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Saturday Q&A

This was a news-heavy week, which means the current events section is pretty hefty.

Also, if you're still puzzling through the theme that connects yesterday's songs, we will tell you that it's much easier to figure it out if you have a fever... or if you're impersonating Bruce Dickinson. Yes, THE Bruce Dickinson.

Current Events

C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: Will Senate Democrats have any trouble seating Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) replacement on the Judiciary Committee?

(V) & (Z) answer: Unlikely, but not impossible.

In order to replace Feinstein, the Senate will need to pass a new organizing resolution. This is normally a pro forma matter, and is typically done by unanimous assent.

Senate Republicans might be tempted to try and tie up the Judiciary Committee, and thus the Biden administration's ability to appoint judges, by trying to keep the seat vacant. If Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) & Co. attempt it, they would need buy-in from the entire Republican conference (or very close to it). They would also need buy-in from Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) or Joe Manchin (D-WV), since the first move that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would make if the Republicans tried to filibuster the new organizing resolution would be to try to nuke the filibuster for organizing resolutions. If Sinema and Manchin, who claim to be institutionalists, both side with the 48 other Democrats and independents, then the rule would change by a vote of 50-49, organizing resolutions would no longer be filibusterable, and the organizing resolution seating Feinstein's replacement would pass. Obviously, the Democrats could also get to 50 votes if someone like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) decided to cross the aisle. That is why McConnell would need his entire conference plus at least one of the two semi-Democrats (or his conference minus one, plus both of the two semi-Democrats).

Should the Republicans decide to try this, and should they manage to keep their entire conference on board, and should they get the vote of Sinema or Manchin, then the GOP would be launching a frontal attack on one of the fundamental elements of normal operation of the Senate—the right of the majority to run the chamber. The next time the GOP had the majority, the Democrats would filibuster their organizing resolution. If the GOP changed the rules so that organizing resolutions cannot be filibustered, then the next time the Democrats ran the show, they would impose an organizing resolution that would make Republicans' blood boil. Think "we choose all your committee assignments." Or maybe "no committee assignments for Republicans at all."

It is true that McConnell went against tradition and precedent with Merrick Garland. However, Supreme Court seats come open irregularly, and the Democrats' opportunity for payback may not come for decades or generations. By contrast, the Senate has to be organized every 2 years. Payback opportunities would be frequent.

It is also true that McConnell and the Republicans refused to allow a temporary replacement for Feinstein. However, that was effectively the Democrats asking for a favor, since there is no provision in the rules for substitutes like that. By contrast, blocking a permanent replacement for a deceased senator would be going against 200+ years of normal Senate operation.

D.G. in Fairfax, VA, asks: Is Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) restricted to appointing a resident of California to replace Dianne Feinstein? Could he choose Del. Eleanor Norton (D-DC, and also a black woman) as some kind of political stunt to help bring attention to her cause (lack of D.C. representation).

(V) & (Z) answer: One of the three requirements laid out in the Constitution for U.S. senators is that they have to be a resident of the state they represent. There are some states where one can establish residency very quickly, sometimes in a week or less. California is not one of those; it takes 366 days living in the Golden State to become a resident. So, Norton is off the board.

R.W. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: You wrote that of the four spending bills brought up in the House on Thursday evening, one was shot down because it had anti-choice language in it. The other three narrowly passed but, according to you, have no real chance of passing in the Senate. I'm wondering what it was about those three bills that you believe dooms them.

(V) & (Z) answer: The defense bill is DOA because the House-passed version removed all military funding for Ukraine, the State Department and Foreign Operations bill is DOA because the House-passed version removed all domestic aid for Ukraine, and the DHS bill is DOA because it has a whole bunch of stuff about restricting abortions and transgender care.

D.R. in Hillsboro, VA, asks: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said that the gold bullion found in his house was there because he didn't trust the government and the banks.

How common is it for people in the U.S. to have gold in their home(s)? Obviously, it is fairly common in the form of jewelry, or collectable (old) coins (nor let us not forget teeth, toilets, and chandeliers). Perhaps it is also somewhat common to have it in the form of investment grade coins, but those are more likely to be in a safe deposit box at a bank. In what form was the gold found at Casa Menendez? Bricks or ingots?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is not easy to know, because people are not required to regularly report on privately held assets. There are many, many analyses out there, which put the figure anywhere between "40% of Americans" and "10% of Americans." However, many of the people compiling these reports have ulterior motives, like normalizing and promoting investment in gold. So, it's hard to assess who has the right of it.

Also complicating things is that there are different ways to own gold. A person can have physical gold at home in the form of bars, coins, or even dust. A person can keep gold in a safe deposit box. A person can invest in a gold exchange-traded fund (ETF) or in gold futures. Oh, and generally, valuable items that have gold in them (like, say, gold-plated silverware) are not considered to be gold investments.

The Menendez gold was reportedly in the form of bars, some of them rather sizable (though we can find no information about the style of the bars, whether cast/ingots, or poured/bars). According to the indictment, the Senator even searched Google for "value 1 kilogram of gold" shortly before he was pinched. In case you are wondering, such a specimen is about the size of a Hershey bar and is currently worth around $60,000. And now we have plausible cover if the feds come by and start asking US uncomfortable questions about OUR search history.

H.B. in State College, PA, asks: So here's my burning question after reading your report about the gold bars that Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) had stashed in his home: Let's say I have acquired some gold bars (never mind how I came by them). How do I convert them into spendable funds, without raising lots of annoying questions about how I came to possess them? It seems to me that they are pretty worthless items, if they just sit hidden in my closet.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is not especially difficult to convert gold to cash. You can do it at assay shops, banks, or pawn shops. The Menendezes, for their part, apparently preferred jewelry shops. Generally, the fee is pretty nominal, since it's easy for the purchaser to turn the gold back into cash.

