Biden 243
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Ties 15
Trump 280
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Dem 51
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Trump’s New Policy Wonks
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Netanyahu’s Split with Democrats Was Years in the Making
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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Saturday Q&A
      •  Today's Presidential Polls

Saturday Q&A

We are getting a lot of history questions these days. Good thing that the staff historian does not socialize with the staff mathematician on Friday nights.

And sorry, we need to postpone the reader question of the week one more time. School year's all but over, though, so that shouldn't happen again anytime soon.

Current Events

K.F.G. in Washington, DC, asks: I don't see any downside, political or otherwise, for Joe Biden in taking an aggressive stand over Hamas kidnapping so many Americans—giving them 48 hours to release them, with the threat that otherwise the U.S. military would rescue them. He could say his duty to protect Americans required him to take such action. Do you agree?

(V) & (Z) answer: No, we do not. First, it is generally understood that there are currently five Americans being held, along with the bodies of three Americans who have perished. And whether the number is five, or 15, or 150, we can think of four ways a rescue operation could turn disastrous:

  1. If the rescue attempt has to be aborted partway through, say because the U.S. forces can't figure out where the hostages are. This would make Biden look weak and incompetent.

  2. If some sizable number of U.S. soldiers die in the attempt, particularly if they die in a violent manner. This would make it seem as if Biden is willling to sacrifice the lives of U.S. service members in search of political points.

  3. If Hamas, aware that a rescue effort was underway, decided to simply execute the remaining Americans. This would make Biden appear to be responsible for those deaths (and it would be even worse if Hamas executed the Americans in a violent manner, like beheading, and then released footage of the executions).

  4. If Hamas were to use the rescue effort as pretext to launch some sort of violent attack on an Israeli city or U.S. military base. This would make Biden appear to be responsible for the damage wrought by that attack.

This is not merely theoretical. Most of these things happened when Jimmy Carter attempted to rescue the hostages held by the Iranians in 1980, in an effort code named Operation Eagle Claw.

B.J. in Arlington, MA, asks: My understanding is that Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2007. They have held power without subsequent elections since then. They may have assassinated some of their political rivals in the process. Vladimir Putin has been prime minister or president of Russia since 1999. There have been various sham elections since then through which he has maintained power. He may have assassinated some of his political rivals in the process. Both governments are currently waging war on a democratic neighbor in an attempt to destroy them and take over their land. Russia is doing better at the attempted land grab but Hamas is doing better in terms of international political support.

Russia is considered to be a legitimate country with a legitimate (not friendly to us) government. The U.S. government declared Hamas to be a terrorist organization in 2008. I'm wondering why Hamas is considered a "terrorist organization" instead of an autocratic and hostile government, as Russia is. Is it related to Gaza's not being recognized as an independent state by the U.S.?

(V) & (Z) answer: We have written about this before, but there is indeed a lot of value judgment involved in deciding exactly who is, and is not, terrorist. There was a time, for example, when the U.S. government officially considered Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to be terrorist, and Osama bin Laden and the Afghan mujahideen to not be terrorist.

If one wanted to justify the inclusion of Hamas and not Putin, then the argument would be based on the following points: (1) Hamas' government is somewhat less legitimate than Putin's, (2) Hamas' violence is almost entirely political in nature and serves no clear strategic or tactical purpose beyond that, and (3) Hamas draws little distinction between civilians and military, except when it is specifically targeting civilians.

It must be noted, however, that the most important difference between the Putin regime and the Hamas regime—even if you would not be able to find a federal official willing to say this openly—is that the Putin regime is not Islamic and the Hamas regime is. If you look at the list linked in your question, you'll notice that at least 95% of the groups listed are Islamic. Meanwhile, other groups that are generally deemed terrorist by other Western nations—militant separatist groups like the Irish National Liberation Army or the Bakassi Movement for Self-Determination, or Neo-Nazi groups like the Atomwaffen Division or The Base, don't make the cut in the U.S.

R.H. in San Antonio, TX, asks: Donald Trump is officially a resident of Florida now. There's at least a punter's chance that he will be a convicted felon in 2-3 weeks. Will Florida allow him to vote, as a convicted felon?

(V) & (Z) answer: To regain the right to vote in Florida, one has to complete all the terms of one's sentence. If Trump is given a light enough sentence, be might be able to do that before Election Day.

Alternatively, it's entirely possible that the Florida legislature, on the pretext that the trial was a sham, will pass a bill specifically restoring Trump's right to vote even before he's completed his sentence.

And finally, it's also possible that Trump might welcome his disenfranchisement. It would allow him to play martyr, and at the same time would give him an out when it comes to the Florida abortion proposition ("It does not matter how I would vote on the abortion initiative, as the Biden administration has managed to take my vote away from me.")

R.M. in Bryan, TX, asks: You quoted the following in a communication from the Trump campaign: "I nearly escaped death. Biden's DOJ was locked and loaded for deadly force at Mar-a-Lago..."

