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Saturday Q&A

Recall that we have a bunch of history questions left over from last week, so that section is unusually hefty today.

Also, the connection between the songs yesterday was apparently a bit harder to discern than we thought. We'll tell you that the song that is the biggest giveaway is unquestionably "Along Comes A Woman." We've also heard that the very best hint we already gave is that there are two readers in the "10 fastest" list who have a distinct advantage. Note that there's nothing additional you need to know about the 10 readers to be able to unravel that clue.

Current Events

A.Z. in Santa Cruz, CA, asks: The Hunter Biden indictment is for lying on a federal gun application about illegal drug usage—which, as you have noted, is rarely prosecuted on its own. Do you think that this has the potential to backfire politically on those pushing for his prosecution? For example, what if Hunter Biden's defense to the charge is that he was at an all-time low in his addiction and had purchased the gun as he was contemplating suicide (consistent with his sister-in-law disposing of it when she found it)? With that narrative, Biden becomes a person you could root for; a man with a redemptive story that many across the political spectrum can relate to on a personal level, someone who has been able to recover from the incredible depths of a terrible, addictive disease and straighten out his life.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is certainly possible, but we think that it would require the First Son to go on TV and tell the story in that way (say, in one of those long-form 60 Minutes interviews). Thus far, he's been virtually absent from any sort of mass medium—no Twitter, no TV hits, nothing like that. Maybe that is because Team Biden decided it was best for him to lay low. Maybe it's because he is awkward or uncomfortable when it comes to public speaking. Maybe it's a kindness to Hunter, given that he's already had a lot of trauma in his life. Depending on which of these it is, the Bidens' thinking could change, and they could send him out to do some PR. But maybe not.

D.M. in Santa Rosa, CA, asks: Why isn't the NRA howling about the gun charges against Hunter Biden? I know he is on the wrong political team, but they defend every other gun owners right to keep their guns. Aren't they worried that the DoJ will come after the thousand/millions of drug-addicted, opioid-using American gun owners?

(V) & (Z) answer: The NRA is not howling about Hunter Biden, per se, at least not yet. But they are definitely howling about the relevant law. The case that has caused the law to be overturned, at least in the states covered by the Fifth Judicial Circuit, is United States v. Daniels, which involved a gentleman named Patrick Darnell Daniels Jr., who was found to be in possession of both marijuana and a gun when pulled over by police in Mississippi. It was clear that he was a habitual user of the ganja, while the gun had been purchased fairly recently, and so it was pretty easy to reach the conclusion that he'd lied on his gun paperwork.

Anyhow, many, many pro-gun lobbying groups filed amicus briefs in the case, including Scholars of Second Amendment Law, the Second Amendment Foundation, the Firearms Policy Coalition, Gun Owners of America, the Gun Owners Foundation and the Tennessee Firearms Association. The NRA did not file under its own name, but it is a part of, or an ally with, some of these other groups.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: During discussions of the previous plea deal with Hunter Biden, much hay was made over the fact that he was only pleading guilty to misdemeanors, not felonies. None of the sources I've read about the new indictment specifically say that the gun charges in the current indictment are felony charges. I assume yes?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, he faces three felony charges. Two counts relate to making false statements while purchasing a firearm and the third covers illegally obtaining a firearm while addicted to drugs. Even if you didn't already know the relevant law is on shaky ground, it should be clear that these charges are problematic from a legal perspective. Inasmuch as the current thinking among professionals is that addiction is a permanent state then, taken to its logical conclusion, anyone who has ever developed an addiction to any drug would be disqualified permanently from gun ownership. Courts are not likely to be pleased by that far-reaching implication.

Anyhow, if Biden were to be convicted on all three counts, and were to be given the maximum sentence, he'd be looking at 25 years. Obviously, not likely to happen, given that he's a first-time offender, and that there are no aggravating circumstances, and he's well-heeled and can afford the best legal counsel.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, hunkered down as Hurricane Lee bears down on his location, asks: A special prosecutor appointed by Donald Trump, in the course of 5 years, has discovered that Hunter Biden was late paying his income taxes two years (now paid), and violated three laws when he bought a gun, those laws being rarely enforced if the gun has not been used to commit a crime, and the constitutionality of the main one has recently been questioned by two federal judges. Do I have that right? Doesn't seem like much to show for a special prosecutor with plenty of time. And now he has indicted the First Son on the gun charges. What am I missing here? It seems like a public admission that he didn't really find anything. It's almost as though a special prosecutor accused Bill Clinton of cheating on his wife, something we knew (well, I was living in Memphis; certainly, we knew) from before he declared his candidacy. What is going on here?

(V) & (Z) answer: We've suggested that if a person like John Durham or David Weiss spends 5 years' of their time, plus whatever additional resources, there is enormous motivation to produce something tangible out of those efforts.

As chance would have it, reader R.S. in Vancouver, WA, wrote in with a comment that speaks to Weiss' potential motivations, and how they could differ from those of the DoJ. Here's that assessment:

The one area where a straight and narrow honest prosecutor from the Trump administration could have reasonable and differing interest from the Department of Justice's ongoing interests in prosecutions nationally.

The U.S. Attorney for Delaware, now special counsel, is a Trump Administration holdover. When the Hunter Biden case ends, his employment likely ends. He doesn't have to worry about how his decisions in this case affect the prosecutorial toolbox in the future and elsewhere.

In contrast, the DoJ as an institution is not going anywhere. The DoJ has institutional interests in every prosecution in U.S. Federal Court and how it may develop the law for all cases going forward.

In the Hunter Biden case, there is an ambiguity in precedent created by somewhat conflicting opinions from two different conservative Supreme Court justices. In striking down a gun law from New York State a couple of years ago, Justice Clarence Thomas articulated a new test for all gun laws nationwide. The test is that the gun law must be of a type considered acceptable before 1800 or at approximately the time of the drafting of the Constitution. Under that standard, the gun law Biden is being charged under almost certainly is unconstitutional.

