If you can't guess the most popular subject of letters this week, then you must have spent Friday and Saturday in a cave. Or watching Fox News.
A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: In the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, Republican strategist Alex Conant said, almost gleefully, that this election is no longer a referendum on Trump and his handling of COVID-19 but a referendum on the Supreme Court. He may be right, but I'm skeptical this will play out in the way he anticipates. He forgets that this isn't really a national election—it's a state by state battle, and for already-vulnerable Republican Senators, this was the last issue they wanted on their plate 45 days before the election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) urged his colleagues on Friday to "keep their powder dry" when it comes to whether they would vote on a replacement before the election. But McConnell should have taken his own advice. He is so crass and so indifferent to his own hypocrisy that he could not even wait so much as a day before wading into the politics of her seat. He had to announce on the day of her death that he will try to ram her replacement through the Senate before Election Day, obliterating his own rule that Justices should not be confirmed in an election year. And this is not only an election year—the election has already begun, with tens of thousands of ballots already cast.
If McConnell insists on forcing the Senate to decide this issue before Nov. 3, Susan Collins (R-ME), for one, is a goner. In fact, his statement that he'll do just that was probably enough all by itself to seal her fate. There is no good vote for her—the only winning move is not to play. In any event, voters will be reminded again and again of her betrayal with her vote to confirm Kavanaugh. I would also argue that this puts Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in an even more precarious position. If he votes to move a nominee out of committee, his challenger Jaime Harrison will once again remind voters that his position changes like the wind and that he simply can't be trusted. Even in the Kansas Senate race, which is unexpectedly close, Roger Marshall (R) does not want this election to be a referendum on choice, while Barbara Bollier (D), a physician, will gladly have that conversation.
I would posit that this time, McConnell's hubris has gotten the better of him and he has shot himself and his caucus in the foot. He's put them in a lose-lose situation and I'm not sure how, or if, they can get themselves out of it.
A.M. in Brookhaven, PA, writes: Here is a copy of a letter I sent to Senator Toomey. I encourage your readers from states with Republican senators to send a similar letter to their senators:Dear Senator Toomey,
I am writing you to urge that you NOT vote on a nominee for the latest Supreme Court vacancy. 4 years ago when Justice Scalia passed away in February, almost 10 months prior to the election, you and your colleagues refused to even consider President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Now that Justice Scalia's good friend Justice Ginsburg has passed away less than two months prior to the election, it is time for you and your colleagues to show the same consistency in your actions.
Given the current climate, an insistence on conducting a vote between now and either January 20 (in the case of a Biden victory) or January 3 (in the case of a Trump victory) would be an insult to the American people and would further jeopardize our faith in the Senate as a body able to capably legislate for the country.
J.K. in Short Hills, NJ, writes: In terms of filling Justice Ginsberg's seat prior to Jan. 3, how big was that Doug Jones win now?
J.W. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: From a purely procedural viewpoint, it will be extremely difficult for Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to hold the necessary hearings to approve a new Supreme Court Justice in just five weeks. In other circumstances he could probably force such a nomination through, but he's running a tight re-election campaign. Any time away from the campaign is advantage for his opponent. Graham may be Donald Trump's toady, but I'm guessing he loves himself more.
S.B. in New Castle, DE, writes: Like so many in our country, I am devastated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her life will ever remain an inspirational light of hope, justice, and determination for women everywhere.
Though gone in the flesh, I believe that her notorious spirit will use The Force in unimaginable ways to help our rebel alliance stop the evil Darth Mitch, his puppet president and their senatorial minions.
V & Z respond: As Luke Skywalker said, "Nobody is ever really gone."
J.L., Wanamingo MN, writes: RBG has passed, and while my initial feelings were ones of immense grief for the loss of this truly brilliant and pioneering woman, they quickly turned to panic over what happens next.
I have no faith that Mitch McConnell will resist becoming Hypocrite-in-Chief and Susan Collins will assume the role of Vice Hypocrite. They will forget about the "rules" they invented in 2016 and not allow the American people to choose a president who can then nominate the next Justice for the high court.
This will happen. After it does, and if Democrats, against all odds (and a 6-3 court that can effectively appoint a president), can win the White House and Senate, they need to do the unthinkable. They need to kill the filibuster and pass a law declaring that thirteen, not nine, justices are required on the SCOTUS, and that Joe Biden is just the person to fill the four new vacancies.
Assistant coach of the Green Bay Packers Kevin Greene, at a pivotal moment in Super Bowl 45, told linebacker Clay Matthews, "It is time. It is time." On the next play, Matthews forced a fumble that changed the momentum of the game.
I am telling Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer: It. Is. Time. Time to stop playing the game by a set of rules the other side refuses to acknowledge. Time to return the high court into a reflection of the majority of Americans over which it presides. It is time to wake up and realize our country is at a turning point that could turn it into an unrecognizable wasteland in every way imaginable.
The time for desperation is here. It is time.
S.S. in Athens, OH, writes: I remember reading a while back about a proposal to for reforming the process of SCOTUS appointments; it seemed like a reasonable idea to me:
- Justices are appointed to a single 18-year term.
- A new appointment takes place during every odd-numbered year (so each President makes two appointments per term).
- The President may make additional appointments in case of death or retirement/resignation; justices so appointed serve only the remainder of the term of the justice they are replacing.
D.F. in Hamilton, Scotland, writes: Donald Trump has confirmed his SCOTUS nominee will be a woman. The overwhelming favorites for the position seem to be either Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa. The former is unquestionably a highly qualified candidate and was confirmed by the Senate 55-43 when she was appointed to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 2017. Barbara Lagoa is less experienced but also has less baggage and would therefore be a less controversial nominee. She was comfortably confirmed 80-15 by the Senate when nominated for the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in 2019.
How can any Senator who voted for these experienced judges as being competent and qualified, now say they are not suitable for the current Supreme Court vacancy? Wouldn't it be incredibly hypocritical? I don't see Amy Coney Barrett as a right-wing radical conservative and believe she would be an excellent choice. She is obviously held in high regard by her colleagues and former students, regardless of their political affiliation or ideology.
