Main page    Dec. 09

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New polls: (None)
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: (None)

Saturday Q&A

Pretty heavy on the history questions today. Also, here's the additional hint as to yesterday's headline theme: The first headline we wrote yesterday was for the item on Norman Lear. In fact, we settled on that headline about an hour after his death was announced on Wednesday.

Current Events

C.L. in Madison, WI, asks: I was happy to read your answer about how unlikely it would be for Trump to attempt a third term, assuming he wins in 2024. That said, him winning in 2016, January 6th, and his continued popularity, have all been unlikely. If he and his people were to make an attempt to serve a third term, how would they do it?

(V) & (Z) answer: Keep in mind the central point of that answer, which is that eventually Trump would arrive at a moment where he would have to make it crystal clear he was setting aside the Constitution and that he would no longer be constrained by its dictates. There is no way for him to serve a third term and to make it constitutional.

He's not especially smart, but he's got some smart people around him. And so, we assume that he (on advice from his much smarter underlings) would make an announcement at some point in summer or fall of 2028 that U.S. elections are hopelessly corrupted, and that the problem is so big, he hasn't been able to fix it yet. So, he would regretfully have to suspend the 2028 presidential election and remain in office for "however long" it takes to fix the problem.

This approach, such as it is, would have two upsides. First, it would incorporate the Augustus Caesar strategy of assuming dictatorial power while pretending that the arrangement is only temporary. Second, if Trump allows the election to go through and THEN announces he's suspending the Constitution, there would be a duly-elected president-elect who would serve as a rallying point and who would be able to file lawsuits and push back in other ways.

But while this would be the most tactically sound approach, it's still not an approach that is plausible. If Trump were to try this, you would immediately hear the story about Abraham Lincoln—that in 1864, with MUCH greater justification for suspending the election, he refused to do so because he believed that would be the death of democracy—approximately 100 million times. That would be powerful PR for the pro-democracy forces. And those pro-democracy forces would be enormous—the 80 million or so people who voted Democratic in the last election, the countless tens of millions who didn't vote but who don't want a dictator, the Republicans who are OK with Trump but only if he's legally in office, etc. Plus, don't forget that even if Trump announces he's staying in office in fall, or summer or even spring of 2028, there would already be a presidential race underway. Those folks are not likely to take kindly to the notion that they're out of luck, and to go quietly into that good night.

In short, we think the great majority of the population would respond very badly to an attempt by Trump to stay in power. There would be rioting in the streets. There would be various forms of civil disobedience, like refusal to pay taxes. There would probably be various sabotages attempted against the federal government. Trump would become a major, major target for assassination. In an effort to restore order, Trump could try to use the U.S. armed forces. However, there are about 1.4 million active-duty troops, and that's something of a pittance up against 150 million or 200 million angry citizens (see British Raj, circa 1940, for more on this point). Further, we do not believe for a minute that those 1.4 million troops would set aside their oaths and would consent to be used as an instrument of insurrection. Maybe some would, but our guess is that the majority would either lay down arms or would switch sides and join the resistance.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: I know that this is hard to answer, but how possible or likely is it that someone will assassinate Donald Trump? He has to be the most hated man in the U.S.

(V) & (Z) answer: Under current circumstances? Very, very unlikely. The U.S. Secret Service is very good at what it does; it's been 60 years since a president was actually assassinated, and there hasn't been an even moderately credible attempt on a president or ex-president at any point in the 21st century. The staggering amount of resources put into protecting presidents and ex-presidents is simply too much for one lone nutter to overcome. To deploy a crude analogy, it's like playing basketball 100-on-1.

However, if Trump turns dictatorial, the odds shift a lot. That would be a fundamental assault on the rule of law, and so many people who would not otherwise consider assassination might start thinking about it seriously, either as a matter of patriotism and civic pride, or under the reasoning that the law doesn't apply anymore. At that point, you might have hundreds or thousands of credible would-be assassins. And the U.S.S.S., even if it bats .990, might just miss one. What would happen if 100,000 people stormed the White House and the Joint Chiefs refused to intervene on the grounds that they are not allowed to operate within the U.S. The U.S.S.S. could never stop that.

M.R. in New Brighton, MN, asks: Last week, K.H. in Kerrville asked what a second Trump term would look like. In your reply you said that "he will run into a LOT of resistance from the bureaucracy, from the federal courts, and even from Congress". Could you please elaborate on this? Would the bureaucracy, courts or Congress have any power over a President who this week told us that he will rule as a dictator? If so, what are those powers?

(V) & (Z) answer: Keep in mind that, by himself, a president can do very, very little. He can wipe his own nose and other body parts, and he can feed himself, and he can make speeches and... that's pretty much it. Although he is clothed in immense power, to use Abraham Lincoln's words, 99.99% of that power comes from his ability to issue orders and to have them carried out by his underlings. The president cannot personally invade Mexico (at least, not for long), cannot personally take women who seek abortions to jail, cannot personally launch a nuclear strike on Iran, cannot personally seat looney tunes judges on federal courts, cannot personally harass his enemies with phony tax audits, cannot personally do much of anything.

If Trump goes dictatorial, the federal bureaucracy might defy him outright. However, they are much more likely to deploy a strategy they've been using since at least the time of Andrew Jackson, which is to drag their feet. "Oh, you want us to prosecute marijuana users, Mr. President? OK, it's going to take us 9 months to study how to do that, 12 more months to work up a policies and procedures manual, 8 months to identify a list of prime targets, 14 months to draw up indictments and get them approved, and then some additional amount of time to schedule the trials. But we'll get right on it, as soon as we're able, circa 2031." Even if Trump populates the upper levels of the bureaucracy with sycophants, the lower levels are where the actual work takes place.

