Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Saturday Q&A

While not unprecedented, this week is a little unusual in that the subject we got the most questions about is something we didn't even write an item on (the Baltimore bridge collapse).

If you're still working on the headline theme, well, we regret that you're having treble.

Current Events

M.T. in Linköping, Sweden, asks: When reading articles and comments about the judgment that Donald Trump does not have to come up with the full amount of the bond in the New York fraud case, I can't find any reporting on the reasoning from the judges. Why did they decrease the bond and grant Trump another 10 days to pay?

(V) & (Z) answer: The judges' order does not give any reasoning. However, they also stayed other elements of the decision that, if enforced, would do immediate harm to the defendants (like their being banned from doing business in New York for multiple years) while leaving in place elements that don't do all that much damage (like a special monitor overseeing all transactions).

Add it up, and it's clear that the judges were trying to keep things "fair," such that if Trump does somehow win on appeal, he and his co-defendants are not harmed irreparably. By contrast, if he loses the appeal, the state of New York is not harmed very much by having to wait a bit longer to collect. The Trumps can't pull any asset-hiding shenanigans thanks to the special monitor, and whether AG Letitia James seizes a bunch of property now, or she seizes it in 6 or 9 months, it's about the same. In fact, since the Trumps know they are likely to lose, they might just take this time to liquidate some assets in order to satisfy the judgment, making James' life easier.

In comparison, Trump was given no leeway on the E. Jean Carroll bonds. The state of New York will presumably be around in 100 years; Carroll will not. In that case, time matters, and so there was no leeway.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: In response to the $454 million judgment against Trump in New York, I hear Trump defenders say something along the lines of "the banks got their money, there was no actual harm, where is the crime?" I do not understand this line of thought. It seems to me that if Trump's fraud got him lower interest rates then even if he paid off a loan in full, the bank got less money than they should have. Isn't that harm? Can you please help me understand?

(V) & (Z) answer: Just because the victim of a so-called "victimless" crime doesn't have a face, doesn't mean that harm wasn't done. First, screwing over banks means that they earned less money than they should have. That means less profit for shareholders, less money available for employee wages, and less money available for loans to other, possibly more honest, businesses.

Second, paying less in taxes means that the city and state of New York get screwed. It's estimated that, through his various misrepresentations, Trump paid something like $160 million less in New York tax than he should have. Do you think the local schools, police departments, transit authorities, etc. miss that money? We do.

Third, and finally, engaging in shady behavior and getting away with it encourages others in the same position to follow suit. In fact, it all but FORCES the competition to do so, since the system rewards liars over truth-tellers. Businessman Kevin O'Leary, a.k.a. "Mr. Wonderful" from the show Shark Tank, has been all over TV complaining that "everyone in real estate development does this" and how it's not wrong and how unfair it is that Donald Trump was targeted. This is a B.S. argument, which essentially boils down to decreeing that very rich people should be allowed to steal because they are rich. Further, O'Leary himself does not actually believe what he's saying, at least not when he's the potential victim of such fraud. Jon Stewart built his entire monologue this week around this subject, and that included a lengthy segment shredding O'Leary and including clips of "Mr. Wonderful" slamming contestants on Shark Tank for overvaluing their companies. The video is here; the O'Leary portion begins around 7:15.

D.S. in Boston, MA, asks: I am curious to know: Where is Trump's Bible printed?

(V) & (Z) answer: That information is not publicly known, and it's not for a lack of trying by reporters.

Originally, before Trump joined the "project," it was set to be published by HarperCollins, using an imprint that is mostly for religious books. That publisher got cold feet, and so did a couple of others, such that there's a list of entities who definitely DID NOT publish the book, but no clear indication as to who DID.

The fact that Trump and Lee Greenwood are clearly working to keep this information secret, and that it takes 4-6 weeks for the Bibles to be delivered, very strongly suggests a foreign supplier, and probably one that would look bad if its identity became publicly known. The most obvious candidate is a publisher/printer in China, but one suspects that would-be Bible buyers would be none-too-happy to learn that production took place in ANY non-predominantly-Christian country. And if the publisher/printer happened to be in a predominantly Muslim country, then look out.

M.B.T. in Bay Village, OH, asks: Regarding Donald Trump's new publicly traded company, if the shares are really worth only a fraction of their current price, why can't Trump simply short sell a chunk of them, then rake in the millions when the prices fall? He might even be able to do it semi-secretly through third parties so that it would be days or weeks before anyone realized he'd done it.

Let's see how many people short sell the shares—it could even boost the stock price temporarily before the tulips hit the fan.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is against the law for insiders to short sell their company's stock, or to invest in put or call options. And insiders are defined by the SEC as "an officer, director, 10% stockholder and anyone who possesses inside information because of his or her relationship with the Company or with an officer, director or principal stockholder of the Company."