Did he mistake the word "nearly" for "narrowly?" Another sign of cognitive decline. Or worse, if he meant it (and it's true that he did not escape death) is Trump running to be our country's first zombie president (that we know of)?

(V) & (Z) answer: We don't think Trump writes his own fundraising e-mails, but the person who does (Steven Cheung?) is no wordsmith. There's no reason that "I nearly escaped death" is better than grammatically correct formulations like "I narrowly escaped death" or "I nearly faced death," so we have to assume it's just a dumb mistake, made in the heat of the moment at the campaign rushed to capitalize on the news.

Of course, Trump COULD be a zombie president. Doesn't that process start with some other zombie eating your brain?

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You write that the Pine Tree Flag is a flag of Christian Nationalism. I am familiar with this flag as the neighborhood flag of Charlestown, the neighborhood of Boston where Bunker Hill is. And some Paul Revere stuff, I think. And bank robbers, if the movies are to be believed. You see this flag all over Charlestown. It's also used as a symbol by the New England MLS team, and I think is generally a symbol for all of New England, which I would characterize as the least Christian Nationalist part of the country.

What's going on with this Pine Tree Flag? Has New England been co-opted?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, the flag has been co-opted. Just like the Gadsden Flag (a.k.a., the Don't Tread on Me Flag), or Pepe the Frog. Someone who just flies the Pine Tree Flag is surely entitled to the benefit of the doubt, because of its non-insurrectionist meanings. Someone who flies that flag AND who flies the U.S. flag upside-down gets much less leeway.

S.R.S. in Marietta, GA, asks: In the photo of Samuel Alito's Jersey shore retreat, what do the other two flags flying at Alito's beach house signify?

(V) & (Z) answer: This one is surely unobjectionable:

Three blue triangles of 
different colors, a red square, a white square, and a yellow circular design that is clearly meant to be a sun

It is the flag of Long Beach Island, which is where the Alito house is located.

This one, by contrast, should offend the sensibilities of decent people everywhere:

A pennant with a blue background,
red trim, and '2022' in ivory-colored numbers

It commemorates the Philadelphia Phillies' trip to the 2022 World Series (where they lost to the Astros).

P.S. in North Branch, MI, asks: With the appearance of second Alito flag at his beach house, it has me wondering, when was the last time we had a Supreme Court justice that was so obviously compromised?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, let us introduce you to friend-of-the-wealthy Clarence Thomas.

Before him, it would probably be Abe Fortas, who took money from private "supporters" (such as $20,000 from the soon-to-be-convicted-for-insider-trading Louis Wolfson), and who basically lived in Lyndon B. Johnson's coat pocket.

F.I. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: Why hasn't Jack Smith moved to get Judge Cannon removed from the case? It's pretty apparent that she's in the bag for Trump.

(V) & (Z) answer: First, because it's not easy to get a judge kicked from a case. Second, because if you try and fail, you end up with someone who is now even more hostile to you than they were previously. Third, because if Smith's goal is to try to get the case tried before the election, staying with Cannon is probably the way that happens (even if the odds are slim). Switching to a new judge would set things back by at least a couple of months, and there's also no guarantee that the new judge will be a marked improvement over the current one. Note that the Eleventh Circuit is not far behind the Fifth Circuit when it comes to being conservative-leaning.

T.C. in Jersey City, NJ, asks: Regarding your item about Rudy Giuliani representing himself in court and the speculation that he might not be able to afford an attorney or cannot find one who will agree to work with him: Wouldn't he be entitled to a public defender? Other than being a madman and full of pride, why wouldn't Giuliani accept the free assistance? Wouldn't having a public defender help out be worthwhile?

(V) & (Z) answer: We doubt that Giuliani's ego would allow him to do what is necessary to get a public defender, which includes not only asking for one, but also providing some proof of inability to pay.

Beyond that, it likely wouldn't be worthwhile. PDs are good at the things they often need to defend, like DUIs, assault, vagrancy, etc. You could look long and hard for a PD who has experience with election fraud, and you still likely wouldn't find one. Giuliani's best option, if he really can't afford counsel, would be to find a politically friendly organization that doesn't care about him, but that does care about the outcome of the case. For example, the Alliance Defending Freedom, or the American Center for Law & Justice.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: On reading about your 20th anniversary, after feeling the spirit of gratitude, a question occurred to me that goes back to the basics. Granted, it is a very small sample size (5 data points), what is the earliest, latest and average dates where predicted the winner of the presidential race? Also, as a reminder, how accurate was each final prediction?

(V) & (Z) answer: We are actually going to punt on your first question, because it would be hard to give an answer that is not somewhat misleading. For example, as we pointed out yesterday, our very first projection for 2004 was pretty close. But the very next day, it was Kerry 320, Bush 218, which wasn't close at all. There are just too many fluctuations, based on small amounts of data, until we reach September or so.