For Democrats to block her appointment merely because she is a "Trump appointee" would be extremely childish.
V & Z respond: We will point out that the Democrats' argument, should it come to that, would be that they are not voting against the person, they are voting against the process. There is at least some merit to that argument, since it's the same one Senate Republicans made in 2016.
C.R. in Pelham, AL, writes: Wow. Your comments today on Ruth Bader Ginsburg really sugarcoated a massive loss for country, and not just the justice herself. There is absolutely nothing progressives can do to prevent another young, ultra-conservative Trump justice from taking her seat—the Brett Kavanaugh hearings proved that. With a 6-3 majority, including three Trump-nominated conservative justices in their fifties, and three others aged 65, 70, and 72, they will hold a solid majority for decades. Roe v. Wade is likely gone, and any progressive legislation can and will be ruled unconstitutional. For someone as smart as RBG, she surely left her country in quite a bind by insisting on working well into her eighties.
Joe Biden's only recourse now is to nominate Merrick Garland and a progressive woman (Kamala Harris?) to "replace" RBG, and have them a approved by a Senate without the filibuster. They would certainly have some legitimacy as a result of having been "denied" their seats by Mitch McConnell, and the first and third Trump justices would then become the two "packed" onto the court, having earned their seats through a strictly legal process but with questionable legitimacy. This would still leave the court with a 6-5 conservative majority, but would allow Chief Justice Roberts to still pretend to retain his role as a tie-breaker, calling "balls and strikes," though we know which side of the fence he usually falls on. Anything less would destroy the court's legitimacy in the public's eyes and lead to widespread civil disobedience, and the withdrawal of the people's consent to be governed. This is why McConnell erred so badly in using such heavy-handed tactics to replace Antonin Scalia—things like this tend to come out in the wash. Instead they've provoked a massive constitutional crisis, and likely the end of the rule of law.
The nation won its independence in 1781 at Yorktown and entered major wars in 1861 at Fort Sumter and in 1941 at Pearl Harbor. Following the pattern of a major war every 80 years, or once every generation, 2021 is shaping up to be the year of maximum peril.
V & Z respond: The number of Supreme Court justices is set by the Judiciary Act of 1869, and cannot be changed without superseding legislation.
L.S. in Greensboro, NC, writes: It will be interesting to see what the 6 ultraconservative Justices will find unconstitutional. Obamacare, marriage equality, any election contribution restrictions, all gun control laws, all environmental protection laws (goodbye Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act—Gorsuch might not agree, but there will be 5 other conservative votes), Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. I actually expect abortion rights will be pretty far down the list—that's always been more of a vote-getting ploy for conservatives. Dismantling the New Deal and the Great Society programs will be much higher priorities, I think.
It's funny, actually, to think of all the progressive purists who were so upset that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was "cheated" out of the nomination that they voted for Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump, or stayed home rather than supporting Clinton. They can now kiss all their progressive wish list items goodbye. There's no way Medicare-For-All or the Green New Deal would stand a chance of being upheld by this Court, and the conservative majority is locked in for a generation.
C.N. in St. Louis, MO, writes: You wrote: "If the Democrats remain unified, and if their spines remain in place..."
I laughed out loud when I read that sentence in your analysis on Saturday of how Mitch McConnell could be stopped. We all know the Democrats won't stand up to him, and I'm speaking as someone who always votes a straight Democratic-ticket.
Frankly, it was totally foolish for Ruth Bader-Ginsburg to expect to live to 90—way past the life expectancy for women in America. She should have retired when she was eighty, and let a young woman take her place back when Democrats controlled the presidency, House and Senate. Now look where her legacy lies: almost guaranteeing a conservative, reactionary Supreme Court for decades.
M.H. in Tokyo, Japan, writes: One of our greatest justices and one of my heroes was Thurgood Marshall. He retired in October of 1991, and died four days after Bill Clinton's inauguration. Had he chosen to stay on until his death, Clarence Thomas would never have gotten a seat on the court. Clinton would have nominated a moderate or liberal, and in 2000, Bush v. Gore most likely would have gone the other way. If Al Gore won reelection in 2004, neither John Roberts nor Samuel Alito would have gotten a seat, either. Hard to say what happens after that—it is unlikely that Barack Obama would have become president after 16 years of Democratic control. But I think we can safely say that if Marshall had made a different decision (and I'm not criticizing the decision; merely contemplating it), we would have a very different Court today, and in my mind a much better country.
D.E. in Houten, The Netherlands, writes: Of late I have this distinct visual in my head. In this picture two Visigoths are standing on the US border arguing if its worth the effort to pillage and sack the American Empire or if the can save the effort and let the Americans do it themselves.
B.R. in Union, NJ, writes: On Thursday, you had an item on the analysis of Donald Trump's town hall by CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale, and the extent of Trump's lying during that session. In the post, you noted the dilemma that Joe Biden will face when facing Trump in the debates—in particular, the risk that Biden will be forced to go off-message in order to respond to the non-stop assault of lies that can be expected from Trump.
This got me thinking of what I personally think was the second most significant of the presidential election debates—namely the second 1980 Carter-Reagan debate. (The most significant debate, of course, was the first 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate.) As those of us who were around for the 1980 election recall, Reagan responded to one of Carter's statements by saying "There you go again," which was a devastating way of expressing his position that Carter had misstated the facts, not just on that occasion but others as well. And I say that it was devastating even though I personally favored Carter.
That was the same debate where Reagan in his closing statement framed the question of the election as "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?". An incredibly simple, yet powerful closing line.
The Carter campaign was already in deep trouble before the debate. But with these lines, it was all over but for the shouting. These line became all anyone talked about, not only the next day but for the remainder of the campaign. And with this, Reagan won over a lot of those who were on the fence.