Normally, it would be a violation of prosecutorial ethics to proceed with a charge that you know or believe to be unconstitutional. But Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a concurrence in the same case articulating a much more indistinct and permissive rule for when a gun control regulation is unconstitutional. Due to the Kavanaugh concurrence, the DoJ has enough legal and ethical cover to continue to charge under the statute.

The legal ambiguity here is where a natural conflict could easily arise between a prosecutor who knows they are a short timer and the larger DoJ as an institution. A statute like this is a good tool for prosecutors to use to get plea deals they find acceptable. It either gives them a "plea down" felony from more serious charges where the penalty would be excessive, or it gives them an uncharged threat to encourage a defendant to take the plea deal the prosecutor wants on lesser chargers.

Because a statute like this remains a useful tool for prosecutors, DoJ probably doesn't want the statute challenged on appeal. Under the explicit test articulated by the Supreme Court, the statute is unlikely to survive. A prosecutor on a short term job assignment, like our Trump administrative holdover, doesn't have the same long-term interest in how the federal appellate courts address this statute.

Thanks, R.S.!

So, in short, Weiss could well be making decisions that are within the realm of ethical behavior, but that also justify his work over the past 5 years and his continued employment. At the same time, those decisions could be out of alignment with what the larger DoJ wants, even if the DoJ is not specifically advocating for Hunter Biden.

L.S.-H. in Naarden, The Netherlands, asks: You wrote: "Judge [Tanya] Chutkan has, in connection with other cases, suggested that President Trump should be prosecuted and imprisoned." And also: "It is virtually unheard of for a decision in case #1, no matter how strongly worded, to support the conclusion that a judge is simply not capable of being fair in case #2." I read your site every day, instead of umpteen other websites (and have to piece everything together), but did I miss something here? What exactly did Judge Chutkan say in or outside of court regarding prosecution and imprisoning Trump? And which two cases are referred to here?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, just to be clear, we did not write that first part. That was a quote from the motion filed by Trump's legal counsel.

Second, when Trump's lawyers wrote that motion, they engaged in a whole orchard's worth of cherry picking. Chutkan has been involved in a pair of cases in which she was responsible for sentencing a 1/6 defendant following a plea deal (in other words, no trials). Trump's lawyers based their arguments on the transcript of the sentencing hearing of Christine Priola (see here) and the transcript of the sentencing hearing of Robert Scott Palmer (see here). If you read them over, you'll see that Donald Trump's name was mentioned once in each hearing; Priola herself brought him up in her appearance, while during Palmer's appearance, Chutkan made reference to the fact that he was wearing a Trump hat on 1/6. There are also a couple of oblique references that undoubtedly include Trump, like Chutkan's reference to "those in high office" during the Priola hearing.

Put another way, the former president was a footnote during the hearings. Maybe a footnote to a footnote. And to the extent that he was brought up, either directly or by inference, it is because part of Chutkan's responsibility to explain her sentence. So, she goes through the factors that justify the punishment (you were there, you were caught on video breaking into the Capitol, etc), but also the factors that mitigate the punishment (you were being egged on by "people in high office" who also bear some responsibility). Even if you read the entire transcripts of both hearings (100 pages total), there is nothing remotely close to an anti-Trump/anti-MAGA/anti-Republican screed from the Judge or from anyone else.

The problem for Team Trump is that Chutkan knows what was said, and knows how this works. So, she's not going to be convinced that she is hopelessly compromised because she is not, and there is no evidence she is. And if Trump's lawyers try for an interlocutory order that Chutkan be removed, well, those judges can read, and they also know how it works. So, they are going to say "no" with lightning speed. Further, and as we pointed out, even if Chutkan had been more pointed in her remarks about Trump, it would not matter, because the things written in rulings do not constitute proof of bias. For a judge to recuse or be removed due to bias, it pretty much has to be for things they said or did outside their official duties.

That means there are only four plausible explanations for why this doomed-to-fail motion was filed: (1) Trump's team is grasping at straws, because straws are all they have; (2) Trump's team is providing fodder for political, rather than legal, maneuvering (e.g., "this deep state judge is so biased against me we tried to have her removed, but the deep state wouldn't allow it"); (3) Trump's lawyers filed because they had to in order to keep the boss happy; or (4) the more motions, the more billable hours.

W.S. in Austin, TX, asks: You wrote, in discussing the possibility that Donald Trump's case in Georgia is moved to late 2024 or early 2025: "And if he's returned to the White House, then overnight 2025 probably becomes 2029 (or never)."

Why? I'm struggling to think of any formal mechanism by which a reelected Trump could delay or eliminate a prosecution of himself not involving the DOJ.

I don't believe he'd have the power, and I don't believe any agency in the executive branch would either.

(V) & (Z) answer: The feds would have no power to force a change in date. However, given the various logistical concerns that Judge Scott McAfee outlined in deciding to sever the Georgia case into at least two separate cases, we think he (or any other Georgia judge) would likely be persuaded by arguments like: (1) a sitting president cannot possibly get a fair trial, or (2) the logistics of trying a sitting president are too daunting, or (3) the best interests of the country dictate that its leader be able to focus fully on their official duties, or (4) even if there is a conviction, there's no plausible way to imprison a sitting president, so there is no need to rush.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: We've read about in the Georgia RICO trial about shenanigans taking place in Coffee County, GA. Anyhow, I've heard that Coffee County is ruby-red and went for Trump big time. So why would anyone want to tamper with the voting machines and other election materials in a place that strongly favored TFG? Can you make sense of this?

