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Saturday Q&A

We ran into some technical problems this evening, so we're going to have to hold some really good history questions, and some very good "moo words" to next week. Sorry!

Current Events

P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: As you have written, several motions have been filed to block Donald Trump from running/serving as President due to his "alleged" involvement in an insurrection. Unless I am missing something, though, he hasn't been found guilty of taking part in an insurrection. So, how can people call for someone to be disqualified for something they are not guilty of? Don't courts usually turn away hypothetical cases?

(V) & (Z) answer: When Congress wrote the Fourteenth Amendment, they intended to bar well more than 100,000 people from holding office. It would have been impractical to put them all on trial. That is why the text disqualifies people who "shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof" as opposed to people who "shall have been convicted of insurrection or rebellion against the same."

Further, there is no crime called "insurrection." There are adjacent crimes, like conspiracy or sedition, but nothing with that precise name. It was left to... well, someone to decide what it means to have "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof." The Amendment doesn't even spell out what person or entity is entitled to make that judgment, although it's implied that Congress is among the entities endowed with the privilege. Add it up, and the text of the Fourteenth leaves a whole lot of room for interpretation, but it definitely does not require a conviction.

C.R. in St Louis, MO, asks: I find it slightly unnerving that the Fourteenth Amendment potentially opens so many means to not seat or remove an elected or appointed official. Let's say 5 members of the Supreme Court someday decide they really don't want the other party to have the presidency: Can they merely claim the candidate was an insurrectionist and bar them from office? Can the House invoke it? It seems like the Fourteenth really needs some clarification, much as presidential succession needed a lot of work over the years.

(V) & (Z) answer: You're not wrong. If Donald Trump is tossed off the ballot in 2024, it is entirely plausible that a Republican-dominated court in a swing state—think North Carolina, Florida, etc.—could rule in 2028 that Gavin Newsom or Gretchen Whitmer once fomented insurrection by, say, playing the song "Fight for Your Right to Party" at a dance, and so are disqualified from running for president.

It would take another amendment to modify the Fourteenth. We are not optimistic that 67% of the politicians or 75% of the state legislatures can come together to actually get this done.

C.P.S. in San Jose, CA, asks: Cassidy Hutchinson said that she was told that after Donald Trump gave his speech on 1/6, he wanted to physically join the insurrection at the Capitol but was prevented from doing so by the Secret Service. How do you think that the events of the past two years would have been different if Trump had actually been present at the Capitol when it was breached by the mob?

(V) & (Z) answer: We do not think they would be at all different. Donald Trump gave a speech telling his followers to attack the Capitol, his followers did it, and the apologists insist he did nothing wrong. Trump got caught on tape urging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to "find" votes, and the apologists insist he did nothing wrong. Trump took classified documents home, there are literal pictures of them in his bathroom, and the apologists insist he did nothing wrong. Some sizable percentage of the country is well convinced he did many wrongful things, and that he needs to pay a price. For the rest, there is no evidence that will persuade them.

R.L. in Chicago, IL, asks: I read that one of Donald Trump's stall tactics could be to fire his defense team and then request additional time for his new lawyers to get up to speed. Presumably he will do this a few weeks before the trial start date. Attorneys I've spoken with say that the judge pretty much has to allow this and pretty much always grants some additional time. How likely do you think this is?

(V) & (Z) answer: We are not sure that this is quite as automatic, in general, as is suggested by the attorneys you spoke to. In any event, Trump is well known for his stalling tactics, and has already been smacked down for them a couple of times since becoming a criminal defendant (e.g., no 2026 trial date). The cases against him require massive preparation and, in the Florida one, vetting for security clearances. In view of this, if he tries to fire his counsel a few weeks before one trial or another, we think he's going to have to come up with a heck of an explanation for what makes this necessary, and why it took 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 billed hours to figure it out. And if he can't provide that explanation, the judge will say "Uh, no."