It is somewhat harder to cash out your gold and put the money in the bank without arousing suspicion. It's even harder still to do all that and avoid paying taxes.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Why would Republicans in Congress never go for net neutrality?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are multiple reasons many Republicans oppose net neutrality.

First, they oppose the federal government regulating anything. Their motto is: "Leave everything to the free market."

Second, net neutrality specifically hurts some big businesses, like AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile, and other Internet providers because then they can't blackmail content providers. Some Republicans want to protect these corporations' bottom lines. However, this is a mixed bag because some of the folks who would be extorted absent net neutrality are ALSO giant corporations, like Facebook and Disney. Still, in a food fight between Comcast on one side and Facebook and Disney on the other, Republicans will generally go with Comcast.

Third, without net neutrality, the Internet may evolve toward a system with first-class and second-class traffic, services, and customers. For many Republicans, creating an elite is a fine thing. Particularly if that elite includes Republican-friendly entities like Fox and Walmart.

Fourth, without net neutrality, some internet providers may abuse their power. Suppose Comcast decided to block or slow down Daily Kos, the Huffington Post, Mother Jones, or even CNN. Republicans can't count on it, but they can dream.

D.B. in Mountain View, CA, asks: In your item on the debate, you wrote, "whoever did the green-screening [should be fired]." Why does a presidential debate have a green screen?

(V) & (Z) answer: The debate was staged in the Air Force One pavilion of the Reagan Library. The upside to this is that it allowed sweeping shots of the debate stage, wherein you could see that the candidates were essentially underneath the nose of Air Force One. The downside to this is that the portion of the pavilion where the debate stage was located is in front of a giant, west-facing window. If there wasn't something blocking that window, then there would have been direct (setting) sun behind the candidates, not to mention any yahoos who decided to seize the opportunity to stand outside the museum and get on TV (think: The Today Show).

That said, we were mildly in error. On receiving your question, we went back and watched video of the pre-debate preparations. The background effects were actually created by a bunch of TVs arranged in sequence, not unlike what you would see at Times Square. Undoubtedly, the set designers wanted some color and some motion.

So, we amend our statement: "Whoever did the TV backdrop should be fired."

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: If Donald Trump's wildly inflated valuations of his properties when asking for loans and corresponding deflated valuations when talking to tax assessors were known before now, why has it taken this long to go after him? Note, although I do think he's guilty of it and it's likely that his presidential campaign brought this all to the forefront, I am still perplexed about what stopped prosecutors in the years before Trump was a candidate from pursuing this. Also, why isn't this a criminal fraud case? Isn't fraud a crime?

(V) & (Z) answer: Why now? It probably does have to do with him becoming president, but not (primarily) in the way you think (i.e. opportunistic prosecutors looking to boost their political fortunes). First, his becoming president shined a lot of light on his financial misdeeds. Prosecutors have limited resources, and they tend to go after those people who flout the law most egregiously. When Trump went from "relatively small-time operator whom everyone knows to be shady" to "most prominent citizen in the country," his flouting of the law became much more noticeable and thus much more egregious.

Second, Trump's presidency, and the actions he took as part of his political career, made him toxic in various ways that caused insiders to turn against him. For example, but for Trump being president, the sequence of events involving Michael Cohen (pay off the women, get busted for it, turn state's evidence) would not have come to pass. Now, Cohen is a key witness against Trump. Similarly, Mazars finally cut ties with Trump after the events of 1/6. They are also key witnesses now.

As to civil vs. criminal fraud, there are many reasons to pursue the former rather than the latter. Among the ones that were likely relevant in this case: (1) civil cases are easier to win; (2) in civil cases, the defendant can be compelled to testify (or be judged based on a refusal to testify); (3) in civil cases, the financial penalty can exceed a statutory fine and restitution; (4) a civil case can result in civil penalties like loss of license; (5) a civil case can include summary judgments, as has already happened here; (6) a civil case does not end if the defendant's life does.

H.S. in Lake Forest, CA, asks: The imminent financial peril Donald Trump faces due to the New York case has me wondering: How did he manage to come back from previous bankruptcy and financial peril back to billionaire (or at least billionaire-adjacent) status? Was it primarily through fraud and illegal activity? Could it happen again or could this case be the end to his status as a billionaire? In other words: No "TresCommas" in Trump's future? Could not happen to a more deserving guy.

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, Trump's four bankruptcies were not personal bankruptcies, they were corporate bankruptcies involving companies he owned in full or in part. So, if he goes personally bankrupt this time, it will be a new low for him.

As to the broader question, his business career has largely had two phases. The first lasted from the 1960s to the mid-1990s or so, and involved primarily real estate investment and development. However, Trump developed a reputation for going south on bank loans and for stiffing contractors, such that he eventually found it difficult to find people willing to work with him, and his finances went into decline. The recession of the early 1990s did not help, either.

The second phase commenced in the early 2000s, with the launch of The Apprentice. Trump managed to rebrand himself as the embodiment of a successful tycoon, and he managed to turn his name into a desirable brand. Not desirable with everyone, but desirable with many people. And so, his primary business in the decade or so before he became president was not real estate development, but licensing of his name. Everyone knows about the cheesy products that largely went nowhere (Trump steaks, Trump vodka, etc.), but the real money was in putting his name on other people's buildings and resorts.