What we WILL do is tell you how we did in our final projections:

Year Projected Winner Projected Loser Actual Winner Actual Loser
2004 George W. Bush, 259 John Kerry, 252 Bush, 286 Kerry, 251
2008 Barack Obama, 353 John McCain, 174 Obama, 365 McCain, 173
2012 Obama, 303 Mitt Romney, 220 Obama, 332 Romney, 206
2016 Hillary Clinton, 317 Donald Trump, 215 Trump, 304 Clinton, 227
2020 Joe Biden, 350 Trump, 170 Biden, 306 Trump, 232

So, we are 4-for-5, based just on the numbers. Note that our projections don't usually add up to 538, since we do not project states that are a statistical tie on Election Day (e.g., Ohio in 2020). Also, we generally have some verbiage that gives a bit of nuance to the numbers. Despite our miss in 2016, for example, we had this:

[W]e have 12 states today that are within the margin of error (the ones with a white center in the map). Furthermore, polling this year is worse than it has ever been. To start with, many small colleges and unknown pollsters are in the game for the first time this year and don't have a track record. They may or may not know what they are doing. Second, response rates to pollsters are below 10% and with such unpopular candidates, it is hard for pollsters to find enough people willing to take the survey. Very low response rates may bias the sample in ways as yet unknown. Third, due to low response rates, more and more pollsters are polling over the Internet (e.g., SurveyMonkey, YouGov, Ipsos). Getting a random sample here is all but impossible, so the corrections applied later are absolutely critical. Polling has become like photography: the first 1/125 sec isn't so important. It is the next hour with Photoshop that determines what the photo looks like. All this means that, unfortunately, we may be in for quite a few surprises tonight.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: There have been stories about Republicans going after contraception. Are the Republicans really stupid enough to go after the right to contraception? Wouldn't that cost them millions of votes at all levels?

(V) & (Z) answer: The strategy seems pretty clear, at this point. First, go after surgical abortion. Then, go after medical abortion. Then, go after at least some forms of contraception. Certainly, birth control pills are eventually going to be in the crosshairs. We're not sure if that will eventually extend to birth control devices, like condoms and IUDs, but we're also not sure that it WON'T eventually extend to those things. Truth be told, our guess is that it will eventually include devices used by women, but not those used by men.

The True Believers, and the local politicians who kowtow to them, don't much care about the national implications of their crusade. After all, in their eyes, for the first 400 years of Christianity, Christians spoke truth to power and were persecuted for it before eventually the majority saw the light.

R.L.P. in Santa Cruz, CA, asks: The New York Times ran a story about the Andrew Pinson vs. John Barrow election in Georgia. The article says Barrow ran on an abortion-rights platform and lost against Pinson, who openly opposes abortion. This outcome runs counter to numerous others in which voters, when abortion is a major issue in a campaign, have voted overwhelmingly in favor of abortion rights. Does this election result affect your thinking about Dobbs as an issue with legs?

(V) & (Z) answer: It does not.

Pinson is an incumbent, and Barrow is a former member of Congress who might well be unpopular for non-abortion-related reasons (we don't know). Also, while Barrow certainly tried to make the election about abortion, that was basically sleight-of-hand, as the Georgia Supreme Court has, in addition to Pinson, one elected Democrat and seven justices appointed by Republicans. Whether Barrow won or not, it was going to have zero impact on the fate of abortion in Georgia.

Most importantly, if a dozen elections suggest "X" and one election suggests "-(X)," well, a dozen is way more than one.

M.B. in Shenzhen, China, asks: If TFG is found guilty of the felony charges in the Stormy Daniels case, what do you think the effect on the election would be if Biden then announces: "In order to avoid the Constitutional turmoil this puts our country into, if I win the election and Donald Trump does not challenge the results, putting our country into another crisis of confidence, I will pardon him of all Federal charges, resolved or pending."

(V) & (Z) answer: It would gain Biden zero votes, and would cause some meaningful portion of his base to rebel against him.

J.L. in Colorado Springs, CO, asks: I am scared to death that Donald Trump is actually going to win the election this fall. I'd like to personally make the most impact to help Biden win. What do you think is the best way to do so? Sending money seems silly, as Biden has a huge war chest. Doing work locally in Colorado seems also to not be fruitful; if Biden loses Colorado, he's lost the election. I've thought of travelling to a swing state (maybe Arizona, since it's close?) for the couple of days leading up to the election and getting people to the polls since it seems turnout is really important. Is that the best thing to do? If I couldn't afford to make the trip, what alternatives do I have?

(V) & (Z) answer: Contact your local Democratic organ, which in your case is the El Paso County Democratic Party, and pose this question to them. They will have things you can do to be helpful to Biden, like phone-banking.

J.N. in Freeland, WA, asks: The Idaho Capital Sun reports that 15 incumbent Republican legislators lost their bids for re-election this week. Unfortunately, their story doesn't identify whether the Trumpers are being swept OUT of office or INTO. Also, the paper reported hundreds of challenges for GOP precinct committee races by persons trying to reclaim the party from Trumpers.