Similarly, it is not likely the Republicans will hold both chambers of Congress for all 4 years of Trump v2.0. Obviously, Democrats aren't going to bend to him, and if he turns dictatorial, will resist him with all their might. Meanwhile, since 2017, congressional Republicans have played along with Trump, more often than not, because that was the most viable path to keeping themselves in office and to protecting their individual fiefdoms. However, they aren't going to keep doing that if he makes clear he's just going to subsume the powers of the legislative branch. Many of them have enough civic spirit that such a move would be a bridge too far. Others are not interested in being reduced to figureheads.

As to the courts, Trump may seat some friendly judges (and he already did so the first time around). But some of those judges will still have enough civic spirit not to play along with his dictatorial impulses (see, for example, how often his Supreme Court appointees have sided with him). On top of that, the majority of the federal judiciary will still be appointees of presidents other than Trump, particularly Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Those judges certainly won't play along. And while it is true that federal courts have no power to enforce their own rulings, a string of "Trump is wrong," Trump is behaving illegally," "Trump cannot do that" rulings will serve to energize the pro-democracy resistance.

In short, the U.S. system is set up to be pretty coup-proof. And someone as lacking in smarts and in backbone as Trump is will not be the person to buck the sizable odds.

G.T. in Budapest, Hungary, asks: In your item "Chris Christie May Not Make the Stage at the Next Republican Debate," you wrote: "unless lightning strikes today (the deadline for qualifying polls), Christie won't make the cut." I may have missed any update on this and was surprised to learn that he did make the cut. Did lightning strike and increase his national polling from 2% to 6%?

(V) & (Z) answer: Qualifying was not based (and will not, in the future, be based) on polling average. It was, and will be, based on accruing a minimum number of good enough individual polls. In the case of debate four, a candidate either had to have 6% in one national poll AND two early-state polls, or 6% in two national polls. Christie had one 6% national poll for several weeks, and on the last day of qualifying, he got a second one, courtesy of the Trafalgar Group.

He was right at the cutoff in both of the qualifying polls (in other words, 6%; no margin of error). Hard to see how he gets to 10% in THREE polls in the next month, especially since the RNC is no longer running the show, and so garbage pollsters like Trafalgar won't be allowed. Only CNN, CNN/University of New Hampshire, Fox, Marquette University Law School, Monmouth University, Monmouth University/The Washington Post, NBC News, NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom, Quinnipiac University, CBS News/YouGov, Marist College, The New York Times/Siena College, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post/ABC News.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: "George Santos" (R-NY) became the first member of the House to be expelled before he was convicted of any crime. With this precedent now set, do you think this might inspire the Senate Democrats to consider expelling Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ)? They'd had nothing to lose and along the way get rid of a distraction heading into next year's election.

(V) & (Z) answer: It's certainly possible. However, note that "Santos" was fairly ham-fisted, and yet it still took 11 months from the initial discovery of malfeasance for the House to decide that there was acceptable evidence to justify expulsion. If that same timeline is applied to Menendez, well, that would take us to July or August of next year. By then, New Jersey will have held its primary and Menendez will have been shunted aside in favor of Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) or First Lady of New Jersey Tammy Murphy (D). The Democrats might still try to expel him, once they have a sound basis for it, but they might also bow to the fact that his career will end in Jan. 2025 even without their help, or he might resign once it's officially hopeless.

D.M. in Edinburgh, Scotland, asks: Given that the Republican Party is institutionally homophobic, do you think that "George Santos" would have been expelled from the House if he were straight? Might enough members have switched their vote to make a difference, despite Santos's legal problems and unsuitability for elected office, if not for their greater hatred of gay men in general?

(V) & (Z) answer: We see no reason to believe homophobia played any role in "Santos'" expulsion. The Republicans who voted against him did so because they feared he would damage them in next year's elections, by virtue of his corruption.

R.M. in Lincoln City, OR, asks: Help! I've seen several stories that say that Republicans had a "four-seat advantage"in the House, but with Santos gone, that number is now three. But then I see stories that say the House has gone from 222 Republicans to 221 Republicans versus 213 Democrats. That sure looks like a reduction from nine to eight, not four to three.

Do you guys have any idea why we're seeing this discrepancy?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, we do. One is the absolute GOP advantage, the other is the party's de facto voting advantage. Since it is a net switch of two votes when a "yea" (+1) becomes a vote of "nay" (-1), with "Santos" gone, Speaker Mike Johnson's (R-LA) absolute majority is reduced to 8 seats. This means, at the moment, that he can only afford three defections, assuming the Democrats stay unified. If there are four defections, then the final tally ends up 217-217 and whatever the bill in question is, it fails.

S.W. in New York City, NY, asks: I continue to be curious about the termination process for "George Santos" and his staff. Since his expulsion on Dec. 1, was that the last date for his salary and that of his staff? Are all his offices closed? Are he and his staff eligible for unemployment compensation? Did their health insurance benefits terminate on Dec. 1 as well? December 31? Are they eligible to enroll in COBRA? Did they get compensation for any vacation days accrued? Other benefits? Who closes up their district offices? Any leased cars returned? Computer equipment and services (laptops, phones etc.) terminated and returned? Diplomatic passports destroyed? Are documents left in his office archived or shredded? Just wondering how this process works for an expelled Member of Congress.

(V) & (Z) answer: As to "Santos," he was treated pretty much like any other federal employee who gets terminated. He was paid through his last day of work, was offered the opportunity to get insurance through COBRA, and was not given any pension benefits because he had not accrued enough service time. He could theoretically have applied for federal unemployment benefits, which would have left some bureaucrat with an interesting decision to make, but because "Santos" is already working (for Cameo, and others), he's not able to do that. It is not probable that "Santos" had a diplomatic passport, since those mostly go to members of the executive branch (and, specifically, the State Department), but if he did, he can keep it.