If he gets kicked in the teeth in New York, we don't see how there could be a third act. First, he's getting kind of old to start again. Second, he's still a lousy business partner (so, no return to the real estate development game), and he's broadly toxic (so, no return to the licensing game).

B.K. in New York City, NY, asks: If Trump dies "tomorrow," to what extent are the cases against him over, or which cases are those which fall onto his estate (meaning his children will have to pay penalties)?

(V) & (Z) answer: If Trump dies, the criminal cases against him all go away, as the United States does not conduct postmortem trials. This is also true if he's convicted, then appeals, then dies. In that case, he would die an innocent man, since his case(s) would not have reached final disposition. His death would not get his co-defendants off the hook, though.

The civil cases, by contrast, would continue. We don't know exactly how they are filed, but the "defendants" might include corporations of which he is the sole owner. If so, the corporation remains as a defendant, with either the new owner (presumably his kids) or a trustee doing what needs to be done for trial purposes. His sons (and co-defendants), obviously, will be just as much on the hook whether or not dad dies. And any action filed against Trump himself would be handled by the executor (or administrator, if he doesn't have a will) of his estate. For legal purposes, including civil court cases and the disposition of the estate, the executor/administrator effectively becomes the deceased person.

J.R. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: You have made several mentions of the Alabama legislature eliminating a majority-Black district during the 2020 redistricting process, and that this is what led to the lawsuit that will force them to accept a court-drawn map with two majority-Black districts. But since 2011, Alabama has had only one Democratic district, that of Rep. Terri Sewell (D, AL-7). Does this mean that from 2011 to 2021, there was a second district with a Black majority that consistently elected Republicans, or am I misinterpreting?

(V) & (Z) answer: No, you are correct.

The closest thing that Alabama had/has to a second majority-Black district is AL-02 which, not coincidentally, includes the city of Montgomery. What happened was that the overall population of the state remained basically the same, but became less white (68% to 64%) and more Black (28% to 32%) between 2010 and 2020. Nonetheless, when the maps were redrawn after the 2020 census, AL-02 became less Black. If it had stayed relatively the same, or had become a little more Black, then that would have been within reason. But for the district to become less Black can really only be explained as a conscious effort to dilute Black political power. So, several court cases were filed, and they were consolidated into Allen v. Milligan. And what the Supreme Court effectively said, in line with the Voting Rights Act: "You tried to cheat and make a district that should be 38% Black into one that's 31% Black? Fine, your punishment is that now you have to make it 50.1% Black."

D.S. in Singapore, asks: With all the talk and discussion about gerrymandering (Alabama, Wisconsin, South Carolina, New York, etc.), if the Supreme Court ended political gerrymandering, how many seats would one party (I assume the Democrats) again?

(V) & (Z) answer: Not as many as you might think. If we're talking 10 years ago, Republicans were much more assertive gerrymanderers than Democrats were. And so, an end to gerrymandering back then would have given the blue team something like 20 seats.

But these days, several of the big blue states have become skilled, computer-backed gerrymanderers (looking at you, Maryland), while a couple of the big red states (e.g., Texas) have favored a smaller number of safe districts over a larger number of Republican-majority-but-could-flip-in-a-wave districts. So, an end to political gerrymandering, if it came tomorrow, would probably hand the Democrats around 5 seats (while also prohibiting a couple of states, like Ohio and North Carolina, from stealing more seats for the GOP). Obviously, 5 seats is not 20, though it's pretty consequential in a House that is so evenly divided.

P.B. in Chicago, IL, asks: I have been wondering if there is something behind this whole Senate dress code dustup. I know it was an unwritten rule, but why did Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) feel the need to really go off the deep end with flip-flops and shorts? I like him a lot, but even I think a more business casual approach would be OK, but not what he was wearing. Certain jobs just require a higher level of dress. A lawyer would not walk into a courtroom dressed like he was.

(V) & (Z) answer: Fetterman wore more formal dress when it was necessary, but also tried to avoid that as much as possible, most obviously by casting votes from the Senate cloakroom or hallway as opposed to the Senate floor. It was actually that habit that caused Chuck Schumer to relax the rules—if Fetterman is going to work around the dress code anyway (which, by the way, he still could do), then what's the difference if he stands 6 feet closer to the Senate dais while doing it?

The new rules were primarily the work of septugenarian men who have some very strong ideas about proper behavior and proper attire, and who do not seem to believe that someone who has managed to get themselves elected a U.S. Senator probably knows what's best for themselves. And before you decide our disdain is misguided, recall that it was this same type of Senator who was behind rules that forbade women members from wearing slacks on the floor of the Senate (until 1993), or from wearing clothes that showed their shoulders (until 2019).

As to Fetterman, we know one reason he made the choices he did, and we have a pretty good guess as to at least two more. The one that is certain is that he had some serious depressive issues, got treatment, and the more informal clothes make him feel more comfortable around people. There is little disputing this; numerous colleagues have noted the change in personality since he returned to work and started attending meetings in casual wear.

As to our guesses, Fetterman is very tall (6'8") and has a big frame. It is very difficult for big and tall men to get suits that fit well and comfortably, particularly if their weight changes somewhat regularly. Lyndon Johnson, for example, was 4 inches shorter than Fetterman and probably 40 pounds lighter, and he was always on the lookout for comfortable work attire.

In addition, "man of the people" and "rebelling against the rules" are kind of Fetterman's brand. His colleagues might not like to see him thumbing his nose at the status quo, but we bet it sit pretty well with many of the Senator's constituents.

