Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Saturday Q&A

A pretty broad variety this week. Oh, and yesterday's theme was apparently a tricky one. We'd say the one headline where only one word is eligible to be a clue ("Surprise!") is a pretty big giveaway. That said, this theme was WAY more organic to this site than it would be to, say ESPN.com or HollywoodReporter.com.

Current Events

S.B. in Nicosia, Cyprus, asks: In the wake of "A Disastrous Night for the GOP," it appears that Democrats have been on a winning streak since the Dobbs decision. They have actively prioritized the issue at local and state levels, aiming to advance the cause and make political gains. Does it make sense for Democrats to raise the heat by pushing for a federal constitutional amendment? Wouldn't they benefit greatly from such a move? Is there a chance that such an amendment will pass?

(V) & (Z) answer: This would be unwise, because Democratic voters tend to get very angry about unfulfilled promises, and there is zero chance a federal abortion amendment could pass. Such an amendment likely wouldn't even get 50% of the House or the Senate (much less 66.6%), and while it would probably get a bit more than 50% of the states, it wouldn't get anywhere close to 75% of the states.



P.L. in Denver, CO, asks: I am wondering about reproductive rights. Some states (like Ohio) have now enshrined abortion rights in their constitution. If a Republican U.S. House, U.S. Senate and president were elected, could they make a law that would ban abortion—and that would negate the state laws?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, contained within Article VI, makes clear that federal law trumps (no pun intended) state law:

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

Do keep in mind that to make this happen, the Republicans would not only need the trifecta, but would surely have to kill the filibuster. Oh, and there are several Republican senators who would definitely not play along (say, Lisa Murkowski), so a bare majority in the Senate isn't enough.



M.C. in Glasgow, Scotland, asks: You passed along The New York Times' observation that, "there's nothing like abortion to aid Democrats." Similarly, referenda on legalizing marijuana help to turn out Democratic voters.

Surely Democratic candidates can't keep riding these issues' coattails. Once a state constitution guarantees something then what about the next election? Perhaps, in one way or another, the culture wars will be a gift that keeps on giving? For how many more cycles can ads usefully remind of Dobbs?

(V) & (Z) answer: Democrats will get mileage out of abortion for as long as they can say "Elect Republicans, and they will pass laws restricting abortion!" and have voters believe it. Given what happened in the aftermath of Dobbs, we think voters will find that compelling for a good, long time, even in states that have adopted new protections for abortion access, like Ohio.

The same dynamic probably won't hold with marijuana, because there's no core, single-issue GOP constituency that is pushing for marijuana legalization to be repealed. So, it's much easier for Republican officeholders to just ignore that hot potato and let the status quo remain intact.



J.F. in Fort Worth, TX, asks: What is your criteria for what constitutes a narrow election win? In your item on this week's elections, you noted two identical 52.5% to 47.5% wins. For the Mississippi gubernatorial election, you called this "a fairly narrow win," which I would agree with. But for the Kentucky gubernatorial election, you said that Beshear "won without breaking a sweat."

(V) & (Z) answer: Mississippi has a PVI of R+11, so Gov. Tate Reeves (R) underperformed his state's fundamentals by 2 points. Further, because of the way the votes were reported (with very blue Hinds County being delayed, due to running out of ballots and having to extend polling hours), it was not clear until late in the night that he was going to be reelected. Kentucky has a PVI of R+16, so Gov. Andy Beshear (D) overperformed his state's fundamentals by 9.5 points. Further, as the votes were being reported from mostly red counties, it was clear that Daniel Cameron (R) had a lackluster performance. So, Kentucky was called something like 5 hours earlier than Mississippi was, despite the fact that polling places in the two states close just an hour apart (6:00 p.m. CT in Kentucky, 7:00 CT in Mississippi).

Please recall that in a state with a PVI of EVEN, a generic Democrat would be expected to win by 2% of the vote. So, a generic Republican should be winning gubernatorial elections in Mississippi 54.5% to 45.5%, while a generic Democrat should be losing gubernatorial elections in Kentucky 57% to 43%.



A.L. in Highland Park, NJ, asks: Thank you for the extensive list of reactions to Tuesday's elections. I really need more explanation of what Nate Cohn of The New York Times wrote, namely that the election results and the recent Times/Sienna polls were not contradictory. Really?

When two measurements of the same thing disagree—say, the measurements of Hubble constant—you get lots of discussion of the possible ways either of them could be wrong. There could be dust between us and distant supernovae. Calibration errors. Mistakes in Universe models. Local vs. Global measurements. Etc.

I don't see any such dissection of the polling results. Cohn's article cautions readers not to read too much into the election domination by Democrats. But everything is fine, just fine, with the NYT/Siena poll.

In your opinion, what could be the matter with the polls?

(V) & (Z) answer: We will have more on this subject next week, but there are certainly poll respondents who don't want Joe Biden to be the Democrats' candidate, and are telling pollsters they won't vote for him. The numbers will change when and if the slim possibility of a different candidate is taken away, and the choice is Biden, Trump, or third-party candidate. How much they will change is the big question.

It is also very possible that some voters are so upset with Biden (say, over Israel) that they are willing to vote a Democratic ticket... except for him.