If I was one of Biden's advisers, I would suggest that after Trump's first dishonest response, Biden should deliver a short statement about how the President's remarks were full of lies, just like everything that comes out of the President's mouth. He shouldn't get bogged down in the specifics of the lies. Instead, he should simply say that he's sure that the fact checkers will handle the specifics in the follow-up to the debate, and that he encourages the listeners to pay attention to those discussions. Then, he should pivot to his own positions on the issue at hand. After that, he could just start every response to a Trump statement with "there you go again" and then focus on his message. That way he calls out the falsehoods without getting off message.
S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, writes: Maybe Joe Biden should print out a copy of the Luke Skywalker "literally everything you just said is wrong" meme and make it into a sign he can hold up so that he can simultaneously call out Trump's lies while making his own points.
More seriously, the important thing for Biden will be to not become flustered, which I see as a point in favor of sticking to his own points rather than trying to counter Trump's trolling. As they say, don't feed the trolls.
A.C. in Aachen, Germany, writes: I think that, in the debates, Joe Biden should do everything he can to damage Donald Trump's image of strength, virility, and dominance. This would seriously undermine one of Trump's strong points. Further, Biden would avoid looking weak if he refused to tolerate bully behavior.
How to do this? I am not proposing to do it in the style of a schoolyard-brawl, as Biden once suggested himself. But Biden should be on the attack and call his opponent out, whenever it is appropriate, maybe even explicitly calling him a liar (a murderer?) and the like. Quite obviously it is a very thin line between being clear, dominant and straight on the one hand and being an ridiculous bully himself on the other hand. But I bet Biden has a speechwriter or two to provide him with some unambiguous, snarky lines for al the situations that may evolve.
What is the risk? I think it is smaller than one might initially think. Those who already are firmly on Team Biden would just cheer and appreciate their guy showing Trump the business. This could even lead to a higher identification and enthusiasm (and quite a few memes). It would not hurt Biden's image much, as he is well-known for clear words and a straight-shooter approach. Trump's base would be annoyed (maybe even a bit surprised?), but they would be annoyed with everything Biden says anyway, so that doesn't really count. And the independents, the fence-sitters, those who are not really or strongly tied and affiliated to either side? I think for those guys it would make a very strong impression to watch the allegedly so strong Trump-balloon losing some air.
In the end, I think it is a higher risk to let Trump dominate the debates in order to look calmly tempered and presidential than it is to step on his toes every time he tries to peacock. Let Biden be on the offense, let him be on the attack.
P.S. in Arlington, TN, writes: In 1999, I was a Senior at Auburn University. Auburn was unranked in football and having a tough rebuilding year. The team played our 2nd biggest rival—Georgia—in the annual installment of "The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry". Georgia was ranked #16 and playing at home with a pretty good team. My cousin and I drove to Athens, GA, to watch the game as Auburn systematically blew out the Bulldogs. Auburn was up 38-0 and our quarterback had broken several university passing records before we pulled the starters.
The next morning I drove home and picked up a Sunday version of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wanting to read all about the big game. When I got home I was dismayed to find that the very reputable paper had neglected to write a single article in its sports section on the game, as if it were a non event. It was a night game, but give me a break! We're talking about Auburn versus Georgia here! It's not like they couldn't have written a few articles at the half, given the circumstances.
I made a comment about the paper and a buddy of mine from Savannah was listening close by and commented... "UGA ost. No report."
It is currently 1:24 a.m. on the 16th of September and foxnews.com has no mention of Trump's Town Hall "Blow Out" on its front page. I guess "Cheeto lost. No report."
K.H. in Ypsilanti MI, writes: With the season now off to a somewhat rocky start, I have to wonder if college football might prove to be the October surprise of this election, though one that could cut either way. If, as I think likely, the coming weeks bring a flurry of outbreaks among Division I teams with several prominent players becoming seriously ill or even dying, it will make an impression upon the public that mere statistics do not, highlighting the severity of this pandemic to Biden's advantage. However, if the three major conferences (the Big Ten will be too late to the party) that have resumed play are somehow able to do so with only minimal outbreaks and few severe cases, it will suggest this isn't as bad as some claim, justifying Donald Trump's downplaying the threat. Never mind the teams themselves will be taking extreme measures to control this, we're talking about public impressions here, and whether people see players getting sick or not.
Z.C. in Beverly Hills, CA, writes:In case people are wondering whether political narratives are impacting infection rates, I encourage you to look at The Washington Post's daily case tracker by state. It shows the 7-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 residents in each state. The highest is North Dakota with 45 cases/100,000 residents per day. The lowest is Vermont with 1 new case per 100,000 residents per day.
As of this writing (Tuesday), the 20 states with the highest case rates were states won by Donald Trump in 2016. The lowest 11 states were won by Hillary Clinton. Doesn't seem like a coincidence to me.
J.C. in Honolulu, HI, writes: Thanks for doing the quick synopsis of the situation in Minnesota for the 2020 election.
I was born and raised on the Iron Range of Minnesota and politically active with the DFL. Now I live in Hawai'i. The reason I, and so many other Rangers, have left the Iron Range is JOBS! Many leave and go to the Twin Cities, or else move out of the state. The good-paying jobs on the Range just are not there anymore. Mining, railroad, and shipping on the Great Lakes are not what they were back in the 1950s. Less manpower is required due to innovation and automation. Some blame the unions, but I would argue it's called "progress." Many on the Range are leaving the DFL because the state party is becoming an urban/suburban party and ignoring the rural areas. The votes are in southern Minnesota now. Look at how the DFL party treated Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, who is from the Range. He was replaced by someone from the Cities area. Tony Lourey's seat went Republican in a special election in 2019. That seat had been a DFL seat since the 1990s.
I would compare the Iron Range of Minnesota and the 8th Congressional District to West Virginia, where you also have mining and environmentalists clashing over issues. The Range wants to mine but environmentalists are blocking every attempt because of the Lake Superior Boundary Waters. By the way, if you have never been to the Boundary Waters, you have to go! It is so beautiful. My prediction is that the Iron Range is turning (or has turned) solidly Republican for federal office but will remain DFL for state and local offices. One can see this with five mayors on the Iron Range who are DFLers but endorsed Trump twice. 2022 redistricting will be very interesting in Minnesota.
