have a doctorate, 40% have a masters, and nearly all the others have a 4-year college degree." The implication is that the audience is like this. My question is: Have you guys ever surveyed the readership on this question? In my 20 years reading you guys, I don't recall such a survey. Maybe one for asking about educational level, profession... what say you?

(V) & (Z) answer: We ran a survey of this sort once, about 4 years ago. However, for various technical reasons, it was only available for one day, which cut down on the response rate. Those technical issues have been resolved, so we are very likely to run another such survey in the near future, one that should get a higher and more representative response rate.

A.P. in Kitchener, ON, Canada, asks: Does Tim Horton's advertise on Fox News or just the Canadian plot? Ie was that a joke or do I need to boycott Tim Horton's? Please say it ain't so!

(V) & (Z) answer: Canadian plot. We don't watch Fox very often, but we've never seen a Tim Horton's ad on there, nor do we have any reason to think the franchise would spend its advertising dollars in that way.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

(V) & (Z) ask: You've now seen our method for evaluating generals, applied now to 11 of the men who led troops in that war. Per this method, what's your evaluation of... any officer we did not evaluate? Can be any war, American or not, any military branch (e.g., admirals), etc.

And here some of the answers we got in response:

E.M. in Milwaukee, WI: George Washington (T: 7; S: 10; A:10). Washington won some excellent battles (see, Trenton), but this was not his best point. In strategy, he dominated the actually quite competent British generals. He realized that the first important thing was to keep a real army in the field so that Britain had to expend huge costs to try to eliminate it. He also realized, near the end of the war, that if the French fleet could gain control of the sea near where the British army was concentrated (i.e. Yorktown) that he could destroy that army and win the war. In administration, he played the Continental Congress like a fiddle and also recognized the skills of Von Steuben in training and camp organization.

Nathaniel Greene (T: 6; S: 10; A: 9). The (sadly fascistic) military historian JFC Fuller calls Greene "one of the greatest of small war leaders". Greene never commanded more than about 4000 troops and many of them were ill-trained militia and they were operating in the very primitive conditions of the 1780 Carolinas. With Von Steuben's help, he created a decent core of Continentals and then used them to good effect. He never won a battle (weaker tactics) but still drove the British out of the Carolinas, showing that battlefield victory is not required to win a campaign (strong strategy). I rate his administration high simply because he kept a small army functioning in the least populated colonies and kept their morale high in the face of apparent battlefield losses.

I'd like to highlight a couple key points about the American Revolution:

  1. The US Census of 1790 found a total population of 3.9 million people. The Great Britain census of 1801 reported a population of 10.1 million people. So, the American Revolution removed about 30% of Great Britain's population from the mother country.

  2. At the start of the Revolution, over half of the entire British Army was committed to the colonies. While the war later expanded to a conflict with France and Spain, in the early years, Britain was really "all in" in trying to suppress the revolution. It was a big, big deal.

R.C. in Eagleville, PA: Walter Krueger (T: 10, S: 9, A: 8). Krueger is the first American to rise from the rank of private to full general. Krueger is not a well-known World War II general, the headlines went to the generals in Europe and the Admirals in the Pacific. Krueger skillfully held the command of the Sixth Army from Australia (1942) to Japan (1945). Tactics is where Krueger excelled, in engagement after engagement he did not lose. He won while battling both an enemy that preferred death to surrender and an unforgiving terrain (think New Guinea). Krueger understood the strategic objective and mounted successful campaigns such as the New Guinea and Philippines campaigns. Strategically, he had to be doing many things right to remain in command from Australia to Japan. In WWII, a successful commander had to be an exceptional administrator, as the competition for resources was fierce. As the head of Sixth Army, Krueger had to deal with the local authorities, the U.S. Navy and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. Krueger was also a military innovator; waging war over a vast area, he recognized the need for long range intelligence. The Sixth Army was known as "Alamo Force," so he created a reconnaissance unit called the Alamo Scouts, a forerunner of today's special forces. Volunteers were subjected to an intensive course of training. Those who graduated became Alamo Scouts. One young graduate, William Barnes, went on to become the head football coach at UCLA.

C.S. in Philadelphia, PA: Benedict Arnold (T: 10, S: 8, A: 1). Since I wrote a paper on Benedict Arnold in high school, I have been fascinated by him—his incredible contributions to the American cause in the Revolutionary War, his tragic downfall, and his name forever synonymous with "traitor." He was arguably the best battlefield commander on either side of the Revolutionary War. He was personally brave if not rash, but it did bring success. He also had a very good understanding of the bigger picture—Fort Ticonderoga, the invasion of Canada, and helping design the defense at Saratoga. With his building of a fleet and stalling the British Navy on Lake Champlain, he is one of the few military leaders with skills on land and at sea. For the Trekkies out there, he commanded the first USS Enterprise. Even after he switched to the British, he had success leading Redcoats in battle. His inability to play politics and his focus on his own personal honor (and wealth) led to his downfall. His public disagreements with Congress, General Horatio Gates, and use of his role as military governor of Philadelphia to enrich himself forced George Washington (who personally cared for Arnold) to reprimand him which eventually led to his treachery.