As to "Santos'" staff and offices, his expulsion has virtually no effect upon them. His offices, both the one in Washington and the one in NY-03, have to remain in operation to provide constituent services and so that "Santos'" replacement can hit the ground running. So, his office was placed into receivership, and put under the authority of the Clerk of the House. Everyone keeps their jobs, at least for now, and will continue to operate as they did before their boss was expelled. If Tom Suozzi (D) reclaims his seat, he might (and probably will) choose to replace at least some of the staffers with his own people.

M.B. in Granby, MA, asks: Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) did pull a fire alarm, which is illegal when there isn't a fire alarm. You wrote that he did so "in order to delay a vote on the floor of the House." It was definitely a stupid thing to do, but did he do so to delay the vote?

The Republican/Right-wing explanation for his action was that he did. Yet he was in the Cannon Office Building, not the Capitol Building where the voting was taking place. The door he was trying to use was allegedly never locked and he was rushing to make it to the floor in time to vote.

His first explanation for pulling the alarm—that it was an accident—was not exactly credible. He has been charged with pulling the alarm, and predictably censured by the House.

But what is the evidence that he was actually trying to delay the vote rather than just get out of the Cannon Building in a hurry?

(V) & (Z) answer: We got a lot of e-mails about this but we must be honest; this did not strike us as a particularly important detail. He's already pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and whatever his motivations were, the fact is that he pulled an illegal fire alarm in the middle of a vote on the floor of the House.

We can't see how to interpret the evidence as "he was trying to get out of the Cannon building in a hurry." If you watch the video, he tinkers with the door for 1-2 seconds, pushes the alarm button, and then leaves the area. Were he trying to get the doors open quickly, surely he would have stayed. The only explanations we can see are: (1) He was trying to cause a pause in the House vote, or (2) He was trying to give himself an excuse for being late, and so for asking for more time. Either way, it adds up to delaying the vote on the floor of the House.


T.J.R. In Metuchen, NJ, asks: If Donald Trump wrote a letter to Joe Biden, isn't that de facto evidence that he knew he lost the election?

(V) & (Z) answer: That was exactly our point, and is why we think it's reasonable to at least suspect that someone wrote and left the letter on Trump's behalf. Of course, it's possible the specific contents of the letter cover for that, e.g. "You will be taking over, since I have not yet been able to prove voter fraud in court, and I hope that for however long you're here, things go well. Please do keep things tidy for my return, though."

J.A. in Monterey, CA, asks: Is there any legitimacy to the story on Joe Biden laundering money from China? There is a press release from the an official government website, although it is for the committee run by Rep. James Comer (R-KY).

(V) & (Z) answer: Yeah, electronic press releases are not worth the paper they are not printed on, particularly if they come from Freedom Caucus politicians, and even more particularly if they come from Comer, Jim Jordan (R-OH), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) or Matt Gaetz (R-FL).

The Republicans are using the classic conspiracy theorist's trick of taking something unusual (even if it's entirely explicable) and turning that into a web of fantasy and supposition. In Biden's case, the something unusual is that he and his siblings exchanged some big checks back and forth. But the real explanation is benign; as is usually the case when someone leaves a high political office, Biden made some pretty big bucks writing books and giving speeches after his VP term was over. His brother got into a tough financial situation, needed a big loan, Biden helped out, and then... got paid back. There's nothing to see here, and nothing that remotely approaches proof of money laundering.

And now, let us give you the ironclad, no-doubt-about-it way you can tell there's nothing here: The mainstream media hasn't been all over the story. Yes, supposedly the non-Fox outlets are in the bag for Democrats/the left/Biden, but it's not so. The fact is that there is NOTHING, and we mean NOTHING, that serves the needs of the media, at all parts of the political spectrum, better than scandal and intrigue. Think of how much attention was given when the Republican Richard Nixon got enmeshed in scandal. Think of how much attention was given when the Democrat Bill Clinton got enmeshed in scandal. Think of how much attention was given when the non-partisan O.J. Simpson got enmeshed in scandal.

If there was credible evidence that the Biden family was a criminal enterprise, and in hock to China in some way, you can bet your bottom dollar that every media outlet, from The Washington Post and The New York Times to the East Cupcake Junior High School Morning Herald, would be all over it. The fact that this is a right-wing-media-only story (and even then, mostly only on the fringes of the right-wing media) tells you beyond all doubt that there is no "there" there.

K.E. in Newport, RI, asks: Anyone who spends a few weeks reading far-right blogs or the comments on websites such as YouTube or Breitbart will quickly learn that Trumpers love to use non-profane codewords to label entire social groups of people they dislike. "Inner-city people" is code for "those criminal minorities." "Baby killers" are people who support abortion rights. "Groomers" means people who support LGBT rights, even though child sex groomers can be of any sexual orientation and gender identity. These terms are designed to disparage people without being vulgar (like ni**er or f**) to avoid censorship and turning off people with more civilized sensibilities.

One of the most common terms used by Trumpers is "globalist." It is used as an anti-Jewish slur. It was frequently used by people in the Trump administration, despite Trump's own daughter and son-in-law being Jewish. This is a codeword that I don't understand. What is a globalist and how did it come to be used to disparage Jews?

(V) & (Z) answer: It has been an antisemitic trope for a very long time that Jews have no patriotism and no civic spirit, and that their real "loyalty" is to their fellow Jews around the world (in general), and to a network of influential Jewish power-brokers and bankers (in particular).

