Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Saturday Q&A

The subject of the week? The Alabama IVF decision, though readers' interest in that subject will be reflected more in tomorrow's mailbag than in today's Q&A.

And for those still puzzling over yesterday's headline theme, well, maybe your life isn't surreal enough.

Current Events

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, asks: So, if embryos are legally people, does that mean embryos should be counted in the next census? Should this include embryos currently inside women plus frozen embryos? And if so, could a state freeze a few million embryos and use them to increase its representation in the U.S. House of Representatives?

It would be fascinating to follow this logic all the way through.

(V) & (Z) answer: The Alabama Supreme Court either did not think through the implications of its decision, or else just did not care. See the mailbag tomorrow for some more e-mails about the consequences of this decision, taken to extremes (but extremes that are not at all unrealistic).

W.S. in Austin, TX, asks: If the GOP is unable to force its extreme positions on reproductive rights onto blue states, are red states likely to be unable to retain or attract highly skilled, well-educated workers?

(V) & (Z) answer: That is already happening. Some people don't have a choice but to go where their job or industry is. If you get hired as a Walmart executive, you're moving to Arkansas. If you get cast in a Tyler Perry TV show, you're moving to Georgia. But those who do have a choice, including college professors and students, physicians and nurses, engineers, computer scientists, etc., are already choosing blue states over red, even if that means leaving the red state where they grew up and have been their whole lives. Brain drain is real.

E.S. in Arlington, MA, asks: You wrote that "the red states flirt with the idea of civil war far too often, and with far more seriousness, than is healthy for the country," but a few days earlier wrote that should Trump declare himself dictator, "California, Oregon and Washington alone will give him more resistance than he can handle." You have also written (I can't find it right now) that if the feds enacted a national abortion ban, California would undoubtedly refuse to enforce it.

So which is it? If the federal government takes action that is deeply morally repugnant to a state, is it proper or not to refuse to observe the Supremacy Clause (which is what Utah was proposing—not civil war)? And as difficult as it is to do so, we have to look at this question assuming that Texas sees border security as an existential threat, just as California might see a Trump dictatorship or a national abortion ban. No fair saying our issues are more important than theirs, so we get to do it and they don't.

A corollary question: What makes you think that California or any other blue state would consider violating the Supremacy Clause? Personally, I wish they would, and I know there are always radical activists who say all kinds of things, but I have never even heard of a Democratic state assembly member, much less a state senator or state-wide official, say that it is time to ignore federal laws or policies. The one exception to this is marijuana decriminalization, and I think that states have gotten away with that just because the feds really don't care about it anymore. That would not be the case with a national abortion ban, or the imposition of a Trump dictatorship.

(V) & (Z) answer: You are describing three different circumstances here. To start, it is a feature (and a bug) of the American system that states often push back against specific policies they don't like, particularly if those policies have been implemented by Supreme Court fiat. There is no need for California politicians to declare, right now, that they simply won't abide by a national ban on abortion. But you can bet that is what will happen should a national ban come to pass. That said, it may be accomplished in a way that follows the letter of the law, but that totally abrogates its spirit. For example, one could imagine Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) securing funding for a fleet of "reproductive freedom" boats that position themselves 12 nautical miles off the coasts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, etc., with free ferry service provided by state-run boats.

By contrast, Utah preemptively declared its right to disregard ANY federal policy that its legislature doesn't like. While they were only saying it for show, presumably, that represents a fundamental challenge to federal authority and to the Constitution. And it is also the exact same as the challenge to federal authority and the Constitution that ultimately served as the first step towards the Civil War.

Finally, if Trump declares himself dictator, then the Constitution is by definition in abeyance. California, Oregon, Washington, et al., have no responsibility in that situation to honor constitutional norms.

R.B. in Cleveland, OH, asks: You called out the hypocrisy of Nikki Haley over the IVF debacle in Alabama, but I'm confused by the actions of the couples that first filed the wrongful death lawsuit. I can understand their heartbreak over the accident that destroyed their embryos, but couldn't they have still sued for damages outside the scope of wrongful death? Surely this outcome was predictable, so why pursue something that would completely upend IVF, especially since they clearly aren't opponents of IVF?

(V) & (Z) answer: Information on the couples is somewhat scarce. However, from a financial standpoint, they will get far more money if their "children" were killed than if their test tube contents were accidentally destroyed. And from a legal standpoint, it is almost always the case that the plaintiffs in these cases are merely people with standing to sue who are being utilized by large and well-funded activist groups. It could be that the plaintiffs are anti-choice and believed they were helping advance that cause, or it could be that they weren't told/did not think through the potential consequences for IVF.

G.K. in Cheyenne, WY, asks: I've been seeing a lot in the news about all of the money Donald Trump owes in fines from his fraud case and defamation case, but I was wondering what would happen if he simply refuses to pay any of it. Say he takes an approach of "I'm not going to pay a cent because it was rigged against me." What actions could the court take? Increase the fines (which he would still refuse to pay)? Seize his properties? Threaten to throw him in prison or throw him in prison?

(V) & (Z) answer: With defendants who don't have assets, or whose assets are hard to locate, this is a real problem. But Trump's assets, inasmuch as they are largely real estate, are right out there in the open. If he refused to pay, then the courts would simply seize and sell as much property as is needed to satisfy his obligations. And the courts would have no particular motivation to sell the properties he is most willing to sell, nor to hold out for the highest price. Oh, and while this process worked itself out, the interest on his judgment would be growing daily. So, he'd be a fool to engage in this particular sort of defiance.