Any comments on either or both of these stories?

(V) & (Z) answer: We are not surprised by the latter story, as that is going on in many states. Even some people who support Trump do not support party leadership that is scorched-earth, stop-the-steal, Trumpism-at-all-costs.

As to the former story, we are not dialed in to Idaho politics, but we looked at a couple of the races, and the lesson seems to be "all politics is local." For example, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder seems to have lost to Josh Keyser because Winder has been in office for a long time, and Keyser argued it is time for a change. Julie Yamamoto seems to have lost because she opposes school vouchers, while her opponent Kent Marmon supports them. We could not find a candidate who was running on "I'm super Trumpy" or "I'm not very Trumpy." Not only do they largely not mention him, but they also avoid the dog-whistle-y Trump issues, like "election integrity." Note also that these primaries generally attracted fewer than 10,000 voters, so one would not want to draw too many conclusions from them, regardless of their dynamics.

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI, asks: I am struck by the need to call in presidents of universities to see them squirm in the presence of some prima donnas wanting to score a few points. Even locally, we've heard our president here at the University of Michigan has been asked to testify. It seems if someone wants to know how universities operate, the politicians should be asking provosts, the chief executives focused on internal operations. Free speech on campus appears to be one of those. Usually provosts are home-grown, and presidents, including ours, come from outside.

(V) & (Z) answer: It is Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) who is leading this charge, and whatever she might be, she's not stupid. She knows full well how universities work, especially since she used to be on one of the committees that helps to govern her alma mater, Harvard.

If the Representative actually wanted to learn something useful, she would indeed talk to provosts. But she doesn't give a tinker's damn about antisemitism on campus, or about anything else on campus. She just wants to score political points. And she knows that university presidents are: (1) higher profile, (2) more likely to be (or to appear to be) DEI hires and (3) more likely to struggle questions about something that is not their area of responsibility.

D.M. in Alameda, CA, asks: Could you help me to understand why polls usually report the responses of registered voters and not likely voters? It seems to me that LV polls would be much more valid than RV polls in predicting outcomes.

(V) & (Z) answer: Because generally, at this point in the process, LVs are the party activists on both sides of the aisles. So, if you only include them this early on, you are theoretically over-weighting the extremes and underweighting the mushy middle.

Whether that is true for this election, in which a lot of non-extreme people nonetheless feel strongly about voting for/against Joe Biden/Donald Trump, is a very good question. It's also worth noting that Biden does better with RVs than he does with adults in general, and he does better with LVs than he does with RVs. So, if you believe that there is a sizable cadre of voters out there who would normally be un-invested at this point in the process, but who are motivated in 2024 because of Trump/abortion/something else, then it would mean Biden is doing better than most polls (which, again, are currently based on RVs) suggest.

M.A.K. in London, England, UK, asks: Could you go into more detail about your decision to exclude Redfield and Wilton on the grounds that they're apparently too partisan? In the British context, they're relatively new (founded 2020), they've not produced numbers that are consistently divergent from more established pollsters, they're members in good standing of the British Polling Council, and they've established themselves as no less reliable than the likes of YouGov, Ipsos MORI, and SavantaComRes.

(V) & (Z) answer: Here is Redfield and Wilton's LinkedIn page. Their core business is advising individuals and candidates how to maximize their support. That is the textbook description of a campaign consultant. They use polling to help their clients, but we are nervous about using the results from an organization that could easily decide that the best way to help the client is to lie about the polling results, or to selectively release polling results. Mason-Dixon, SurveyUSA, Gallup and the small colleges don't advise candidates on how to maximize their votes. They just try to get at the actual truth.

L.G. in Thornton, CO, asks: Since this presidential election could be very close, do you have any plans to show on your presidential map poll splits in these states that award electoral votes by district rather than winner-take-all?

(V) & (Z) answer: No. First of all, the software just isn't set up for it. Second, Nebraska and Maine aren't polled a lot as Nebraska is very red and Maine is very blue. Third, when they are polled, the results are not always published by district. Most likely, NE-02 and ME-01 will go the same way as last time. When we do have specific results on these districts, we will mention them, though.


M.U. in Seattle, WA, asks: Where did the idea come from that we have three "co-equal" branches of government? With all this talk about the Supreme Court and how Congress actually has the constitutional power to regulate it, it's apparent that the legislative branch is not co-equal but actually supreme. They even have power over the executive branch, since if they pass a law and the president vetos it, they can just override that and put the law into place anyway. Surely the founding fathers were very aware of the supremacy of the legislative branch, were they not?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is no question that the fellows who wrote the Constitution intended there to be a system of checks-and-balances, but also that the legislature was to be first among equals. This is made clear by the fact that Article I (the legislature) gets 2,269 words, while Article II (the executive) gets 1,023 and Article III (the judiciary) gets just 375. The framers also gave the legislative branch considerably more power to impose its will on the other branches; not only can Congress override vetoes from the executive and place limits on the powers of the judiciary, but only Congress has the power to remove members from any/all of the branches. That is to say, the members of Congress can impeach and remove a judge or president, and can expel one of their own. Neither of the other branches can remove a sitting member of Congress from their post.