V.B. in Canberra, Australia, writes: There have been many commentaries over the last few years on why evangelicals support Trump (and the Republican Party). There is a lot of history involved and strong feelingsm which purportedly explain the current situation. But such support still seems inconsistent with the core tenets of Christianity. This recent blog post says a lot for me. At the end of his post, author Jonathan Zdziarski writes:I've seen God work in my life in far too many obvious and clear ways for me to ever abandon my faith or deny God's existence. The church is the one that has failed both God and man, and in her hypocrisy has destroyed her witness. Whatever false religion the evangelical church has taken hold to lately, it in no way represents Christianity anymore. This strange spell the church is under is not the influence of the man Jesus Christ, but of...something else. My faith in Christ is unshaken. My faith in the church and in other Christians, however, is in ruins.
It is a sad day—politics and discourse have come to such a sad state. Hopefully, gloomy pessimists like me will be pleasantly surprised by the results of forthcoming elections.
L.B. in Phoenix, AZ, writes: This website is clearly biased and anti-Trump, so why don't you just be honest about it? Call the website nakeddemocrats.com, like the king who wore no clothes. Your Joe Biden is obviously in serious mental decline, yet the media won't say it. Why? Any of the other Democratic presidential contenders would be better than a seriously disabled Biden. Yet the Democrats somehow nominated Biden. Why? The only answer to that is because they wanted someone pliable, who would go along with their program easily, without any big ideas of their own.
Jill Biden ought to be charged with elder abuse for knowingly putting poor Joe on this hamster wheel in the last days of his life, when he ought to be relaxing.
V & Z respond: If we changed the name of the site to nakeddemocrats.com, we daresay that the people who found us on Google and clicked through would be very, very disappointed. And your theory—that 17,252,686 Democrats voted for Biden in the primaries because what they really wanted was a progressive—is certainly interesting, we'll give it that.
M.B. in Singapore, Singapore, writes: When the current occupier of the White House said "I don't want to create panic" in the Woodward tapes, it was very obvious to me he meant panic as it pertained to the stock market. I'm bothered by the fact that Woodward did not push for clarification. I'm also surprised that very few members of the media have made this connection.
J.E. in New York, NY, writes: J.A. in Middelkerke, Belgium, wrote: "Given the enormous stakes, it was completely reckless of Woodward to keep this information under his hat."
I'm not here to apologize for Woodward (not exactly a huge fan, either), but this sentiment is laughable.
You don't get 18 interviews with POTUS for nothing. You especially don't get the President calling you. Woodward earned that access over a lifetime. The contents of those recordings are proprietary. Their purpose is to contribute to a robust, complex narrative that takes time to assemble. Had the audio been released in February, back when there were a handful of victims and the average citizen hadn't a clue as to what was unfolding, it simply wouldn't have made a difference. Lemmings are lemmings.
With regard to timing, it's feckless to apply a material motive to Woodward's release of the audio. The man is wealthy. One more book isn't going to change his or his family's quality of life. Nor would he risk damage to his reputation for another ounce of the spotlight.
All this blame is being placed on Woodward as if he alone was the possessor of some coveted morsel of secret knowledge that, if shared, could have saved thousands. How about all the dozens of other people in the administration who must have had the same access to Trump's real frame of mind who remained silent and still do?
D.J. in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada, writes: I disagree vehemently with J.A. in Middelkerke.
Such a lot of weird societal momentum exists to coddle Donald Trump and accommodate all his bad actions and, in this case, to treat him like some wounded helpless baby and encourage people to feel sorry for him and forgive him all his foibles and self-centeredness.
I want to point out one small thing to do with job boundaries. It is not now, nor has it ever been, Bob Woodward's job to do both his own job (verify Trump's words, be an objective journalist, write a book, publish it, all of which take time) and do Trump's job as well (unite the country, face a national threat, be astute, be honest, be decisive, be non-confabulatory, command properly, etc.).
To suggest it's Woodward who failed to act is nonsense. It's just more gaslighting.
Woodward is not in the same league as, for example, John Bolton (who was actually part of the government for a while!), who refused to testify at the impeachment hearing, and who instead held out at a pivotal moment, much more transparently and arbitrarily than Woodward, to make money from a book.
F.W. in Decatur, GA, writes: All the hand-wringing over the public health dangers of a Trump-driven early release of an ineffective or harmful vaccine seems overblown to me.
It's pretty clear all Trump wants is to *announce* in October that a beautiful and 100% safe and effective vaccine is available for everyone. He doesn't care whether that's true. When people try to get vaccinated and no clinic actually has supplies, that will be the Democrats' fault.
T.J. in Columbus, OH, writes: I am an "essential" worker whose occupation constantly puts me into situations where I could be exposed to COVID-19. As such, I decided too do something about it by enrolling in a vaccine trial. From this experience I have learned a great deal about the status of the various ongoing studies. Without giving too many specifics, I can tell you that as of August 22nd they were still enrolling for the trial I am in, meaning they hadn't yet reached the study's requirement of 30,000 test subjects. Based on when I began, combined with the timeline established by the Phase 1 trial, they won't be able to determine if I have developed antibodies until October, and there are others in line behind me.
This leaves me with two takeaways: first, any "October surprise" announcement of a vaccine from the White House must be met with extreme skepticism. At best, it would be based on incomplete data, at worst a complete fabrication. I want to stress this wouldn't be because of the vaccine's success or failure. It would be entirely because the timeline to complete the initial part of the trials would come after the election at the earliest. That, of course, doesn't include the long-term follow up: The study I am in is two years long.
Second. the fact that the trials had trouble finding volunteers is very troubling. Have Americans become so distrustful of science, and has the anti-vaxxer community done so much damage, that people are unwilling to enroll? Or have we become such a self-centered people that sitting around and complaining about the pandemic is more important to people than actually doing something to help? Or is it something else I don't see?