J.R. and C.R. in Malden, MA, asks: It's clear from your previous comments that it's politically unrealistic to expect that Clarence Thomas will be impeached or resign. But could he be disbarred? Some of his conduct might justify that. This wouldn't automatically remove him from the court, and it would have to be an action taken at the level of the state he is licensed in. However if could be done it would be a at least a major embarrassment and a powerful statement.

(V) & (Z) answer: He is a member in good standing in the state where he took and passed the bar, so it's certainly possible. However, that state is red Missouri, so don't hold your breath waiting for the Missourians to find a way to express their disapproval of the Justice.


O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: I read a recent article in The New York Times that scared the crap out of me. It discussed various issues that pollsters point out that could hurt (or damn) Biden in 2024, and one of the main issues was the third party candidacy of Cornel West and a potential No Labels candidate. No Labels' motivation is quite transparent—they want to take moderate votes away from Biden. But what is West thinking? I cannot believe that he would want to throw the election to Donald Trump just to prove some sort of point (whatever that may be). Is this just blackmail, hoping to obtain some sort of concessions from the Democrats and then he will drop out, or is he seriously running? What's going on here and do you agree that he could cause Trump to win?

(V) & (Z) answer: We are going to start by noting that the thought of a second Trump presidency is disconcerting to many, many people. However, as we've written before, and as we'll write again, it's far too early to concern oneself with the million things that could go wrong for the Democrats. There's too much time, and too many X factors to be confident about anything right now, and the worrying doesn't do any good, anyhow. Wait until that worry can be channeled into something useful, like phone banking or door knocking.

As to West, some of these more extreme candidates (whether right or left) are mostly just trying to get some policy concessions out of the actual nominee. This sometimes works. Think Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in 2016 and the minimum wage, particularly once he fell too far behind Clinton to catch up.

Others of the more extreme candidates are trying (or at least say they're trying) to "send a message" to one party or the other that the party needs to start nominating more liberal candidates (or more conservative candidates) if they want the votes of those candidates' supporters. We cannot think of a single time since the Civil War that things have worked out this way. People who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 or Jill Stein in 2016 did not cause the Democrats to nominate a card-carrying communist for the next election. People who voted for Strom Thurmond in 1952 or George Wallace in 1968 did not cause the Republicans to nominate a Grand Wizard of the KKK for the next election.

We would guess West is more in the second group. He has always been someone who loves attention and who loves stirring the pot, so we suspect he's not likely to drop out in the name of the greater good. He might drop out if there isn't enough money to keep his campaign afloat, however.

R.W. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: Regarding the results of the two Washington Post/ABC polls, both outliers: You note that something appears to be wrong with the polling outfit's secret sauce, and I completely agree. But what? I looked at their methodology, but they don't provide enough detail to evaluate it properly. For instance, Republican-leaning respondents were heavily overrepresented. The pollsters supposedly corrected for this by weighting the responses, but they don't say how they did that. My guess is that is where the problem lies. What's your take?

(V) & (Z) answer: Because the sauce is secret, we just don't know. As you note, all pollsters have some model of how many Democrats they think will vote and how many Republicans they think will vote. Also how many old people and how many young people. And how many rich people and how many poor people. White people and Black people. Along with 20 other factors. They weight their sample to force it to conform to their model of the electorate. If that model is off, obviously, the results will be off.

And the models are constantly changing as a result of the polling itself. For example, if a pollster originally thought that 35% of the electorate were Republicans, but six of their own polls in a row showed only 30% Republicans in the sample, they might change their model to include only 30% Republicans in the expected electorate. Some pollsters may already be factoring in who is likely to vote based on past voting history or other factors. This is clearly a tricky business this early.

Also—and if you insisted that we hazard a guess, this is where we would put our money—a problem that all pollsters had in 2016 and 2020 is what to do about "shy" Trump voters who hang up the phone when a pollster calls. Are pollsters correcting for this already? How? Could they be overcorrecting? Very possibly.

Finally, it is well known that the order of the questions and the exact wording is important. For example:

Q1: Do you think Donald Trump is guilty of one or more of the crimes?
Q2: Who are you going to vote for in the race for president?
Q1: Who are you going to vote for in the race for president?
Q2: Do you think Donald Trump is guilty of one or more of the crimes?

Will get very different results because the first version reminds the respondent of the indictments. Other small details can matter. But as a general rule, when 80-90% of reliable pollsters get one result and 10-20% get a different one, the 10-20% are doing something that biased the result, even if they are trying to be completely fair.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Do you think RFK, Jr., could be a problem for the Democrats? Is it possible that his family could have him committed to a mental hospital, as he seems to be clearly insane?

(V) & (Z) answer: He's out there, but the bar for involuntary commission is very, very high.

While we acknowledge that there are likely to be some very, very close states in 2020, and that these third-party/fringe candidates could affect the results in those places, we think it's far too early to conclude that the Democrats will be hurt more than the Republicans. First, people often say they are going to vote third-party, particularly this early in the cycle, but then don't go through with it.

Second, many of the people who do vote for these "message" candidates are absolutely going to vote for SOME "message" candidate, and so the identity of that person doesn't really matter. If RFK Jr. drops out, then it will be Cornel West. If Cornel West drops out, it will be Jo Jorgensen. If Jo Jorgensen doesn't run, it will be someone else.

Third, and finally, it seems apparent to us that there are a lot of Republicans who really don't want to vote for Trump, but who simply cannot bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. For example, former AG Bill Barr, or Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA). We're not so sure that the fringy candidates won't be a valve for people like that, who are otherwise going to grit their teeth and vote Trump, more than for people who are planning to grit their teeth and vote Biden.

