What is Roe v. Wade, and why is it under threat?

Nearly 50 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States heard a landmark case which would have massive legal, political, social and cultural implications across America: the case of Roe v. Wade. Since the case was ruled on, it has remained controversial, stirring up passions and emotions on both sides of the divide. And now, in May 2022, there is a very real possibility that it could be overturned.

Since December, the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation has brought the Roe v. Wade case back to the Supreme Court’s attention. The Dobbs case concerns a controversial bill passed in the state of Mississippi in 2018: the Gestational Age Act, which banned abortions in the state after 15 weeks of pregnancy, “except in medical emergency and in cases of severe fetal abnormality”. As it is, Mississippi is already one of the most restrictive states in the US when it comes to abortion, and the state is home to just one abortion clinic: The Jackson Women’s Health Organisation. The JWHO sued the state of Mississippi, including Thomas E. Dobbs, the State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health from whom the case gets its name, over the constitutionality of the Act. So far, the Act has been struck down as unconstitutional by both the Southern Mississippi District Court as well as the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the State of Mississippi has taken an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Dobbs case is important not just for the parties involved, but it could also have implications for the original Roe v. Wade ruling: essentially, if the Supreme Court – currently comprised of six conservative and three liberal justices – sides with Dobbs et al, then it is likely that the previous Roe v. Wade decision would be struck down. This is because a ruling in favour of Dobbs would then contradict the Roe v. Wade decision, and so both decisions would not be able to stand simultaneously. This brings us to where we are today.

Late on Monday night, Politico leaked a draft opinion authored by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, which held that the case of Roe v. Wade should be struck down. It has not been confirmed as whether this will be the final opinion, or even the majority opinion of the Court; however, it serves as a reminder of how much is at stake if the Supreme Court backs Alito’s opinion.

So what exactly was Roe v. Wade about? The case of Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court on January 22nd, 1973, and ruled that a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion was protected by the United States Constitution, namely under the ninth and fourteenth amendments. This was because a person’s right to privacy covered the choice to have an abortion, and therefore states could not put excessive restrictions the provision of abortions.

The case concerned Norma McCorvey (known as Jane Roe), a 21-year-old Texas woman with a turbulent past, who by that point had had – and lost custody of – two children; McCorvey then became pregnant a third time, and sought an abortion. However, McCorvey was denied an abortion by the state of Texas as her life was not in danger. With the help of a legal team, McCorvey sued Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, alleging that Texas’s restrictive abortion legislation was unconstitutional under the Ninth Amendment. Lower courts in Texas ruled in McCorvey’s favour, but Texas appealed and the case was escalated to the Supreme Court. On January 22nd, 1973, the mostly conservative Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favour of McCorvey, ruling that a woman’s right to choose an abortion was upheld, with Republican Justice Harry Blackmun delivering the majority opinion. However, due to the extensive amount of time that elapsed while the case was in court, McCorvey was unable to access the abortion she sought; McCorvey ultimately gave birth, and the baby was put up for adoption.

So if the ruling in Roe v. Wade was overturned, would that mean that getting an abortion in the US then becomes more difficult? The answer to that question is potentially. As it is, abortion laws are currently set by individual states, so there will always be states where restrictions on abortions are tighter or more liberal than others. However, the ruling in Roe v. Wade effectively set a minimum level of access – described by Justice Blackmun as a “compelling point” during the fetus’s development – that states had to abide by: Blackmun argued that this should be “at approximately the end of the first trimester”, and that, prior to this, physicians were “free to determine, without regulation by the State, that, in his medical judgment, the patient’s pregnancy should be terminated”. If the Supreme Court struck down its original 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, then this minimum level of access is removed, meaning some states will be quick to line up much more restrictive laws or even outright bans on abortion.

Supporters of the original Roe decision have long been concerned that, if the Supreme Court rules in favour of Dobbs and the state of Mississippi, and the original Roe decision is overturned, the decision would then allow states to introduce much stricter abortion laws. Indeed, some states have already been trying to do this: for example, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed Senate Bill 1457 into law on April 27, 2021, which bans abortions on the basis of race or sex of the baby, or in the case of non-fatal genetic disorders such as Down’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, in Texas, Senate Bill 8 (known as the Texas Heartbeat Bill) was signed into law on May 19, 2021, and bans physicians from carrying out abortions following the detection of a fetal heartbeat – usually at around six weeks – unless the mother’s life is in danger, as well as providing private parties the right to sue anyone who aids or abets the provision of an abortion outside of this timeframe. As it stands, thirteen states have already introduced “trigger laws”: laws on abortion designed to take effect in that state immediately in the event of Roe being overturned.

It is not difficult to understand why the case of Roe v. Wade would be controversial: the case is a compound of very sensitive issues, including women’s access to healthcare, the right to privacy, the right to life (and definition of life), defense of the unborn, and the disconnect and differences between lawmakers and those who are affected by the laws they make. The fact that public attitudes towards abortion vary so much from state to state is also one of the major difficulties with having a federal ruling covering it. Opposition to abortion is most concentrated in the Deep South, so a blanket rule covering a state like Mississippi and a state like New Jersey, where there are no restrictions on accessing abortions, is always going to be problematic. But where does public opinion stand on the issue? Access to abortion is still supported by a majority of Americans: a Pew Research poll from last year showed that a six in ten Americans thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases. This represents a majority of Americans in all racial, social, political and religious groups, with the exception of more conservative Republicans and white evangelical protestants. Meanwhile, a Politico/Morning Consult poll from this week showed that 50% of Americans do not believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. However, it is the minority groups – white evangelicals and hardline conservatives – who have largely gained control of the dialogue on abortion access, despite the levels of public support for access to abortion[1].