(V) & (Z) answer: Trump was not trying to win some portion of the state, he was trying to win the whole state. If one is going to cook the books by creating some phony votes, it is best to do so where the people running the election will be amenable to the scheme, and where a few hundred or a few thousand extra Trump votes are less likely to raise eyebrows. If you somehow create 500 extra Trump votes in, say, the precinct where Centennial Olympic Park is located, then that's going to stick out like a sore thumb, since it (and all the other precincts in the vicinity) only gave Trump between 20 and 250 votes.

R.T. in Arlington, TX, asks: Just a hypothetical to take the crazy train all the way into the station: If the Freedom Caucus booted Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and (after a suitably long circus run) the Democrats could persuade a few Republicans to go along to elect House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) as Speaker, is there any way in the U.S. for a "minority government" to function in the House? Would Jeffries be able to get anything done when his party has to have moderate Republicans to sign on to every action? I suspect that it would take a practical and lasting split in the House Republican Caucus into two independently functioning groups. Maybe we call the new faction the Democratic-Republicans as a nod to history.

(V) & (Z) answer: It's certainly possible. There's never been a Speaker who was a member of the minority party, per se. But there were speakers early on who weren't really members of any party, since the parties were still coalescing. And during the 36th Congress (1859-61), when the Republican Party was still getting established, the GOP had a plurality of seats but not a majority. So, they had to form a governing coalition with a handful of third-party members (there were, depending on how you define things, up to four different third parties represented in the 36th Congress).

If Jeffries were to try to form a governing coalition, it would probably be the Democrats plus the 18 Republicans who represent districts won by Joe Biden. Any budgets or other legislation that coalition hammered out could probably get through the Senate, could probably get a presidential signature, and would likely to be salable to voters in the 18 House districts represented by those Republicans (since those districts are clearly pretty centrist), while also being salable to voters in the Democratic-controlled districts (since getting something done as the minority party is a heckuva lot better than getting nothing done).

E.S. in Maine, NY, asks: What does the motion to vacate need to succeed? A majority of what? A majority of the house 218? Members voting? Members present?

(V) & (Z) answer: A majority of members voting. Recall what it took to get Kevin McCarthy elected, and that the key moment was when Rep. Matt Gaetz decided to vote "present" (thus reducing the number of "yea" votes needed). Well, the same rules for electing a speaker apply to firing a speaker.

M.A. in Knoxville, TN, asks: In your item on Kevin McCarthy's budget woes, you mentioned that members of Congress continue getting paid after the government's no longer able to spend money. What you didn't mention is that their staffers don't. I was wondering, would it be a clever political move for Democratic congresspeople to say something like "We're taking our salaries and using them to pay our staffers during this shutdown caused by the Republicans. We don't want them to suffer like the Republican staffers are."? Sure they'll get their money back after it's over, but the optics of Democrats paying their staffers while Republican ones go without could be priceless.

Also, do you have any idea why Congress hasn't made an effort to change this? Shutdowns are happening more often and staffers are expected to work through them without pay. This is extremely unfair, because it's not the fault of even the Republican staffers.

I also wanted to add a note in case other readers are dependent on Social Security and worried about it: Social Security payments continue to go out during a government shutdown.

(V) & (Z) answer: The reason that members are paid, even during shutdowns, is that the Constitution says they must be paid. It is literally not legal to cut them off.

There have been efforts to make congressional staffers shutdown-proof over the years, but they've gone nowhere. Some members are opposed to nearly any spending on government functions. Others like it that not paying staff creates pressure on the members to reach a resolution.

And it would be, in general, impractical for the Democrats to float their staffers out of their own pockets. There are right around 10,000 staffers, which means roughly 20 per member. Even if we just limit it to the staffers in the member's own office (in other words, excluding people like the Secretary of the House), then you're still talking about somewhere between $50,000 and $500,000 a month in salary. Someone like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) or Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) might have that kind of coin, but most members do not. There may also be legal issues that would come up as a result of such an arrangement.


R.M.S. in Stamford CT, asks: Why do you think the GOP keeps supporting government shutdowns? It should be clear to them since Newt Gingrich's tenure as speaker it doesn't benefit them politically. The last government shutdown in 2018-2019 was followed by Republicans losing the Senate a year later. The government shutdown in 2013 failed to stop the Affordable Care Act because it was already in the federal statutes by that point, and the GOP did not have a veto-proof majority to repeal it.

(V) & (Z) answer: First, because shutting down the government is one of the few things that can be accomplished by a relatively small number of recalcitrant representatives or senators. People are going to use the tools available to them. Second, because the people who are responsible for shutdowns are almost invariably answerable to an extremist voter base, and don't really care that much about the overall fortunes of the Republican Party.

S.N. in Charlotte, NC, asks: I keep seeing statements like the one you wrote this week: "[Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA)] and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) both look like they will be forces to reckon with in 2028. A Newsom/Whitmer ticket 2028 anyone?"

Do you guys really think he has a chance as a presidential contender? I don't see quite how he can win in the general election for president, as it seems highly implausible this country would go from middle-of-the-road milquetoast Joe Biden to slicked-back-hair California liberal for president. I think he would probably get crushed. Whitmer seems much more likely to succeed, aside from the likely slander that will be directed at her for being a woman (see Clinton, Hillary).

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, we do think he has a chance. We both vote in California, and one of us lives in the state and the other used to and still keeps close track of goings on there. We were underwhelmed for several years, which we've copped to numerous times. However, since his reelection, he's shown some pretty slick political skills, including a near-Trump-like ability to play the media game, 21st-century style. For whatever reason, when Newsom says or does something, it's news.

We'll note also that Newsom is not that liberal, that he has a track record of actual accomplishments that are neither cruel nor likely to be overturned by courts (in contrast to Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-FL), and that (Z)'s students seem to love him.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: You wrote: "The bottom line is that, sometime in the next year or two, [Gavin Newsom's] $21,000 bottle of wine has gotta go." The question is "Where?" What would you advise Newsom to do with this and any similar bottles of wine?