A.L. in Osaka, Japan, asks: Could the Russians or the Saudis lend money to Trump?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is certainly possible. We are hardly experts in the laws governing international finance, so it's at least possible there is something on the books that prohibits a sovereign entity from entering into such an arrangement with a private citizen, particularly when that private citizen is a political candidate. But even if such a law exists, the Russians or Saudis could surely find a way around it. For example, they could enter into a partnership with Trump to build Trump Tower Moscow or Trump Tower Riyadh, and could advance him $500 million to "get the project started."

This is why former Trump fixer Michael Cohen quite rightly warned, last week, that Trump could be for sale to the highest bidder right now.

B.F. in Nine Mile Falls, WA, asks: Given the potential consequences of a Trump Presidency, is it likely that the Ukrainians will attempt to influence the American electorate through social media or other means?

(V) & (Z) answer: When we wrote about Volodymyr Zelenskyy potentially trying to influence this year's election through his public appearances, we thought about including a paragraph on potential Ukrainian cyber shenanigans. However, we could find no evidence the Ukrainians have such plans. It's not that it's beneath them, it's that they don't have the resources or the infrastructure, particularly as compared to the battle-hardened pros in Russia's FSB and GRU.

F.S. in Idaho Falls, ID, asks: I wasn't sure if I should send this in as a comment or a question. I chose a question because I'm interested to hear another opinion on something that's been bugging me about Fani Willis on trial for conflict of interest. Why is it that the narrative is always about a woman taking money from a man; haven't we gotten past this yet? Willis is professional and an accomplished woman, and I'm sure she can afford vacations, if that is what she likes to do. I take vacations regularly, and some people would deem them exotic, or trips of a lifetime, but I enjoy a trip of a lifetime every year. I often travel alone, or on a group itinerary, and I always meet other accomplished women travelling alone as well. Airplanes are full, cruise ships are full, there are a lot of people that travel. This chatter about Willis leaning on her boyfriend for financial assistance is ridiculous, and especially when directed towards a Black woman. It smacks of the old descriptions of Black women on assistance and the perceptions of them being lazy, or baby machines. I find it to be a dog whistle to these previous narratives about women in desperate situations. What do you think?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's possible that such talk is ALSO a dog whistle. However, the primary reason that there is so much attention being paid to the finances of Willis and Nathan Wade is that it's really the only basis for the claim that Willis benefited improperly from the relationship. What Donald Trump and his co-defendants are arguing is that: (1) Willis hired Wade, and thus caused him to receive some amount of money from the state of Georgia; (2) in turn, he spent that money on her; and (3) she therefore engaged in self-dealing.

We've also had a fair number of comments that there would be no scandal/legal case here if the roles were reversed and it was Fulton County DA Nathan Wade hiring private attorney Fani Willis. We think that is not correct. First, Trump and his co-defendants are grasping at straws here, and would latch onto this regardless of the gender dynamics. Second, if a man in a position of power hires, and then ends up in a romantic relationship with, a woman attorney, that would raise #MeToo issues that surely would not go uncommented on.

T.B. in Detroit, MI, asks: As a daily reader of your site since 2004, and as somebody whose political views are generally to the left of the Democratic Party, I've always appreciated your take on the futility of "protest" voting in presidential elections. Ever since my third-party vote in 2000 helped to elect George W. Bush and start a pointless war in Iraq, I've donated to, volunteered for, and voted for the Democratic presidential nominee every election since.

This year, however, it's personal. I cannot bring myself to knock on doors or make phone calls for Biden when, in my part of Michigan at least, there is a good chance that the person answering will have a loved one who's been killed or displaced by our president's enabling of what I consider to be an ethnic cleansing in Gaza. In my view, it is our country's worst blunder since the Iraq War, and a vote for Biden provides a mandate for it to continue.

So, what's an antiwar progressive supposed to do? What's the best way to nudge the Democratic party in the direction of one's preferred policy without also increasing the likelihood of a November victory for Trump, who, as you rightly point out, would be much worse? Rep. Rashida Tlaib's (D-MI) call to vote Uncommitted in this Tuesday's Democratic primary seemed like a pretty good idea to me, yet you weren't too keen on it. If you have a better idea, I'm sure your left-leaning readers (Michigan ones, especially) would love to hear it.

(V) & (Z) answer: We don't have a better idea, other than reaching out directly to the White House or the Biden campaign (as the author of the next letter did). Otherwise, if you really feel that strongly about this issue, you should indeed vote uncommitted. That's unlikely to tell Biden anything he does not already know. And it's unlikely to affect the Israel situation, over which Biden has limited control. However, all you can do is use the tools you've got available, and an uncommitted vote is one of the only things in the tool drawer.

P.W. in Springwater, NY, asks: I am hardly a young voter, but I am still very troubled about the death and devastation in Gaza and President's Biden's failure to offer a stronger condemnation of the Israeli approach to conducting the war. I have no expertise in war and weaponry, so this may be too simplistic, but I think our military support of Israel should be limited to defensive systems only—no American missiles, bombs, etc., to rain down on innocent civilians. Although I plan to vote for President Biden (since Trump is completely unfit and, as you wrote, a third party vote would favor Trump's election), when I received yet another appeal to donate to the Biden campaign I replied not with a donation but with an e-mail explaining I could not in good conscience donate to his campaign while his efforts to rein in Benjamin Netanyahu were limited to simply urging him to do better.

However, sending aid to Ukraine, which I think is necessary to counter Russian aggression and their attacks on the civilian population, seems to be tied into aid for Israel. If by some miracle a bill does pass that provides aid to Ukraine and Israel, as well as humanitarian aid to Gaza, how much flexibility does the president have in determining what type of aid to send? Could he limit the military aid to Israel to defensive systems only?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, he could. Presidents have a fair bit of discretion over how foreign aid is spent, unless the enabling legislation is very specific in how money is to be allocated.