F.D. in St. Paul, MN, asks: As I read more and more about the conflicting timing of Donald Trump's trials and the primaries, I continue to wonder about the chances of a "grand deal" where trump pleads guilty to light sentences in exchange for not running for office (maybe even stipulating that the Fourteenth Amendment prevents him from doing so). Could such a deal be possible?

(V) & (Z) answer: Possible? Sure. But not likely, we think.

The first problem is that it would require buy-in from quite a few people. We are not sure that Special Counsel Jack Smith/AG Merrick Garland, Fulton County DA Fani Willis, New York AG/Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg would all sign off on something like this. The second problem, one related to the first, is that it's not a great precedent that if you're president and you commit crimes, the worst that will happen to you is you have to agree not to run for president again.

Keep in mind, also, that plea deals are a form of risk management. A prosecutor who thinks they have an excellent shot at getting, say, 50 years, might be willing to settle for 20 years or maybe even 10, in order to save time and money and to avoid the risk of a rogue juror or something like that. But they aren't going to settle, in that circumstance, for 2 months. And given how strong the cases against Trump appear to be, we doubt there is a middle ground that would be satisfactory to both the prosecution and to the former president.

A.B. in Aberdeen, Scotland, asks: I was reading that there may be a new legal issue for TFG. It has been suggested that the mugshot is copyright of the Fulton County, GA, DA's office. So, funds raised by using that mugshot without copyright consent may be forfeit. Is this correct? Could he have to turn over the millions raised to the DA's office?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, it is correct. Anything created by the federal government is automatically in the public domain, and cannot be copyrighted. However, Trump's mugshot was not created by the feds, it was created by the government of Georgia, which is not constrained in this way, and which retains the rights to the photo. If they choose to enforce their copyright, they could recover the money Trump has raised, plus damages on top of that.

J.L. in Baltimore, MD, asks: Some Republicans are attempting to remove Fani Willis from office in an attempt to protect their Dear Leader. But doesn't Willis have a whole team of people who can take over the prosecution if they succeed? I can't believe the government's case wold depend on one person. What would happen if that person became temporarily physically unable, or even died? Wouldn't the case still continue?

(V) & (Z) answer: The case would certainly continue. Given the size and complexity of the case, it involves dozens of people working under Willis. She's the most important member of the team, as the final decision maker, and as the public face of the effort, but nobody is indispensable. If she died, resigned, was removed from office, etc., it wouldn't change the trajectory of things in any meaningful way.

That means that the talk of removing her is just theater for the benefit of the base.

P.L. in Denver, CO, asks: There was a story recently that Donald Trump sold or somehow transferred Mar-a-Lago to Donald Jr. When this first came out, I was pondering why he would do that. Protecting assets? In need of money? Planning an escape from the U.S.? Then it was reported that Zillow made a mistake.

My question: Is there a scenario where Trump might start dumping assets and transferring them to his family? And if so, why would he do that?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, there is a scenario. If this was 10 years ago, he might have done it to manage tax liability, particularly inheritance taxes. Trump's father did this, with the result that the former president was a millionaire by the time he finished kindergarten.

These days, the likely reason would be to try to avoid paying court judgments. This is known as "fraudulent conveyance," and courts can and will claw back the assets if they think that's what is going on.

D.D. in Hollywood, FL, asks: What do you figure are the odds that any of the financial judgments made against the likes of Alex Jones, Rudy Guiliani, or Trump will ever be paid? Years ago, after I had won a judgment (in small claims), the person said "Fine, you now have a piece of paper that says what we've always known." Never did collect.

(V) & (Z) answer: Some of them will be paid, since all three of these men do have assets. Trump, in particular, appears to have assets that far exceed the value of the judgments likely to be entered against him. As to Giuliani and Jones, they will clearly run out of money long before they have settled their liabilities. We suspect that the people who have filed suit against Giuliani and Jones will be disappointed to go unpaid, but will still see the financial ruin of the two men as a pretty good outcome.