Both of these things would allow for the poll results and the election results to co-exist comfortably. That said, it's also possible that the off-year electorate was wonky (Cohn's explanation), or that the NYT/Siena poll was wrong or an outlier.



K.H. in Albuquerque, NM , asks: I checked over at FiveThirtyEight and they give NYT/Siena an A+ rating, getting things right 75% of the time. The last polls included in their rating were the Oct. 2022 ones dealing with governor, Senate, and House elections in various swing states. The site also mentions that these are live phone polls.

In the fine print, they state that their A+ rating is for polls conducted within 21 days of an election. Since we're 344 days out from that 21-day window, we're not exactly comparing apples to apples, oranges to oranges. I would ask, what would their success rate be if one looked at polls that were in a comparable range—say 9-12 months ahead of the election? For polls this early in the cycle, should we be giving NYT/Siena an A+, or a C-, or something in between? You've always been careful to warn us that early polls are unreliable, but I was hoping there was a way to quantify it.

(V) & (Z) answer: There is no way to quantify it.

Imagine that you guessed what the temperature is right now, and decided on 65 degrees. And then, imagine you guessed again at the same time a month from now, and decided on 80 degrees. Then, immediately after the second guess, you got out a thermometer and found that the temperature was actually 82 degrees. Was the first guess wildly incorrect? Or was the temperature just cooler on that day? There's no way to be certain.

With late-cycle polls, we get that proper measurement because people vote and ballots are counted. In other words, we get the temperature guess and we get the actual temperature. But with polls before that, we do not. It could be that if the election were held today, Joe Biden would lose badly. It could be that the NYT/Siena poll was wrong. Absent an actual measurement (i.e., people casting ballots), there's no way to check.



C.C. from Hancock, NH, asks: For as long as I can remember, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrats suffer in off years due to lower voter engagement. Is it time to jettison this conventional wisdom, or is this election too wonky due to abortion?

(V) & (Z) answer: That's something that won't be properly knowable for at least a few more cycles. It could be that abortion is enough to get otherwise blasé voters to the polls. But it could also be that the more reliable voters (e.g., college-educated suburbanites) have shifted leftward and the less reliable ones (e.g., blue-collar white men) have shifted rightward. Or it could be something else.



R.L.D. in Sundance, WY, asks: I've been seeing on Twitter (or whatever we're calling it) a theory that Sen. Tommy Tuberville's (R-AL) block on military promotions isn't actually all that much about abortion policy and more about holding spots open until Donald Trump (at his behest) is back in office and can fill those positions with Trump loyalists who will follow orders when he invokes the Insurrection Act and wants to stifle protest against him (i.e., declare martial law and a dictatorship).

On the one hand, it is kind of conspiratorial, but on the other hand, the modern GOP has been known to think along these lines (ex: Merrick Garland and January 6th). And Michael Flynn certainly hasn't been very good at following his oath to defend the Constitution, so maybe there are other officers of that ilk. I think it's at least plausible, but I'm wondering what you think. As a veteran myself, I'd hate to think the Academies/ROTC programs/Officer Candidate Schools might produce such disloyal officers in any serious numbers, so I remain hopeful that even if this is the "secret plan," it wouldn't work anyway.

(V) & (Z) answer: We are very skeptical. It's at least possible that Tuberville has had a thought along the lines of "If I drag this out, then an additional benefit is that Donald Trump might get to make more military appointments," but that would be a secondary or tertiary benefit, at most.

The first problem with the scheme is that it would look more than a little fishy if the nominees in the pipeline were suddenly removed in favor of Trump appointees. The only reason to do that would be to install nominees who are "politically acceptable." But this is not the Cabinet, it's the military, and doing that would be entirely inappropriate and would make the Pentagon very unhappy.

The second problem with the scheme is that it's none too easy to identify high-ranking officers willing to betray their oaths. Yes, Trump found Flynn, but he also had zero success with corrupting Jim Mattis or John Kelly. And, in general (no pun intended), Trump's record in finding co-conspirators is middling at best. Sure, he found a dozen or so people who might well end up as his bridge partners in prison, but look at how many people defected when he took steps to try to overthrow the election. And look at how many more defected once there were criminal consequences for their actions.



P.C. in Grayslake, IL, asks: Do the children of the men and women whose promotions are being held by Tommy Tuberville have causes of action against him because they can't move to the next duty station and can't compete for school scholarships or teams or honors?

(V) & (Z) answer: No. Individual members of the government have what's called legislative immunity, which means they cannot be hauled in to court for actions undertaken in their official capacity.

This is why Donald Trump is trying to argue that he was just doing his job on 1/6, and when he tried to "find" votes in Georgia, and when he kept classified documents in his bathroom. However, where Trump's argument is weak, Tuberville's is strong. He is using a power that literally only exists in the halls of the United States Congress. Clearly, he is "at work" when he's using it.

In theory, with permission, the family members could sue the federal government. However, that would go nowhere, as military personnel are not entitled to promotions (much less promotions in a timely manner), and since they haven't actually been deprived of anything until the promotion is approved.