A.Q. in Ithaca, NY, asks: One thing that I have not seen you mention (at least in your weekday posts) is the fact that the U.S. has vetoed a U.N. Security Council ceasefire resolution for Gaza three times. You often include opinions as to why voters will "come home" and vote Democratic in November. It seems that this is an indicator on the opposite direction (such as in Michigan) and should also be covered on your site.

(V) & (Z) answer: We have not written about it because U.N. maneuvering is extreme inside baseball, and something that the vast majority of the voting public either does not follow, or does not understand, or both. Further, it's still a long time until the presidential election, and this situation is likely to develop substantially from where it is now.

For these reasons, we do not believe that the current bickering about ceasefire resolutions will have a palpable impact in November. So, there's nothing for us to write about, since our focus is politics and not foreign affairs. If this was September, and not February, then we might think differently.


A.L. in Highland Park, NJ, asks: New York magazine has an article by Errol Louis on the "Keys to the White House" prediction by historian Allan Lichtman. I heard of Lichtman in 2000 (he missed that one) and his boosters are legion. I personally do not put much stock in this sort of checklist prognostication, it can be susceptible to overfitting and retrofitting. However, all other commentary on the election seems to be "polls this far out are meaningless... but here are the latest polls, anyway. Based on my reading of the (admittedly meaningless) polls the situation is dire. Biden must do X immediately. Democrats must mollify the Y constituency."

So, Louis's article was a breath of different air. I would love to know what you guys think of Lichtman in particular and other systems of this type in general.

(V) & (Z) answer: The underlying notion of Lichtman's system is that governance is more important than campaigning. We agree with that. Otherwise, however, we don't think too much of Lichtman's approach, nor of systems like his. Here are our issues with "Keys to the White House," in particular:

J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, asks: I am neither a psephologist nor a phlebotomist, but in grade school I was very good at the tests that asked "Which of these things is not the same?" So, the chart you presented in your post about Nate Silver's take on Joe Biden really caught my eye. I would like to hear your thoughts on why two of the pollsters didn't even ask about Kamala Harris when they were asking about other candidates versus Donald Trump. Also, what's up with the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) numbers? She has the worst result and the best result in the entire chart by a mile in both directions. My blood is pumping madly in anticipation of your answers.

(V) & (Z) answer: The question about Whitmer is easier to answer, although it took some work to figure it out. It turns out that the poll in which she did so well was a poll of... Michigan voters. So, she's reasonably popular in her home state. When the poll is national, she falls back to the pack, or worse. The poll in which she performed most poorly was from Emerson, which tends to have a rightward lean. That said, we cannot discover why she did so much worse in that poll than other Democrats.

As to Harris' exclusion, we can only speculate. In the end, pollsters want their results to be reported on widely. Every extra question costs money, and there's much more appetite out there for a changing of the guard than there is for replacing one member of the Biden administration with another. What we're saying is that results for Whitmer and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) are more marketable, and so better justify the costs involved in collecting that data.

J.S. in Chevy Chase, MD, asks: I would be interested in your reaction to this piece by David Faris, in which he addresses "Three Comforting Lies Democrats Need to Stop Telling Themselves About November."

As poll after poll shows Trump ahead of Biden both nationally and in key swing states, you keep coming up with reasons not to be too worried, such as "We think there are some voters who want Biden to step aside due to his age and who will move beyond that once the only available options are Biden or Trump," or "there are some voters who are angry about Biden's handling of the situation in Israel, but who will move beyond that as events in the Middle East unfold... or as they recognize that installing Trump in the White House will produce an even worse handling of the situation in Israel." How much longer do polls have to show Trump ahead before Democrats recognize that Biden is behind and something needs to change? I don't think there is any realistic prospect of changing the candidate, but at some point the candidate needs to change something, because the current path does not seem to be heading toward victory. I know you think that "March 7 is when the race for the White House begins in earnest," and I will be delighted to see how Biden turns things around starting on that date, but I don't understand how a poll-driven site such as yours can so blithely put so many polls aside.

(V) & (Z) answer: First of all, full disclosure, (Z) knows Dave. They were in a fantasy baseball league together for many years.

Second, we considered writing that piece up, but did not do so for several reasons. Here they are:

It is the last item on the list that was most important in our decision not to write up a response. We do not know which Democrats are being referred to here: Democratic voters, or Democratic politicians and operatives. It seems the former, but it's not 100% clear. In any event, we don't know ANY Democrats, either in office or not, who have persuaded themselves that this election is a done deal, and that Biden will win in a walk. This is not 2016. In fact, all of the Democratic hand-wringing, including that from Mr. Faris, makes clear that Democrats are scared to death about the very real possibility that Trump could win this thing.

As we've written a couple of times recently, we really dislike these "The Democrats don't get it, they have to do something now!" pieces. Because it is rarely clear what the author thinks should be done (and there are no concrete suggestions in this particular article). They just demand that "something" change. And, as we have also written, presidential elections are not won in February. There is nothing that can be done RIGHT NOW to change the polls or the narrative. That will be a slow process, if it happens at all.

And finally, it is the very fact that we are a poll-driven site that causes us to dismiss much/most polling right now. If you assume we know which polls are likely to be meaningful and instructive, then it must also follow that we have some idea as to which polls are NOT likely to be meaningful and instructive. And the fact is that current polls show 15%-30% of voters undecided, despite the fact that both presidential candidates have 99.8% name recognition. Until we know what "undecided" really means, and what those folks are likely to do on Election Day (break for Biden, break for Trump, vote third party, stay home), then we just cannot assign much significance to polls where one candidate or the other has a lead of a point or two or three.