Trump could TRY to do this through a third-party, but that would also be illegal. The SEC is on the lookout for shenanigans like this, and Trump is historically not very good at hiding his tracks. So, he'd be at big risk of getting popped.

K.L. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: Taegan Goddard had an item "Trump Posts Video of Biden Bound and Gagged." He quotes The Washington Post: "In the video, two trucks decorated with giant Trump flags and altered American flags are driving on a highway. On the tailgate door of one of the trucks is the image of [Joe] Biden lying horizontally, bound and gagged."

Another outburst, another day of TFG going off the rails. How can this not be illegal? Wouldn't this be considered an actual threat to the president? How can there be no legal repercussions?

(V) & (Z) answer: Trump is very, very good at approaching the line without crossing it. As we wrote last week, threats are only criminal if they are imminent. If Trump had said "Here's what we're gonna do to Biden next Thursday," then THAT would be actionable. But Trump didn't say that.

On top of that, Trump obviously does not own the truck in the video, so it's not him who is technically threatening Biden, it's the truck owner. Yes, by reposting the video, Trump is tacitly signaling his approval; that is how he operates. But tacitly approving, while perhaps enough to earn censure from Congress (see Gosar, Paul), is not criminal.

J.C. in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, asks: What are your thoughts on the bridge collapse as relates to politics: Joe Biden's ask for $1B, GOP allegations of bad infrastructure, one of America's busiest ports...?

(V) & (Z) answer: The instant carping from Republicans was, as is so often the case, evidence that either they are operating in bad faith or out of ignorance. We are not engineers, but we've read plenty of analyses from people who are, and they are unanimous in saying that if you hit a pylon with a 95,000-ton object traveling at 8 knots, that pylon is going to collapse, no matter how well built it is.

There are two factors that made this situation particularly bad. The first was a fairly limited system of concrete barriers, called "dolphins," which are meant to absorb and deflect damage in a crash like this. The second is that the bridge was pretty old and was built without redundancies, such that one big blow was enough to take it down. That makes it what is known as a "fracture critical bridge." It might be nice to go back and fix all such bridges, but there are 17,000 of them in the United States.

The bottom line is that the tragedy was unavoidable. If this had been a newer, better-built bridge, it might have held up longer than it actually did, allowing time for the half-dozen dead or missing people to escape. But this is not some gross failure of oversight by the Biden administration. It is like Titanic; once the Dali lost control, the fate of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was sealed. The only question was how long.

As to Biden's ask for $1 billion to fix it ASAP, it's the right thing and the decent thing to do. But imagine if the shoe had been on the other foot, with Donald Trump in the White House and, say, the Golden Gate Bridge that was fatally damaged. It is unlikely Trump would have lifted a finger; certainly, he made a big point of withholding federal funding from California after the devastating wildfires of 2019. And the fact that the Republicans in Congress are balking at the ask is just another reminder that they don't have any interest in helping blue states, no matter how much the blue states might need it, nor—if we may say so—how much it might be in line with biblical teachings. On the other hands, the red states are quite happy to stick their hands out when they get hit by, say, a hurricane.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: I wanted to follow up my question about "knowns" and "unknowns" for this election season.

Specifically, with the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse this past Monday, I would call it an "unknown unknown." Nobody anticipated this would happen, but it does have an effect on the election with regards to the supply chain, infrastructure, and federal/state relations.

Do you agree this is an example of an "unknown unknown," and how will this impact the election?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is a classic example of an unknown unknown. However, we don't have enough information yet to know how it will affect the election. The East Palestine, OH, train derailment was just over a year ago, and it's been forgotten. Maybe this will be, too, particularly if Congress agrees to send money to Baltimore (something that would only require a handful of Republican votes). On the other hand, if Republicans in the House and Senate decide to dig in, this could become a big political football, with Democrats talking about how heartless Republicans are, and Republicans talking about how careless the Democrats are about spending money and running up the national debt.

S.M. in Pratt, KS, asks: What are the Republicans thinking in their opposition to federal funding to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore? I keep seeing all the usual suspects with their usual mindless opposition to anything to help anyone not in their state. They have run out their normal line of racism (DEI did this), homophobia (Buttigieg is unqualified) and misogyny (the port authority leader is a Black woman, she must be unqualified).

Do they not know that Larry Hogan has a decent chance to take the Senate seat in what is normally a very blue state? After they stop, or slow, the funding to a vitally needed project, why would anyone in Maryland want to vote for a Republican, even if he had been a good governor? The campaign commercials will almost write themselves.

(V) & (Z) answer: Our guess is that it's the usual suspects doing the usual posturing they do whenever there's a news event (even a tragedy) they can take advantage of, and that there will be many Republican votes for the money once Congress is back in session.