A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK: Aleksei Brusilov (T: 9, S: 9, A:4). Speaking out for a Russian general is obviously a bit fraught in today's geopolitical climate, but Brusilov deserves some recognition as the most tactically and strategically brilliant Russian general of the First World War; he went on to have a significant impact on the Russian Civil War.

His reputation in large part stands on the 1916 Brusilov Offensive, which has been characterized by some historians as the Entente's greatest victory in the entire conflict. He singlehandedly revolutionized the static trench warfare of the conflict by the use of a series of innovations designed to increase the element of surprise in an assault on entrenched enemy positions. Most of his innovations were subsequently adopted by both sides on the Western Front in the final year of the conflict, leading to the end of static trench warfare—and ultimately the end of the war.

In a single offensive, Brusilov managed to end the Austro-Hungarian army's ability to effectively operate independently from Germany, eased the pressure on the French at Verdun, similarly eased Habsburg pressure on Italy, and convinced the Romanians to enter the war on the Entente side. In a conflict where advances had recently been measured in meters, Brusilov pushed forward by 20 to 30 kilometers in a few days. It was likely the Russian high point on the Eastern Front, and one of the greatest Entente successes of the entire conflict (albeit at the cost of devastating casualties for both sides). At the risk of oversimplifying, the problem was that the rest of the Russian imperial general staff treated Brusilov's innovative tactics with suspicion, felt he was insufficiently aristocratic, and failed to adequately support the offensive on the rest of the front—allowing the Germans to regroup and support their Habsburg allies. Unfortunately, his inability to overcome snobbery and conservatism on the part of others meant he always struggled to operate effectively within the broader hierarchical structure of the Russian Imperial army, despite his record as the single most effective Russian general when it came to tactical delivery of strategic objectives. This is why I've marked him down on 'administration'. Balancing that, however, is his ability to get the heterogeneous and poorly supplied armies of the Russian Empire to fight as an effective unit.

After the Russian Revolution, Brusilov's decision to back the new revolutionary government over the White Russian forces in the civil war proved to be a critical factor in the eventual triumph of the Reds, in part because his decision to back the Bolsheviks gave cover to other Tsarist generals to do the same (though individual reasons for making that decision were often complex); he went on to play an important role in helping to reorganize the Red Army into an effective fighting force. His poignant funeral in 1926 was notable for being the last time that representatives of the new revolutionary Soviet Russia and representatives of the old Tsarist Russia (notably the clergy and surviving members of the old aristocracy) came together for a single cause—in this case, commemorating Russia's greatest general of the opening decades of the 20th century.

C.J. in Redondo Beach, CA: John J. Pershing (T: 5, S: 9, A: 9). Because of the way officers were promoted only though seniority, Pershing didn't become a Brigadier General until Theodore Roosevelt jumped him over hundreds of men waiting in line (Pershing had led the 10th Cavalry alongside Roosevelt's Rough Riders at San Juan Hill—but because his men were Black, neither they nor he got a lot of press at the time).

Pershing proved he could deal with jungle warfare when he was sent to assume a command in the Philippines. He was well known for being diplomatic with the Moro tribes. He learned their language (for that matter, as a young Lieutenant, he also learned Apache and Lakota Sioux languages) and a few tribes even made him an honorary Chief. In jungle combat, his men were effective in putting down the enemy, and we've seen in wars since how hard defeating insurgent warriors can be. His diplomacy was used even then, as he was known for surrounding enemies on three sides, always allowing them an escape if they so chose, in order to prevent an annihilation.

A few years later, in a completely different kind of conflict, Pershing commanded the Punitive Expedition that chased Pancho Villa after the revolutionary's raids into the United States. He was unsuccessful in capturing the insurgent, but did prevent any further raids into the U.S.

This all moves to the real meat of the matter, namely when Pershing was given the head job of the American Expeditionary Force after the United States entered World War I. While the armies of the European powers numbered into the millions of men, the U.S. had a small force that, even when combined with the National Guard, was less than 250,000 men, most of whom had never seen combat. The American Air Service had few planes, and the ones it did have were obsolete to the ones being turned out by the other warring powers. The U.S. had never developed gas masks or chemical weapons of any kind. Tanks were a new invention spurred on by the war, and once again the U.S. was found lacking with no program even in development. Obviously people above Pershing in civilian control helped out with trying to get things on a war footing, but Pershing and his staff basically invented the modern U.S. military. They reworked the organization of the entire thing, all the way down to regimental numbering (which is still the same system we use today). By the end of the war, that 250,000-man army had grown to 4.2 million, with around half serving in Europe. The fact that Pershing had to practically start from scratch, and 19 months later the U.S. occupied more of the fighting line than the British Empire, fighting an ocean away, having to create a logistical network in Europe, with no playbook to use, is stunning. In World War II, the U.S. had Pershing to look at and a peacetime draft and so wasn't starting from zero, and yet still took longer to get going than Pershing did