J.L. in Baltimore, MD, asks: I'm writing as someone who dislikes football and wouldn't watch a game unless paid a substantial amount of money. Is it really a big deal that President Biden declined to be interviewed during the Super Bowl? Do people watching the major event in a sport they like want to switch their focus to politics and then back again? Or do most people use that time to go to the kitchen and get more food and drink, or check their phones for messages or news? Is there any information available on what watchers think of the interview in recent years? Does the interview have any effect on how people vote nine months later?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is one of the most overblown stories in recent memory. The fact is that (Z), in particular, is both a politics-watcher and someone who has seen every single one of the last 30 Super Bowls. And he cannot remember a single presidential Super Bowl interview, in part because they tend to be bland, and in part because they are shown sometime during the endless lead-up to the game, and not during the game itself. Barring a giant screw-up, or a president who uses the interview as an occasion to make a major announcement, the "traditional" Super Bowl sit down (a tradition that dates back a whole 10 years) moves the needle very little.

R.H.D in Webster, NY, asks: Do you think it would be better for Democrats and the Biden campaign to have Nikki Haley continue her campaign against Donald Trump, or have the GOP nomination wrapped up now so they can begin the general election?

(V) & (Z) answer: We think it does not matter one bit, either way. Donald Trump has already began his general election campaign, Nikki Haley or no. And Haley does not inspire the kind of loyalty that, say, Trump does or that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) does. Once she drops out, there will not be a single voter who withholds their vote from Trump because they feel Haley got screwed. Some of her voters will come home to Trump, and the rest were never going to vote for Trump anyhow.

C.F. in Waltham, MA, asks: I'm thinking Donald Trump may select one of his sons to be VP. They are both completely aligned with his thinking, and if Trump pulls off becoming a dictator, it would follow in the ways of many dictators. It is a terrible and loony choice for sure, but at this point I don't think that matters at all for Trump, and aligns with his thinking that whatever he does is "perfect." What do you think? Is that possible?

(V) & (Z) answer: Anything is possible, but we think it is very unlikely. First, Trump's instincts about these things are pretty good, and he knows that having one of his kids as his running mate would rattle some of his supporters. This is why he's not trying to install Lara Trump as RNC Chair, settling instead for co-chair (for now).

Second, Trump has zero respect for his kids (with the possible exception of Ivanka). The reason that Don Jr., in particular, is such an outspoken MAGA Man is that he's desperately trying to earn his father's love and respect, neither of which are actually available to Junior.

R.C. in Eagleville, PA, asks: Another rage-inducing right-wing media attack story has gone up in smoke. The "very credible FBI informant" is now under indictment for lying about Joe and Hunter Biden's ties to a Ukrainian energy company. Countless times the outrage machine has ginned up a story, keeping the cult in perpetual fury, only to end up red-faced when the story proves false. Excluding the stolen election story, which rage-machine attack story gave you the greatest satisfaction when inevitably proven false?

(V) & (Z) answer: The one that occurs to us is the claims made by Tara Reade about how Joe Biden sexually assaulted her. That came at a time when people were finally learning to "believe women," and Reade cynically tried to leverage that for crass political purposes.

Our runner-up is the various schemes by far-right dirty trickster Jacob Wohl. He was raised to be a sleazeball, and from a very young age has been scamming people out of their money (he was busted for securities fraud before turning 18). It's been good to see his various attempts to smear prominent politicians go up in flames because he is a nitwit.

D.M. in Santa Rosa, CA, asks: My mother, an anti-war Democrat, said that she never forgave Jane Fonda for visiting North Vietnam during the war. She said that it made Fonda (Hanoi Jane) a communist sympathizer in the real sense of the word. How would you compare Fonda's visit to Hanoi to Tucker Carlson's visit to Moscow?

(V) & (Z) answer: Neither decision clothed its maker in glory. That said, Fonda was acting in support of an idea (the Vietnam War was wrong) that has now achieved near-universal acceptance. We do not foresee a day when 95%+ of Americans say "You know, Putin was right to invade Ukraine." Further, Fonda's goal was to emphasize the bad behavior of the U.S. in its conduct of that war. Carlson's goal is to whitewash someone who could reasonably be called the world's foremost war criminal. We'd say Carlson's message is far more problematic than Fonda's was.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: I'm surprised in that in your item "Right-Wing Websites in Decline: Breitbart's the Biggest Loser," you didn't mention the rise in popularity of Newsmax. Is that because they were just getting started gaining an audience, or have they really gained share against the others? Also, are those numbers adjusted for population increases?

(V) & (Z) answer: The numbers are not adjusted for population change. As to Newsmax, we thought about commenting on that, but there's only so much time when there are another 3,000 words to be written. There appear to be two reasons that outlet has bucked the tide. First, it has emerged as the Fox alternative for those politicians and/or viewers who are angry with the nation's foremost right-wing network. For example, after Tucker Carlson was canned, Newsmax's viewership spiked.

The other secret to Newsmax's "success" (and keep in mind that they are still a fairly small player) is that the outlet has done a better job of staying prominent on Facebook. And the way this has been accomplished is through stories that are political without being about politicians. It is, for example, one of the major sources of global-warming-denial stories shared on Facebook.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: I have a question about how racism is perceived, especially by white conservatives. While addressing racism in the media, it is universally a matter of white people biased against minorities. However, as the Trump era has shown, conservative whites do not view themselves as racist. Long ago, Bill Maher posed the question, "Can you be racist and not know it?" On the conservative side, the discussion revolves around Black people being prejudiced against whites, and there is a deep fear of Black Lives Matter protesters, even though the majority of demonstrators at marches were white. I guess what I am getting at is that white conservatives fear Black Americans because they think Black Americans hate them. So, what the rest of us identify as prejudice is the Right's fear-based response to "the other."