Oh, and for the curious reader: It's a blind control study, so I have a 50% chance of getting the actual vaccine and have no way of knowing which group I am in. However, I experienced no significant side effects. It will be mod-October before I am able to check for antibodies. The study team is being extremely careful and precise about their procedures, no rushing or shortcuts, and it was a very positive and painless process.
L.L. in Ashburn, VA, writes: What J.G. in Garner, NC, wrote about vaccine design last week is incorrect. Most vaccine candidates are indeed using SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein (full-length or the receptor-binding domain) to elicit an immune response. However, Spike protein is not expressed on host cells. Rather, the receptor to which Spike protein binds (Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, ACE2) is. This is how most vaccines work: elicit antibodies to the viral capsid (its surface), which then block the virus from docking with the appropriate receptor. It then cannot infect cells and is instead degraded. There is nothing remotely out of the ordinary about how antigens have been designed for the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. What is unusual is the delivery platform of the antigen. Historically, most vaccines have used killed pathogen, living but attenuated pathogen, or "protein sub-unit" platforms. Current US SARS-CoV-2 vaccine platforms are heavy on new technologies such as RNA and DNA (which then encode the protein subunit); no approved RNA or DNA vaccines exist. This is arguably a strategic mistake, putting almost all of our eggs in new baskets, unlike other countries (e.g. China), which are investing more heavily in older, proven platforms. That said, it is broadly thought in the scientific community that the new platforms will work fine for SARS-CoV-2.
The case of transverse myelitis (a horrible condition) in the vaccine arm of the Oxford study is indeed troubling. It is far too early to tell whether this resulted from the vaccine. Transverse myelitis has been reported as a (rare) effect of SARS-CoV-2 infection itself, and also as a rare side effect of the flu vaccine. The relatively low number of participants makes it hard to infer that transverse myelitis would occur at a frequency of 1:9,000—which, if true, probably would indeed be sufficiently high to stop the trial.
Extreme caution moving forward is warranted, and J.G. is certainly correct about political pressure. But J.G. is incorrect in reasoning that autoimmunity would a priori be more likely to result from this vaccine than any other. Also, given the relatively slow mutation rate of coronaviruses (roughly 3x slower than influenza), and the fact that SARS-CoV-2 has not been around long enough to evolve into distinct strains (like influenza A and B), no one in the scientific community is talking about annual boosters. Maybe every few years, but maybe one series (2 shots for most of the candidates now in trials) will suffice for life, we can't say yet.
G.B. in Buffalo, NY, writes: Thank you for your item on Ian Millhiser article "11 ways to fix America's fundamentally broken democracy." I would argue there's a further step that would help a lot: Register people to vote automatically. One of the many problems of American democracy is that the percentage of people who vote is low compared to other countries. And one of the reasons why it is that way is that people are not automatically registered to vote like in many other countries. There was a study recently that showed that moving from an opt-in system to an opt-out one is the best single measure to increase participation (for example, for people to become organ donors, or to join a union). I don't see any reason why the same approach wouldn't also work with voting.
K.A. in Miami Beach, FL, writes: The proposals that (V) laid out are right on target. There is only one thing I think should be added: A new law that forbids the reporting of federal election returns until all polls have closed. So, that means something like 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time. The same law should require states to tally results as they come in, either by in-person early voting or by mail-in/drop box voting, but not report them until all polls have closed. The law should require states to report their tallies within an hour (seems generous) of when they close their polls. We'd have to wait until the wee hours of the morning to get results, depending on the time zone in which you live, but we'd get results without waiting weeks to count absentee ballots. Surely there may be cases where additional absentee ballots that stagger in days after the polls close could change the result (such as 2000). But that would be rare.
M.O. in Baltimore, MD, writes: Regarding the item on How to Fix a Broken Democracy: the point about properly funding elections gave me a thought. In an era where presidential campaigns are pulling in billions of dollars, why not impose a 15- or 20-percent election tax on all campaign funding? Maybe as an added benefit, campaigns would be forced to spend less on re-running TV commercials dozens of times per day.
B.C. in Alexandria, VA, writes: The omission of expanding the size of the House from Ian Millhiser's list is most unfortunate. For one, it doesn't require a constitutional amendment. It just requires Congress to follow the scheme the Founding Fathers always intended. It would help balance out the Electoral College (which is primarily based on the number of congressional representatives in each state), and it would ensure that the political party that wins the most votes would also control the most House seats. It would also make gerrymandering individual districts more difficult. The UK, a country with one-fifth of the population of the US, has 650 MPs, so why is the U.S. stuck at highly gerrymandered, and increasingly extreme, 435?
G.C. in Plymouth, MA, writes: Regarding this extremely partisan list of potential fixes to what ails America, I have to say I'm disappointed that you would give credence to it. Many are pie-in-the-sky "ideas" with no hope of seeing a presidential signature (from any president). And the others, such as a House bill to order states to set up non-partisan redistricting committees, are unconstitutional in a federal style democracy. As to splitting California in two (or more) states...maybe.
RD in Austin, TX, writes: I'm the person who wrote in about how parties keep trolls or moles out of their process. While we were in our Zoom training, a troll did jump into our chat and he was reported and kicked out. I did not see the posts of the troll because every chat message was being read by my screen-reading tool and I thus had muted that speech so I could focus on the training.
This brings me to my other points that I genuinely hope are read by someone with the DNC. As of Saturday, while they had a Spanish call team, they did not have a Spanish text team in place. That is, in my view, a gross oversight in 2020. I would also encourage the party to use technology that is accessible to the blind and those with low vision who use screen-reading technology to interact online and via text. I asked about the accessibility of the tools and was told that one tool I would be using to participate on the texting team does not work well with screen readers. As a life long Democrat who is on the liberal side of policy 4 times out of 5, I'll certainly be supporting the Party in the elections when I vote early, but failure to deal with these type of things is not a good look when we are talking about being inclusive and making sure everyone can participate.