When writing the Constitution, the model was the British system, where Parliament was already effectively supreme. However, the Framers were wary of kings and corrupt judges, so they tipped the scales in favor of the legislature even more so than was the case with the British system of that era.

D.T. in Columbus, OH, asks: Let me preface my question by clarifying that I am absolutely NOT advocating for any sort of political violence. Feel free to add any necessary disclaimers, or discard this question entirely if you feel it is inappropriate.

Do many other democracies in the world have the concept of "lifetime" terms for important policy making positions? Or are federal judges in the U.S. unique among non-authoritarian states?

I'm sorry if this is kind of a dark question... but how does this not lead to a significant increase in political violence? A system where major policy can shift dramatically based on the timing of the deaths of specific individuals, seems like it would invite a lot of assassination attempts. Why aren't these events more common?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are no clear examples of democracies that choose executives or legislators for life, unless you squint very, very hard and declare that something like the Vatican is a democracy. But it isn't.

That means we're really talking about judges. Some democracies abandoned life tenure for judges, some never had it. These days, nearly all judges in democracies are subject to term limits (often 10 or 18 years on the bench), or to mandatory retirement ages (often 70 years of age) or both. There are only two places where a judge is appointed for life: the U.S. federal courts, and the Joint Court of Justice of Aruba, Curacao, Sint Maarten, and of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba. Even U.S. state courts have some sort of limit—either a judge can only serve a fixed number of years, or to a certain age, or they have to be re-elected or re-appointed.

And the general lack of assassinations is because a judge is not generally useful to assassinate for symbolic purposes, and assassinating a judge is not likely to produce a desired policy result, since authority is so diffused throughout the judicial branch. Also, these days, high-ranking judges have pretty good security details.

J.L. in Paterson, NJ, asks: In response to L.A. in Waynesboro, you mentioned that Democrats Abroad can cast votes at the national convention. In picking the delegation, does Democrats Abroad have any in-person voting, or is everything online or by mail? Can expat Democrats also vote in the primary in their state of last residence, thus getting two votes?

As for the point you touched on, about each delegation delivering its votes as a stand-upper in front of a landmark, I suggest that a Democrats Abroad delegate stand in front of a bombed-out apartment building in Ukraine. This would bring the war home, literally, by reminding viewers that many people have lost their homes because of Putin's war. Support for Ukraine is a significant policy difference between the two parties.

(V) & (Z) answer: Democrats Abroad, like the 50 states, DC, and all the U.S. territories, has to submit a Delegate Selection Plan to the DNC by July of the year before the presidential election. The plan describes how the delegates to the national convention will be selected. Primaries, caucuses, mail-in votes, drop boxes, etc., can be part of the plan. If the DNC approves the plan, it can be carried out.

Democrats Abroad has used various schemes over the years, including electing delegates to a world Democrats Abroad caucus (basically, the Iowa system) and a global primary (used in 2024). D.A. Country committees have some freedom in collecting the votes. Some have voting centers for D.A. members to drop off their ballot, which is de facto in-person voting. Some don't.

And it is forbidden to vote in both the D.A. Global Primary and a state primary or caucus.

E.P. in Manassas, VA, asks: I believe all of us have heard that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. So, if ten states had their votes illegally flipped, or the voting was not done correctly, how many people would have had to have been in on that conspiracy? I do not even have a clue—I would guess it would have to be a fairly sizable number, way too many to keep a secret.

(V) & (Z) answer: It depends on how many votes you're trying to flip. If it's 100, then maybe it could be done with a small handful of co-conspirators. If it's enough to flip a state, you'd need dozens and dozens of co-conspirators to pull it off.

The fundamental problem for fraudsters is that the U.S. doesn't have a single presidential election, it has thousands and thousands of local elections. So, if someone is trying to corrupt one precinct's results, that might be doable with a few people in key places. Once you increase that to two precincts, or five, or ten, you not only need the precinct-level folks, but also the folks above them on the food chain. It gets very big and complicated very fast.

On top of that, there are people who pore over election results, either for fun, or for academic purposes, or for political purposes, looking for red flags. If a precinct that went for Joe Biden by 100 votes 4 years ago suddenly goes for Trump by 50, that sticks out. Also, human beings are actually very bad at faking numbers, and there are often telltale signs when the books have been cooked.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: It seems to me that Elon Musk's private ownership of SpaceX, and especially the Starlink technology, is a potentially very dangerous situation. That seems like way too much power for one private individual or company to possess. Lots of speculation about a future IPO of SpaceX discusses how much it will be worth as a public company. I've seen $150 billion tossed out there. If the U.S. government decided somehow that it would be best for national security to control this Starlink technology, is there anything legally that would prevent the government from buying a controlling interest if the company ever goes public?