The General got along well with Newton Baker (Secretary of War) and Woodrow Wilson let him have extraordinary responsibility and latitude to run the war as he saw fit, so his relationship with domestic politicians was extraordinary. Dealing with the allies was a bit more of a struggle because they sought, instead of building up an American Army, for U.S. forces to be amalgamated into theirs. Pershing had to wade these waters diplomatically and for the most part was successful. He did loan out Divisions and Corps in the dramatic Spring and Summer of 1918, and Americans proved their mettle at places like Chateau-Thierry and Soissons. He ended up friends with Sir Douglas Haig and Philippe Pétain by war's end. The overall Generalissimo, Ferdinand Foch, and he had a more complicated relationship (at times they got on well, but they also nearly came to blows once or twice). Pershing also had to worry about foreign politicians, and he navigated them pretty well—though Georges Clemenceau sought to have him fired on more than one occasion (Wilson refused Clemenceau's demand).

Overall, I find Pershing's administration extraordinary.

Strategically, Pershing understood where Germany was weakest and how the war could conceivably be won quickly. A push toward Metz could have potentially destroyed the main industrial capacity of Germany. Unfortunately, after his victory at Saint Mihiel, he was made by Foch to move his forces to attack elsewhere. The Meuse-Argonne was a bloody mess and Pershing is well criticized for his tactics. His reliance on the agile rifleman was more apropos to 1914/15 than 1918. However, when he arrived in 1917, he saw how beaten down the Allies were and knew some initiative had to be shown. Plus, the war was bloody everywhere (Britain's three bloodiest months of the war were from August 8th-November 11th, 1918), and he did understand the importance or artillery and airplanes, so he wasn't an idiot. He and his staff also learned quickly. Still, tactically he was average for his time.

Another category not listed is perhaps one of the most important—ability to spot talent. There, Pershing is second to no one. So many officers got their start under his eye because he noticed they had an extra something, from guys like his Services of Supply wizard, James Harbord, to young guns like George Marshall and George Patton.

K.H. in Albuquerque, NM: Ramses II (T: 5, S: 8, A: 10). Even through the mists of history, Ramses the Great must have had some tactical smarts, although he walked into an ambush at Kadesh. Strategically, he kept the Egyptian Empire going despite a few ups and downs against Hittites and Nubians over the many decades of his reign. The fact that he survived as Pharaoh for 66 years is a testament to his administrative skills. (P.S. He outlasted Thutmose III, another famed long-lived military Pharaoh, by about 12 years.)

Scipio Africanus (T: 10, S: 10, A: 8). Tactically, he pulled off some amazing stunts like rescuing his father during the Battle of the Ticinus and is said to have never lost a battle. Strategically, he ran over the Carthaginians repeatedly. I'll just point to B. H. Liddell Hart's Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon and leave it there.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (T: 8, S:10, A:10). Over his long military and political career, he admitted that he made mistakes, causing too many casualties for too little gain, especially in his campaigns in South Asia. Strategically, he kept his eye on the ball all throughout the Peninsular War and again in ending The Hundred Days at Waterloo. Administratively, he was an astute politician and the proof of that is that he rose to Prime Minister. Like Scipio, it is said he never lost a battle, though this is open to interpretation.

Honorable mention: Sun Tzu (T: 10, S: 10, A: 10). Perhaps real, perhaps mythical, his The Art of War is perhaps the preeminent book on conflict.

J.K. in Portland, OR: Gen. Wesley Clark (T: 9, S: 9, A: 2). As commander of the Battle Command Training Program (based at Fort Leavenworth, KS) in the late 1980s, his job as a colonel was teaching division and corps commanders (major generals and lieutenant generals, respectively) how to do their jobs in simulated warfare exercises. This meant that he needed to have considerable skill in strategy. Later, he commanded the field training operation at Fort Irwin, CA, which required considerable skill in tactics. From there, he wound up in the former Yugoslavia, doing real strategy and tactics, and was successful, although often got into arguments with the civilians. Clark was certainly a golden boy from the start, graduating first in his class at West Point (and choosing Infantry as his branch rather than the more common Engineering for such honorees), being the first captain to win the George Catlett Marshall Award as the best student at the Command and General Staff College (all of his predecessors were majors when they spent their year there), and when promoted to general was the youngest person at that rank. His weakness was administration—he was not sufficiently warm and fuzzy to his subordinates or superiors, and this probably was the reason why his 2004 presidential campaign went nowhere.

S.H. in Tigard, OR: I think that Ghengis Khan is a perfect 10, 10, and 10.

M.M. in San Diego, CA: I can't speak to George C. Marshall's tactics or strategies, but Winston Churchill was wowed by Marshall's administrative abilities. As Secretary of State, Marshall dialed it up to 11, putting postwar Western Europe back together. Definitely the right man at the right time.

Here is the question for next week:

J.C.A. in Shepherdsville, KY, asks: If the $1 trillion coin comes to pass, who or what should be on it and why?

Submit your answers here!

Note we will also have some more doppelgängers next week.

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