This idea has been around for a very, very long time. But if you want to know when it was put to paper in a significant way, and so really want mainstream, that was when the notorious (and anonymous) antisemitic screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was promulgated in the early 20th century.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, asks: My daily paper is the (online) Washington Post, where consistently the single most important lens for understanding any issue—elections, cultural trends, business trends, political ideas, travel, health care, anything really—is the idea of "generations." Boomers, X, Y, Z: Every person is born in to a particular generation and what any person or group of people does or thinks can be explained by naming which generation they belong to. (Roger Stone and I were born the same year, so we think and act the same way and hold the same values and views.) Apparently, this has replaced identifying a person as an Aquarius, Capricorn, or Pisces. And I find the same thinking in other media outlets. If I'm right, how did the media and the pundits come to embrace "generation" as the new astrology?

(V) & (Z) answer: One of the compromises of political analysis is that you have to speak in generalities about various interest groups, wherein what you say is broadly true of that group even if you know it's not universally true. So, for example "Black voters are Democratic," "working-class voters are trending Republican," "Millennials dislike Joe Biden." Everyone who writes about politics knows these groups are not monoliths, and that every member of them cuts across many cleavages (a Black voter might also be a Jew, a lesbian and a business owner, or perhaps a Muslim, a millennial and a gun owner). However, the generalizations are generally useful for macro-analytical purposes.

Starting in at least the 1960s, if not earlier, it became clear that age cohorts were evolving into meaningful interest groups. People in their 20s were not ALL opposed to the Vietnam War, perhaps, and were not ALL supportive of the Civil Rights Movement, but they were much more likely to hold those views than people in their 60s. We suspect, with some reason, that the use of generational labels became common because it's smoother than constantly writing "people in their 20s" or "people aged 20-39." In any event, nobody thinks that the Baby Boomers or Generation X or the Millennials are all the same in terms of political outlook, because they obviously are not.

Of course, 100% of Baby Boomers DO agree on one thing, namely that those damn kids should get off the lawn.

R.P. in Gloucester City, NJ, asks: Looking at the White House's page of presidential portraits, as D.C. in Brentwood did, I notice that the last president to wear a mustache in his portrait was William Howard Taft and the last president to wear a beard was Benjamin Harrison. Of course the fashions for facial hair oscillate almost as frequently as dress hemlines. But do you think that clean-shaven will be a permanent, or at least very-long-lived, requirement?

(V) & (Z) answer: We wouldn't use the word "requirement," but we do think it's likely to be a while before there's another president with facial hair. Consider how many members of Congress have facial hair. Consider how many candidates for president in the past 30-40 years had facial hair. The number, in both cases, is close to zero.

We don't entirely know why this is, but we suspect that TV is a primary culprit. It's pretty hard to come up with a mustache style that doesn't make you look like a porn star, or maybe a lecherous Frenchman, or maybe Adolf Hitler. And beards not only tend to make a man look a little sinister (particularly under TV lighting), they also show age more readily than the hair on the scalp does.

If nothing else, consider one of the few members of the Senate that does wear a beard, namely Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX):

Ted Cruz screams into a microphone

If we may be blunt, the man already looks like a rat, and the beard definitely does not help with that. And this is coming from someone, namely (Z), who has worn a beard for 25 years (albeit much more restrained than Cruz's).

We'll also point out a couple more things. First, in the days of U.S. Grant and W.H. Taft, roughly 100% of politicians were capable of growing facial hair. Now, that number is down to something like 60%. Second, there are some politicians who, if they started wearing a beard, would be subject to all sorts of jokes about, well... not facial hair (ahem, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC).


K.C. in West Islip, NY, asks: I was recently reading an interview with the author of Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point. At one point, he discussed the reasons the Electoral College exists which, of course, all the readers of our favorite political website obviously know. He also said that the College was the compromise after other solutions had been rejected. Could you shed some light on what some of these rejected alternatives were?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, note that when the Constitution was being hammered out, there were a whole bunch of fellows with a whole bunch of ideas who did a whole bunch of spitballing. There's no good way to know how seriously most of these proposals were taken, or how close they came to fruition.

Second, note that the Constitution does not use the phrase "Electoral College," nor did the framers. "Electoral College" did not appear in any American law until 1845, and it did not come into common usage until the 1870s.

In other words, there weren't a bunch of wild and varied proposals for how the Electoral College would work, or what might be deployed as an alternative to the Electoral College, because that's not what the founders were thinking about. They agreed there would be electors, because they wanted the choice of president to reflect the popular will, but they didn't want the choice to be entirely a reflection of the popular will, either. After all, they were leery of the teeming masses. So, to the extent there were debates about specifics, they were about exactly how close to (or far from) the "popular will" end of the spectrum the electors would be.

The primary points of discussion were: (1) Would electors be appointed by some central body, like a state legislature, or would they each be voted on directly by the people of their district/city/county?; (2) Would they be explicitly declared to be free agents, free to ignore the wishes of their constituents?; and (3) Would they explicitly be declared to be independent of the other electors in their state?

In the end, as we all know, the Framers stayed pretty far away from "popular will." They pretty much left state legislatures to do as they saw fit, which meant (for a long time) that the legislatures mostly chose the electors themselves and left "the people" out of it. Later, it meant that the legislatures (largely) required that all of a state's electors be for the same candidate, and (largely) tried to keep electors from exercising free will.

P.L. in Denver, CO, asks: Can you explain the process of what would happen if no presidential candidate gets 270 electoral votes?

(V) & (Z) answer: Each state gets one vote in the House, and those votes are determined by a vote of all of the state's representatives. If a majority of those representatives agree on a candidate, then that state's vote would be cast for that candidate. If a majority is not present (for example, if half the members for a state vote one way and the other half vote the other) then that state casts a blank ballot. It takes 26 votes for a candidate to be elected.

At the moment, the Republicans control 28 delegations and the Democrats control 22. So, that would presumably mean the election of a Republican, should the House be able to decide. Of course, there are some states that could flip in next year's elections. Further, we are not so sure that if it is in the hands of House Republicans to put Donald Trump in the White House, they will be willing to do so, being cognizant of the consequences therein.