(V) & (Z) answer: This is certainly legal. If the U.S. government decides there is a compelling national interest, and can convince a court, then they can force a sale through the doctrine of eminent domain.

Alternatively, the government can acquire a private corporation the old-fashioned way, by buying it (or seizing it as payment for debts). The government often owns companies that are in receivership for some finite period of time, usually until they can be sold. But it also partially or wholly nationalizes some companies if doing so is deemed to be essential to the provision of some service. The Federal National Mortgage Association (a.k.a. Fannie Mae), for example, is partly private and is partly owned by Uncle Sam.


F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: Please give us your assessments of every president.

(V) & (Z) answer: We've done the presidents from Andrew Johnson onward, so today it's the eight who came immediately before him:

  • William Henry Harrison: In his time in office, he had no scandals of any sort, never signed an unbalanced budget into law, never argued with Congress, never went to war with anyone, and never took a single classified document home with him. Clearly, the gold standard for presidents.

  • John Tyler: He deserves credit for establishing that a VP who succeeds to the presidency is fully the president, but beyond that he was a nonentity (and a Southern sympathizer who eventually turned traitor). To the extent that his administration had accomplishments, they were clearly the work of other men (like the Webster-Ashburton treaty).

  • James K. Polk: He promised to settle the Texas situation, and did. He promised to figure out the border of the Oregon Territory, and did. He promised to acquire California, and did. He promised to serve only one term, and did. Some of these goals don't look very admirable, in retrospect, but in the context of his times he was a very successful president.

  • Zachary Taylor: A very good general, and he might have been a good president, able to put country before party. But then he died, so we'll never know. A year and change just isn't time to establish a legacy, especially at the glacial pace of 19th century politics.

  • Millard Fillmore: Perhaps the most anonymous president in U.S. history. How many Americans even know there WAS a president named Millard Fillmore? We bet it's less than 20%. He threw his weight behind the Compromise of 1850, which seemed to him a good way to keep the peace, but ultimately set the country on the road to civil war. Taylor had pointedly refused to back the legislation, so this was a foreseeable outcome. Beyond that, he opened Japan to American trade, which was probably good for the U.S., but not so good for Asia. A low-ranked president, with good reason.

  • Franklin Pierce: There are two men who appear to have been elected president primarily on the strength of being good-looking fellows who were tolerable to all wings of their highly divided parties: Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce. One of Pierce's neighbors was asked about "Frank's" presidential ambitions: "Oh, he is a pretty good fellow here in New Hampshire—but come to spread him all over the Union he's mighty thin." That proved prescient; Pierce's son was killed in a violent accident on the way to Washington, and the President basically receded into depression and severe alcoholism. On top of that, even if he had been in the right frame of mind, he was a pro-Southern doughface. Add it up, and he sat in the White House and did nothing useful while events began to tear the nation apart. He signed the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 into law, did nothing when Kansas descended into violent partisan warfare, didn't lift a finger when American citizens began invading and trying to conquer foreign countries so as to make them into slave states, etc. Justly regarded as one of the half-dozen worst presidents in history (alongside fellow pretty boy Warren Harding, incidentally).

  • James Buchanan: And then we get to one of the two contenders for the title of "Worst President in U.S. History" (the other is far more recent, and likes gold toilets). Whereas Pierce and Fillmore were guilty of bad leadership through inaction, Buchanan thought of himself as the next George Washington, and took lots and lots of action, nearly all of it wrongheaded and destructive. He put his thumb on the scale with the Dred Scott decision; Buchanan thought that would solve the "slave question" for all time, but all it actually did was enrage the North (which, in turn, enraged the South). The President also tried to ram through the obviously fraudulent Lecompton Constitution, which would have made Kansas a slave state, despite the fact that it was clearly the work of Missourians who had crossed the border, and despite the fact that he was conveniently overlooking THREE antislavery constitutions that were legitimate. Buchanan did sit on his hands sometimes, though, like when Southern states began to secede and to seize federal arms and property in 1859. There is no one person who can be blamed for the Civil War, but if you absolutely had to pick someone, it would be either Buchanan or John C. Calhoun. And at least Calhoun's extreme Southern partisanship is justified by the fact that he was an actual Southerner. Buchanan was from Pennsylvania, for God's sake. He was certain history would vindicate him, and he was wrong about that, too. What a terrible, terrible president.

  • Abraham Lincoln: And now, the actual gold standard. He wasn't much of a foreign policy president, but that didn't matter too much, because he was able to entrust those matters to the very capable Secretary of State William Seward. Beyond that, Lincoln was a gifted public speaker, an inspiring figure, one of the two or three greatest political minds in U.S. history (in competition with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alexander Hamilton), a man able to lead from either ahead or behind when necessary, a humanitarian and a man capable of both taking risks and admitting when he'd made a mistake. Without Ulysses S. Grant, the Union probably doesn't win the Civil War. Without Lincoln, it definitely doesn't. And don't forget that when he took office on March 4, 1861, the majority of Americans regarded Black people as somewhere between "inferior" and "not human." In his final public speech, on April 11, 1865, he endorsed Black suffrage, which became reality just a few years later. He's almost always #1 in the presidential rankings, as well he should be.