W.W. in Washington County, OR, asks: I'd heard that Dennis Kucinich was now serving as campaign manager for RFK, Jr., and wondered why on earth he'd do that. Does he really need the money? A quick look at his Wikipedia entry suggests that he went off the rails earlier, as he evidently spoke in defense Donald Trump and Michael Flynn in 2017.

Sigh... He seemed thoughtful, if a bit idealistic, back in 2007 and 2008.

I think I've answered my own question, but perhaps you might find this of modest interest.

(V) & (Z) answer: Ultra-fringy politicians, both on the left and the right, are often "burn down the house" types. They think the system is hopelessly broken, and they gravitate toward candidates who seem to agree, and who say they will completely reinvent the American political system. Kucinich has long struck us as a "burn down the house" type.

This is also why some meaningful number of Bernie Sanders supporters, once the Senator had dropped out of the race, gravitated to Donald Trump. Sanders is not a "burn down the house" radical, but some of his voters were. And once The Bern was no longer burning, Trump was far and away the most "burn down the house" candidate left.

R.M. in Pensacola, FL, asks: Can you explain what's up with Bill Maher? He has seemed to drift to the right in recent years and outside of his standup bits, he is certainly leaning far to the right with the people he has on his show. This week, he didn't even have someone to the left side of the aisle among his guests.

Is it his massive wealth that he has accumulated? His age? Something else? What gives?

(V) & (Z) answer: Absolutely central to Maher's brand, and to his personal identity, is that he's an iconoclast who cannot be labeled. And so, he's embraced all sorts of different political identities over the years, from some flavor of libertarian to some flavor of progressive to many other options in between.

The truth of the matter is, he actually is something of an iconoclast, although some of his positions appear to be coming from a place of being deliberately rebellious and different, as opposed to from some deeply held belief. It is also the case that his outspoken nature and his worldview have led him to embrace some positions that are indistinguishable from right-wing positions, even far-right positions. For example, he's pretty much an Islamophobe. He's also radically opposed to political correctness, and so often rails against things like sensitivity about language choices.

There's also pretty good reason to believe that Maher has decided that highlighting his more right-wing views (which, again, are mostly genuine) is more marketable at the moment. First, ratings are higher for shows that are "in the opposition," and a Democrat is in the White House right now. Second, anyone on the political left who is going to watch Maher's program is pretty much already on board. However, Fox's Greg Gutfeld has shown that right-wing snark is potentially an untapped opportunity to grow audience share.

The Nation actually had a pretty good piece on this subject, not too long ago, if you are interested.

D.R. in Massapequa Park, NY, asks: I just finished watching Bill Maher's program, and he closed his show saying Joe Biden should seriously consider stepping aside in 2024 for someone younger. Earlier in the show, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) was on and they briefly touched on his upcoming debate with Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) at the end of November. Can you see a situation where Newsom does well in his debate and Biden either voluntarily (or forcefully) steps aside during the holiday season, allowing Newsom a clear path for the 2024 nomination?

(V) & (Z) answer: No, we cannot, unless Biden has severe health problems.

There is no power in America, with the possible exception of Jill Biden, that can force Biden to step aside. If he wants the nomination, and if he doesn't die or have a major health episode (or a criminal indictment, we suppose), the nomination is his.

It is highly improbable that either Biden, much less both of them, will reach the conclusion that Newsom is a vastly better option for the blue team. And we think their analysis would be on the mark. Incumbency is a powerful advantage, especially once Biden actually starts campaigning, which he seems to have begun in earnest this week. It is also no small thing that Biden is the only person who has defeated Donald Trump.

We will also point out that it is very, very rare for a presidential candidate to be a slam dunk on Election Day. It is even rarer for a presidential candidate to be a wire-to-wire slam dunk during an entire cycle. It's only happened maybe three or four times in the last century, and always with incumbents.

In other words, if Biden steps down, Democrats can stop worrying about the age and the stutter and the low approval ratings. However, there will be plenty of new things to worry about with the replacement candidate. Kamala Harris? Racism and abrasive personality. Gavin Newsom? Dislike for urban elites and slick persona. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI)? Sexism and moderate political positions.

There is no Democrat in the country who is a sure thing to beat Donald Trump (or any other Republican), other than maybe Michelle Obama. And she's not running. Whoever it is, Biden or some other Democrat, we won't truly have a firm grasp on their prospects until summer of next year... at the earliest.

J.W. in Pomona, CA, asks: How long has the Freedom Caucus been a significant bloc of Republicans, and how influential have they been in terms of bills and laws being passed?

(V) & (Z) answer: The Freedom Caucus itself was founded in 2015, but it was an outgrowth of the tea party movement, which started in 2009. And the tea party was born from the ashes of the Ron Paul presidential campaign, which commenced in 2007. So, you could say the FC has been around for 8 years or that it's been around for 16, and you really wouldn't be wrong either way.

The Freedom Caucus has not seen any of its ideas become law because their ideas are too extreme to get buy-in from a majority in both houses of Congress. They may have had a nominal effect in terms of pulling some GOP legislation, like the 2017 tax cut, slightly to the right. They have also managed to get some of their own, like Mark Meadows, appointed to key political positions. Oh, and they brought down one speaker (John Boehner), caused a second to decide it just wasn't worth it (Paul Ryan), and may soon bring an end to the tenure of a third (Kevin McCarthy).

J.R. in Heyworth, IL, asks: As we used to say back in Kentucky, I'm thoroughly "put out" with the antics of the so-called Freedom Caucus over the years. I'm wondering if the great Lyndon B. Johnson would've been able to handle them and, if so, what you think he would've done.

(V) & (Z) answer: If anyone could have done it, it's certainly him. His philosophy, expressed in his oh-so-earthy fashion, was that if you're going to work with someone, you need to "have their pecker in your pocket."