D.S. in Albuquerque, NM, asks: In "Bye, Kev," you devoted the last 5 sentences to a scenario in which former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) resigns prior to yesterday at 5:00 p.m. But didn't he say he was staying until the end of the year? Why spin out these possibilities if they are not going to happen?

Even more confusing is this, from Politico: "Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to call a special election for the remainder of McCarthy's term. It would be held simultaneously as the March primary and November general election, meaning the candidates would likely appear multiple times on the ballot."

(V) & (Z) answer: We imagined that there would be some tension between McCarthy's longstanding work as a loyal party man, and the desire to stick it to Mike Johnson, who effectively stabbed McCarthy in the back. So, we covered all the possibilities. In the end, the desire for revenge won out, since McCarthy did not resign and so the seat will stay open for nearly a year.

As to the special elections, they cost a lot of money. And so, California, like many states, tries to strike a balance between making sure people have representation and not wasting money. What that means, in practice, is that state law calls for a special election to be held in a timely manner... unless there's a regular election cycle that is imminent. In the latter case, the special election is just tacked onto the regular election.

And so, there will be two primary elections for McCarthy's seat next year, both held on the same date. And there will be two general elections, also held on the same date. There is an excellent chance that the same candidates will run in each election. And the prize, in one set of elections (call them Primary 1 and General 1), will be the last 6-7 weeks of McCarthy's term (from Election Day to Jan. 3, 2025). The prize, in the other set of elections (call them Primary 2 and General 2), will be a full term, running from Jan. 3, 2025, to Jan. 3, 2027.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You wrote that there is only one expelled congressman whom the law denying pensions would apply to, namely Jim Traficant, who is dead. Except of course, it wouldn't apply to anyone who is dead, because dead people don't receive pensions. Do they?

Actually, I think sometimes pensions do pass to surviving spouses after death. Wikipedia suggests that Traficant had a spouse named Tish Choppa, and Google finds an Instagram for a Tish Choppa Traficant which had activity as recently as 5 weeks ago.

While I think depriving future corrupt congressmen of their pensions might be a worthy goal, the fact that the current effect of the proposed law would be to deprive a (presumably) innocent elderly widow of her pension is kinda scummy.

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, we're not clear that Congress can retroactively change the rules for pensioners. They might only be able to change them going forward.

In any event, assuming Tish Choppa Traficant is alive—and it looks like she is—she is entitled to 55% of her husband's pension, which means she gets about $20,000 a year. The pension would be forfeit if she remarried before the age of 55, but it looks like she was past that age when her husband died, so that's moot.

It's also worth noting that Congressional pensions are not some sort of "thank you" gift that is bestowed upon members by a grateful government. Members pay into the Federal Employees Retirement System, just like any other employee of the federal government, and their pension is based on that. So, taking away someone's pension is effectively taking their own money away from them.


M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: You wrote: "...there have been plenty of non-Christians in American society for the last 250 years; it's not like it was a 100% Christian nation until, say, 1920." Would you give us a brief history of religious diversity in the U.S.?

(V) & (Z) answer: This will necessarily be very oversimplified, but the colonial era of the United States coincided with a period of religious fervor, and of religious wars, in Europe. Very few wars are actually religious (they're usually political and economic, with religion as a convenient motivator/excuse), but these wars often were.

Anyhow, it was not a great time to be a member of the minority/non-state religion in the various European countries. So, non-Anglicans in England, Protestants of any stripe in France, Catholics in Germany, Jews pretty much everywhere (but especially Spain), etc., were subject to constant discrimination, violence, etc. Escaping to the New World allowed them to get away from hostile governments and hostile fellow citizens. Of course, there were also non-persecuted people who headed to the New World, just because they wanted economic opportunity.

Broadly speaking, then, people who were Anglican immigrated to the English-government-sponsored colonies of the South, particularly Virginia and the Carolinas. People who were Protestant, particularly various flavors of Calvinist, immigrated to the colonies of New England. The Middle Atlantic colonies were the most diverse of all, with Maryland being founded specifically for Catholics and Rhode Island being founded specifically on the basis of religious freedom. It is not a coincidence that the most Jewish city of the colonial era (and still one of the most Jewish cities in America today, by percentage of the population) was/is Providence, RI.

Muslims entered the equation primarily through the slave trade, beginning as early as the 1620s. White Southern Christians (again, mostly Anglicans at that time; later Presbyterians and Baptists) tried to beat the Islam out of the enslaved people, not with a lot of success. Buddhism and Hinduism did not become going concerns in America until much later; well into the nineteenth century.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: You defended Abraham Lincoln's decision to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War. But did Lincoln make any mistakes during the War? If I had been president in 1861, I would have declared martial law and suspended the Constitution after the attack on Fort Sumter. I would have drafted as many non-disabled men as needed. If someone refuses to be drafted, he would have been executed. That would be cruel, of course, but you don't win a war if you are too soft. I would have invested the maximum amount of money in the military. Since the industrial capacity in the Union was far superior to the industrial capacity of the Confederacy, this would have meant a clear advantage for the Union. I guess that my approach would have led to a Union victory within 2 years (or less) and not within 4 years. In my opinion, Lincoln was too cautious in the beginning. What do you think? What would have been the consequences if Abraham Lincoln had followed my approach?

(V) & (Z) answer: If Lincoln had followed your approach, he most certainly would have lost the Civil War for the North.