Does the Right regard overt racism (white supremacy) as the only form of racism, while completely denying covert racism (fear of anyone who doesn't look like oneself)? What exactly does a conservative regard as racism?

(V) & (Z) answer: We're going to start by noting that (Z) is often asked "Is Donald Trump a racist?" And his answer is always something like this: "Yes, he is. 'Racism' is not a digital thing, where either you are or you aren't. It's a spectrum, where there are some extremists at one end, and pretty much nobody at the other end, and everyone else arrayed in between. That said, Trump is clearly on the racist side of the spectrum, even if he's not as far along that side as, say, David Duke. And the reason is that he embraced ideas about race and racism that were moderate, and perhaps even progressive, when he was growing up in the 1950s. However, he basically hasn't changed his thinking since then, and what was once moderate/progressive is now retrograde and problematic."

So, our best answer to your question is that many folks on the right see racism, as with so many things, in black-and-white terms (no pun intended). That is to say, if you are like David Duke, you're a racist, and if you're not like him, you're not. Certainly, there is abundant evidence that many on the right do not accept notions like covert racism, racism embedded into the social/political/economic system, microaggressions, etc.

All of this said, we're pretty far afield here from our own expertise and personal experience. So, we are happy to hear from readers who have something to add, at

L.B. in Bozeman, MT, asks: On his most recent show, John Oliver offered Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas $1 million a year for the rest of his life plus a $2.5 million luxury "motor coach" in exchange for resigning from the Supreme Court.

My first question is: What is the probability that Thomas takes him up on this apparently fully legal offer? My follow-up question: If this is fully legal, what is to stop politically motivated billionaires from making much more lucrative offers ($50 million a year? Name your own price?) to any other justice on the court to resign during the term of a president with a similar political view as the billionaire?

(V) & (Z) answer: We almost wrote the John Oliver story up, but since there is a 0.0% chance Thomas takes the deal, we decided not to do it. Thanks to the various fringe benefits, like the luxury vacations paid for by Harlan Crow, the Justice is already living a seven-figure lifestyle. Further, he and his wife very much enjoy the various non-financial trappings of power. It would take far more than $1 million for him to give that all up, particularly while a Democrat is in the White House.

And maybe, one day, a justice will indeed be "bought out" by a rich person from the other side of the aisle. But we doubt it. In general, you don't rise to the tip-top of the justice system without having a lot of integrity. That's not always true, but it usually is. And it would be very hard for most of them to throw that overboard, while also striking a massive blow against whatever political party/movement they've been part of for their entire lives.

That said, we could imagine that if Donald Trump is elected president and Harlan Crow makes Thomas an offer he can't refuse, Thomas would resign to a life of luxury, knowing that his replacement would be someone with his political views but much younger.

M.G. in Indianapolis, IN, asks: About 25% of retired politicians become lobbyists. You do not list that among retirement reasons?

(V) & (Z) answer: We assume you are referring to our retirements page, where we give a brief summary of why each member has decided to retire. We base that on the statements they make when they announce their intention to throw in the towel and our best guesses about the truth. For example, Rep. Cathy Rodgers (R-WA) gave the usual blah blah explanation for retiring, we know she has a child with Down Syndrome at home who needs special love and care. Surely that is a big factor for her. And while many of representatives are headed to K Street, none of them EVER say that when they announce their retirement. It's always "I want to spend more time with family" and not "I want to triple my salary while twisting arms on behalf of the petroleum industry."

R.P. Naperville, IL, asks: This year is more than a presidential election year, it is also an Olympic year with the summer games happening July 26 to August 11 in Paris. The Olympic Games bring with it a sense of national pride unlike any other sporting event. I'm wondering if the games may have an impact on the presidential election and, if so, who it may benefit the most. Is there some historical data or polling to support a boost in the polls of incumbent or challenger from previous elections?

(V) & (Z) answer: Keep in mind that presidential election years are always Olympic years, excepting those occasions when the Olympics are canceled/postponed due to world events (World War I, World War II, COVID). That is to say, there aren't enough "non-Olympics" presidential years to use for comparison, so as to determine whether or not they have some sort of effect on the election.

However, what our instinct tells us is that the Olympics don't affect the election, unless there is some very clear connection between the two, such as Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Olympics.

K.E. in Newport, RI, asks: I recently saw an old bumper sticker from about 2003 on a Ford Explorer in Massachusetts that said "Lesbians Against Bush." Do you think it is about the former president, the band, or the hair? What are the best political bumper stickers you've seen?

(V) & (Z) answer: There were a lot of bumper stickers along those lines in 2000 and 2004, thanks to one of the major parties deciding to run a ticket with a Bush and a Dick. We have to assume that the sticker you saw was a part of that.

And for one of his lectures, (Z) pored through a bunch of Republican and Democratic bumper stickers about 10 years ago, and chose the best of each. Here's the Republican slide from that lecture:

The best one is probably the one that says
'If ignorance is bliss, you must be one happy liberal'

And here's the Democratic slide:

The best one is probably the one that says
'may the fetus you save be gay'

Again, keep in mind these were collected at the end of the Obama years.


C.W. in Newport, Wales, UK, asks: You wrote, in reference to federal judges Donald Trump might appoint in his second term: "[K]nowledge of the law and faithfulness to the Constitution will take second place to willingness to rule as Trump wishes." Well, are there any minimum eligibility criteria for federal judges, or could Trump just appoint whoever he wants? In fact, could he actually sell judgeships?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's illegal to sell judgeships, of course, though that doesn't necessary mean Trump won't try it.