Being inclusive needs to be more than just targeting policies at certain voter demographics; the whole process, including participating in the campaign and how members of underrepresented groups can be a part of the campaign outreach from start to finish, should have also been considered. Unfortunately, many large organizations with good intentions come up short when it comes to accessibility practices, including online publishers of college textbooks, something I see daily working in a Disability Service Office at a university. So while I am very disappointed in how this turned out, I am not in the least surprised in terms of the accessibility limits. The Spanish oversight was a huge and still correctible error in judgment.
J.V.S. in Los Alamos, NM, writes: I worked for several years on political campaigns in Dallas, so I wanted to respond to R.D. from Austin's concerns regarding moles and bad actors in sabotaging campaigns. While it is possible for something like this to happen, such occurrences are extremely rare and limited. Most campaigns knocking on doors will pair volunteers up for safety and to show them the ropes. A bad actor would have to spend several hours over multiple days encouraging people to vote for the candidate they despise before they would be trusted to knock doors alone to try their sabotage efforts.
As for phone calls, it follows a similar beat. Most phone banking systems used by campaigns will track who called whom as they enter call results. If a person were found to be faking calls or trying to give wrong information, a good campaign would be able to identify those people who may have been called and take corrective action. Corrective action could range from just removing the bad data or having more trusted volunteers (or the candidate) call those voters. It all depends on the staff and volunteer capacity of a particular campaign.
Many voters also have no problem calling up the campaign office to berate them when a volunteer is a jerk. Most voters have some form of caller id. So, a saboteur likely will not stay hidden for long and could be opening themselves up to charges of defamation or even wire fraud (if asking for "donations"). Knowingly giving false election information may or may not be illegal in certain areas but is not looked kindly upon by actual voters. The saboteur just gave the candidate they are attacking a great campaign ad against their opponent.
D.T. in San Jose, CA , writes: I am surprised that Democrats do not appear to be more worried about the higher rejection rates when voting by mail. While voting in person is relatively foolproof, both NPR and The Washington Post have written about the significant number of mail-in ballots that have already been rejected this year.
Based on some quick calculations, it seems like Wisconsin rejected about 3.25% of all mail-in ballots during this year's primaries (23,196 ballots rejected, out of 712,854 ballots cast). Pennsylvania also rejected 2.47% of absentee ballots (37k out of 1.5 million). Most sources indicate that the rejection rate of absentee ballots is around 1% in a normal year. All of this is before factoring in any potential partisan shenanigans, or COVID-19 problems.
Your site, and many others, have frequently discussed the partisan divide between voting by mail versus voting in person. With Democrats more than twice as likely to vote by mail, any increase in absentee ballot rejection will harm Democratic voters in higher numbers than Republican voters. Republicans could make (bad faith) challenges to every mail-in ballot received- "I don't think that signature is a perfect match for the one on file..." This type of pedantic objection isn't completely unheard of, as similar ballot challenges often happen during very close recounts.
Let's estimate that 1.5% of all absentee ballots will be rejected due to late arrivals, signature mismatches, or other mistakes. Now assume that half of the population chooses to vote absentee, with Democrats twice as likely to vote by mail as Republicans. That means that on average Democrats will be at a 0.50% disadvantage, just due to ballot rejection. In the last five elections, at least 10 states have been decided by less than a half percent margin.
This seems like something the Democrats should be far more concerned about.
H.C. in San Francisco, CA, writes: I often look back at what you were thinking at this point 4 years ago. Most people, I bet, would jump on you for "bad predictions" but I found this change in perspective more interesting:While there has been a tremendous amount of attention to in-person voter fraud (which basically doesn't exist), there has been almost no attention to absentee-ballot fraud, which does exist. One of us (V) just received his absentee ballot. Among other things, this means that voting has already started in some states, and votes cast this week and this month cannot be changed by subsequent events. More importantly, the lack of security measures is appalling. The voter has to sign a piece of paper that is part of the multipage ballot (or the return envelope) and that is it. There is nothing, in practice, to prevent the voter from selling his or her ballot and giving the buyer the signed page or envelope. This is illegal, of course, but there is virtually no way for anyone to detect this crime.
None of the dozens of laws that purportedly attack the problem of voter fraud deal with absentee-ballot fraud. The reason for this omission is simple: The goal of requiring photo ID when voting in person has nothing to do with fraud. It has to do with disenfranchising groups of voters that tend to vote Democratic, such as students, poor people, minorities, and others who often lack the required ID. The most egregious example is the Texas law allowing gun permits as ID, but disallowing student photo ID cards issued by state universities.
Tightening absentee voting requirements, such as requiring voters to show up at the registrar of voters' office some time before the election with ID, would affect people who travel on business a lot as well as infirm elderly voters, and many of these are Republicans. So applying the voter ID requirements to absentee voters would depress Republican turnout, and that was certainly not what the legislatures passing the laws had in mind. (V)
R.F. in Miami, FL, writes: Interesting to see Donald Trump actively promoting vote-by-mail in Miami-Dade, another example of the contradictions in his campaign:
R.L. in Allentown, PA, writes: I'm a Pennsylvania voter and I've been seeing Trump campaign ads on various political websites that appear to contradict the candidate's messaging on mail-in voting. For example:
The "Request Now" button takes you to an official Trump campaign site that collects personal information, presumably to pre-fill a mail-in ballot application.
B.G.M. in Newton, MA, writes: I wrote in asking that you publish a link to the survey I was running. Outlined below are the results:Purpose and Responses
This survey of Massachusetts primary voters was designed to determine how long ballots sent and returned by mail take to travel through the USPS from local elections offices to voters and back again.
The survey collected 25 responses from regions ranging from Metro Boston to Martha's Vineyard to the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley. Most respondents took advantage of local elections drop-boxes, but six respondents used the USPS to return their ballot. Two respondents requested mail-in ballots but then took advantage of early in-person voting to cast their ballots.