Lincoln was not perfect, and he would certainly admit as much if he were alive to do so, but he did appreciate before most of his contemporaries that the world had entered into a new era of warfare in which the homefront and warfront were intimately connected. If he had moved too far too fast, he would have run into three major problems. The first is that the border states would have flipped to the Confederacy, dramatically increasing the South's industrial capacity and population, and making it much more plausible for the Confederates to hang on. The second is that Congress would have rebelled, and refused to appropriate the funding and other resources necessary to Lincoln's plans. They might even have impeached and convicted him. The third is that the Union homefront would have been outraged, and would also have responded badly. Lincoln needed those folks to pay their taxes, to buy war bonds, to provide willing soldiers, to support those soldiers' morale, and to produce the implements of war.

M.O. in Deerfield, MA, asks: J.H. in Lake Forest asked about Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus as relates to Article I, section 9 of the Constitution. Doesn't the fact that this is mentioned in Article I mean it's solely the purview of Congress to suspend habeas corpus, not the President?

(V) & (Z) answer: We do not think the evidence supports that interpretation, for three reasons. First, when the Framers wanted to limit powers to a particular branch of the government, or particular individual, they were pretty good about making that clear. Second, Article I is not exclusively about the legislature, and, among other things, contains verbiage about certain presidential prerogatives (like the veto power). Third, and most importantly, the Framers were generally very practical. They understood well that a single individual was much more able to act decisively in times of crisis than a collective body. So, they surely would have believed that a president should have the power to suspend the writ, since in some cases there wouldn't be time for Congress to convene and come to a decision. This was especially true before 1900 or so, when travel times were measured in weeks or months rather than hours.

S.N. in Santa Clara, CA, asks: How does the current wave of conservative populism compare to the populism of the William Jennings Bryan era?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, both sets of populists were very religious, heavily blue-collar, isolationist, xenophobic, often racist, very angry with the people in power, and desirous of significant structural change.

However, Bryan was a true believer in the things he advocated for; for Donald Trump, it's just lip service. Also, the Bryanites wanted radical change, but they wanted it to happen within the system. There was no serious undercurrent of tearing it all down and burning the Constitution. By contrast, some sizable percentage of the Trump populists, including their leader, would be happy to set the Constitution aside.

M.M. in Atlanta, GA, asks: One thing you didn't comment on from the Republican debate this week was Gov. Ron DeSantis' (R-FL) favorite president. That's kind of right up your alley! So what is your assessment of "Silent Cal" and DeSantis' adoration of him?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yeah, admiration of Coolidge has kind of become a right-wing cliché in the last 20-30 years. Their notion is that he was the ideal small-government conservative, keeping spending as low as possible, and letting the economy do its thing.

What this Coolidge-worship ignores is that he was mailing it in for his last 4 or so years on the job, due to severe undiagnosed and untreated depression. Oh, and also that his economic policies substantially helped lay the groundwork for the Great Depression.

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: I was watching a documentary recently about Adolf Hitler's biggest mistakes. (His arrogance and belief that he always knew better than the experts struck me as vaguely familiar for some reason... but that's besides the point). Anyway, this documentary proposed that his biggest unforced error was declaring war on the U.S., at a time when it was unlikely that Franklin D. Roosevelt would have Congressional support for a declaration of war on Germany.

But this seems wrong to me. Had the U.S. not formally entered the war against Germany, and had stuck to fighting the Japanese while continuing to supply the Allies, wouldn't have Hitler eventually lost in any case? I would think he would thrown everything he had against the Russians and his armies would get badly mauled, allowing for a British/Canadian/Colonial levies invasion of France. Same result, no? Surely Hitler's biggest error was deciding to invade Russia, not his declaration of war against the U.S. Thoughts?

(V) & (Z) answer: The resident historian simply does not believe that the state of peace between the U.S. and Germany could have lasted for more than a few months after Pearl Harbor. The Germans were already engaged in unrestrained submarine warfare against Atlantic shipping, and surely would have sunk a U.S. ship sooner or later. And, if not that, some encrypted message would have been intercepted (as happened in World War I). Or some other incident would have done the job.

This means that the resident historian does not buy that Hitler's declaration of war against the U.S. was his biggest error, or even in the top 10. There are at least three considerably bigger errors that immediately leap to mind: (1) Failure to do whatever it took to win the Battle of Britain, and to limit the British so that Hitler could fight a one-front war against the Russians; (2) Choosing, in winter 1942-43, to take a shot at both Moscow and Sevastopol, thus spreading the German armies too thin, and allowing the Russians to inflict devastating counterstrikes in the battles of Kursk and Stalingrad and (3) Committing vast military resources to the ongoing genocide in 1944-45, when those resources were badly missed on the war front.

These errors are presented in chronological order, but surely #2 looms largest of all. And so, we think you have the right of it when it comes to what was actually Hitler's biggest mistake.

RH, Santa Ana, CA, asks: Your mention of Max Baucus leads me to this question: Why did Barack Obama appoint a sitting Democratic senator to an ambassadorship (China) in 2014? Was he sure that a Democrat would be elected to fill that Senate vacancy?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, Baucus had been in the Senate for three decades and was nearing the end of his sixth term. Obama presumably had reason to think that the Senator was going to retire.

Second, Baucus's replacement was chosen by Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), who naturally chose a Democrat, John Walsh. If Baucus was retiring anyhow, this theoretically gave the Democrats a better chance to hold the seat by allowing a potential replacement to get some name recognition and to take advantage of incumbency. It didn't work, of course, as Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) easily won the seat he still holds.

J.O. in Manchester, NH, asks: In the vein of "which history book do you recommend"type questions, please could you do the same for World War I and the Korean War? As for World War II, my favorite of all time is Billy Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."I have never seen a similar treatment of the predecessor World War I. Does one exist? Similarly, I have only seen dense, uninteresting accounts of the Korean War.

Both of these wars strike me as bookends to World War II. Perhaps the staff historian can recommend a good fireplace read of these events, with an occasional swill of Schnapps or soju?