B.D.M. in Tempe, AZ, asks: You wrote: "For example, in the last 10 years (as we note above), there have been several important works reevaluating Ulysses S. Grant, and making a persuasive case that his reputation has less to do with his service as president and more to do with the Lost Cause. So, Grant has risen."

Please suggest one or two generally readable books on Grant that cover his accomplishments, yet don't overemphasize the Lost Cause narrative of scandals by appointees.

(V) & (Z) answer: If you want to read the best explanation of how and why Grant's reputation was ruined, and why that is unfair, see U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth by Joan Waugh (full disclosure: Waugh was Z's dissertation adviser). If you want the best modern biography of Grant, then see Grant by Ron Chernow. It's lengthy, but very well written, and in line with the current scholarship.

A.G. in Scranton, PA, asks: In regards to Gods and Generals, what part of a made-for-television-quality sequel to a reasonably well made film (though one steeped in Lost Cause mythology from beginning to end), that has such wonderful gems such as basically a male "Mammy" just totin' them bag for ol' Massa [Stonewall] Jackson, a terribly filmed and inaccurate depiction of Marye's Heights and the field at Fredericksburg, and whose insipid script and the terrible readings thereof made those 5 hours not enjoyable?

Seriously, the prequel Gettysburg is still an enjoyable film, even if it's a little heavy on the whole Lost Cause stuff. The characters are likeable, the script well written and well presented, and the storyline was (though of course rather sparse in terms of details of a massive, day's long battle) at least somewhat educational and reasonably inspiring... inasmuch as someone who watches that film might Wiki the battle or (maybe there's one or two people who still go to battlefields) go there and see the hallowed ground for themselves.

Did you know that Little Round Top (LRT) was treeless at the time of the battle? Incredible. They should restore it to that.

(V) & (Z) answer: Note that this is inside baseball, but Gettysburg (unlike Gods and Generals) is not so much Lost Cause as it is an example of what historians call the Reconciliationist Cause. The two main differences: (1) the Lost Cause only celebrates Southern soldiers, whereas the Reconciliationist Cause celebrates soldiers on both sides, and (2) the Lost Cause argues that the war was caused by something other than slavery (usually states' rights), whereas the Reconciliationist Cause tries to avoid any explanation whatsoever for what caused the war, focusing instead on the notion that what's really important about the Civil War is that the country emerged stronger and more unified afterwards. There is much overlap between the two interpretative traditions, however, such that only someone who studies these things closely would notice the differences.

As to LRT, yes, (Z) knew that. Well, actually, it wasn't completely treeless before the battle. But it sure was by the time the battle was over.

However, those trees aren't going anywhere, for two reasons. First, and less important, is that it would be hard to remove them without disturbing all of the (dozens and dozens) of monuments. Second, and more important, is that battlefield tourism has damaged LRT, such that it's slowly collapsing. The roots of the trees have slowed that process.

P.M. in Reading, England, UK, asks: It occurred to me reading your remarks about U.S. Grant that those presidents who have been supreme commanders in their armies (to use modern phrasing)—Washington, Grant and Eisenhower—have been quite effective presidents, while those lower down the command structure have not (e.g., Franklin Pierce) or have failed to be elected (e.g., Winfield Scott Hancock). What's your view?

(V) & (Z) answer: It does appear that leading a large army is pretty good preparation for leading a country. But there are certainly some lower-ranked officers who became good or great presidents, including Abraham Lincoln (Black Hawk War), William McKinley (Civil War), Theodore Roosevelt (Spanish-American War), Harry S. Truman (World War I), and John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson (World War II).

Incidentally, only one enlisted man has ever become president, and that was James Buchanan, who was a private in the Pennsylvania militia. So, that particular grade does not have a great track record.

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: Wasn't Benjamin Harrison, like Ulysses Grant, relatively favorable and less vicious to the Native American peoples than the other presidents of that era? Am I mistaken about that? If I'm not mistaken, shouldn't that raise his standing some?

And you write about McKinley: "He managed to get the U.S. economy back on track." Did he really have agency there? Wasn't it just part of the bust-and-boom cycles of the time? You have often written how presidents are wrongly credited or blamed for the economy (poor Martin Van Buren!). Why credit McKinley here?

(V) & (Z) answer: Harrison was a supporter of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, and of assimilation in general ("kill the Indian, save the man"). That was the progressive position of his day, but does not look too great from a modern vantage point. Further, he is the president who ordered what became the Wounded Knee massacre. That pretty much forfeits all of a president's brownie points.