(V) & (Z) answer: We didn't have quite enough time to explain that point as well as we should have. If Newsom becomes a presidential candidate, as is likely in 2028, his opponents are going to search for things to grab on to in order to take him down. Will the $21,000 bottle of wine become one of those things? Probably not, but the odds are not zero, and the more things there are to grab, the more likely that the oppo research teams finally strike gold.

What we would advise Newsom to do, if we were on his staff, is to hold a wine auction and then donate the proceeds to an appropriate charity, like Meals on Wheels. Or, even better, one of the organizations that helps bring potable water to impoverished countries. That would allow Newsom to use the line: "Hey, I'm a guy who can turn wine into water."

J.L. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: When was the last time a presidential election did not present a choice that many voters would have considered "choosing between the lesser of two evils"?

(V) & (Z) answer: We would say that a very large percentage of voters were excited to vote for Barack Obama, and did not cast their ballots for him solely because he was less icky than Mitt Romney (2012) or John McCain (2008). And speaking of McCain, we think there were plenty of voters who were excited to vote for him, though less of them once he tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Before that, we'd say the second Bill Clinton election (1996) and the second Ronald Reagan election (1984) were not "lesser of two evils" elections.

M.A. in Knoxville, TN, asks: The comment from D.M.F. in Ann Arbor regarding Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) included the statement: "It's not part of his job description to be loquacious." This made me wonder, have there been any members of Congress with audiovisual disabilities? If so, how many? I'm mostly curious about people who are mute, deaf or both, but would also like to know about any who were visually impaired as well.

(V) & (Z) answer: If we are talking about partial loss of function, there have been a handful of members that fit the description. David McKinley, who represented West Virginia in the U.S. House from 2011-23, was without hearing in one ear until he got a cochlear implant. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), of course, lost one of his eyes in combat. Former senator Pat Leahy has sight in only one eye from birth. These are just three examples among a few dozen.

As to total loss of function, that is very, very rare. With the caveat that biographical details about many 18th and 19th century politicians are lost to the mists of time, there is no known elected federal officeholder to have been mute. As to a non-hearing officeholder, Chris Haulmark ran for the Kansas State legislature a few years ago; if he had been elected (he wasn't), he would have been the first deaf U.S. legislator at any level, according to the National Association of the Deaf. And there is one member of Congress known to have been non-sighted; that is Thomas Gore, who represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate from 1907-21.

D.C. in Brentwood, CA, asks: Is there merit, in a place like California, of trying to run for office as a "Progressive Republican"? The party system is entrenched, so third parties are useless without preferential voting, but all the existing factions are full.

The case can be made that civil liberties are intended to be pillars of Republicanism. Some social programs are accepted by Republicans, like Medicare and Social Security. So is there a progressive platform that isn't too far outside the Overton Window for the GOP in a state like California?

(V) & (Z) answer: In theory, yes. In practice, there are two problems. The first is that California's jungle-style primary system makes it hard for a candidate like that to survive to the general, since the Republican votes they would need tend to go to a more conservative candidate, while the independent/Democratic votes they might get tend to go mostly to centrist Democrats. The second problem is that the modern GOP doesn't produce too many high-profile Rockefeller Republicans, and it's hard to make headway in a state as big as California without a national profile.

The relatively recent progressive Republican exception who proves the rule is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He got elected the first time under wonky circumstances (a recall election that required only a plurality). And his power base came not from his success in other political offices, but from his fame and notoriety as an A-list movie star.


F.C. in Simi Valley, CA, asks: Given Donald Trump's displays of contempt and disdain of the constitution, what are the chances Chief Justice John Roberts would refuse to administer the oath of office, perhaps seating the VP-elect instead?

(V) & (Z) answer: Very low, since Roberts does not insinuate himself into politics in that way. And even if Roberts did refuse, there's no rule it has to be the Chief Justice. That's just a custom. There are literally millions of people in the U.S. who are legally able to administer a presidential oath, including all federal judges, all court clerks, all officers of the United States and even all notaries public. The odds are pretty good that, if there were a second Trump inaugural, Clarence and Ginni Thomas would have VIP seats. So, Trump could just walk over and have him administer the oath.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: Voting in next year's U.S. Senate election in California will be like trying to choose my favorite child. California wins either way, although we will lose 3 prominent voices in the House while gaining one in the Senate. Or will we?

Is there a deadline after which an incumbent can no longer run for re-election? Suppose the poll numbers do not change. Is there a "go-no go" date when Rep Barbara Lee (my representative!) can change her mind, drop out of the Senate race and run for a 14th term in the House? (The same date, if it exists, would, of course, also apply to Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, but those two are clearly "in it to win it"). Can these candidates run for both seats (the ones they currently occupy and the Senate seat) at the same time?

(V) & (Z) answer: If Lee plans to run again for her current House seat as a Democrat, the drop-dead date is December 13. If she wants to take a shot as a write-in candidate, she can wait as late as February 20 of next year. And California does not allow candidates to run for more than one office at a time.

D.B. in New York City, NY, asks: You wrote: "Anyhow, since the Supreme Court said, in 1976, that capital punishment was once again legal, 1,392 people have been put to death by lethal injection. By contrast, 163 have been electrocuted, 11 have been gassed, 3 have been hanged and 3 have died by firing squad."

What state(s) was performing hangings post 1976? And I guess the same question about the firing squad (although I have seen a few articles suggesting that this may come back in vogue as a form of capital punishment)?

(V) & (Z) answer: Some states offer alternative forms of execution, either as a "courtesy" to the convict, or in the event that the primary form of execution (usually lethal injection) is not available for some reason.

As to hanging, there were two of them in the state of Washington after 1976, while the very last hanging in U.S. history was Billy Bailey, who was hanged in Delaware in 1996. There are currently no states left that still use capital punishment and who have hanging as an option. That said, "retired" forms of execution can still be used if the particular method was on the list when a person was convicted. At the moment, there is only one person known to be potentially subject to hanging; that is Michael Addison in New Hampshire. However, this would require a number of things to happen, among them the Granite State reversing its current ban on executions.