And there are no official qualifications for federal judges. However, it is a well-established expectation, dating back over a century, that candidates have a law degree and be an active member of the bar. If Trump was to try to seat a bunch of unqualified nutters, it would be up to the Senate to say "no." Historically, the upper chamber has been willing to do so. Whether that would continue in a second Trump term is anyone's guess.

R.S. in Manassas, VA, asks: You addressed the question of the U.S. being able to withdraw from NATO: "The current Congress DID put language in the Authorization Act that specifies that withdrawal from the NATO treaty requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate."

You followed that with: "The current leadership of the Senate is hoping that this maneuver will pass muster if challenged in court. Likely it would not, however, since it's still a pretty obvious attempt to tie the hands of future officeholders."

How is the 2/3 majority called out in the Authorization Act different from the filibuster with regards to tying the hands of future officeholders?

(V) & (Z) answer: The filibuster is a part of Senate rules that are re-adopted at the start of every new session. So, the current meeting of the Senate (the 118th) has the filibuster because THEY chose to keep it, not because the 117th or 116th or 115th Senates forced it upon them.


P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: I know this isn't a question as such, but I was wondering what your opinion was regarding the ranking of presidents you wrote about. Did you generally agree and was there anything you think was, in your opinion, not correct?

Also, any comments on why you think people were where they were in the list?

(V) & (Z) answer: The methodology was... less than optimal. To maximize response rate, they asked the 500+ participants to simply rank each president from 0 to 100. That is an approach that encourages "gut feel" rather than any sort of rigor. That is going to skew the results in favor of more recent presidents, which is exactly what happened. By contrast, most other surveys ask participants to rank the presidents across various dimensions (foreign policy, moral leadership, legislative accomplishments, etc.), and then take an average (sometimes a weighted average) of those numbers.

And, in terms of our opinion of the list, how about we give you three people who were overrated, and three who were underrated? First, three presidents who were rated too highly (in no particular order):

And three presidents who were not rated highly enough:

That's our opinion today. Maybe tomorrow, it will be different.

C.S. in Waynesboro, PA, asks: You wrote: "[Lawrence Altman] believes that 10 of [presidents exhibited signs of mental illness." I would LOVE to know who the ten are!

I got Lincoln (depression) and Reagan (dementia), but who were the other eight (assuming those two are correct).

(V) & (Z) answer: We can't find a source that contains his list, but most of them are pretty easy to guess. In addition to the two you name:

That's nine who are slam dunks; pretty much every book about presidents and mental illness names all of these fellows.

The tenth is a little harder, but it's probably one of the Adamses (depression, likely manic) or Theodore Roosevelt (depression, narcissism).

K.H., Scotch Plains, NJ, asks: My question involves the health of two of America's most famous presidents, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Lincoln was assassinated only around 5 weeks after he was inaugurated for his second term, but the conventional wisdom is that he had MEN2B, and that it's rather miraculous he lived as long as he did to begin with. Considering the other issues he had (particularly his depression, although I have no idea how much that was affecting him in his presidency), do you even think he would have lived to finish out the remainder of his term were he not assassinated in April 1865?

I am also curious about John F. Kennedy. His Addison's took an immense toll on him, throughout his entire life, or so I've heard. Much like Lincoln, it's incredible he lived to even become president and to have accomplished what he did. But even with the health care that is traditionally afforded a president, would he have been able to, in your opinion, last through a second term if he had not been assassinated?

(V) & (Z) answer: Medical diagnoses of 19th century Americans are necessarily shaky, given the relatively primitive state of medicine back then (and thus the lack of diagnostic data), as well as the passage of time. Lincoln was still in excellent shape when he died, and 4 years is not a terribly long time. So, if we have to guess, we would guess he had it in him to survive until the end of his term in office.

Kennedy, by all indications, was in considerably worse shape, and was aggressively medicated throughout his presidency. He also would have needed to survive 5 more years, rather than just 4, to make it to the end. Our guess is that he would not have lasted that long, and that he would have stepped down mid-second-term due to ill health.

D.H. in San Francisco, CA, asks: Webster's Dictionary says that the word "slaveowner" is a valid variant of "slave owner", but I'm curious about whether there are a connotations connected to the two different versions of the word. During the 1860's, usage of the terms (according to google) appear to be about equal with a divergence starting at the turn of the century then reuniting in the 1950's to then sharply diverge in preference to "slave owner" in the early 1990's.

My question is: do these variations of the usage of the word(s) have connotations which are directly connected to social movements during these periods (and do you have a rationale for your usage, or do you simply consider them equivalent)?

(V) & (Z) answer: While there is some discussion about "slave" versus "enslaved person," the resident Civil War historian is unaware of any discussion about "slaveowner" versus "slave owner." He tends to use the former because it reads better.

D.L. in Albuquerque, NM, asks: In Heather Cox Richardson's newsletter "Letters from an American" for last Sunday, she talks about how Abraham Lincoln was viewed on Feb. 19, 1864. She includes the following statements about Thurlow Weed, someone I had not heard of previously:

But conservatives, too, were in revolt against Lincoln.

Crucially, Thurlow Weed, New York's kingmaker, thought Lincoln was far too radical. Weed cared deeply about putting his own people into the well-paying customs positions available in New York City, and he was frequently angry that Lincoln appointed nominees favored by the more radical faction.