M.A. in Knoxville, TN, asks: In your item about Donald Trump's plans for a second term you mentioned he plans to deploy the military to put down protests by using the Insurrection Act and falsely claiming they're insurrections. Would the military go along with this? The president is the commander-in-chief, but military officers swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, not obey all of the president's orders. I would hope that military leaders down the chain would say "No, this isn't an insurrection, and we will not violate our oath to the Constitution to help you be a dictator."

(V) & (Z) answer: We think that is a huge weakness in these hypothetical plans. Not only do military personnel take an oath to uphold the Constitution, they are also duty-bound to disregard immoral or illegal orders. Also, the military is nowhere near as conservative as it once was, and there are certainly members who, even if they were open to some "flexibility" as regards their oath in some circumstances, would not consider it in service of Trump's particular political agenda.



R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: How come so little attention is being paid to Qatar and their role in the Israel-Hamas War? The leaders of Hamas (and the Taliban for that matter) live in Doha. Qatar practically invented the term "sportswashing" (see Cup, World). Also, for years, Qatar has been making large donations to the foundations of the very universities in America that have been called out for not doing enough to protect their Jewish students. And, while they have enabled Hamas by housing their leadership, they are also a key player in negotiations to release the hostages that were taken by Hamas on Oct 7. Seems like a conflict of interest to me.

So I ask again. Given their key role in this conflict, why are they receiving so little attention?

(V) & (Z) answer: When you teach a history class, you have to explain anything that might not be pre-existing knowledge. Just this week, (Z) had to explain who the main combatants were on each side of World War II, and why it's much more complicated than Allies vs. Axis (e.g., France is on both sides due to the Vichy regime/French resistance; Italy was basically a client state of Germany before surrendering and effectively switching sides; the U.S.S.R. was neutral before becoming an ally of the U.K./U.S., and even then was only a wary ally; etc.). It takes a good 15 minutes, but that part of the lecture has to be there or the students won't understand the rest of it.

The situation in the Middle East is wildly complicated, between the historical tensions between religious groups, the Sunni/Shia divide, the existence of various paramilitary/terrorist forces associated with various nations (e.g., Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, etc.), and the various puppeteers operating behind the scenes (e.g., China, Russia, Qatar).

The fact is that the vast majority of Americans understand almost none of this. And so, anyone who wants to write about second-level and third-level machinations has to explain the basics every time, which uses up many words and much space and causes many readers to lose interest.

Some folks want to understand the whole picture, which is why magazines like Foreign Policy exist. But for most, it's just too complicated or too uninteresting, which is why Foreign Policy has a circulation of 35,000 while publications that produce less substantive pieces have circulations many times that.



C.F. in Waltham, MA, asks: Would you say that Russia is trying to commit genocide in Ukraine?

(V) & (Z) answer: By all indications, Vladimir Putin wants to reincorporate Ukraine as Russian territory and to reincorporate the Ukrainians as Russian nationals. That could be deemed cultural genocide, but it is not physical genocide.



J.H. in Westcliff-on-Sea, UK, asks: I am no expert on American law, being neither American, nor a lawyer, but didn't Trump err massively in his testimony this week? He has now stated under oath that some of his properties were undervalued (because of course he did).

Even if he somehow gets off scot-free in this case, assuming he has not been paying property taxes at that valuation, prosecutors surely now have a slam-dunk case and he now has to choose whether to plead guilty of tax evasion or perjury—he can't have it both ways. Or am I missing something?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's possible; it depends on what bookkeeping tricks Trump used to keep his tax bill low. He (or, really, his accountants at Mazars) probably did some ninja-level stuff with depreciation and various deductions.

However, absent additional information, we can't know if he's in trouble. That is because, for basic taxation purposes, the value of a property is set by the local assessor rather than the property owner. If the assessor decided that Mar-a-Lago is worth $18 million, then it is not a crime for Trump to pay property taxes on $18 million.



M.W. in Northbrook, IL, asks: How quickly could West Palm Beach increase its tax base by re-valuing Mar-a-lago at $1B instead of $18M?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, Mar-a-Lago is in ZIP Code 33480, which has an average property tax rate of 1.11%, so the current taxes are about $199,800 per year. If the assessment was increased to $1 billion, then the tax bill would go up to about $11,100,000 per year. So, it would seem West Palm Beach is currently leaving $10,900,200 on the table every year.

(And yes, we know that the assessor's valuation is almost invariably much lower than the real value of a property. This is just a thought exercise.)



J.B. in Rogers, AR, asks: Why do Democrats not bring up Donald Trump's and the Trump Organization's legal problems that happened prior to 2016? The big defense from him and his followers is political persecution. I don't see how that argument holds any water if you bring up the problems he was involved in, all the way back to his problems with racial profiling 50 years ago, before he was involved in politics.

(V) & (Z) answer: There are two problems here. The first is that everyone in the country knows about Trump's checkered legal history. 45% have decided they don't care, 55% have decided they're not voting for him. There's no value in harping on it anymore because it's not going to change anyone's opinions of him. Hillary Clinton learned this the hard way.

The second problem is that Trump's legal issues, prior to the presidency, were entirely civil matters. He did not get into criminal hot water until he became a politician. When Trump says he's only being prosecuted because he was the president, that's actually true. What he doesn't mention is that he didn't start committing (alleged) criminal acts until he was president.