As to firing squad, the three executions carried out in that manner since 1976 were all in Utah. The most recent of those three was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. The method has since been banned in the Beehive State, though there are still three people on death row there who are "grandfathered" in, if their execution goes forward, and if they choose to face a firing squad. The only states where death by firing squad is still an active method of execution are Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah, and in those places it's only as an alternative to lethal injection. That said, the difficulties in getting the chemicals needed for injections mean that there may soon be a resurgence in firing-squad executions. A resurgence in hangings is less likely because few Americans have the necessary expertise for that sort of killing anymore.

C.F. in Nashua, NH, asks: Understand that I am against the death penalty for lots of reasons. I'm just confused as to why it is so hard to find a way to do it without torturing the convicted person. I watched the documentary "How to Die in Oregon," which documented people's use of the Dying With Dignity law first adopted by Oregon. To end one's own life they simply drank some drugs and essentially "fell asleep" for the last time. Can you explain why it is so hard to find a similar drug for the death penalty?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are two major problems. The first is that you cannot rely on a method that involves cooperation from the person to be executed. Most of them will not willingly take pills or drink a liquid that will snuff their life out. The second is that your method cannot have potential complications that would run afoul of the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. A few readers wrote in with questions about using fentanyl overdose as a means of execution. The problem there is that fentanyl can cause a person to vomit, leading them to die from asphyxiation (this is what happened, for example, to Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs). Needless to say, this would be very cruel.


R.M.S. in Stamford, CT, asks: Recently, on a 95-degree day, I went to Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, CT, to relax and go swimming for a few hours. As I was walking back to my car, I saw a large gathering of people inside the pavilion. I went inside and saw about 200 people seated, including many state and federal politicians, media, first responders, and local residents. Coincidentally, the state held a 9/11 remembrance ceremony that began just as I was leaving. I stayed and watched for about 25 minutes. Our governor, Ned Lamont (D), and lieutenant governor, Susan Bysiewicz (D), both spoke at the ceremony.

Lamont spoke about how healing from atrocities like 9/11 can lead to national solidarity. He said it shouldn't take something as awful as 9/11 to create a sense of unity and he sounded a bit disappointed at how polarized the country has become since.

I do remember how unified the country was for about 6 months after 9/11. I think the shared experience of us all seeing the buildings collapse on live TV gave us something in common to unite around. Only the far-right types (like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell) and the far-left wingnuts (like Ward Churchill) seemed to not share in the national grief and tried to use the attack to bolster their political positions.

However, a few months back, one of you wrote that crises usually don't cause national unity anymore. You wrote that they seem to cause more division, like COVID-19 or mass shootings in schools. Something must have changed in the culture over the past 20 years since 9/11 to make this happen. What do you think is responsible for this change in how the country reacts to crises?

(V) & (Z) answer: Crises may trigger a sense of/desire for unity, but they also trigger anger and fear, and that anger and fear WILL find an outlet. This is nothing new. And it would be very, very hard to come up with a true crisis in U.S. history that did not also trigger some sort of serious backlash. For example, the national solidarity Lamont remembers after 9/11 did not include Muslims, who were almost instantly a target for some Americans' hatred and resentment, so much so that President George W. Bush had to make a public statement telling the Islamophobes to knock it off. To take another example, Pearl Harbor brought the Greatest Generation together, yes, but it also led to a vicious anti-Japanese backlash, up to and including internment. To say nothing of the fact that the war laid the groundwork for a Red Scare and for the Cold War.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: You wrote: "It's not so easy to, say, explain why people cared so much about a central bank, or so much about outlawing liquor." So why did people care about a central bank and about outlawing liquor? And were their worries and anger justified in both cases?

(V) & (Z) answer: The early 19th century was a time of frequent economic upheaval, with the highs and lows of the era fueled by speculation, and by lack of regulation, and by all sorts of other less-than-optimal behaviors. Working-class voters wanted a simple explanation for an array of complex phenomena, and "the central bank is to blame" fit the bill. These voters were right to be angry and worried, but the target they settled upon (with encouragement from Andrew Jackson and others) was a very poor one. If you are trying to tamp down economic extremes, a a central bank is a critical tool.

As to prohibition, there were a number of interest groups who made that happen. Some were evangelicals who thought liquor led to immorality. Others were xenophobes who thought that alcohol abuse was one of the reasons that immigrants were such terrible people. Still others believed alcohol, even in moderation, has deleterious health effects. And so forth. There was some merit to some of the criticisms of liquor use, but it turned out the cure was worse than the disease, especially since the "cure" was so full of loopholes that allowed many people to continue to imbibe.

F.J. in Brussels, Belgium, asks: Has a U.S. president ever been denied his party's nomination for re-election after actively seeking it? I know Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 stepped down after disappointing early primary results, but if I'm not mistaken he hadn't officially declared his candidacy yet anyway. Are there any other examples?

(V) & (Z) answer: Caucuses and primaries did not play a major role in choosing presidential candidates until after World War II. Since then, there were two presidents who inferred they were in trouble from the early returns (Harry S. Truman and LBJ) and decided not to embarrass themselves. There have been no presidents in that timeframe who actively contested the nomination and were rejected.

Prior to World War II, it can be hard to judge exactly how serious a president was about reelection, and whether or not they were actually rejected. There are certainly the cases of Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, who both left office willingly, took 4 years off, returned to try and reclaim their party's nomination, and were rebuffed. There was also Millard Fillmore, who at very least toyed with pursuing renomination in 1852, and who did eventually make a return as a third-party candidate in 1856.