As to McKinley, he served in an era with no Federal Reserve, and with gold-backed currency. So, presidents had a little more impact then, because the best (and largely only) tool available was to convince Americans to be confident in the stability of the economy. And he did it. That skill is far, far less relevant when there's a central bank, and when there is fiat currency.

K.F. in Framingham, MA, asks: Has there ever been a comparable period in American history where a president, former president, or even just a well-known public figure commanded such a polarizing dominance in the psyche of the American people in the same way that Trump has sucked up so much oxygen in this current period, and where the individual became a movement unto themselves? If so, how long did it endure and what finally brought that to an end? Did it end with a bang, a whimper, or did people eventually just get tired of the whole charade?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are two obvious presidential examples, namely Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. They weren't quite as willing as Trump to try to actively undermine a sitting administration, but people also had no doubt when Jackson was unhappy with John Tyler, or TR was unhappy with Woodrow Wilson.

There have also been leaders who had enormous local influence, like Hiram Johnson in California or Huey Long in Louisiana. And there have been religious leaders who had a cult-like or near cult-like following, such as Charles Grandison Finney, Henry Ward Beecher, Joseph Smith, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. Usually, the person's power largely lasts as long as they do; for a well-established religious movement it can last longer, however.

To get at what you're asking: History suggests that Donald Trump will be a cult leader until the day he dies, and while there will be people who try to succeed him once he's under the 16th green at Bedminster, they probably won't succeed.

J.D.Z. in St. Paul, MN, asks: You wrote: "public trust in the Supreme Court is at a near all-time low." So... what's the lowest it's ever been? And why?

(V) & (Z) answer: Polling on this particular question is a fairly recent thing, so there's no data at all before the 1980s or so. However, there can be little doubt that the Supreme Court's reputation has never been lower than it was after the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Northerners saw the Court as the partisan instrument it was, and Southerners saw it as toothless after the decision did nothing to actually advance the pro-slavery cause.

M.G. in Arlington, VA, asks: Something I've been wondering about for which no one who lived through it seems to good answer: Was Robert F. Kennedy on track to win the Democratic nomination for president in 1968?

(V) & (Z) answer: Almost certainly not. There's no way to be sure exactly how many delegates the main candidates had on the day he died, because a great many delegates back then were what would be called "superdelegates" today, and had no obligation to reveal their choice until the convention. However, after California, the count was approximately 550 for Hubert Humphrey, 400 for Kennedy and 250 for Eugene McCarthy.

And now, the problem for RFK: Humphrey did not win a single primary or caucus. In 1968, only 15 states awarded Democratic delegates via caucus or primary. Outside of those 15, delegates were either chosen by party conventions or were superdelegates. And those folks were where Humphrey's delegate lead came from.

When RFK died, there were only a couple of primaries remaining (Illinois and New York), and they awarded a total of 64 delegates (around 1,300 were needed for the nomination). So, Kennedy would have needed to take a huge percentage of the votes of the Democratic Party's grassroots activists—people who were, up to the point of his death, voting overwhelmingly for Humphrey. It's not impossible, but not very likely, especially since there was a bit less than 3 months between the California primary and the Democratic National Convention.


A.S. in Black Mountain, NC, asks: Recently I have noted you send readers to Wikipedia as a reference. Has their accuracy improved? My approach has been "Trust but verify!" Or does the topic determine the accuracy of the entry?

(V) & (Z) answer: We have been linking to Wikipedia, which is no more or less accurate than a paper encyclopedia, for a long time. First, we know what types of articles are likely to be problematic, and which types are not. Second, we usually read over an article before we link to it, just to be sure.

P.N. in Austin, TX, asks: Did nobody get your Cliff Clavin reference? I appreciated it, at least.

(V) & (Z) answer: We got a few messages, but beyond that, we never know for sure if people pick up on these things. For example, we wrote this week: "we will learn on June 18 what happens when the GOP picks between their Johnson and their Hand." We thought we'd get a couple of messages saying "Why can't they choose both?" but we did not.

For those who are wondering, on the Tuesday before last, we wrote: "Them's the biggies, as we see it. Next week, it's Kentucky and Oregon, two states that have many, many things in common, like... um... uh... they're both split across two time zones? They're both famous for their grass? Their governors have never been in (Z)'s kitchen?"

That is a reference to an episode of Cheers where Cliff Clavin appears on Jeopardy! and has an unbelievable run in the first two rounds, such that he is way overconfident heading into "Final Jeopardy!" and unwisely bets all his money. When the answer is "Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz, and Lucille LeSueur," and he has no idea the question is supposed to be "Who are Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and Joan Crawford?", he writes "Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?"

Today's Presidential Polls

So many undecided voters in both states. Neither state is likely to move out of its current column, but if one does, it will be Texas, if wannabe U.S. Senator Colin Allred has long, long coattails. (Z)

State Joe Biden Donald Trump Start End Pollster
Texas 31% 41% Apr 12 Apr 21 Texas Lyceum
Washington 42% 34% May 13 May 16 Elway

Click on a state name for a graph of its polling history.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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