The partial exception to that is the (alleged) criminal fraud he committed in New York, which Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg will eventually prosecute. In that case, the prosecution is also due to his political career, though it's not (by all evidences) that Bragg is trying to bring down an "enemy." It's that Trump's presidency, and the things he did and said in service of his political career, shone a bright light on his business practices, a light too bright to ignore.

Politics

T.S. in Bettendorf, IA, asks: You've often stated there is no evidence Biden is in cognitive decline and any poor performance can be attributed to his stutter. While a stutter doesn't always go away, only the biggest political junkies knew he ever had one be because he was always a fine public speaker and debater, especially in 2012 when he destroyed Paul Ryan. Clearly if a stutter still persisted then, he was an expert at holding it at bay.

If his poor performances are indeed the result of a stutter, doesn't that show a change in his cognitive health since he never had this problem at any other point in his life? I just can't see how anybody can look at Biden in 2012 and Biden in 2020 and think there was no major change other than an increase of 8 year of life.

(V) & (Z) answer: Of course he has suffered cognitive decline; everyone his age does. What we've said is there's no evidence he has dementia, and that the things people point to as "proof" of dementia are, in fact, normal verbal miscues coupled with his stutter slipping through on occasion.

It's also worth noting that as a "work horse" U.S. Senator, Biden didn't have a whole lot of camera time, and the camera time he did have was pretty tightly controlled (for example, he would sit for interviews in his Senate office). Now, by necessity, he is on camera orders of magnitude more. So, there's much more opportunity for verbal missteps.



D.E., Ashburn, VA, asks: You categorically write that it is too late for Joe Biden to drop out of the 2024 race. But these are not ordinary times (to understate the matter). If someone like Larry Hogan (although admittedly, there's only one Larry Hogan) does launch a third-party bid, I fear that's when the Democrats' goose will be cooked. In these truly extraordinary times, with so much at stake, couldn't Biden consider sacrificing his candidacy for the greater good as late as the convention?

(V) & (Z) answer: Here are three things Biden knows. The first is that incumbency helps, and if the candidate is anyone other than him, the Democrats would be ceding that advantage.

The second is that it is very hard to build a proper presidential campaign organization. Sure, another Democrat could do it, but starting this late, and with no money in the bank, that person would be at a significant disadvantage relative to Donald Trump. A disadvantage that would be nearly impossible to mitigate completely.

The third is that the people longing for another person to vote for are, in effect, longing for "generic Democrat." If Biden is replaced my some actual person, then all of a sudden, the near-flawless "generic Democrat" is replaced by someone with actual, clear liabilities. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) is smarmy and elitist. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) has limited experience and could be a victim of Hillary-like sexism. Gov. Andy Beshear (D-KY) has limited experience and is too moderate. There is absolutely nobody out there, with the possible exception of Michelle Obama, that the entire Democratic Party would rally to. Anyone else would make some faction unhappy. Given the divisions within the Democratic Party on Israel, oil vs. jobs, immigration, gender-affirming care for minors, and so much more, it is inconceivable that any actual person could make all Democrats happy. No matter what position anyone took on these issues, some Democrats would be angry.

We do think Biden would step aside if he really thought he was unelectable, and that someone else was more likely to win. But he has very good reasons to think that person does not exist.



K.T. in Oakdale, NY, asks: In response to the infamous battleground state poll, you stated in Monday's post that it is too late for Biden to be replaced. Let's pretend we live in a world where Biden determines that he is less likely to win than his likely Democratic successors, cannot fathom the idea of being responsible for a Trump re-election, and does what he thinks is best for the country and drops out. Is there any historical precedent for an incumbent to drop out before a primary after announcing he is running? Would he likely have a planned endorsement for his desired successor lined up, with that person already aware and ready to hit the ground running?

(V) & (Z) answer: Recall that the era of primaries dates back only to World War II, roughly speaking. And in that time, there have been two sitting presidents who "seemed" to be running (though they did not formally announce), and who dropped out early in primary season when it was clear they were in trouble. Those two were Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. And while you don't want to draw conclusions that are too firm from a data set of two, in both cases, their party lost the White House.

If Biden did drop out, we don't think he'd anoint a favored candidate. In that scenario, he'd be badly damaged goods, and there would surely be a negative reaction to his apparently trying to pick his successor. If he drops out, he'll have to accept that there's going to be a free-for-all.



A.S. in Bedford, MA, asks: I consider a vote for Biden in 2024 as a vote for some months or years of Biden, plus the balance covered by his VP. ´╗┐Is there any way that Biden can hand-pick a better successor than Kamala Harris without weakening himself politically (whether or not he names them as VP before the election)? What about Secretary of State Antony Blinken? He's got to have the second hardest job in the country right now.

(V) & (Z) answer: It would be very tough to pull off. First, Kamala Harris would have to be 100% on board with whatever story the administration would peddle in order to explain the change in running mates. Second, the administration would have to come up with a heck of a story, one that did not make it look like Biden screwed up in picking Harris in the first place, and one that did not leave Black women voters feeling alienated. There was a brief moment when that might have been possible. Biden could have leaned heavily on Gavin Newsom to appoint Kamala Harris to the Senate after Diane Feinstein died and heavily on Harris to accept. After all, Harris could have run for president in 2028 as a senator. But that ship has sailed.