The only other explanation is that they don't really think Hogan can win, and so don't mind throwing him under the bus.

A.S. in Black Mountain, NC, asks: Joe Biden said he wants to fund the bridge replacement. I saw a story about how the insurance coverage for shipping companies is facing one of the largest claims ever for such an event. How do all the funding sources, state, federal, insurance work together and who pays what?

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, either the federal government, or the government of Maryland, or both, will get to work rebuilding the bridge and will front the costs for that. Waiting for all the legal stuff to play out simply isn't an option.

That said, claims will be brought against the Dali's insurer, which is the Britannia P&I Club. That entity insures 90% of the world's ships, and is a liability-pooling arrangement, very much like Lloyd's of London. When the claims are adjudicated, things will get messy, as is often the case with maritime law. There is a U.S. statute, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, that says a ship's owner is only liable for losses equal to the value of the ship and its cargo. That probably means that the Britannia P&I Club will write a check to the owners of the Dali for whatever the ship and its cargo were worth, and then will be done.

That is when things will get messy. The government agencies that paid for rebuilding the bridge, the families of those people who died and the businesses that lost cargo might all go after the owners of the Dali in hopes of being made whole. It is likely that the latter two groups will be paid off, while the government will get some smallish amount of money and will have to eat the rest of the cost of repairing the bridge.

A.M. in Brookhaven, PA, asks: I'm curious who would set the agenda for the Alejandro Mayorkas Impeachment trial. If it is primarily Democrats, could they potentially give minimal time (say 2 minutes) to the impeachment managers and significantly more time to the defense (say an hour)? The defense could then spend most of their time giving a campaign speech for Biden's reelection knowing that the votes aren't there to convict so they don't have to waste their time with that.

(V) & (Z) answer: The majority, in this case Senate Democrats, sets all the rules. The only thing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and his team are thinking about is what approach would send the best message. They could hold a trial that lasts 5 minutes, to make the point that this whole thing is a waste of time, and there's no "there" there. But the downside is that they would be open to attacks that they were pulling strings to hide Mayorkas' alleged criminality.

Alternatively, the Senate could hold some version of a real trial, and let the Republicans show they have no evidence of impeachable offenses. Given Schumer's cautious style, we assume this is the option he will choose.

S.N. in Charlotte, NC, asks: I saw a video on PBS NewsHour of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announcing his running mate, and the sound and cadence of his voice alone should be enough to turn people off. Does he always sound like that? Oof.

(V) & (Z) answer: For those who have not heard RFK Jr. speak, and who do not wish to click on the link, he sounds like someone who has been smoking 6 packs a day for 60 years.

Kennedy was a little more scratchy-voiced than normal on the day he announced the VP pick, but not a lot. He is in serious competition with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) for the title of "worst public speaker among current nationally known politicians." Junior is also Exhibit A for "public-speaking skills are not heritable," because his old man was one of the finest public speakers of the last century.


D.L. in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico, asks: While you've covered this quite a bit, The New York Times' penchant (like that of so many other media outlets) for both-sides "journalism" has me in a debate with another like-minded chap. He believes they're doing it out of fear of retribution during a possible Trump re-infestation, while I attribute it more to the social-media model of generating engagement with enragement. In other words, if they can have me and others like me foaming at the mouth, they've certainly got our attention. Thoughts?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is no chance that the Times or other non-right-wing publications are hiring a few token right-wingers to curry favor with Trump, should he become president again. They are the enemy, and will remain the enemy no matter what they do, because Trump needs to be able to blame his problems on the media.

There is every chance, on the other hand, that these outlets are operating on the principle that controversy attracts eyeballs. After all, an angry reader is still a reader. Some of the most commented upon articles at The Washington Post, for example, are the garbage put out by Hugh Hewitt and Marc Thiessen. And nearly every comment is very negative. Meanwhile, the rather more reasonable, but still certainly conservative, Henry Olsen does not get nearly as much engagement. It is obvious what kind of hires this incentivizes when it comes to new columnists. If lefty readers were smart, they wouldn't engage with Hewitt or Thiessen at all—don't click, don't read, don't comment. Lack of interest is much more likely to keep them from having their contracts renewed, as opposed to enormous amounts of negative interest.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: Why do so many conservative politicians, including TFG, use the term "Judeo-Christian" values, as opposed to just "Christian" values? Is it a ham-fisted attempt to attract Jewish voters? (Pun intended). Is it due to some sort of anti-Muslim bias? Or is there some actual difference between Judeo-Christian values and Christian values? Where did the term "Judeo-Christian" even come from?