And so, he would have taken a carrot-and-stick approach to the FCers. Something along the lines of "You can have 20% of what you want, or I'll go over there and give those folks 20% of what they want instead, while reassigning you to office space somewhere in Maryland, and redirecting federal highway funds from your state to California and New York. So, whaddya say?"

S.G. in Manassas, VA, asks: In your rundown of shutdowns, you mentioned the Fairness Doctrine which required broadcasters to present both sides on controversial issues, and which you note was repealed in 1987. I'm wondering what you think the Trump Administration would have looked like if it were still in effect, both with and without the existence of Twitter. In particular, I'm wondering what the bogus claims of a stolen 2020 election would have looked like... or would P01135809 never have been elected in the first place?

(V) & (Z) answer: Even if the Fairness Doctrine was still in place, it probably wouldn't have mattered very much. It only ever applied to over-the-air broadcasts, which is what made it legal, since the government was managing a commodity to which it controls access (the electromagnetic spectrum), as opposed to arbitrarily infringing on free speech.

Consequently, Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media sties would not have been subject to the Fairness Doctrine. Nor would Fox, OAN, Newsmax and other cable stations. We very much doubt that the major broadcast networks had much influence over Trump voters. And so, the only truly Trumpy segment of the mediasphere that would have been affected by the Fairness Doctrine is right-wing talk radio. If you believe that Trump would not have won, but for Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Erick Erickson and their ilk, then the absence of the Fairness Doctrine saved Trump. For our part, we don't think the right-wing talkers had that much of an effect, especially since their audience overlaps so much with the audience of Fox and the other right-wing cable stations.


L.B. in Savannah, GA, asks: There is a remote possibility that interference with voting could sabotage some states' results, leading to the House of Representatives choosing the President. Since Republicans control more state delegations than Democrats, And Trump could win a second term this way. However, since the Senate would choose the vice president, we could potentially end up with a Trump-Harris administration.

Aside from the VP's constitutional authority to break ties in a divided Senate, is there anything else a Harris could do to undermine Trump? I'm thinking that she could cultivate people in Trump's inner circle or cabinet who could do all kinds of mischief, release confidential information at odds with Trump's public statements, issue conflicting instructions to federal agencies, along with building relationships with foreign leaders independently from the president. We've grown accustomed to the president and vice president at least being on the same page, so having them at odds with each other would definitely make it more difficult for Trump to carry out his agenda. Of course, Trump would do his best to prevent Harris from having access to anything important.

How do you see this playing out?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is supremely unlikely, of course. But if it did happen, the Trump administration would give Harris zero responsibilities, and would tell her absolutely nothing. She clearly knows a few things about "office politics," but Trump would surround himself with the sort of people who have no interest in being cultivated by Harris. Reporters would have (and have had) better luck at squeezing information out of unhappy members of the administration.

That means that Harris' only real option would be to serve as a high-profile thorn in Trump's side, going on any talk show or public affairs show that will have her so that she can talk about what a boob he is. Alternatively, she could return to California and try to convince the state to rebel against the Trump administration. That's what John C. Calhoun did when he decided he was not pleased with the policies of the Andrew Jackson administration.

J.K. in Bergen, Norway, asks: I just read your note that "conspiracy to commit uttering and publishing" is a crime in Michigan. It gave me a good laugh, but was it meant as a joke? I'm asking because on the one hand this sounds pretty much like (V)'s and (Z)'s job description, but on the other hand U.S. states are known to have some, um, unusual laws. So what's going on here? Oh, and am I a co-conspirator now?

(V) & (Z) answer: It was a joke in the sense that we were having a little bit of run in response to a peculiarity of the English language. But the Michigan law is real and is entirely reasonable. "Uttering" broadly means "to issue." And over time, it's acquired two rather distinct meanings. The first of those, which is the more familiar one, is "saying" or "verbalizing."

The other meaning is actually older, but is largely only used in the legal domain. It is "to produce a document with intent to defraud." In other words, "uttering" is close to being a synonym for "forging." Not all states use this particular term, since it's a little old-fashioned, but Michigan does.


C.T. in Cape Coral, FL, asks: It seems there are a lot of living former presidents and vice presidents at the moment. Are there now the most the U.S. has ever had?

(V) & (Z) answer: Not quite, but close.

There have been five occasions in U.S. history where there have been six living presidents at one time; we have been in the midst of one of those since the inauguration of Joe Biden. The first such period happened in the early 1860s, from the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln to the death of John Tyler less than a year later. All the other six-president eras are recent; there was a roughly yearlong one in the 1990s from the inauguration of Bill Clinton to the death of Richard Nixon, there was a 3+ year one in the early 2000s from the inauguration of George W. Bush to the death of Ronald Reagan, and there was a nearly 2-year one in the late 2010s from the inauguration of Donald Trump to the death of George H.W. Bush.

The record for living VPs is seven, which has happened three times. The first runs concurrent with six-president era #2 (inauguration of Clinton and Al Gore to death of Nixon). The second ran concurrent with six-president era #4 (inauguration of Trump and Mike Pence to death of Bush). The third commenced with the inauguration of Biden and Kamala Harris and ended with the death of Walter Mondale on Apr. 19, 2021.

In other words, there have been three different occasions where a six-president era overlapped with a seven-VP era, making the combined record 13. However, we exited the last of those a couple of years ago, and are now back to 12. That's six presidents, namely Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, to go with six vice presidents, namely Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. Not to be grim, but 13 doesn't figure to happen again too soon, since the odds are that the next election either adds zero or one new name to the list, while Carter is in hospice care right now.