If Harris does get jettisoned, there is absolutely no way the new running mate would be another senior-citizen centrist white guy (Blinken would be 63 on Inauguration Day 2025). It would definitely have to be a much younger person than Biden, and probably someone who is either a woman or nonwhite or both.



S.R. in Auburn, CA, asks: Given that David Axelrod is an experienced and respected Democratic strategist, why did he stir up Democratic angst and give fodder to Republicans by declaring that Biden should drop out of the race for president? Surely a good PR campaign can enlighten the low-information voters. They might think that they want a candidate with the looks and charisma of Ryan Gosling, but what we need is someone with the temperament and experience of a person like Joe Biden. If Axelrod truly believes what he has stated, why would he not support democracy by trying to sway public opinion towards Biden?

(V) & (Z) answer: First because Axelrod is now a pundit, first and foremost, and is paid to give "takes" on politics. Second, because there is a clear tension between the core Obama team and the core Biden team (even though Obama and Biden themselves get along fine).

Consequently, when Axelrod is deciding, at any given moment, if he's a pundit or he's a Democratic operative, he tends to lean pundit when talking about Biden, far more so than when talking about Obama. That said, Axelrod got enough blowback that he backed down 24 hours after saying Biden should consider stepping aside.



S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, asks: You noted that if Donald Trump wins in 2024, he plans to use the powers of the presidency in a dictatorial manner. You also pointed out that, ironically, if Republicans control the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will likely resist many of those plans. What happens if it's not McConnell? Who becomes the Republican leader in the Senate and how confident are we that it's not going to be someone in the bag for Trump?

(V) & (Z) answer: It is improbable that control of the Senate will devolve upon a crazypants Trumper. First, because there are considerably fewer of those people in the Senate. Second, because to become Senate Majority Leader, a person only needs the majority of their caucus and not a majority of the entire Senate. And so, a whackadoodle minority doesn't have the kind of leverage a whackadoodle minority has in the House, since a small group of whackadoodle Senators cannot block a person from getting elected, and so can't extract concessions in exchange for their votes.

As to the person most likely to succeed McConnell, our money is on Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).



E.H. in South Burlington, VT, asks: What I haven't seen anyone write about anywhere is: What are the plans for Project 2025 if Trump is NOT the nominee? Does it all depend on having him and his authoritarian desires in place? If it's someone else—if Trump is in prison or has passed on to whatever reward he deserves—do they intend to push forward with it?

If so, then it seems to me that Democrats have to make this less about Trump and more about the dangers of voting for any Republican at any level of government.

(V) & (Z) answer: The folks behind Project 2025 plan to lobby the next Republican president, whether in 2025 or 2029 or 2033 or whenever, to put their plans in motion. They just know that Trump is a particularly receptive/pliant target.

The first problem with running against "The Republicans" is that it's harder to sell something when you don't have a face to pin it on. The second problem is that if you are trying to curry crossover votes, you don't want to imply that those crossover voters are part of "the problem." So, it's far better to say something like: "Trump, and those who back him, are a threat to democracy." That broadens the attack in a manner that has fewer downsides.



L.C. in Saugatuck, MI, asks: It seems to me that the ideal race this country needs next November would be Mitt Romney/Nikki Haley versus Gavin Newsom/Gretchen Whitmer. What are the chances of that happening in your opinion?

(V) & (Z) answer: 0.0%. Mitt Romney has zero chance of being nominated for president ever again, as the Republican Party has veered hard rightward in the last 12 years. Not only has that left him out of step with the base, but some of his votes (e.g., for conviction in the Trump impeachment trial) and some of his comments have caused many on the right to brand him a RINO, an enemy, part of the deep state, etc.

Note that even if you accept that each part of this four-part plan has a 10% chance of happening, then the odds of all four pieces falling into place in this way are just 0.01%. And 10% is high, we'd say. If you drop it to 5%, then the odds are just 0.000625%. The point is that one change to the anticipated major-party tickets is very possible. But when you make that change very specific, and then you call for four of those changes rather than one, the odds get vanishingly small very fast.

Civics

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: In the context of the House and Senate passing bills on a subject (I'm thinking now about spending bills) with different provisions, I know the two appoint conferees to try to work out a compromise bill. Assuming that succeeds, what is the procedure that follows? Is it a "privileged" bill in the House that must be voted on, or does the Speaker have to decide to bring it to the floor? In the Senate, is it filibusterable, or is it just a straight up-or-down vote?

(V) & (Z) answer: In order to provide a complete answer, we will start by noting two things. The first is that the conference process is used far, far less than it used to be. There was a time when 30 or 40 bills per year would be sent to conference. It was still about 20 per year up through the first few years of the Bush presidency.