Beyond that, the presidents between 1789 and 1944 fall into five categories: (1) those who served their two terms and were definitely done (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Cleveland, Wilson); (2) those who served less than two terms and were definitely done (Polk, Arthur, Coolidge); (3) those who ran for reelection and lost (J. Adams, J.Q. Adams, Van Buren, B. Harrison, Taft, Hoover); (4) those who died in office (W.H. Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR); and (5) those who were so toxic when they left office that they could not possibly have been renominated (Tyler, Pierce, Buchanan, A. Johnson, Hayes).

It is possible that the three men in category two just pretended to be "done" to save face, but we doubt it. They were all in pretty poor health by the time their term ended, and between them lived less than 6 post-presidential years. It is also possible that the men in category five made some serious behind-the-scenes efforts to be renominated, but that's also doubtful. Pierce, Buchanan and Hayes hated being president, and all five of them were clever enough to know that they were dead in the water, politically.

T.C. in Highland Park, NJ, asks: In your reply to F.S. in Cologne about a hypothetical Stephen Douglas presidency, you used the term "doughface" to describe the Senator. That set me to wondering. I know the term was used in the antebellum era to describe a Northern politician with Southern (i.e., pro-slavery) sympathies, but how did this rather bizarre epithet come into use? A quick online search turned up plenty of definitions of the word, but little in the way of its etymology. Even Wikipedia equivocal—it says that Southern firebrand John Randolph may have coined the term in a speech (comparing cowardly politicians to children who daubed their faces with dough to frighten themselves) but it also states that the term was used even earlier, and may have originally referred to skittish deer ("doe-faces"). So I'm still scratching my head a bit.

What is your sense of how the term "doughface" originated and what it was understood to imply in the years leading up to the Civil War?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are sources that support both origins for the term doughface (it was connected to dough-based disguises, or to the faces of female deer), and it's entirely possible that both are correct. However, while Randolph's use of the term in 1820 is pretty famous, he used the term regularly before that, and his other usages make clear that he intended the "two-faced" meaning. For example, in 1809, he said: "It is something like dressing ourselves up in a dough-face and winding-sheet to frighten others."

The other politicians of the era also intended it in that way, which means it was not meant to be complimentary, or even neutral. In particular, Abraham Lincoln regularly insulted Douglas by calling him a doughface.

L.V.A. in Idaho Falls, ID, asks: I have recently been reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. I went into it with the intention of understanding the views of Abraham Lincoln and Republicans on race apart from the slavery issue. And I read an interesting quote from the series of Lincoln-Douglas debates from the late 1850s. On September 15, 1858, Lincoln said:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

This puts Lincoln in the extremes of today's Republican party (presentism noted). I'd be interested in the opinions of the historian on this, it being squarely in his wheelhouse.

(V) & (Z) answer: Did Lincoln believe this, at least in part? Certainly. After all, he was a denizen of the 19th century.

That said, he was also a politician. That quote comes from the Lincoln-Douglas debate held at Jonesboro, IL. Civil War historians know well that Lincoln's words got more racist in southern Illinois (and Jonesboro is not far removed from the slave states of Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee) and less racist in northern Illinois. This is because Lincoln was not campaigning for the Senate, per se. He was campaigning for local politicians running for the state legislature, who would then in turn choose the U.S. Senator. For Lincoln to say things that played right into the Democrats' narrative that Republicans were dangerous radicals who favored race mixing and miscegenation (and the like) would be bad for his Republican colleagues and, by extension, bad for him. This was a particular concern in districts where a lot of voters had been slaveowners, or were friendly with slaveowners, or did business with slaveowners.

Also, Lincoln certainly evolved over time, at least some. His views on the capabilities of Black Americans were certainly influenced by the distinguished service of nearly 200,000 Black soldiers during the Civil War.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You describe not seeing any way to end slavery without war, despite wracking your brain for 30 years. But what was it that made slavery in the U.S. South so unique in this regard? I guess there was chattel slavery throughout the western hemisphere colonies. I think the British empire ended it by royal edict, and in Latin America it was the church, neither of those apply to the U.S. But were there no other agricultural economies that relied on slavery enough that they would have to go to war? If not, why not?

(V) & (Z) answer: To a greater or lesser extent, most countries used slave labor for a relatively small but profitable segment of their economy. For example, France profited handsomely from plantations worked by enslaved people in Haiti, and in a couple of other Caribbean possession, but largely did not use slave labor beyond that.

In the American South, by contrast, slave labor was used over a broad geographical area, and was deeply intertwined with virtually every aspect of Southern society—economy, culture, social system, etc. The average Frenchman in the mid-19th century did not often say "I do not have much, but at least I can take pride in that I am a free man and not a slave." The average white Southerner in the mid-19th century did say that.

J.L. in New York City, NY, asks: You wrote, in reference to the antebellum options for resolving the slavery problem: "The Confederacy, by contrast, left proactively [in 1860]. They assumed the writing was on the wall (and were probably right about that), but they had not yet exhausted all possible options, since they didn't wait around long enough to do so."

You also wrote "And the Civil War probably became inevitable with Dred Scott. At that point, every solution to the slavery problem had been tried, and had failed."

How should these be reconciled?

(V) & (Z) answer: They are not in conflict. With the ascension of Abraham Lincoln, the South had lost control of both chambers of Congress and of the presidency. They still had the Supreme Court, but SCOTUS had been basically neutered by the overreach of Dred Scott. Lincoln had promised to preserve slavery where it already existed, and he probably would have done so. But the South did not know he was "Honest Abe," and besides, it would likely have happened soon enough that someone would be elected on a promise to end slavery entirely (as opposed to just halting its spread, as Lincoln had campaigned on).

So, if the South had waited around long enough, slavery would likely have been ended by the government. Could have been 5 years, could have been 50. However, they did not wait around long enough to find out.