That frustration went hand in hand with anger about policy. Weed was upset that the Republicans were remaking the government for ordinary Americans. The 1862 Homestead Act, which provided western land for a nominal fee to any American willing to settle it, was a thorn in his side. Until Congress passed that law, such land, taken from Indigenous tribes, would be sold to speculators for cash that went directly to the Treasury. Republicans believed that putting farmers on the land would enable them to pay the new national taxes Congress imposed, thus bringing in far more money to the Treasury for far longer than would selling to speculators, but Weed foresaw national bankruptcy.

Even more than financial policy, though, Weed was unhappy with Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which moved toward an end of human enslavement far too quickly for Weed.

How would you describe Thurlow Weed and who would he be most like today?

The more I learn about the second half of the 1800s, the more I see it rhyming with current events today.

(V) & (Z) answer: Weed was a center-left political operative who had a big presence in the mass media of his day, and who was well connected behind the scenes. We would say the closest modern equivalent is James Carville, though you could also make a case for Dick Morris.

P.L.B. in Catonsville, MD, asks: In your response to J.B. in Bend, you wrote that as late as August 1864, Abraham Lincoln thought he might be defeated in the upcoming election. The fall of Atlanta removed any doubt but there were "...many ways that the Confederates might have hung on for those extra 8 weeks or so."

Okay, let's play historical hypotheticals. Let's say Union progress was delayed and George McClellan eked out an election victory. Knowing what we do of Honest Abe's personal convictions, during this lame duck period would he have continued to prosecute the war, because that was morally right? Or would he have brought his war policy in line with the incoming administration, because that was the will of the people?

And, if Lincoln continued the war with vigor, surely the Confederacy would have been within weeks of collapse by March 4, 1865. Knowing what we do of McClellan's personal convictions, would he have sought peace as promised or would he have just finished the job and taken all the credit?

(V) & (Z) answer: McClellan said, after the war, that if he had been elected, "of course" he would not have allowed the sacrifices of the Union's soldiers to be in vain. However, he had to say that, especially given that he still had political aspirations (culminating in his election as governor of New Jersey in 1877).

In August of 1864, the Confederacy might well have had another 6 months, or a year, or even a couple of years of fight left in it, particularly if they decided to arm enslaved people (a topic of serious discussion by the Confederate Congress in late 1864). However, the Southerners did not have 4 years left in them. And so, when Lincoln was reelected, the spirit and the spine of the rebels was broken. Desertions skyrocketed, the Confederate government essentially gave up, and that was that. Had Lincoln lost, however, that would not have been the case, and the Confederacy would surely have dug deep and found what they needed to keep going for a while longer. And in that circumstance, President McClellan likely would have given them some sort of favorable terms, either their independence or some sort of guarantees that slavery would be protected.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Prior to women gaining universal suffrage rights via constitutional amendment (1920), some states (Wyoming, Utah) allowed women the vote. Which states were these? I am particularly interested in Ohio because my paternal grandmother was a Eugene V. Debs supporter, and I was wondering if she was able to vote for him prior to the 1920 election.

(V) & (Z) answer: This map, which was meant to rally support for the Nineteenth Amendment, tells the story:

Western states granted full suffrage, midwestern
and many New England states had partial suffrage, Southern and mid-Atlantic states had no suffrage

As you can see, by 1920, women in Ohio did not have full suffrage, but they could vote for president starting with the election of 1920. So, your paternal grandmother certainly could have voted for Debs.

R.W. in Oakland, CA, asks: A recent question from J.M. in Kalamazoo about dropping the atomic bomb on Japan made me think of a question that has never been answered to my satisfaction regarding the first military use of nuclear weapons. Why did the U.S. not just tell Japan that it was going to demonstrate the weapon on a deserted island so they could observe the terrible destruction, and thus save thousands of innocent lives? I am sure that there were logistical issues about how to make it happen without attracting an effort from Japan to prevent the demonstration, but might it have been worth the effort?

(V) & (Z) answer: There was some discussion of this possibility. However, the process of purifying the radioactive elements was very onerous at that time, and the U.S. had only three bombs available (one of which was used for the Trinity test). The concerns of American leadership were: (1) If the bomb used for the Japanese demonstration were to fail, it could have a counterproductive effect and (2) if the Japanese were not sufficiently intimidated, the U.S. would be left with only one working bomb to actually deploy.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Your answer to J.M. in Kalamazoo, MI (yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!) got me wondering if you can recommend a book(s) that discusses the process and discussions internally between the war planners and Truman regarding if, when, and where to drop the atomic bombs.

(V) & (Z) answer: The classic book on the bomb is The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, but that one only talks about Truman's decision-making in the last chapter. Alternatively, The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan, by Wilson D. Miscamble, focuses entirely on Truman's thought process, and the various people who were pushing him in various directions. It's also pretty short, at 192 pages. Note that both authors take the position that, in the end, Truman did what he had to do.

R.M. in Norwich, CT, asks: As I approach my 70th birthday, I am trying to put what is probably my formative decade, the sixties, into some understanding of how our generation and today's America got here. David Halberstam, one of my favorite historians, wrote what I feel is an excellent look at the fifties. What one volume or author would you recommend to put the sixties in perspective from a historical as well as social/cultural overview?

(V) & (Z) answer: The scholars Ilya Ehrenburg and Eric Hobsbawm, rebelling against the arbitrariness of round calendar years, proposed the notion of the long nineteenth century. Their argument/point was that the trends that defined the nineteenth century (in Europe, mind you) did not conveniently get underway in 1800 or 1801 and end in 1899 or 1900. Their view was that 1789 (French Revolution) to 1918 (World War I) was the actual timeframe that needed to be examined.