Travel time highlights
The average time for a ballot to travel from the elections office to a voter was 6.6 days. (25 responses)
The average time for a ballot to travel from a voter to the elections office was 2.5 days. (6 responses)
The most time that a ballot took to travel from an elections office to a voter was 18 days. (ZIP code 01002)
The least time that a ballot took to travel from an elections office to a voter was 1 day. (ZIP code 02466)
The most time that a ballot took to travel from a voter to an elections office was 4 days. (ZIP code 02461)
The least time that a ballot took to travel from a voter to an elections office was 1 day. (ZIP code 01945)
Because I don't have the resources of a real polling house or other large research body the number of responses received is obviously inadequate to draw any real conclusions from, but here goes anyway.
Based on some rough numbers from the Secretary of State's office there are 4.67 million registered voters in MA. There were 1.7 million ballots cast in the Sept. 1 primary, translating to a 36% turnout rate. Estimates say that about half of the ballots cast in the primary were mailed in. For comparison, turnout was 21% in the 2018 state primary and 9% in the 2016 state primary. The general election turnout in MA averages 75% in presidential election years, so the primary was an approximate half-speed test for the pandemic-affected voting system.
The recent USPS postcard encouraging voters to allow 15 days for their ballot to make the round-trip seems reasonable based on the average travel times reported in the survey, but it's definitely optimistic outside of major urban centers.
I found the fact that the average inbound time of a ballot is less than a third of the outbound time interesting. I think there's a simple explanation for this difference, though. Ballots going out to voters have to be sent to regional sorting facilities because they're being sent to thousands of different locations, but ballots being returned to an elections office do not need to go through the regional sorting facility because there's only one destination per jurisdiction and all a postal worker need do is take any returning ballots and toss them in the pile for the local elections office
P.M. in Albany, CA, writes: I agree with your analysis of U.S.-brokered agreements for the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel. Yes, "those two kingdoms just strengthened their relationship with the U.S. in general, and Donald Trump in particular." This is what's significant—those kingdoms' leaders know that playing this card to benefit the state of Israel also helps their standing with the U.S., and especially with Trump, although both Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have issued statements of support, with Pelosi's pledging that Congress "will be watching and monitoring to ensure that Israel can maintain its qualitative military edge in the region." The question that isn't even addressed is what benefits Americans will get from Israel as a result of these agreements.
Your item also notes that "There are single-issue Israel voters (e.g., Sheldon Adelson), but those folks were already on board the S.S. Trump.", But Adelson brings more than just his vote, as you note in an item the following day. He was the largest individual donor to pro-Republican super-PACs in 2016, and has just announced he'll spend $20 to $50 million to help Trump. Maybe there is a connection there.
M.G.F. in Minneapolis, MN, writes: Please stop saying one candidate is behind when the poll is within the margin of error. Statistically speaking, such polls provide zero information on who is actually leading.
V & Z respond: If it's just one poll, yes. But if it's 20, and they are trailing in 18 of them, that is statistically significant.
The gist, as you've said, is that it was really only Wisconsin that was significantly off the mark in 2016. And the message is that we can still have faith in this year's polls, provided we understand the meaning of "margin of error."
J.P. in Falls Church, VA, writes: I would like to nominate myself for your least reliable pollster.
My wife and I drove to Parris Island, SC, on Thursday September 12, to at least be in the vicinity of our daughter's graduation from Marine Corps boot camp (the base was closed to visitors because of COVID).
We headed south on I-95 to Yemassee and then down US-21 to Beaufort, SC. After dinner we caught "Mean Girls" at the Highway 21 Drive-In. On Friday we watched the ceremony streamed to our hotel room and cheered for PFC P. remotely.
We strolled around Beaufort, then headed north via US-17 to Charleston and then Wilmington, NC, where we spent the night. On Saturday we found a great bookstore in Wilmington, then back on US-17 to Jacksonville, NC, where I was stationed at Camp Lejeune many moons ago. We headed across North Carolina via US-258 and US-70 to I-95 and back home.
In those 1,300+ miles we saw exactly one Trump sign and one car with a Trump-Pence 2020 bumper sticker. Outside of Camp Lejeune we saw a home flying a Trump flag.
We saw at least fifteen Biden signs.
I believe this the least scientific poll ever, but my experience on long drives in 2016 was very different: Trump signs across the country and a small scattering of Clinton signs.
V & Z respond: We'll take your results ahead of Rasmussen's. And congratulations to your daughter!
J.G. in Chicago, IL, writes: You've stated many times that your format is not ideal for giving in depth historical context, however, I must object to two very inaccurate generalizations.
First you characterized Warren Harding as "basically honest" I guess this means because he didn't personally pocket any of the graft money himself? The man's nomination at the 1920 Republican convention is the actual event that created the term "smoke-filled backroom deal." When he wasn't looking the other way from his cabinet's corrupt practices, he is best remembered for fathering an extramarital child while President. Basically honest?
Second, you credit Herbert Hoover with a life long consistency as regards a theory of government assistance. Yet his political views clearly had an ever increasing rightward trajectory. When he was "food czar" of the USFA and ARA he headed government created agencies that had the majority of their funding come from the government. In the 1920s as the Progressive movement waned he moved rightward with the Republican party in pursuit of his own political prospects. After being defeated by FDR he became over time an ever more vocal and harsh critic of the New Deal. Post-World War II he was so virulently anti-Socialist that Republican leaders like Thomas Dewey and Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him not to comment publicly because his views were so far to the right of the Republican mainstream.
V & Z respond: We've got news: Just about everyone was nominated for president by a smoke-filled room back then. And we're not so sure honesty and fidelity are the same thing, especially since there is evidence Florence Harding knew about the arrangement with Nan Britton and was OK with it.
J.S. in Pemaquid, ME, writes: I'm sure you had tongue firmly in cheek when you credited Donald Trump for having done "more for college football than any president besides Abraham Lincoln." Still, it made me think of some articles that made the rounds a few years ago about Teddy Roosevelt's passion for college football and the direct influence he had on the sport as president.