J.K. in St. Paul, MN, asks: Regarding Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) holding up military promotions: Couldn't Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) work in a slate of promotions while Tuberville is out of the Senate chamber on some other business?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, the Senate does have to publish a schedule of when it will be in session. So, they can't secretly agree to meet next Tuesday night at 10:00 p.m., and nobody tell Tuberville. Second, no majority leader is going to want to establish a precedent wherein you just wait until an unfriendly senator is absent, and then you ram legislation (or other business) through. That is a precedent that will eventually come back to bite a caucus in the rear.

D.M. in Chicago, IL, asks: What would happen if Chuck Schumer were to simply call Tuberville's bluff and begin the long laborious process of bringing military promotions to a vote, one-by-one? I know that there would be no practical way to actually handle them that way, and that the Senate would grind to a halt for over a year as a result, but my understanding is that Schumer would still have discretion to put vital issues on the calendar. Beyond those priorities, however, the Senate would be completely tied up, effectively stopping all business for the foreseeable future.

(V) & (Z) answer: There are a couple of problems here. The first is that Schumer does not particularly want to punish his own members for the bad behavior of one member on the other side of the aisle. The second is that any "workaround" encourages copycat behavior in the future, since the lesson would be: "Feel free to hold up promotions in service of your pet cause, because eventually the rest of the Senate will cave and figure out a way to solve the problem."

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: Regarding the Tuberville situation, are majors and lieutenant commanders really important enough to require Senate attention? Correct me if I'm wrong, but the requirement that promotions to these ranks be approved by the Senate is statutory, right? Might there be enough appetite (in both houses of Congress; including enough to break a filibuster) to lift the review requirement a few levels to the flag officer ranks? I'm not familiar with the rank breakdown of the armed services, but I'd think that would reduce the promotion backlog by an order of magnitude or more.

(V) & (Z) answer: Officers with the rank of major or higher are considered to be officers of the United States. That means that they, like the president, or the Secretary of Commerce, or the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, exercise some portion of the sovereign power of the United States, and are entitled to enter into agreements on behalf of the national government. A military officer might negotiate a treaty or sign a contract to provide provisions for the troops. A U.S. Attorney might negotiate a plea deal. The Secretary of Commerce might negotiate a trade agreement. All are wielding the sovereign power of the United States. This is a pretty important thing, and the Congress is not eager to degrade its significance.

In addition, the U.S. currently has about 1,000 flag officers. If you assume that each of them spends 10 years at their current rank (which is surely WAY high), that would be 100 flag-officer promotions a year. On top of that would be appointments to specialized tasks and commands, like Chair of the Joint Chiefs, Commander of WESTPAC, superintendent of the United States Naval Academy, etc. So, trimming the majors and lieutenant colonels and colonels (and lieutenant commanders and commanders and captains) from the list would not suddenly make the task manageable under normal order. They'd still need to use the unanimous consent shortcut.


R.T. in Arlington, TX, asks: Have you ever done a piece to discuss whether news organizations sponsor polls for the dishonorable reason of creating a news item/scoop during a slow news season (like now), rather than the honorable purpose of keeping the public informed?

(V) & (Z) answer: We have not written a piece like that, but it's not a secret. Any organization that foots the bill for a poll is expecting it to attract eyeballs and so make the investment worthwhile. There may also be some sense of public duty, but that is not often paramount.

R.S. in San Mateo, CA, asks: You wrote about the CNN/SSRS poll, which is grim for Joe Biden. The fine print of the poll reveals that 60% of respondents were Republicans. Some use this fact as evidence of an anti-Biden bias, while others defend oversampling as a valid polling technique. What's your take on this?

(V) & (Z) answer: We were critical of the overly firm conclusions that people, including CNN staff, drew from that poll. But the poll itself is fine. Republicans were oversampled because the biggest question is "What is the state of the GOP primary?", and the more Republicans you talk to, the more precise your answers to that question get. The pollster nonetheless weighted the responses to match the composition of the general electorate. So, if the respondents were 60% Republican, 40% Democratic, and the electorate was expected to be 50/50, then each Republican response would be weighted at .83 and each Democratic response would be weighted at 1.25.