P.M. in Reading, England, UK, asks: You wrote that the Mafia got a shot in the arm from Prohibition. Is there any truth to the story that the U.S. Army used the Mafia to prepare for the invasion of Sicily, or is that a story spread by the Godfather movies?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is absolutely true; it was called Operation Underworld.

The U.S. government's motivation here was that the Mafia had a vast international network, not to mention intimate knowledge of the topography of southern Italy, but had not been compromised by Axis agents. The main motivations of the mafiosi were: (1) Italian-American patriotism, (2) dislike of Benito Mussolini and the fascists; (3) reduction or elimination of prison sentences.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: I'm reading William Hitchcock's The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, recommended by (Z). Many thanks; I think it's excellent, and I also appreciated Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, recommended by a fellow reader. Hitchcock's chapter on Joe McCarthy's hearings sounds familiar. How would you compare the McCarthy episode to the current disaster in the House, or would you say the events are not comparable?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, Joe McCarthy and the Freedom Caucusers were/are all "show horses," primarily interested in promoting their own political prospects, even if it meant/means abusing their powers, and even if it meant/means hurting their colleagues and hurting the country.

That said, McCarthy was at least addressing a real problem, in that the U.S.S.R. actually was a threat to America and actually was trying to infiltrate American government and society. He just had no idea how to actually unmask real spies, and didn't much care to solve that problem. The FCers, by contrast, are living in a fantasy world, and are working on "problems" that have no apparent basis in reality (like Joe Biden's alleged gross corruption).

M.A.K. in London, England, UK, asks: You've often written that the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton were a mistake that backfired on the Republicans. I'm curious as to why you think this, given that in the next general election the Republicans won the presidency, kept the House, and were only denied a majority in the Senate by the defection of Jim Jeffords.

(V) & (Z) answer: Although Clinton was formally impeached in December of 1998, the movement in that direction began several months earlier, with the result being that the election in which Americans had a chance to register their views was actually the 1998 midterms. And in those midterms, the Republicans lost four seats in the House (the first time an incumbent president's party had gained seats in a midterm since 1934) while the Senate balance remained the same. Then, in the 2000 elections, the Democrats gained one seat in the House, four seats in the Senate, and lost the presidency under circumstances that were dubious at best. Meanwhile, the instigator of impeachment, Newt Gingrich (R), was run out of town on a rail by his own conference in early 1999.


J.F. in Ft. Worth, TX, asks: Do (V) or (Z) hold opinions in their respective areas of expertise that are at odds with the majority of their colleagues?

(V) & (Z) answer: (V) believes that security and reliability are the most important aspects of any computer system, even more important than performance or ease-of-use. For this reason, he is a strong believer in what is called a "microkernel," a tiny operating system that runs in protected ("kernel") mode on the bare hardware and which has access to the full machine. All the rest of the operating system should run as compartmentalized components running as user-mode programs, including the file system, all the device drivers, etc. User-mode programs don't have access to all of memory, all of the disk, critical machine instructions, etc. That way each component can be limited to only that power it needs. For example, the audio driver can then be given power to access the sound chip, but not write on the disk. If it is hacked, the hacker can then make weird noises, but not steal data from the disk. (V) even wrote such a system, MINIX, which was the platform and inspiration Linus Torvalds used to create Linux.

Inside every Windows computer is a special Intel chip called the management engine that runs MINIX, something (V) didn't even know about until he saw it in the press. Intel is a multibillion-dollar company and could have bought any operating system it wanted or written its own but chose MINIX, presumably for the above reasons.

MINIX has about 15,000 lines of C that run in protected mode on the bare metal. Linux has about 30 million lines of C down there. Windows has over 100 million lines of mostly C, with a bit of C++ and C#. Studies have shown there is typically one bug per 1,000 lines of code. The more code running in the kernel, the more bugs (and thus security vulnerabilities) there will be in the most critical place. Also, due to the modular microkernel design, MINIX can automatically recover from some errors in its own code, potentially improving reliability.

Most of (V)'s academic colleagues think performance is the be-all-and-end-all and thus don't like microkernels because they are somewhat slower than traditional operating systems like Windows, Linux, and MacOS that run the complete operating system in kernel mode. To them, security and reliability are nice features to have if they are "free," but not if they cost some performance.

As to (Z), his disagreements in terms of scholarship are sort of inside baseball. For example, he believes that there are actually two Southern interpretations of the Civil War, the well-known "Lost Cause" and what (Z) calls the "White Supremacist Cause." He looks at a movie like Gone With the Wind and then a movie like The Birth of a Nation and thinks they have very different ideas about history. However, most other historians consider them both to be Lost Cause movies.

Also, it's not his area of expertise, per se, but (Z) has taught history of religions. And he could never get a decent answer from the actual experts as to why there is a bright red line between religions considered to be polytheistic and Christianity, which is invariably described as monotheistic. Christian saints and archangels seem to have a very similar role as lesser gods and other supernatural beings in, say, Buddhism or the religion of the ancient Greeks.

Where (Z) is much more obviously a heretic is not in scholarship but in teaching. He doesn't believe in using a textbook, doesn't believe in using notes to lecture, doesn't like to be called by a title, plays music at the start of every class, assigns some unorthodox readings and essay assignments, has vastly more discussion in class than is typical for lectures, and doesn't insist (or really even care) that students memorize specific dates. There are many colleagues who look askance at some, many, or all of these things. Many of these colleagues are the same people who wonder openly why things have changed, and why students don't take multiple courses with the same professors anymore (Hint: Things have not changed, and students most certainly do take multiple courses with professors... at least, some of them).