Since then, however, at least four things have changed. The first is that Congress tends to produce a lot less legislation. The second is that when they do, they tend to do it at the last minute, leaving one chamber or the other with something of a "take it or leave it" situation. The third is that relations between the two chambers have grown less cordial, sometimes even when they are held by the same party. And the fourth is that, in view of the previous three issues, leadership tries to address problematic stuff before their own chamber passes a bill. Anyhow, it is rare these days for a double-digit number of bills to go to conference in any given year; the last year in which that happened was 2009 (11 bills). In the last Congress (the 117th), a total of three bills went to a conference committee, for a rate of 1.5 per year. In the current Congress, none have, thus far.

If and when it does happen, each chamber's leaders will (probably) choose three members to send to the conference committee meetings, and those three members will (probably) come from the committee that originated the legislation under discussion. The two committee chairs (the one from the House and the one from the Senate) will do most of the talking.

Once the conference committee hammers something out, they produce a conference report, which contains the original bill, some comments on the work done by the committee, and then the revised bill. If you would like to see an example, here is the most recent conference report produced, it deals with the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. It's a real page turner—it has to be, since it's got 2,214 of them.

Voting to accept the conference report means the revised, reconciled version of the bill contained within is approved. Conference reports are privileged matters, and so must be brought to the floor in a timely manner. Many of them can be filibustered, but not conference reports on budget resolutions and budget reconciliation bills. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 places a limit of 10 hours of debate on those things, as opposed to the infinite hours allowed by a filibuster.



K.G. in Madison, WI, asks: I've been watching Donald Trump's Georgia case, which uses the state's RICO laws and it makes sense to me that they are used here. I see the conspiracy and the organizational criminal intent. I think I get it.

But then the state of Georgia is also using the RICO laws against protesters swept up in the Cop City protests outside Atlanta. These don't make sense to me. I don't see organized crime, I see suppression of the right to protest and an attempt to remove the thorn that the protesters have become to the powers that be.

Is RICO appropriately used in the first case and being abused in the second case? Or am I just playing out my confirmation bias? Maybe a RICO tutorial would be helpful.

(V) & (Z) answer: RICO was developed to allow the prosecution of people who conspired to commit multiple crimes together. It was meant for circumstances where it's hard to pin any one crime on any one person, but where the collective group (e.g., a Mafia family) clearly has collective guilt.

Few people are expert in the nuances and subtleties of RICO law, or of Georgia RICO law, unless they are a veteran prosecutor. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, the sort of scheme that Donald Trump and his underlings tried to perpetrate in Georgia comforms with what the people who created RICO envisioned. For example, it's hard to say exactly which people were responsible for the fake electors scheme, and to what degree, but it's easy to say they are all collectively responsible.

By contrast, using RICO to go after the protesters in Atlanta is, at best, novel. At worst, it's an abuse of power. Georgia state AG Christopher Carr, who brought the case, is stretching to find two felony crimes to charge, and also to prove the existence of a conspiracy. If it WAS a conspiracy, buy virtue of being a collective action, then pretty much all protests are conspiracies. All labor strikes, too.

Hard to know what's motivating Carr here. Is he just a Republican AG who hates, hates, hates protesters and wants to stick it to them? Is he a Trumper who wants to muddy the waters on Trump's RICO charge? Maybe both? For what it's worth, Carr led a group responsible for tens of thousands of robocalls to Republican voters, urging them to join the protests that became the 1/6 insurrection.



J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, asks: It was interesting to see your interest in an online vote verification system. I have read that a blockchain system would provide the same results, without depending on millions of people correctly writing down a random 12-digit number. How do you think a blockchain system is worse than the one proposed?

(V) & (Z) answer: Cryptographers have devised hundreds of schemes for electronic voting with all manner of properties. Some of them are brilliant. However in order to be acceptable, politicians and voters have to understand them. Very, very few people actually understand blockchain. While giving people a pencil and slips of paper to write down a 12-digit number is not perfect and some people will make mistakes, at least everyone understands the concept: Every ballot has a unique random number. If you write it down, you can look it up later. By the second election using it, people will get the idea and write down the number carefully.

With blockchain, you end up explaining it by saying: "Trust us." How many Trump voters are going to trust anyone trying to explain it using math they don't understand? That is simply not going to work anymore. For better or worse, a scheme that is simple to understand is politically more palatable than one that may be technically stronger but which only 1,000 people in the country understand. Try explaining blockchain to your grandma and see how that goes. One of us, (V), has published papers on electronic voting. The most accessible one is available in pdf form here, but it is more complex than the one with the random ballot numbers.



H.R. in Brookeville, MD, asks: Prior to the election in November 2024, will the presumed Republican nominee be entitled to security briefings, given his legal issues and history? If so, when will they likely begin? Are the briefings likely be watered down so he can't use the info for purposes not in the national interest? Is anyone discussing this concern?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is done at the discretion of the sitting president, so it will ultimately be Joe Biden's call. He and his staff may have talked about it, or maybe not; they've got some time before the rubber hits the road.

If we were advising Biden, we would point out that: (1) denying Trump would give him something tangible to kvetch about, but (2) giving him anything useful would put national security at risk, given his history and criminal charges. And so, the correct approach would be to give him long, boring briefings full of nothingness:

Good morning, Mr. Trump. The first thing we're going to talk about today is the United Kingdom. They have a king, and we used to have some issues with them. However, we don't have any issues anymore. So, there's nothing to report on that front. Phew! They do have delicious tea and crumpets, but our analysts say those pose no threat to our national security. What's that? Uh, no, Mr. Trump, the Beatles are not also friends with Vladimir Putin. First of all, "Back in the U.S.S.R." was recorded when Putin was 16 years old, and second, it was meant ironically.