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: Recent opinion polls show that a considerable majority of Americans believe the state of the country is getting worse rather than getting better. This has been portrayed in the media as very bad news for President Biden. However, it seems likely to me that a fair chunk of the electorate may be answering the "state-of-the-country" question in the negative simply because Donald Trump is still relevant in national life. Were Trump to be imprisoned for the rest of his life (or, heaven forbid, shrug off his mortal coil), I would imagine the mood of many millions of Americans would improve considerably overnight. Am I wrong in assuming this and, if it be so, might these polls numbers not be such bad news for Biden after all?

(V) & (Z) answer: We doubt that the permanent retirement or death of Donald Trump would substantially change national attitudes. The primary dynamic here, in our view, is the general human cognitive bias to believe the past was better than the present, and that the world is headed downhill. This is so common, it even has a name: declinism.

We suspect that the tendency of the modern parties, particularly the Republicans, to constantly preach gloom and doom, heightens Americans' pre-existing propensity for declinism. But the exit of Donald Trump from the world stage won't do much to change the dynamic.

D.J.M. om Salmon Arm, BC, Canada, asks: In "Why Give Money to PACs?: Because," you write: "[W]e live in an era where TV commercials are much, much less efficacious than they once were..." If this is the case, what do you believe is the most efficacious medium for political commercials?

(V) & (Z) answer: If we must answer the question you pose, then the answer is "social media." Or, even more narrowly, "influencers." Those ads, because they are hyper-targeted, offer a lot more bang for the buck.

But we also dispute the premise that there must be SOME efficacious medium for political commercials. It's entirely plausible that we are in a post-advertising era, where people are able to avoid most paid messaging, and where there's no form of advertising that works all that well.

R.P. in Northfield, IL, asks: I know that you have never thought much of Nikki Haley's chances of being president or even getting past the primary. But things developing the way they are with a possible Fourteenth Amendment disqualification or felony conviction for Donald Trump, and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) fading, I wonder if you think she might just have a chance of being the GOP nominee. As a Democrat, I rather fear having her as the candidate, especially against an unpopular Biden. Am I wrong to be afraid? And if not her, who? Vivek Ramaswamy?

(V) & (Z) answer: If the election of 2016 taught us anything, it's that you can't count any semi-serious candidate out. So, you can never say never for Haley, or any of the other Republicans who made the debate stage.

That said, Haley has hedged her bets, such that she's too Trumpy for many Never Trump Republicans, and she's not Trumpy enough for some of the Trumpers. Between her race, her gender, and her past critical statements of Trump, we don't think she would do much better with Trump's base than, say, Mike Pence. That would make it very hard to get the GOP nomination. And in the general election, she's said quite a few things that won't play well with a national electorate. So, she's certainly a long shot in both the primaries and the general.

A useful thing to keep in mind: Look what happened to DeSantis once he was under the withering presidential microscope. Haley has not yet gotten the microscope treatment.

If it's not Trump and it's not DeSantis, we'd guess the likeliest alternative is someone who isn't even a candidate right now, like Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA), or maybe Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH).

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: What part of 55-44% does the Wisconsin GOP not seem to understand? I believe that they are seriously overreaching in attempting to neuter Justice Janet Protasiewicz, who was elected by the aforementioned margin less than 6 months ago.

So here is my question. Are there enough Republican voters who care about democracy (and who, perhaps, care about abortion and voted for Protasiewicz), to flip some of these very gerrymandered districts? Is this plausible?

(V) & (Z) answer: Is it plausible? Yes. If Democrats are extra motivated to vote, thus driving Democratic turnout up, and some Republicans say "enough is enough" and cross the aisle, some entrenched Republicans could lose. That said, the much greater threat to these Republicans is the possibility (in fact, the likelihood) that the state Supreme Court will strike down the wildly gerrymandered district maps.

P.F. in Fairbanks, AK, asks: In a world where some Democrats found themselves rooting for Liz Cheney, I have to ask: What are some consequences of Mitch McConnell (potentially) stepping down from leadership that we might be overlooking? Could this be a case of "be careful what you wish for?"