We would say this same thinking should be applied to the 1960s, since there are really two distinct halves to that "decade," namely 1955-63, and then 1964-73. For that reason, we are going to recommend The Long Sixties: America, 1955-1973, by Christopher Strain. As a bonus, the book is organized by theme (Vietnam, New Feminism, Minority Empowerment), so you can read just what interests you.


D.L. in Springfield, IL, asks: On average, how long does it take you after posting to get 25 correct answers to your Friday themes? I thought for sure I'd make the list with last week's (chess) but I see 25 people beat me to it. Just curious.

(V) & (Z) answer: It depends how difficult the theme is. Sometimes, we get 25 correct answers in a manner of minutes. Sometimes, it takes multiple days. We're also not very good at guessing which is which. For example, we thought the "We Didn't Start the Fire" lyrics would be tough, but not so much.

B.C. in Phoenix, AZ, asks: My understanding is that Presidents Day primarily celebrates Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. If Otto and Flash were to condescend representing one of those guys on the holiday, who would represent who?

(V) & (Z) answer: Otto is very good at getting along with both people and dogs, is unusually smart, and loves to wrestle with canine visitors. Flash has a regal bearing, sometimes loses his temper, and would cut down a cherry tree or any other kind of tree if it meant access to more food. We trust you can take it from there.

M.V. in San Francisco, CA, asks: According to Wikipedia, George Santos is his real name, so I don't understand why you write him as "George Santos" in the middle of sentences that refer to him.

(V) & (Z) answer: As a reminder that, with him, you can never be truly certain what the truth is.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

K.C. in West Islip, NY, asks: With the Hur Report coming out far ahead of Election Day, I'm supremely confident it'll be off the minds of anyone who was persuaded by it come November. That said, we can always count on some kind of October surprise one way or the other. I'm personally (and I suppose morbidly) leaning toward President Carter dying and President Biden giving such a moving eulogy that it tilts the election in his favor.

What are some of the leading possibilities for an October surprise this time around?

And here some of the answers we got in response:

J.A. in Virginia, SA, Australia: Donald Trump shoots someone on Fifth Avenue. Police later apprehend him in bed with a live boy and a dead girl.

He goes up by 3% in the polls.

M.W. in Boston, MA: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), now Trump's VP candidate, revealed to be a Russian AI Chatbot. No Republicans change their votes.

C.S. in Tucson, AZ: Outtakes from The Apprentice magically appear showcasing Trumps vulgar, racist, homophobic, sexist, and narcissistic tendencies, and they change no opinions. Not one.

Alternatively: The orange guy's transcripts from the University of Pennsylvania are leaked. His grades show him to be imbecilic, the real reason he wasn't drafted. The bone spurs diagnosis was a diversion to avoid embarrassing his sperm donor.

P.M. in Palm Springs, CA: The most dangerous October surprise would be a real or imagined health emergency, which is certainly possible given Joe Biden's age. The reality of the emergency and the initial source of the reporting may not matter, given the lack of depth in the electorate's understanding of the issues and its vulnerability to misinformation.

N.E. in San Mateo, CA: Jimmy Carter was born on October 1, 1924, which would make him 100 this year should he survive until his birthday. If he holds on until that milestone and then dies shortly after, the media coverage around his being the first ex-President to reach that milestone and then his death would likely qualify as an October surprise in itself.

J.L. in Paterson, NJ: A summertime recession. The unemployment rate rises. In October, people with IRAs and other investment accounts get their Q3 statements, gasp in dismay, and decide that a change of administration is needed.

C.S. in Charlotte, NC: Something happens in Ukraine and the Russian position collapses or changes in such a way that demonstrates that Ukraine is winning, thus validating the United States' (and Europe's) support of Ukraine. This has the consequence of defusing critics of Joe Biden's foreign policy.

D.R. in Cincinnati, OH: Vladimir Putin announces that he is going to withdraw from Ukraine because Donald Trump talked him into doing so.

G.K. in Blue Island, IL: My money is on some sort of deepfake being "discovered" and going viral on social media that somehow "proves" [insert right-wing talking point here]. I know it'll be anti-Biden because there's no point for Team Biden to do something anti-Trump—if all the real-world evidence isn't swaying GOP-leaning swing voters already then nothing fake will either. No, it'll be some clip where Biden is saying something scandalous, or George Soros gloating over his control of the Illuminati embedded in the government, or some such. The only question in my mind is how well done the deception will be. The last October Surprise (childishly faked e-mails from Hunter Biden's laptop) was pretty ham-fisted.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA: Trump is found guilty in one of the three major indictments (Sorry, but the upcoming Stormy Daniels payment money doesn't reach the level of major crime) and is sentenced to a significant prison sentence, although probably in one of the Club Fed low-security prisons. Maybe I'm being naive, but I think it will be similar to polling that shows third party candidates with bigger numbers then they actually get; I think Trump being found guilty of a significant crime and sentenced to prison will have a chilling effect when voters actually step into their polling places, even among dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.

J.C. in Peabody, KS: I wouldn't be surprised if there is a verdict in the D.C. case in October, but I could also see Hunter Biden tragically passing away from an overdose or self-inflicted harm due to the legal and public pressures he's been facing.

Less morbidly, I could assume it would be around that time that the civil loss in New York forces TFG to sell Trump Tower, and whoever may be the VP pick for him quiet-quitting in order to distance themselves from the forthcoming electoral loss.

K.R. in Austin, TX: Melania endorses Biden.

Here is the question for next week:

K.E. in Newport, RI, asks: What are the best political bumper stickers you've seen?

You already saw our somewhat out-of-date answer above. Submit YOUR answers to with subject line "Bumper Sticker"!

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