You are probably already aware of these things, and it hardly bears on the substance of the new item you were sharing (except that it of course highlights the empathy that TR—and any healthy human—has versus the peculiar being in the White House today), but I just in case I thought I'd share.
V & Z respond: Yep, we know that the first college football game was played four years after Lincoln died. As to TR, (Z)'s students are often surprised to learn that a man who had an appetite for war, big-game hunting, and boxing actually intervened to make football less violent.
J.B. in Pinckney, MI, writes: You wrote that in 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and should have won the electoral vote but for multiple shenanigans. You then used this as an example of the Republicans rigging an election. While the Republicans certainly are not innocent of wrongdoing in 1876, far from it, I would argue that this election marks the beginning of the most rigged election period in American history. That is the disenfranchisement of Black citizens in the South in the post-Civil War era. One can make a very valid case that if not for the actions of the KKK and other Southern white supremacist groups in rigging the election through terrorism and voter suppression, Republicans would have carried the popular vote in 1876 along with it an undisputed presidency.
V & Z respond: We don't disagree with your overall point, but we will point out that the KKK had been destroyed by 1876, and so was not a part of that election (although successor groups like the White League and Red Shirts certainly were). The Klan would not return until the early 20th century.
C.J. in Hawthorne, CA, writes: I don't think it actually clear that Rutherford B. Hayes won a "rigged" election. Both sides were cheating like crazy—whomever ended up winning was always going to be in dispute. Even the Wikipedia article you linked to admits, if not for the Democrat shenanigans in regard to preventing the freedmen from voting, Hayes probably would have won. However, when faced with the Democrats trying to cheat, the GOP got in the game and also used everything at its disposal to throw out the disputed states' numbers.
Neither side was clean. What's funny is Rutherford Hayes is, for most people, a rather forgettable figure and hardly seems worth the high drama that took place in making him President.
S.S. in Logan, UT, writes: Your item on Tuesday about inappropriate music selections at Donald Trump's rallies, and whether this was a prank or not, brought back a memory of the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
One of the speakers was also-ran candidate Governor Jerry Brown of California. When he finished, the sound system started playing the "Liberty Bell March" by John Philip Sousa, a seemingly appropriate selection at first glance. But the song, of course, was better known as the theme for the British comedy program, "Monty Python's Flying Circus."
Given the reported level of enmity between Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown (which apparently still exists), I can't help but think the music selection was a not-exactly-subtle way of giving Brown the bird.
D.O. in Denver, CO, writes: Perhaps (Z) was being cheeky in the comment about "House of the Rising Sun" for use at a Trump campaign event, because this has already happened". Eric Burdon has also already replied: "Even though nobody asked my permission, I wasn't surprised to learn that Trump used "House of the Rising Sun" for his rally the other day. A tale of sin and misery set in a brothel suits him so perfectly!"
V & Z respond: (Z) did not know that when he wrote that item.
D.H. in Boston, MA, writes: In terms of musical selections for Donald Trump where the lyrics are unintended but still appropriate, I submit "Hook" by Blues Traveler. John Popper is literally singing that he can say whatever he wants in the lyrics, no matter how cynical, and people will still only care about the melody.
F.C. in Deland, FL, writes: Reading your song selection for the next Trump rally, I was brought back to my childhood. The youth (high school age) choir at my church would sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun."
In retrospect, I don't know if the youth minister had a wicked sense of humor or was completely clueless. (There was the streaking incident at the church camp...)
M.A. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Did you see the mobile game where the Russians kidnapped Donald Trump in 2013 during Miss Universe in Moscow, cloned him, and put him in the White House? If the preprogrammed clone does not follow orders from the Kremlin, the auto-destruct mode is triggered.
V & Z respond: Wow. You can even play in English or Russian.
A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: I thought you'd enjoy this video!
V & Z respond: Impressive. Either they found themselves a heck of a Petula Clark impersonator, or else a heck of a sound editor.
S.T. in Silver Spring, MD, writes: I know that readers have been trying to accurately rename the region you formerly categorized as "the Rust Belt," and that you've found phrases like "Great Lakes states" and "Upper Midwest" to fall short for various reasons. Now that you've resorted to putting "Midwest" in scare quotes, and now that the NFL season has somehow begun, I think I can solve multiple problems at once.
All we need to do is engineer a trade between the NFC North (Packers, Vikings, Lions, Bears) and the AFC North (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Pittsburgh) that would send the Steelers to the NFC and the Bears to the AFC—or, barring that, hurl the Bears directly into the sun via catapult. Then, you'd have a single division that contains teams from Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and an Upper Midwest state that almost went red in 2016, Minnesota. (Given the Steelers' superiority to the Bears, the NFC North would most likely have to throw in a few draft picks, but it'd be a small price to pay for shedding all that dead weight.)
At that point, "NFC North" would replace "Rust Belt" perfectly, while also conjuring—for me, anyway—the immutable truth that while Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota are electorally important, Wisconsin reigns supreme over all of them. Go Pack Go!
V & Z respond: Take a look at the story about Clay Matthews above and note that, if your plan is adopted, it would become impossible for the Packers to utterly humiliate the Steelers in the Super Bowl again, as they did in 2011. As to kicking the Bears out of the league and off the planet, that certainly has some merit, but then the Packers would lose out on two easy wins every year.
We're a little leery of Missouri Scout, given the lack of a track record, but it doesn't matter because Missouri's not in play. (Z)
|Missouri||45%||53%||Sep 16||Sep 17||Missouri Scout|
|Pennsylvania||48%||43%||Sep 08||Sep 11||Climate Nexus|
If Joni Ernst loses her seat, there aren't many plausible scenarios where the Republicans retain control of the Senate. And Ann Selzer is the gold standard for Iowa polling. Still the difference between Greenfield and Ernst is about equal to the margin of error. (Z)
|State||Democrat||D %||Republican||R %||Start||End||Pollster|
|Iowa||Theresa Greenfield||45%||Joni Ernst*||42%||Sep 14||Sep 17||Selzer|