(V) & (Z) answer: The biggest risk is that the Senate Republican Conference comes under the leadership of a "show horse" like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and a competition with the House Republican Conference, to see who can come up with the greatest amount of performative nonsense, commences.

W.S. in Austin, TX, asks: If the Democrats retake the House in 2024, would it make sense to impeach Clarence Thomas—even if he will not be convicted and removed? Would the embarrassment be likely to have any effect, or would it just reinforce that he is above the law?

(V) & (Z) answer: We don't see how it would make sense. Thomas has no shame, and being impeached would just heighten his victim complex, as opposed to causing him embarrassment or compelling him to reflect on his behavior. Meanwhile, Republicans would use this as fuel for their claims that Democrats have weaponized impeachment in order to go after Democratic enemies like Thomas and Donald Trump.

M.A. in Knoxville, TN, asks: You've written many times how presidential candidates have to visit state fairs and other locations where they and then expected to partake of such local delicacies as pickle lemonade (Florida State Fair), deep-fried chicken noodle soup (State Fair of Texas), deep-fried bubblegum (New Jersey State Fair) and the classic deep-fried Twinkies. You've noted that voters in various states (especially Iowa) expect to see candidates eat these things.

How would this impact a candidate who has food allergies that prevent eating some or all of that stuff, such as a gluten allergy? Would voters understand, or would it a potential Molotov cocktail on their campaign? Does trying to eat some of those concoctions and failing do any damage to candidates, or does it humanize them somewhat?

(V) & (Z) answer: Most people have a few things they can't eat, for various reasons (diet, allergies, personal preferences, etc.). We're unaware of any politician who suffered blowback for being unable to eat a particular thing, especially since there's always an alternative for them to prove they're "one of the people." If you can't eat fried Twinkies, then have some corn chowder, or bacon on a stick, or whatever.

The thing that is a problem is when a candidate disrespects local food customs. For example, when John Kerry asked for a Philly cheesesteak with swiss cheese (they are properly served with Cheez Whiz). Or the time Mitt Romney bragged about the breakfast of cheesy grits he'd just enjoyed (they are cheese grits).

Also bad is when a candidate does something "snooty" with their food. Think Mehmet Oz and his crudités. Or Barack Obama putting Grey Poupon on a hamburger. Or Bill de Blasio eating pizza with a fork.


R.L. in New York City, NY, asks: There has been much discussion of the Twelfth Amendment and a hypothetical Trump/DeSantis ticket. I understand that the Amendment would prohibit Florida electors from casting votes for both men unless one of them changed their residence. What I'm a bit more confused about is... why?

While I can't claim to be at all enthusiastic about the idea in this specific scenario, the fact that both men are Florida residents by itself is not really something I care about. I assume this is a relic from a time when regional politics played a much larger role than they do today, but even given that I don't really understand why this restriction made its way into the Constitution.

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, the Twelfth Amendment just reiterates something that appears in the main text of the Constitution, namely Article II, Section 1: "The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves."

And the founders were indeed concerned with cronyism. Their presumption, which was much more valid in 1787 than in 2023, was that a politician was not likely to have strong ties to a large number of people outside his home state. So, by forcing a vote for at least one out-of-stater, the founders presumed that at least one of the two votes cast by electors would be "on the merits."

T.J.R in Metuchen, NJ, asks: In a Presidential Election, the District of Columbia has 3 electoral votes and therefore matters in the overall result. But in the event the election is thrown to the House Of Representatives, D.C. has no votes and is effectively disenfranchised. I imagine this is because no one really considered this. But it does feel like a glaring error, albeit one I never thought of before.

(V) & (Z) answer: You're right, it's kind of unfair. That said, the District does not have voting representation in Congress, which is even more unfair. If it came to it, the people of Washington, DC, could file a lawsuit arguing that because they have electoral votes, then Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) should be considered to be a "delegation" for purposes of awarding the presidency if the House is making the pick. But we doubt the Supreme Court would go for it.