Next up is France. Their capital is Paris. And the hot intelligence there is that the Café de Flore has the best croissants in town. Do you want us to pause so you can write that down? Also, we should warn you that if and when you travel there, you won't be able to order a Quarter Pounder at McDonalds. You'll want to ask for a Royale with Cheese. Do you want us to pause so you can write that down? The reason is that they're on the metric system, which means... well... uh, never mind. Too hard to explain.

And then there is West Germany. We know your knowledge of world affairs is pretty much stuck in the year 1965, so we have some big news for you there. Do you want to sit down for this? Oh, right, you're already sitting. Well, hold on to your hat (OK, your hair), but there is no West Germany anymore. They reunited with East Germany, such that it's just Germany. Yes, shocking, we know. You know that woman who stared you down in that picture that everyone saw? She was actually the leader of Germany. Why didn't anyone tell you that? Well, they did, but you weren't paying attention. On any of the six occasions they tried to explain it. Anyhow, you'll be happy to hear she's been replaced by a guy named Olaf Scholz. No... he isn't in the footcare business. That's Dr. Scholl's, not Olaf Scholz. And Dr. Scholl has been dead since 1968. Oh, right, our mistake! That's after 1965, so of course you didn't know.

After a couple of days, especially if the briefings are long and boring, Trump would likely start turning them down, solving the problem entirely.

History

J.A. in Puerto Armuelles, Panama, asks: I realize any answer would be somewhat speculative, but what would have happened if the Japanese Empire had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and other U.S. possessions when it made its land grab in Southeast Asia?

President Roosevelt was clearly against Japanese expansionism, as evidenced by prewar embargoes of oil and metals. But would Congress or the American people have supported a declaration of war against Japan, had they only invaded European colonial possessions? Would FDR have even asked for one?

(V) & (Z) answer: The reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor is that they knew the U.S. was on the cusp of joining the war anyhow. They were aware that the incident that drew the U.S. into the Spanish-American War (the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine) didn't do much for the Spanish, and the incident that drew the U.S. into World War I (the Zimmermann Telegram) did even less for the Germans. Their assessment was that, by late 1941, any small incident—accident, intercepted message, something else—could (and probably would) provide the final push needed to draw the U.S. into the war. So, they figured they might as well get some mileage out of the straw that broke the camel's back.

In short, we don't think things would have unfolded much differently, even absent the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was zero chance the U.S. was going to stay out of that war.



G.T. in Budapest, Hungary, asks: I am not a historian as (Z) is, but a part of your response to tjhe question of M.A. in Knoxville does not fit in with my historical understanding. You wrote: "[W]hen [Hitler] took power after the death of Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, it looked legitimate enough that there were no mass protests. And then, once Hitler had the reins of power fully in his grasp, it was too late."

My understanding is that Hitler took power as chancellor of Germany in January of 1933 and he took absolute power in March of 1933 with the Enabling Act. By the time President Hindenburg died in August 1934 it was way too late. Please clarify.

(V) & (Z) answer: Hitler's rise to absolute power looked something like this:

  1. Get appointed as chancellor
  2. Consolidate power behind the scenes
  3. Wait for Paul von Hindenburg to die
  4. On Hindenburg's death, affirm obeisance of Reichstag and German military
  5. Publicly declare self to be dictator (führer)

What we were saying is that by the time the plan reached stage five, and the public became aware that Hitler was claiming to be supreme leader of Germany, it was too late.



E.K. in San Mateo, CA, asks: When did the practice of saying "thank you for your service" to vets become popular?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is not so easy to nail down, since we don't have records of 99.99999% of conversations held between people, but the evidence suggests it is a product of the Vietnam War. This makes sense, since the veterans of that war were often treated badly. There's no proof of the "people spitting on Vietnam vets" story, but they certainly didn't get the support they should have, given what they went through, generally against their will. Certainly, the first president to use the phrase to refer specifically to veterans was Richard Nixon, in a July 1974 speech when he declared:

In his first annual message to the Congress George Washington said: "To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace."

That statement is true today as it was then. And that is why all of you who are serving in our armed forces today are actually serving in the peace forces for America and the world. We thank you for your service.

That was just over a month before Nixon's resignation.

Gallimaufry

J.K. in Silverdale, WA, asks: As a long time reader of this site, I, too, find that I feel an unexpected sense of community among the staff and reader contributors despite never having met in person. While I was intrigued by the idea of a Boston area meetup for those readers, I've had another question/idea for some time. Are (V) and (Z) ever in the same city? Have you ever considered an E-V.com convention?

(V) & (Z) answer: There was much response to the Boston meetup idea, and we'll soon work on helping facilitate that. There was also some interest in meetups in other places; we're looking to see if there's some pre-existing tool that might allow us to help with that.

The idea of some sort of convention is interesting; we'll have to think about it. (V) and (Z) are not often in the same city, but it happens on rare occasions. And even if it doesn't happen, (Z) does live in a city that is home to two presidential libraries, which might be an appropriate side activity.