(V) & (Z) answer: A month ago, we were asked to recommend a book about the causes of World War I, and we went with The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. But your question is about the course of the actual war. And for that purpose, we'll go with The First World War, by John Keegan. Keegan, though a tad Anglocentric, is the preeminent military historian of the last 50 years. He knows his stuff, and he knows how to write. (Well, he knew, since he's now passed away.)

Korea's a bit tougher, since it's a harder story to tell, and there's far less appetite for books about that conflict. Consider The Korean War: A History, by Bruce Cumings, which is short and well written. Or maybe The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam, which is much longer, but is also by one of the handful of military historians on Keegan's level. You can also go to the horse's mouth, as it were, and read a soldier's narrative of the war. The most accessible of those is probably Valleys of Death: A Memoir of the Korean War by Col. Bill Richardson (ret.) and Kevin Maurer. Unless you want to read MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Richard Hooker (a.k.a. H. Richard Hornberger), but that one is as much fiction as it is fact.


S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: Let me get this straight: There are only four starting slots in the NCAA football playoffs? Why isn't the football tournament structured more like the basketball tournament? Or is it that, with 64 starting slots, to do so would be... madness?

(V) & (Z) answer: For a very long time, the people who run college football resisted a playoff-style situation. The official reason was that student-athletes can only play so many games while still getting their schoolwork done. Nobody ever bought this, especially since the playoffs happen in December/January, when school is not in session. The real reason was that the system of bowls made a lot of money for a lot of people, and conveyed a lot of power and prestige on those same people.

Eventually, the powers that be had to bow to pressure. They created a 2-team playoff (i.e., a national championship game), and then eventually expanded it to a 4-team playoff. Next season, it will expand to... 12 teams. Fat lot of good that does for this year's Florida State team, however.

A.H. in Newberg, OR, asks: I am a wood butcher, veteran, Jonas' great-grandpa, and a grouchy old curmudgeon. I know little about publishing or copyrights except that they exist. The limerick from K.J.O. in Brookdale strikes the right (correct) chord with me, and I would like to copy it for future reference. I know a couple of "Faux Fanaticks" that I would love to send it to. Do I need to get permission from K.J.O or you, or am I able to just steal it?

Inquiring minds want to know.

(V) & (Z) answer: As a purely legal matter, you would need sign-off from us, and would need sign-off from K.J.O., particularly if you were planning to publish the limerick and/or to try to make money from it.

As a practical matter, neither we nor K.J.O. will be suing anyone for passing along our words.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

M.B. in Cleveland, OH, asks: OK, now that we've heard about the worst event in world history, what was the best event, the one that propelled civilization forward the most?

And here some of the answers we got in response:

M.B. in San Antonio, TX: The anthropologist Margaret Mead considered that the event that first set humans apart from the rest of the animals was the healing of a broken bone.

In the animal world, a broken bone means they cannot outrun either their prey or their predator, and thus ensures death. But a healed bone signifies the caring of an individual by fellow humans, thus marking the beginning of human civilization. I don't necessarily disagree with Mead, but I would alternatively propose that it was the ability to engage in abstract thinking that first set us apart from the animals. Early cave drawings such as the ones at Lascaux are evidence of such thinking: humans who see a drawing of a mammoth know it represents a mammoth, and yet is not a mammoth. Cats and dogs and every other animal cannot do this. From this abstract representational thinking emerges (the possibility of) imagination, invention, mathematics and science, art, music, literature, philosophy, theater and film, and everything else that determines what it means to be human. Think of how many levels of abstract thinking you have to engage in to understand, say, Kermit the Frog singing The Rainbow Connection. Either (or perhaps both) of these events (the first healed bone or the fist abstract representation) are the ones that most propelled human civilization forward.

S.D. in York, England, UK: Clearly this is the control of fire by early humans. In addition to this being the technology that allowed all other technologies, it also started a process where humans domesticated themselves. By cooking food, after rapid genetic selection, we no longer could digest things as we previously could, for example the ways that animals can eat rotten goods.

Think about it: Every civilization everywhere on Earth cooks their food. We have thus been under a self-imposed genetic-selection to eat non-raw goods. And this has had a profound effect on the microbial biome that results (the bacteria in our gut is different when we eat cooked vs. raw foods).

Thinking about how critical fire has been to humanity, it is interesting to realize how important it still is. It is estimated that about 50% of world energy consumption today is dedicated to heating or cooling.

S.W. in Omaha, NE: The best event in world history, which propelled civilization forward the most, is arguably the Agricultural Revolution. Starting around 12,000 years ago, humans shifted from hunter-gathered societies to agricultural communities, including cultivating plants and domesticating animals, which stabilized the food supply. People also transitioned from being nomads to settling down in larger communities, which resulted in food surpluses, which led to population growth, and which resulted in the development of specialized roles (i.e., farmers, artisans, leaders, etc.), which resulted in trade and the accumulation of wealth.

On the other hand, my wife noted that by settling down, we are destroying the planet by stripping it of natural resources and leading to further wastefulness and possible human destruction. Her position is that by living as nomads, humans are required to be more efficient because you cannot take everything with you all the time. She has always been concerned that even with greater intellect over time, we continue to be destructive and ruin things even more, especially those who consciously believe we are not doing anything wrong. She also noted that other living beings such as animals do not have war like humans do. She is very positive, as you can see!

M.P. in Chicago, IL: The event that propelled human history the most was the invention of the wheel—or more precisely, the attachment of wheels to an axle.

Unlike many other discoveries, such as fire, nuclear energy, the ends of the earth, the depths of the sea and the vastness of the heavens, the wheel is entirely the product of the human imagination. Etchings on the Bronocice Pot, an item of pottery found in Poland that dates to the Neolithic period, indicate that wheeled carts have been in use by human beings since at least 3300 B.C.