M.B. in Montreal, Quebec, asks: Back in 1955, I took a course in American History at Penn. The instructor was a TA from Texas. I don't recall his take on the Civil War per se, but one claim he made has stuck with me all these years, namely that slavery would have collapsed as economically unviable withing 50 years. Is there any chance this was true? I don't see how slavery could have been uneconomic.

(V) & (Z) answer: This is an element of the Lost Cause interpretation; slavery wasn't really a great long term investment, and maybe was never profitable at all, but the plantation owners didn't care because they were mostly in it to help civilize the lesser people of African descent.

Most of this is nonsense, but the long-term prospects portion might be justifiable; it's hard to be sure. The general experience of the American South was that they needed to constantly expand the territory that was worked by slave labor. In part, this was to keep their political power (particularly their representation in the Senate) on par with the North. In part, it was because cotton tended to exhaust the soil, meaning that slave-based agricultural production was always pushing westward.

In a world where the Civil War never happens, slavery may have died a natural death within decades or generations. On the other hand, maybe the South would have found a way to add further slave states to the nation (Oklahoma? Arizona? Cuba?). Or, maybe the slave states would have reinvented their economy to feature some other product where slave labor made sense. After all, if you transported a Southern plantation owner from 1730 forward to 1830, they would have said "What the hell is going on with all this cotton, and where is the tobacco?"

M.U. in Seattle, WA, asks: Why is the Lost Cause called the Lost Cause? I can think a few different reasons for it but the name of it seems pretty ambiguous.

(V) & (Z) answer: Because a major purpose of the Lost Cause ideology was to help Southerners cope with the psychological and emotional trauma of being defeated. And so, they told themselves that they could never possibly have won the war, and that it was heroic and impressive that they tried anyhow, and that they hung on for as long as they did. The descriptor "Lost Cause" was first used in 1866 and, because it fit this mindset so well, it quickly achieved wide currency.

J.K. in Haarlem, The Netherlands, asks: You describe Donald Trump as "Dear Leader" because Republicans believe him to be above Jesus and because he claims to be a martyr for his constituents in the different criminal cases. Are there any parallels to be drawn with the devoted followers of William Jennings Bryan (never mind the different policy positions between him and Trump)?

(V) & (Z) answer: Did William Jennings Bryan's followers love him dearly? Yes. Did they think he understood them the way no other politician did? Yes. These things were also true of other populist politicians, most obviously Huey Long.

However, there is no evidence that WJB's followers, when asked to choose between him and their long-held religious beliefs, went with him. There is certainly no evidence that WJB's followers trusted him more than they trusted their friends, family and/or religious leaders. So, while he presumed to be an avatar of Jesus Christ (see "The Cross of Gold" speech), he was no Dear Leader.

J.T. in Orlando, FL, asks: You referred to "the sham impeachment of Bill Clinton..." I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your characterization, but I would love to hear your explanation for calling it a sham.

(V) & (Z) answer: Impeachment is intended as a drastic solution, one imposed when a person has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" that make them no longer fit to occupy the office to which they have been elected/appointed. Newt Gingrich, and the Republicans in Congress that he led, made clear at that time (and since) that they did not really believe Clinton was unfit for his office, and that they were merely looking for a way to undermine him politically.


B.S.M. in London, England, UK, asks: Why no link to the Susanna Gibson video? Asking for a friend.

(V) & (Z) answer: Beyond the fact that we don't want to get within 10 feet of that sort of slut-shaming behavior, there was an answer a few weeks ago in which we alluded to a law that seems strange but that was actually passed for a reason (in Arizona, you can't let your donkey sleep in your bathtub after 7:00 p.m.). The original example was supposed to be a Native American tribe that outlawed sex with albinos because the albinos would be left in camp on hunting days (can't handle the sun), and 9 months later there would be a bunch of albino babies. (Z) searched Google for "illegal albino sex" in search of necessary details (like the specific tribe) and got back results that were... not what was expected. That search appears to still be affecting the ads (Z) sees on various websites. No need to give it more fuel.

C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: Given all of the important events unfolding with regards to Donald Trump's multiple trials I have just one question: If (Z) was offered the chance to run the Los Angeles Angels baseball team as General Manager, what steps would he take to improve the club's fortunes?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is nothing a GM can do, because the problem is an owner who gives out mega-contracts to shiny toys like Anthony Rendon, Albert Pujols, Gary Matthews Jr., Vernon Wells, etc., who are on the downside of their careers, and whose fat salaries that no longer match their production do not leave enough money for pitching. Until the team is sold, or the owner agrees to butt out, it's pretty much hopeless. Since 2010, the Angels have played in a grand total of three playoff games and have lost all of them. There's only one commonality over those 13 years, and it's Arte Moreno.

E.R. in Loomis, CA, asks: On Thursday, I read about the BoBo Beetlejuice incident and watched the video prior to reading your item about her Washington persona versus Colorado persona. I assumed that you were being discreet and not emphasizing her behavioral indiscretions at Beetlejuice. But after Friday's Schadenfreude item, it appears to have been a total coincidence and you did not know about Beetlejuice when writing item #1. True? Either way, it was a very entertaining (but ultimately embarrassing as an American) two days.

(V) & (Z) answer: Semi-true. As a result of the time difference between The Netherlands and the United States, items for Thursday are produced pretty early on the U.S. clock, while items for Friday are produced pretty late. In other words, instead of there being a roughly 24-hour gap between writings, it's closer to 36 hours. So, when item #1 was written, the Beetlejuice story was not yet big news. By the time (Z) read it over that evening, it WAS big news, but he also knew he'd be writing the Friday item, and so did not add anything to the Thursday item.

Meanwhile, Boebert surely thinks this is the worst thing that's ever happened to an American politician in a theater, and is entirely unaware of any other event that could possibly be in the running. Right?

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

(V) & (Z) ask: "Moo words" are those that have been distorted by one political party or the other (or both) to the point that they no longer have much meaning. What's the best example of a "moo word" in modern American politics?