J.R. in Ottawa, ON, Canada, asks: I was wondering what your views are about a Canadian who has graduated from USC. Would these two things cancel each other out?

(V) & (Z) answer: You don't want to inhale bleach. And you don't want to inhale ammonia. But if you mix the two together, you get something far more nefarious, namely chloramine. You definitely don't want to inhale that, because it's toxic.

We think the same principle applies to the scenario you describe.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: Is there an alternative to RealClearPolitics? It's gone from a simple news aggregator to one that aggregates mostly right-wing media and/or right-wing articles from the token conservatives The New York Times and The Washington Post have on staff.

And here some of the answers we got in response:

T.S. in Mansfield, OH: First, thanks for linking to Taegan Goddard's Political Wire. I have not regretted making it a part of my daily routine, along with

As to other aggregators, how about the politics tab? As a bonus, the descriptions of the linked article often have a snarky summary (e.g., from 09/23: "Third GOP Presidential debate scheduled for November 8th in Miami where candidates must poll at least 3% to qualify. Any higher, and it'd be an empty stage.").

P.M. in Palm Springs, CA: I agree that Taegan Goddard's Political Wire is the go-to source as a news aggregator. Taegan himself is obviously a liberal Democrat. You can tell that by the few items on the list that he writes himself, and his bio also reveals his past affiliations. However, his aggregations come from multiples sources, as progressive as Rolling Stone and Huffington Post, and as conservative as The Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner and The New York Post. I would add that like, many of his commenters are intelligent, informed and add significantly to the discussion. Because every item attracts many comments, not curated, there are always comments that are superfluous, ridiculous and contemptible, but they can be ignored. One more thing: If there is an ongoing event, like an election happening in real time, well-sourced commenters provide ongoing updates and results. Taegan will come in after a decision with his own analysis.

A.M. in Miami Beach, FL: I'm not sure I'd characterize them as "alternatives" to RealClearPolitics, but in addition to I personally check out daily both All Hat No Cattle and Wonkette.

Both are more snarky in their selection of articles and commentary, so neither are appropriate for the humor-impaired.

R.G. in Phoenix, AZ: My choice would be The site aggregates from a large number of news sources from the far left to the far right. Each article is labeled as to who is reporting on that story. The site offers a blindspot report that shows stories that are only, or mostly, being covered from organizations on the right or left. It also has a label as to the factuality of the news source.

The site does have a paid version, but the free version is really all I have ever needed.

G.K. in Mansfield Center, CT: I'm not sure this is what you mean by an aggregator, but I rely on Gabe Fleisher's e-mail newsletter Wake Up to Politics for clear, concise explanations of issues and developments. He foregrounds important contextual and historical information that is often not emphasized or even mentioned elsewhere. He's still an undergrad, but he does a better job than my newspaper, The New York Times, both in his reporting and his analysis. And his enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of lawmaking is infectious!

M.K. in Franklin, WI: I think Common Dreams fits the request, especially its Progressive Newswire channel, which includes news releases, etc., that don't make it into other aggregators.

J.C. in Conley, IL: While not a news aggregator, I have gone down the rabbit hole into another aggregator of sorts—every single e-mail that Trump & Co. sends out to their cult members. readers might find the site entertaining and/or horrifying. It's a complete record of every one-message-sent-per-waking-hour begging, pleading, threatening, harassing, and thoroughly emotionally manipulating everyone on their mailing list. While the site keeps all the formatting of the original e-mails, it does strip out all the grifting links to prevent any accident clicks.

M.C. in Austin, TX: * MemeOrandum is probably the best, and one of the oldest aggregators (founded in 2005). It's algorithmic, very fast to respond, and surfaces a lot of relevant commentary that others miss. It also provides a most-recent-news-first version and ranks its sources, which is a good list for a centrist/liberal audience, without excluding right wingers when they're relevant. Also, What The Fuck Just Happened Today? is hand-curated and intended for people who get depressed by the news but want to feel informed. It started in the Trump era, and is a good complement to I like that they have a "Last Year today" and a "3/5/6 Years today" features to remind us how much worse it could be.

K.S. in Harrisburg, PA: Daily Kos. Blatantly left wing, but rarely wrong. Also the best source I've found for Ukraine war info, often several days ahead of mainstream media.

J.C. in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: My favorite news aggregator is still the original one, the one I used to subscribe to long before the web existed, back in the 80s, the most unbiased magazine in the world because it includes all the biases, World Press Review. They reprint articles from around the world and focus on stories not covered by most American press, but unfortunately they don't publish current articles as much as they used to. A current sampling of their top articles are on local election officials and mayors in the most populous American counties, a young couple who died in the Ukrainian trenches together, an Iranian footballer scheduled for execution, Why do so Many Elderly Run America, and torture of Aghani women.

M.M. in Alexandria, MN: The Bulwark!

L.S.-H. in Naarden, The Netherlands: I use as my political news aggregator. Saves going down a lot of rabbit holes and, if something especially piques my interest, I can always follow a link or highlight/select a term or phrase to immediately look up online for more info.

Here is the question for next week:

L.E. in Putnam County, NY, asks: While "dogcatcher" is generally the proverbial mock example, what is the actual lowest-ranked office on your local ballot?

In my township, it's been Superintendent of Highways since the 1950s. Before we stopped having one-room schoolhouses it was Director of Schools, and before that, until we got a professional police department, it was Constable (there were several). Going back to the 19th century, it was Pathmaster (person who took responsibility for maintaining a few dirt roads; there were many Pathmasters throughout the town).

Submit your answers here!

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