K.S. in Baltimore, MD, asks: I don't mean to be dense but I had no idea what this Tim Scott beard meme is about. He is with a lady and so I suppose this means she is some kind of cover? I couldn't figure it out.

(V) & (Z) answer: Not an easy thing to look up if you don't already know it. "Beard" is a slang term for a woman who pretends to be a man's romantic partner, so as to allow that man to conceal his homosexuality. The meme we ran was extremely tame compared to some of the stuff that was out there, particularly the stuff that imagines that Scott and his fellow South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham are both enthusiastic about a form of whipping that has nothing to do with votes for legislation.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: Whether alive today, or a denizen of a past era, who might have become president if it was not necessary to be a natural born citizen?

And here some of the answers we got in response:

J.E. in San Jose, CA: Because of the sizable minority of Tories in our young nation, could King George III have managed to get himself president? Were the rules in the Constitution for becoming president designed with him in mind?



J.L. in Paterson, NJ: From past eras, perhaps the German-born John Peter Altgeld. He was Governor of Illinois and a leader of the progressive Democrats. Ineligible to run himself, he supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee in 1896. He didn't have some of Bryan's negatives, although he did have some of his own. Who knows how he would have fared against William McKinley.

Among those living, I think of two who served as popular governors of large states: Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) and Jennifer Granholm (D-MI). In fact, when both were in office, there was some (limited) speculation about a constitutional amendment to allow naturalized citizens to serve. The theory was that it might get bipartisan support, because each party had a potential candidate who could benefit.

I personally think that "has been a citizen for 35 years" would be a better rule. It's silly that Granholm, who has lived in the United States since she was 4 years old, is disqualified just because she was born in Canada. Not even the wily Canadians could recruit a toddler as a double agent.



J.S. in Germantown, IA: I don't know if this was an intentional tee-up but the obvious answer is Arnold Schwarzenegger. (And yes I had to search the correct spelling.) He's generally well-liked, even-tempered, and a reasonably good public speaker. He seemed to do a credible job as governor of California to the point of winning reelection in an otherwise poor year for Republicans. The thing is, I don't know if he would have been electable immediately after his term as California governor but definitely believe that if the option had been open he would have run in 2020. He clearly loathes Donald Trump and is vocal in his opposition to Trumpism. Could he have beaten Trump for the nomination in 2020? Possibly. Today? Definitely! And I suspect that he would beat Biden in either election.

P.S.: I asked the question of my wife and she said (jokingly, of course): "We've already had one: Obama!"



D.H. in Portland, OR: A modern possibility in the post-Trump world would be Elon Musk, when Trump shuffles off this mortal coil. If Musk was allowed to run, I could see Trumpers drooling at the opportunity—I mean, more than they usually drool.



J.D. in St Paul, MN: Andrew Carnegie stands out. He was self made, fabulously successful as an industrialist, intellectually inclined, well-informed and well-connected in national and global affairs, an anti-imperialist, a progressive in most regards, a philanthropist who eventually gave away his money to benefit society, and charming such that a political turn toward executive office in the late 19th century—a run for the presidency—is credible to imagine. He was born in Scotland, as most readers here will know.



P.M. in Reading, England, UK: Winston Churchill is the obvious answer. In fact, he frequently joked about it to FDR.



E.M. in Delaware, OH: My vote is for Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette—the Marquis de Lafayette! No need to shorten his name. Americans were infatuated with him for decades, especially after his 6,000-mile victory tour of America, ending in 1825. That would have primed him for the presidential race of 1828 and saved our nation from the reign of Andrew Jackson. Perhaps Lafayette could have worked the anti-Jackson magic that eluded John Quincy Adams in Adams' reelection effort. Such a scenario is believable if a few items had fallen into place, such as a Lafayette endorsement by Henry Clay, who hated Jackson. The election of 1828 was very dirty politically and Lafayette was the type of figure who could have risen above the mudslinging fray. As an opponent of slavery, could he have cobbled together enough votes to defeat Jackson? Doesn't the fervor of his hero worship by Americans make that a possibility?



J.C. in Chicago, IL: How about Joseph Pulitzer? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pulitzer's role in developing mass media and his political engagement as a representative in Congress could have given him a presidential platform.

A more unconventional choice might be Oscar de la Renta. Although not a politician, the Dominican-born fashion designer was deeply integrated into American high society and philanthropy. In an era when celebrity culture is increasingly important, his stature could have transitioned into a political career.

Also, there's Felix Frankfurter. As a Supreme Court Justice and founding member of the ACLU, Frankfurter's legal mind and progressive views might have attracted a substantial following during the New Deal era.



J.M. in Eagle Mills, NY: Mercifully, the natural-born citizen clause prevented Henry Kissinger from being considered.

Here is the question for next week:

As noted above, E.K. San Mateo would be interested in readers' thoughts on the question of thanking veterans—It is misguided? What's the best way to respond? To that, we will add this: If a person does want to acknowledge a veteran's service, is there a good way to do so? If so, what is it? Please answer whatever of these questions you see fit.

Submit your answers here!



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