J.M. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: So I was aware that UCLA and USC were leaving the Pac-12 but I only now found out just how much of a mess things are for what remains of that conference. Any thoughts about UCLA's departure, as well as the downfall of the empire from the resident historian?

(V) & (Z) answer: For UCLA (and USC) football fans, it's great news, as the late start time for most Pac-12 games had the de facto effect of making it nearly impossible to field a top-tier football program. For all the other sports, it's not such great news. Pity the tennis players and sprinters that are going to have to fly to New Jersey and Indiana for competitions.

In the end, the new alignment of things is an intermediate step, and things will eventually evolve further. The great likelihood is that football will be decoupled from the rest of the sports, and that schools will return to regional leagues for everything but football.

J.R. (U.S. citizen presently wandering about) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, asks: My background is psychology and geology (2 bachelors and a lowly masters). I am a life-long generalist as well, as I have been told too much curiosity and too much thinking. So, many people have thought about this.

When I grew up, hints were not given anywhere in schooling about what would be tested for. Much was presented, some was remembered, and tests were taken and mostly passed. Now, it seems that teachers teach to the test in various ways. Since I think all humans in the last 5,000 years or so have about the same overall average ability, I wonder why students seem to do worse now and need help to pass. Maybe is it more along the lines of "students demand higher grades and schools comply"? My thought is that attentions spans are much less than they were and so prolonged focus is just not as normal as it used to be. What do the two teachers at have to say about students' capabilities these days? Also, just how much do nations/cultures influence how students can learn? I know it would take a book to properly answer, but a few would be enlightening.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is true that educators below the college level are often compelled to teach to the test these days, since so much (school funding, teacher promotions, etc.) is tied to those assessments. Neither of us has taught at that level, but we have a pretty good sense of what happens when you set up a system like that: You don't actually cause students to understand the underlying ideas/concepts, merely the expressions of those ideas/concepts. It's like the people who win Scrabble competitions held in a language they don't speak (this is very common). In theory, the game is supposed to reflect your knowledge of the language, but what's happened is that people have effectively learned a bunch of patterns, such that they don't need to know the underlying grammar, meaning, etc.

Now, with non-standardized tests, there is a justifiable reason to clue students in as to what they need to prep for. If you present students with 60 different bits of information in a lecture, they are going to absorb about 10 of those. A teacher can let the question of "which 10" be random, or they can tell the students which 10 are the key points. We would tend to prefer to choose what students take away, as opposed to letting it be random.

As to modern students, they are more likely to struggle with traditional-style reading comprehension, and traditional composition, than students 20 or 40 years ago. That is undoubtedly because information is handled very differently on the Internet, such that today's students have considerably less experience with more traditional forms of expression.

Another issue is that there was a very noticeable uptick, around 2018 or so, in students who really don't want to put in the work, and who are more than willing to pursue any shortcut. When (Z) was an undergrad, he was often expected to read 2-3 complete books a week. A couple of weeks ago, he made a passing mention of the longest of the weekly readings for his class—9 pages—and there were audible groans and sighs. This tendency is not universal, of course, but it's noticeable enough that everyone in academia is talking about (and concerned about) it.

The upshot is that, while the raw capabilities of students today surely do not differ much from students of past generations, a teacher has to be constantly evolving in response to specific, observable trends.

And we do not have the data to speak to how culture/nationality affects learning, per se. We can tell you that there is often a palpable impact of culture and nationality on students' approach to education. For example, there are still educational systems, in other countries, that use an old-style model in which repetition is favored and independent thought is discouraged. It is very hard to impress upon these students the difference between a report (a high school-level regurgitation of information) and an essay (a college-level amalgamation of evidence and analysis). There are also cultures that take something of an adversarial approach to education, wherein every chink in a teacher's armor is there to (potentially) be exploited. We're talking cutting corners on assignments, dubious behavior while taking tests, arguing about every point on assignments, etc. And there are cultures where income-generating job is priority #1 (even if the income is fairly modest) and non-income-generating education is priority #2.

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