And here some of the answers we got in response:

J.H. in Boston, MA: My pick for a moo word is "groomer." It used to mean to prepare someone to remain in an abusive relationship, especially a child. Now it means any political policy that touches children. Democrats are groomers because they promote normalizing sexual and gender identities which means the children might hear about it! Gasp!

First time I heard the word used this way was a year or two ago from, I think, a Ron DeSantis press secretary. Since then, it has exploded. I recently saw a liberal attempt at co-opting: "Republicans are groomers because they banned trans girls in school sports, which means they will have to inspect the genitals of all girl athletes to enforce their policy. The sicko pedophiles want to look at children's genitals!"

Thankfully, that angle didn't seem to gain much traction.

L.D. in Petaluma, CA: "RINO" and "moderate" immediately popped into my head. Honorable mention for "nationalist."

G.S. in Spokane, WA: Not a single word, but "the American people" is mercurially moo and often substitutes for "I" or "me."

S.D.R. in Raleigh, NC: The ultimate moo word has to be "socialism." When adding a new state is described as "full-bore socialism," as the Freezing Turtle did in 2019, it is clear that the word has no definition beyond "things I want people to reflexively oppose."

T.J.C. in St. Louis, MO: In the 1970's, I spent my elementary school years. I was, among others, the target of school bullies. Their preferred pejorative was "fa**ot." At the time I did not have an understanding of what sexuality was, let alone homosexuality (or that I would eventually grow up to be a well-adjusted, successful gay man). I'm pretty sure my 7-year-old bullies didn't know what one was either, only that it had a negative, demeaning connotation that they used like a hammer.

Now, 50 years later, we have the Republican Party reinventing the term "Bully Pulpit." Long gone are the days where you could have a discussion on the merits or flaws of a particular approach to governance. Today's Republican is too lazy to research or understand particular issues, let alone have a dialogue about them. Instead, they adopt the schoolyard bully approach and simply apply a word they have not bothered to learn the definition of. That word used to be "Liberal," but it has recently been crowded out by "Socialist." Healthcare? SOCIALISM! Election Reform? SOCIALSM! Back in the day, when I used to respond to conservative commenters, I would kick off the conversation with a request to define what they understood "socialism" to be. They were generally unable, and reacted as if I was legitimately questioning if the sky was blue. To them, the definition of "socialism" was obvious and unspoken.

Another example: I used to work in the northern suburbs of Boston, and many of my co-workers commuted from New Hampshire. One of them had moved there particularly for its libertarian lean. Barack Obama was President, and my co-worker would frequently decry every Democratic political stance as an evil of socialism. Then, at the end of the day, and without any irony, he would take liquor orders from the rest of us. On the way home he would be passing by one of New Hampshire's liquor stores. He was particularly proud that prices were considerably cheaper there because as a state-owned monopoly, they didn't charge any taxes.

P.F. in Las Vegas, NV: I'd say the best example of a "moo word" is "woke." Especially since one of the GOP's wannabe presidents decided long ago to constantly sound like a woken record.

S.P. in Harrisburg, PA: "Racism." The KKK undertook horrible, indefensible actions against Black citizens years ago based out of racism. In the Obama years, "racism" came to refer to disagreeing with the first Black president; and under Trump it meant wanting to secure our Southern border.

S.B. in Los Angeles, CA: "Infrastructure!" Even before TFG, this was losing its strength as an independent idea. After those four years it lost all meaning and is now a joke.

R.H. in London, England, UK: It might not be right for someone from the U.K. to opine on this, but then Great Britain hasn't ever stopped itself sticking its nose in so forgive me.

The obvious answer is "woke". It's happened here too, where Conservative Ministers repeatedly invoke "The Woke Blob" as some kind of answer to why none of their policies work.

D.R. in Grayling, AK: I imagine more than 10,000 will suggest: "woke." To that I would add the following:

P.C. in Yandina Creek, QLD, Australia: Clear favorite: "patriot." Sedition is hardly patriotic. Suspension of or wilfully ignoring the constitution or election results (when it suits you to do so) is the antithesis of patriotism.

M.M. in San Diego, CA: I'm not sure I have this assignment right, but here goes: If one political party insists upon calling people who hate the government and who want to either undermine or overthrow it "patriots," does that qualify it as a moo word? In the same vein, does calling a liberal western democracy "tyrannical" make "tyranny" a moo word?

G.L. in Memphis, TN: My word: "radical." Spouse's word: "patriot."

R.M. in Chicago, IL: "Thoughts and prayers."

B.C. in Phoenix, AZ: Oh, hands down, the biggest, most important political "moo word" today is "compromise."

Republican definition: "I get everything I want and you get diddly-squat."

Democratic definition: "You get almost all of what you want, and what little I get of what I want you get to use as a campaign issue."

Here is the question for next week:

J.K. in Silverdale, WA, asks: I am playing campaign manager for my friend's school board campaign. My friend, who is rational, supportive of all students, and against book bans, was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board and is running to keep the seat. This is for a relatively small district, and our campaign is a very small operation, as in three main people, including the candidate. So far, it has gone swimmingly. My candidate won almost 70% of the vote in a four-way primary.

Here's our current dilemma: My candidate has been invited to a forum hosted by our local Moms for Liberty chapter. Our district has an approximately 60/40 liberal/conservative split, and, as is the case across the country, out local M4L chapter is quite vocal at board meetings. There are pros and cons to attending the forum. My candidate has sincere concerns about legitimizing M4L. On the other hand, these people are constituents, and this would be an opportunity to provide a counter-narrative from outside their bubble.

I attribute much of our campaign's success so far to the political education I have received from this site. Hence, I thought I should reach out to the esteemed (V) & (Z) and this readership for advice. What say you, Should my candidate attend the forum? Why do you say so?

Submit your answers here!

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