As an aside, growing up as one of the few Jewish kids in a rural Appalachian town, I had the strange experience of hearing two Christian kids argue about the fate of my immortal soul—with each other! One kid was insistent that people could be saved by the Book (Old Testament) or by the Word (Jesus), and the other kid was equally adamant that I was set to burn for eternity unless I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. Does this difference have something to do with the use of Judeo-Christian?

(V) & (Z) answer: (Z) has a lecture on the construction of Disneyland and the rise of California's tourist industry. And as part of that lecture, he shows a video of the little speech Walt Disney gave as, essentially, a benediction for the opening day of Disneyland on July 17, 1955. Consistent with that, the Disney Company invited several religious leaders to be there to stand next to Walt. And they really wanted to cover "all faiths," so they rounded up a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi. If you'd like to see for yourself, the broadcast is here (Bonus: The narrator/host for that portion of the show was then-television-personality Ronald Reagan).

So, you're in the ballpark when it comes to the origins of this term, at least as it is commonly used today. In essence, it was the 1950s version of DEI. And the desire to be more inclusive was prompted in part by changes in American culture, but it was prompted even more by the politics of the Cold War. One of the foremost Soviet critiques of the American way of life was that American society was highly divided along religious, economic and racial lines, while Russian society was allegedly unified. Switching from "Christian" to "Judeo-Christian" was meant to create an impression of broader religious unity among the American people. Of course, that particular version of unity did not find room for Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Wiccans, Baháʼí, etc.

And, in case you are wondering, in its original usage (pre-1940s), Judeo-Christian meant something along the lines of "person of Jewish background who has embraced Christianity."

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: You raised the quadrennial question: "Were you better off then than now?" with the comment "we ask, you answer." But my question is this: politically speaking, what makes people decide that they are better or worse? Is it a strict, hard-boiled assessment of their personal finances?

(V) & (Z) answer: Clearly, as we demonstrated in that item, people don't take that question literally. As we've written recently, in relation to Joe Biden's alleged dementia, people aren't really wired to recall events from 4 years ago, segregating them from events 3 years ago or 5 years ago. Because if they were, it would be a very dumb question for Donald Trump to ask, since virtually everyone outside of Zoom shareholders was worse off 4 years ago than they are now.

What the question really asks, we think, is something like this: "Do you think your life is headed in a positive direction right now?" And so, we suspect that is what people are actually considering when they try to answer that question. It may be, and surely often is, their financial health that they are pondering, but it could also be their physical health, or their level of happiness, or how safe they feel, or a bunch of other things.

D.S. in Palo Alto, CA, asks: Based on multiple comments on your part, you appear to reject Cassidy Hutchinson's hearsay claim that Donald Trump very much wanted to go to the Capitol but was forcibly prevented from doing so by his Secret Service people. Instead, you accuse him of cowardice for inciting the mob and then not joining them. What is the reason for this disconnect?

(V) & (Z) answer: The U.S. Secret Service works for the president, not the other way around. If Trump absolutely insisted on going to the Capitol, they have no power to stop him. It was very convenient for him that, dadgumit, he really, really wanted to go, but he just couldn't, and it wasn't his fault.

K.G. in Atlanta, GA, asks: Why can't Judge Tanya Chutkan put the D.C. insurrection trial on the docket for July or August? That gives TFG's lawyers plenty of time to prepare, since for this case they're just twiddling their thumbs waiting for the late-June SCOTUS decision. (If SCOTUS rules in his favor (!), she can always cancel the trial, the way she did the original March 4 date.)

Since the appeals court very clearly ruled (doing the Supremes' work for them) that no, he doesn't have absolute immunity from crimes, she has plenty of basis for moving forward.

(V) & (Z) answer: She certainly could. As readers know, Department of Justice policy prohibits employees from taking adverse actions against politicians within 90 days of an election. But Chutkan is not bound by that, since she doesn't work for the DoJ. She's not even in the same branch of government.

Ultimately, she will have to decide if she thinks holding a trial relatively close to the election is improperly prejudicial. We suspect she will decide it is not, reasoning that: (1) It is Trump's own choices that led to this schedule, (2) the American people deserve to know if he's a felon or not before voting, and (3) if he does not face justice now, he might never do so.

R.W. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: A question about the fundraiser that jealous, petulant toddler Donald Trump is planning to hold at Mar-a-Lago next month. Given that he is asking people to pay $814,600, and given that is the precise limit for contributions to his new joint fundraising committee ("Trump 47 Committee"), let's assume that is where the money is going. Let's also assume that after the event, Trump announces that not only did he top Biden's $25 million fundraiser, but he actually took in the $33 million that he was aiming for. Of course Donald would never lie, but how can the media (or others) fact-check that?