Few if any of the advancements of human civilization could have occurred without the invention of the wheel.

R.C. in Denver, CO: Obviously, the invention of the amazing new "knife," which allows us to just wear the skins of the dead animals. (Courtesy of Gary Larson).

K.F. in Berea, KY: K.H. in Albuquerque opined that Gutenberg's printing press hurt the growth of civilization due to the ability to spread misinformation. While I don't think misinformation is good, I would say that the good that came from the availability of the written word far exceeded the bad. Education cannot happen in mass quantities without the written word. Education and literacy have advanced civilization more than anything. Who knows where the giants of science and literature would have been without being in a position to utilize that talent with the knowledge of what came before?

C.J. in Lowell, MA: In terms of the event most significant in moving civilization forward, particularly in terms of why the world is how it is today, I have to go with Christopher Columbus landing in the Americas. The world literally changed forever on October 12, 1492, and you can draw a direct line from his voyages to further exploration, conquest, colonization, and ultimately the independent, European language-speaking nations that exist on this side of the planet today.

Though Columbus did not land in the modern United States (unless you count Puerto Rico, on a later voyage), we would not be here either if England had not wanted to avoid being left behind by Spain and Portugal and its colonies had not ultimately decided on July 4, 1776, to initiate a then radical experiment in self-government (an event worthy of nomination in this category in its own right). The world is now very much influenced by the U.S. in ways big and small, obvious and not. The Columbian Exchange made the world smaller and more interdependent and continues to have an impact so embedded that its absence is almost impossible to imagine at this point. Lately, there's been a lot of focus on some of the less savory aspects of Columbus's legacy, but for October 12th alone he deserves an place in the annals of Western Civilization.

D.M. in Oxnard, CA: I would say that the discovery of calculus by Newton/Leibniz is the best event. Otherwise just about everything humans build would end up like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

M.A. in Park Ridge, IL: I think it's wrong to assume that something that moves civilization forward is always a good thing or, as M.B. in Cleveland put it, the "best event." Slavery, the internal combustion engine, atomic energy, industrialization, factory farming and many other things have propelled civilization forward. I wouldn't argue that any of them is so good, let along the "best."

That said, I'll go with research and development of vaccines and other medical technologies that prevent and treat childhood diseases (and maternal mortality, for that matter). Of course, even one this isn't without its downside, as the world population bomb keeps ticking.

A.H. in Columbus, OH: In 1831, Michael Faraday figured out electromagnetic induction and, yada yada, here we are looking at tiny lights arranged in grids most likely on some form of LED screen (often on pocket-sized handheld devices that wirelessly communicate around the world) and formed into patterns we can easily identify as words... less than 200 years later.

Where would human society be today without electricity? In the dark ages, literally.

C.S. in Tucson, AZ: The most important advancement was not an event but a long-fought battle, one that continues: The leveling of the playing field for women.

I suppose those more educated than me and women will rightly argue that women's suffrage was the key event. If so, it began in New Zealand in 1893.

The consequences are immeasurable, particularly for our economic well-being. How can an economy that ignores (suppresses) more than half of a country's intellectual capital be anything other than fourth rate?

Long ago, I read an argument for electing women presidents: Boys grow up playing "cops and robbers" and "war." Girls play nurturing games and establishing relationships. Is it really in our best interest to give someone who built forts and played with imaginary guns an army and nukes? Hmmm...

G.C. in Southfield, MI: My first thought was the invention of the electric light bulb, which changed how people lived and made the dark night bright. But then, we had gas lights and candles so it was just a convenient refinement. However, the radio provided a new level of communications: Every home could hear news updates and entertainment instantly with free broadcasts, and was a preview of television, which also changed family life forever. Before 1920, the only way to learn of what was happening would be an "extra"edition of the newspaper, or a town crier. The telegraph was also revolutionary, but people didn't have that in their homes, nor did they know Morse Code.

J.E. in San Jose, CA: Similar to my answer on the most negative impact, I would say the best event was also the invention of the assembly line. It unlocked economy of scale, without which there would be a greater divide between the rich and poor because of the creation of a viable middle class.

J.J. in Johnstown, PA: Sliced Bread, of course.

J.S. in Torrance, CA: My view on this is that often the best event and the worst event are one in the same. Paradise may be fun, but it isn't conducive to progress. If there's no irritation there's no impetus to change. So, I suggest that the events that propelled civilization forward the most are World War II and the Cold War (and nominate Adolf Hitler as the most significant person of the 20th century, while I'm at it). Without World War II, the United States and Russia don't become world powers, electronic and nuclear technologies don't make rapid and profound strides, and rocketry, and subsequently satellites and space exploration, take decades longer to develop, are just a few examples. The argument can be made that World War II is just the conclusion of the unfinished business from World War I, in which case that whole Franz Ferdinand thing can be nominated. But I stand by my original choice.

D.E. in Atlanta, GA : I'll select Norman Borlaug's development of dwarf wheat. Being given credit for saving upwards of a billion people definitely falls into the category of "best event."

And I don't want to hear anyone mention that he also contributed to global overpopulation through his efforts. I will immediately call shenanigans on you.

J.W. in Morro Bay, CA: Since the Braves came back from 9.5 down to defeat the evil empire Dodgers for the 1991 National League West Division title, there have been zero nuclear wars, no invasions from Mars or Canada, and disco has remained vanquished.

Peace through Atlantification.

K.R. in Austin, TX: The breeding of dachshunds in the 16th Century is the best thing to happen to civilization. I think the reasons are self-evident and do not require further elaboration.

Here is the question for next week:

L.C. in Boston, MA, inspired by B.C. Walpole, ME, asks: What is the most popular program of study at the Electoral College?

Submit your answers here!

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