(V) & (Z) answer: His campaign, and all of his PACs, have to file reports with the FEC documenting every dollar they take in, and how each of those dollars is spent. If he claims a haul of $33 million, then at some point he will have to show expenditures that account for where that $33 million went. And if he doesn't, it either means he (or someone in his orbit) illegally stole money from his PAC, or it means he lied on his disclosure forms. Either way, it's a crime, of the exact sort that he's about to be tried for in New York.

In short, it is much wiser for him to tell the truth here. There's just too much of a paper trail to risk lying.

A.S. in Chicago, IL, asks: I have a question about prominent Republicans who say they won't support Donald Trump. Do you think this will have any real effect with the electorate, especially if they say they can't support Trump but don't publicly say they are voting for Biden? My feeling is if they do not encourage and vote for Joe Biden, their refusal to endorse Trump is pretty meaningless. To me this is saying that they don't like Trump but aren't really taking any action to do anything about it and acting like there is no difference between Biden and Trump.

(V) & (Z) answer: You are exactly right. "I am so concerned about Donald Trump that I am going to vote for someone whose politics I don't agree with in Joe Biden, just because I believe that is essential to the future of democracy" is far more powerful than "I dislike Trump and Biden, so I'm just not going to vote for either."

There have been presidential elections where the two candidates were pretty darn similar, like Alf Landon and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, or Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison in both 1888 and 1892. This is not one of those elections. The strengths and weaknesses of Trump and Biden are so very different that it is nearly impossible to even compare them, much less to argue compellingly that they are equally bad. It's not merely apples and oranges, it's apples and soyrizo.

By the way, it's no fun to be put in the position of voting for the less bad candidate in a presidential election, but that's sometimes how the system works. We just don't find it credible that, if someone thinks both 2024 candidates are bad, they truly cannot decide which one is worse.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: Now that the RNC has been gutted and all funds are being diverted to Trump's legal fees, are we looking at a situation similar to the Democrats in 2010? President Obama dropped the ball in directing the DNC to focus on his re-election, to the detriment of downballot races, leading to the "shellacking" that Democrats received in those midterms. The GOP took over state legislatures in droves, gerrymandered the heck out of their states, and here we sit today, with maybe 50 competitive House districts, and probably fewer competitive districts for state Senates and Houses. Donald Trump happened, in part, due to the power that was ceded to the GOP in 2010. With down-ballot GOP candidates probably being starved for funds that they were counting on from the RNC, are we going to see a correction or reversal of the 2010 Democratic shellacking?

(V) & (Z) answer: It is certainly possible that we will see something like that, but there's one rather large difference between 2010 and 2024, namely that 2024 is a presidential year. It's going to be the race at the top of the ticket that gets voters to the polls, and expenditures on things like get-out-the-vote operations are likely to matter far less than they would in a non-presidential election.

In other words, the RNC's financial woes will hurt the GOP some, but it probably won't be as bad for them as 2010 was for the Democrats.

D.V. in Columbus, OH, asks: Obviously the national poll showing RFK Jr. pulling Biden down below Trump is semi-meaningless if he can't get on the ballot in the 5-6 swing states where there could be a real impact. Has he gotten on the ballot for the likes of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin yet? If not, how close is he to getting there? Semi-worried minds would like to know!

(V) & (Z) answer: The Kennedy campaign has announced that it's made the ballot in Nevada, and that it's got the signatures it needs in Georgia and Arizona. Obviously, sometimes signatures are rejected, so don't put those two in the bank quite yet.

The campaign has said nothing about the other three states, which just so happen to be three of the four most populous states on the list. It's fair to assume that RFK Jr. isn't yet close to making the ballot in those places.

B.W.S. in Pleasant Valley, NY, asks: Many sites (including have written about the prospect of the House majority shifting to the Democrats before the election—which, as is equally observed, has never happened in America before—and what some implications of such an occurrence might be. What would be the most likely scenario in which this might happen? And, just how likely is it, at this point?

(V) & (Z) answer: The only plausible scenario, in our view, is if some number of GOP members have formed a pact to resign and give the majority to the Democrats. If they did so, it would be in service of some agenda, possibly trying to defeat Donald Trump, or maybe to make sure Ukraine gets funding, or something like that.

We don't think it's terribly likely at this point. However, now-former Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) implied that such an arrangement exists, and there HAS been an unusual number of premature retirements by Republicans. So, it's not impossible. If six of the 19 Republicans who are retiring were to go to Speaker Mike Johnson and say: "Either you bring the Ukraine funding bill up for a vote or we are retiring right now," he would probably do it.

D.M. in Richmond, CA, asks: If the House Democrats were to attain the majority (through Republican resignations) and vote in House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) as speaker, would the one-vote-to-vacate-the-chair thing still be in play? Or are new House rules formulated each time the speaker changes? Before the current speakership, what was the norm or threshold in terms of vacating the chair? (We're sure all learning a lot of details about courts, Congress, etc that used to be mundane. I hope we get to keep these institutions so that this learning matters.)

(V) & (Z) answer: When a new House convenes, they adopt, by majority vote, the rules that will govern the chamber for the next 2 years. A majority is free, at any time, to update the rules.

That is surely what the Democrats would do if they regained control of the lower chamber, eliminating the one-vote-to-vacate-the-chair rule and restoring things as they were before Kevin McCarthy. This is a little weedy, but it's actually always been possible for one member to propose to vacate the chair. However, that member had to be either the majority or minority leader. For everyone else, a motion to vacate had to pass through the House Rules Committee before it could be brought to the floor. So, a motion to vacate needed at least half the votes of that Committee, which usually means/meant 7 votes.

McCarthy's concession, then, was to give EVERYONE the power to skip the Rules Committee, as opposed to just the two party leaders.


R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Why do candidates get the cheapest TV rates? Is it law or a courtesy by networks? Something else?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's not exactly a law, but it IS an FCC rule adopted in the early 1970s. The reason for the rule is that the FCC did not want television and radio stations to have undue influence over elections by making commercials cheap for some candidates and expensive for others. So, those stations must sell commercials to "legally qualified candidates" (basically, anyone who has qualified for a ballot) at the cheapest rate they charge to any customer (this is called the "lowest unit rate"). So, if Al's Mattress World buys 1,000 commercial slots a year, and pays $500 each due to a bulk contract, then the station has to charge the politicians $500 per ad even if those politicians only run one ad.

TV and radio stations can opt out of a particular race—for example, no U.S. Senate commercials. But once they show one Senate candidate's commercial, they have to accept all, and charge the lowest unit rate to all of them. The stations can, of course, reject offensive ads. And the FCC also realizes that ad slots are limited, so a station can refuse a candidate if inventory is sold out. This is why candidates usually make large ad buys, and well in advance of when the commercials will actually run.

The FCC only has authority over broadcast stations, based on the fact that the electromagnetic spectrum is a publicly owned resource being leased to the stations. So, cable TV stations and not-over-the-air audio broadcasters (podcasts, SiriusXM, etc.) are not subject to these rules. That said, such entities offer cheap rates to candidates nonetheless, just because they have to in order to be competitive with their over-the-air counterparts.

If you would like more details, the FCC's fact sheet on political advertising is here.

A.J. in Baltimore, MD, asks: Has any state ever permitted all residents to vote in both Democratic and Republican primaries? If that happened, do you think it would result in more extreme candidates (due to ratfu**ing) or less extreme candidates (due to moderates of one party being genuinely more appealing to the opposing party)?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are several ways to interpret your question, but we assume what you mean is states allowing all residents to vote in both the Republican and the Democratic primaries. This is called double voting, and it's explicitly outlawed in nearly all states, and has been for as long as there have been primaries.

Those states who want people to be able to weigh in like this have, instead, blended both primaries into one. That way, voters are only casting one vote. Louisiana does this, so do California and Alaska. And results in those places are mixed. Sometimes letting everyone vote produces more moderate nominees, sometimes it produces more extreme nominees. Generally, the best way to eliminate the extremists is to have an instant-runoff general-election ballot, like the one Alaska has.


K.H. in Scotch Plains, NJ, asks: I was born in summer 1992, George H.W. Bush was President at the time and in the midst of that year's presidential campaign, Clinton and Bush were running and Perot couldn't seem to decide whether he was or not.

I would love to know your assessment of every president from Bush Sr. up through Biden (so far) and how well they did as president and leader and the basic responsibilities both entail, as both of you are learned men. I'm a political/American history junkie myself but it would be enlightening to me.

(V) & (Z) answer: Here's a brief rundown of those six presidents:

  1. George H.W. Bush: A decent man, but one who was too much in the thrall of far-right elements in his party. He deserves credit for successfully liberating Kuwait, and for standing by his principles even when it wasn't politically expedient, but there was also too much sleaze, including giving the Iran-Contra crooks a pass.

  2. Bill Clinton: Future generations won't understand why he was so popular, since his achievements were mostly related to economic prosperity, and because of his significant #MeToo-type issues. He was charismatic, and a lot of Americans on both sides of the aisle were comfortable with his hand steering the ship of state.

  3. George W. Bush: A decent man, like his father, but even more in the thrall of far-right elements (while less able to rein them in). He handled the short-term post-9/11 fallout well, and should be credited for coming to the defense of American Muslims. But the wars he started (on the urging of those far-right elements) were disastrous, as were many other assaults on American civil liberties and the norms of democratic government. He was also, like his father, largely uninspiring. He will remain in the basement when it comes to presidential rankings.

  4. Barack Obama: The most charismatic and inspiring president since Ronald Reagan, and a man of great integrity. Obamacare was a real feather in his cap, but he should have gotten more out of a filibuster-proof Senate while he had one. He spent most of his second term idling in neutral, excepting the Paris Accord.

  5. Donald Trump: If he is not rated the worst president in American history 20, 50 and 100 years from now, the only possible explanation is that there was somehow someone worse that came after him. President Cruz?

  6. Joe Biden: It's too bad for him that history tends to remember charisma and dramatic speeches, because those aren't his fortés. However, his legislative record is as impressive as any president of the last half-century, given the Congress he was dealing with.

You didn't ask for anyone prior to these six, but if you had, we would have had very positive things to say about Gerald Ford, who has a case as the most admirable Republican president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: Why was Reconstruction on the whole a failure? What went wrong? And were there any positive long-tern positive effects of the Reconstruction Era? And how would you have handled Reconstruction if you could re-do it?

(V) & (Z) answer: The Reconstruction Era was not, on the whole, a failure. Consider the impossibility of passing amendments to the Constitution today. And then remember that during Reconstruction, a fundamentally very racist country nonetheless adopted three amendments that ended slavery, guaranteed equality before the law and extended the vote to men of color. That's a big deal. There was also much progress made in the area of education for the freedmen and women.

The primary failures of Reconstruction are that the economy of the South was not reinvented, nor was the basic racial order. As Americans have learned many times, nation-building is very tough, even when we are talking about part of the American nation. The country just didn't have the stomach for the kind of investment it would have taken to completely remake the South. Remember that the federal government expended substantial effort there for a decade, which is really quite a long time, and still progress was limited. It would probably have taken 50 years (time enough for virtually every Southern adult from 1860 to have died off). The benefit of hindsight does not offer a solution to this problem, so there's nothing different that we might have done, had we been in charge back then.

The notion that Reconstruction was a massive failure was primarily the work of the Lost Cause thinkers, who not only needed to justify their actions during the Civil War, but also those afterward, as they oppressed Black Southerners and re-established total white supremacy. Their success in rewriting the history books is indicated, in particular, by the massive success of the movie The Birth of a Nation.

S.K. in Drexel Hill, PA, asks: K.P in Coventry asked if any presidents besides Donald Trump have had their VP refuse to endorse them for a later campaign for office. In your response, you noted that Theodore Roosevelt remained on good terms with his only VP. Can that truly be the case, given that Roosevelt's next run for office was a third-party presidential bid, opposing William Howard Taft's re-election? I thought that run would have wrecked any goodwill Taft had toward T.R., and surely Taft did not approve of the challenge.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is true that Roosevelt and Taft became somewhat bitter rivals, but Taft was not VP, he was Secretary of War. Roosevelt's VP was Charles W. Fairbanks, with whom he remained on good terms.

H.M. in San Dimas, CA, asks: This seems woefully trivial considering all that is going on this election year. But that has never stopped me before, so.... I have been reading a lot about Richard Nixon lately. It's amazing how some of his quotes on his tapes remind me of Trump. Anyway, I like to ponder "What If?" scenarios, as it helps distract me from current events. While reading a couple of biographies on him, both of which praised his foreign policy expertise, I then read All the Presidents Men and The Final Days, both of which included remarks from those in the administration that Henry Kissinger was the real foreign policy genius, not Nixon.

All of this leads me to two questions: (1) How much of Nixon's foreign policy accomplishments do you credit to him and how much to Kissinger? and (2) Let's assume there had been no Watergate. Hadn't happened. Everything else remained the same. And let's say that, because we have no idea what Nixon would have done if he had completed his second term, that he died in mid-1974 instead of resigning. How do you think history would treat Nixon? Would he be ranked among the top 10 presidents? Top 20?

Like I said, trivial to be sure. Thanks for responding, if you do.

(V) & (Z) answer: It's hard to fully trust administration insiders to evaluate Nixon vs. Kissinger because there was definitely a "Nixon" faction and a "Kissinger" faction, and there was also much reason to badmouth Nixon after Watergate.

In any event, Nixon was brilliant, and he was showing off his foreign policy chops while Kissinger was still a grad student at Harvard. So, we just can't buy the argument that Kissinger was the real, and only, power behind the throne. Plus, the greatest diplomat in world history isn't going to be of much value if their boss, in this case the president, does not put them in a position to make use of those skills. So, we conclude that Nixon deserves more credit than Kissinger, but that Kissinger nonetheless deserves a big chunk of the pie. Let's say something like 60/40 for Nixon, if you want to visualize our thinking.

And Nixon was personally uninspiring, notoriously sleazy, had a great legislative track record, and bears some responsibility for the horrors of the Vietnam War. Lyndon B. Johnson was personally uninspiring, pretty sleazy, had an even better legislative track record, and bears more responsibility for the horrors of the Vietnam War. In other words, absent Watergate, the two presidents are reasonably comparable. Johnson tends to check in between #10 and #15, and that's around where Nixon would be, we think, if not for the scandal that brought him down.

M.B. in Cleveland, OH, asks: In 2020, Joe Biden's margin of victory was fewer than 100,000 votes from Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona. In 2016, Donald Trump's margin was fewer than 100,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In 2000, the entire election came down to fewer than 1000 votes in Florida.

Is there a source that summarizes this margin for every election? How many votes in which states would have changed the overall outcome?

(V) & (Z) answer: Actually, the best source for this is Wikipedia. Their presidential election pages all have a sub-section for "close states" (you can see the one for 2020 here), in which you see exactly how many votes swung the closest states and, when relevant, which state was (or would have been) the tipping-point state for each candidate.


K.B. in Manhattan, NY, asks: I assume you have each taught: (1) capable, but unmotivated students and (2) motivated, but struggling students. Do you have general strategies to help both groups?

(V) answers: The European system is very different from the American one (and much less student-friendly). The U.K. is more like the U.S., but in much of continental Europe, the professor gives a lecture once a week for 2-3 hours (with one or two breaks in the middle), there is an assigned book, and a final exam at the end. There is no homework and no small recitation sections taught by grad students. If the student passes the final exam, the student passes the course. If the student fails the exam, the student fails the course. Pretty straightforward.

Early on, I decided I wanted to have a midterm exam for half the grade. I thought this would motivate the students not to wait until the week before the final to read the book. I asked my colleagues if a midterm was even allowed. They had never heard of such a thing. I then asked the department chairman and after some thought, he said he didn't see anything wrong with it, provided the students were told on Day 1 about the midterm and the way the final grade would be computed.

Computer science was very popular from the day it began, so classes were held in the biggest lecture hall in our building. It held 300 people. And that wasn't really big enough, so students stood in the back and sat on the steps on the side. During the breaks, students would come up to me and ask questions, but these were always the best students, who had good questions that went beyond what I had discussed in the lecture.

I instituted office hours, which was unheard of, but none of the other professors objected, of course. They just didn't see the point of it since their lectures and the book covered all the material on the final exam. Again here, the students who showed up were the best and the brightest, the ones who were interested in the subject matter, had difficult questions about the more advanced material, and wanted additional reading material. Needless to say, I was happy to spend as much time with them as they wanted and always encouraged them to go deeper into the subject. Weak students didn't dare show up.

Office hours were fun because I got to know the smartest and most highly motivated students personally. It must have worked, because at least half a dozen times over the years I'd be walking around some foreign city where I was speaking at a conference and somebody would come up to me and say: "Hello Prof. Tanenbaum. I was your student back in [YEAR] and you motivated me to have a career in the ICT business. I'm going to the [NAME] conference today. Is that why you are here?"

So for better or worse, my personal interaction was always with the best students, not the weakest ones. Sorry I can't answer the question better.

(Z) answers: In contrast to (V), I've always taught at public universities in the United States. The culture is much more student-friendly, and in some ways, it's like extended high school. That's more true at the community college level than at the university level, but even at a 4-year-school, there's some amount of hand-holding.

As to your questions, there's no panacea here, and maybe not much brilliant wisdom to share at all, keeping in mind that I have 100 to 500 students at a time, and I only have them for two or three months. It's hard for there to be huge amounts of effort targeted at individual students, because there just isn't time.

In any event, if a student is unmotivated, the best thing to do is teach an interesting class, with material presented in an accessible and interesting fashion, a fair number of changes of gears (e.g., lecture, some discussion, more lecture, a film clip, etc.), assignments that afford some amount of creativity/leeway (things like "select a picture from the 1950s and analyze it" so the students can gravitate towards the things that interest them), etc. I have had plenty of students who had a reputation for flaking out on other classes, but who were all-in on my classes.

It is also necessary to accept that, for some students, unmotivated is just the way it's going to be. If it's a month until graduation, and they are clearly burned out, and all they want is a C- to graduate, maybe you give them a little leeway. Not too much, but a little.

As to motivated but struggling students, every college professor has some amount of time set aside for one-on-one interactions (i.e., office hours). You encourage them to come to office hours with questions, outlines/drafts of their essays, etc., and you also try to boost their morale/self-esteem. That doesn't mean you lie, but you can certainly tell those students they are capable of doing the work, otherwise they wouldn't be here.

In this case, it is necessary to accept that sometimes, you grade a bit more on the level of effort and a bit less on the quality of work. A C+ essay where you know the student worked really, really hard might reasonably become a B- or a B, particularly if it reflects growth compared to earlier assignments.

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