However, this leads us to our next significant question: how problematic will a Supreme Court ruling on what is essentially a culturally-based issue be? Opposition to abortion arguably is based on social or religious grounds, rather than medical grounds; was a federal ruling on the issue always going to be threatened? This position also seems to be hinted at by Blackmun himself, who argued: “[The Supreme Court] need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

The Roe v. Wade decision has always been contentious, and continues to stir up passions both in favour and opposed to the decision. And the truth is that, whatever decision the Supreme Court makes this summer, none of that will change. Samuel Alito is well-known for being one of the more conservative justices on the bench, so the fact that he would author an opinion such as this is hardly a surprise. However, whether Roe v. Wade is upheld or struck down, this particular battle within the American culture war will continue long into the future. Opponents of the 1973 decision argue that it was wrongly decided on the grounds of it superseding states’ rights, for genuine concern for the rights of the unborn, and – yes – the conservative views they may hold with regards to women’s reproductive rights. Meanwhile, defenders of the Roe decision argue that the only person who should get to make a decision on having an abortion is the woman in question, and the Supreme Court ruling was necessary to defend a woman’s right to choose, something which was not protected by individual states and which some states are already looking to roll back. Many have also expressed concern that, if Roe v. Wade was overturned, it could then leave other Supreme Court rulings such as Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 ruling which legalised same-sex marriage throughout the United States, under threat (although the Obgerfell ruling has not experienced the same level of post-decision opposition or cultural clapback that Roe has had).

In any case, I do not feel that there is ever going to be a ruling that the Supreme Court could make, a resolution or acceptable national compromise, with regard to Roe v. Wade that would not attract serious opposition and stir passions on both sides. To that end, one could argue that an advantage to leaving the decision-making power on abortion law to individual states is that it in theory would allow lawmaking to be done more democratically, even if there continues to be some in-state opposition to abortion access. However, the fact remains that, the 1973 ruling in the Roe v. Wade case provided a line of protection for women who may have needed to access an abortion which wasn’t there previously.

Whatever the outcome of the Dobbs is, and whatever happens to Roe v. Wade, one thing is certain: this outcome of this case will not settle the abortion issue. The last almost-fifty years have proved that the contentious nature of abortion will not simply disappear with the ruling.

[1] It is worth re-iterating that the Supreme Court is not making a decision over whether they think abortion should be legal or illegal (personal opinions of any justices notwithstanding). The Supreme Court’s role is to determine whether the United States Constitution permits certain laws to stand, or if a law is unconstitutional. In this case, the Supreme Court will simply be ruling on whether Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act is unconstitutional, and whether that decision then nullifies the 1973 Roe decision.

What to look out for in Ohio’s primaries on Tuesday

Primary season is upon us once again, and Ohio will be the stage for a number of high-profile ballot races on Tuesday, May 3rd. There will be multiple primaries for statewide, congressional, judicial and local offices, but in today’s post I will be looking at the key races.

What seems like the biggest event of the night is the Republican Primary for the US Senate election. Two-term Senator Rob Portman is not running for re-election. Five candidates are in serious contention for the nomination: State Senator Matt Dolan, businessman Mike Gibbons, former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken and author J.D. Vance.

Polls in the race have been shifting wildly: whilst Mandel, a loyal and long-time supporter of Donald Trump, had long been the favourite in the early stages of the race, the relatively-unknown Gibbons made a later surge. Meanwhile, Vance has enjoyed a late-stage swell in support after the Hillbilly Elegy author received the coveted Trump endorsement. Beyond this, there still remains the question of whether the more-moderate Dolan can squeeze the undecided vote enough to come up the middle.

On the Democratic side, Tim Ryan, the current Representative for Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, is widely expected to receive his party’s nomination for Senate; however, he is being challenged by Morgan Harper, a Bernie Sanders-aligned Democrat who previously mounted a primary challenge to Joyce Beatty in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District.

Ohio will also be seeing its gubernatorial primaries on Tuesday: incumbent Republican Mike DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted are running for a second term. However, DeWine’s first term has not been easy for him: in the early weeks and months of the COVID pandemic, Mike DeWine’s response to the pandemic was lauded as amongst the best in the US, and his actions helped catapult him into the top 10 governors in Morning Consult’s Governor approval rankings. However, DeWine faced substantial opposition from far-right and pro-Trump factions over his COVID restrictions, and also snubbed Trump at a number of his rallies. DeWine has at least earned the endorsement of the Ohio Republican Party, and he is currently leading in polls, but it remains to be seen how many of the grassroots voters will be content to go along with him.

DeWine’s challengers for the Republican nomination include Jim Renacci, a former Congressman and US Senate candidate who lost to Sherrod Brown in 2018, and Joe Blystone, a farmer and self-described constitutional conservative who has gained something of a cult following. The Democratic primary, meanwhile, is between two mayors: John Cranley, Mayor of Cincinnati, and Nan Whaley, the Mayor of Dayton who became more widely known for leading the city through the Ned Peppers Bar shooting in 2019.

The successful candidates in Tuesday’s primaries will give us some clues about the direction the politics of Ohio may be going in. Ohio as a state is becoming more solidly Republican, and as the US enters a post-Trump and post-COVID era, it remains to be seen how politics within the state evolve. In the Senate Republican Primary, all five major candidates with the exception of Matt Dolan have allied themselves to Trump, and if the former President’s endorsement cannot propel J. D. Vance to victory, it could suggest that it is simply Trumpism, rather than Trump himself, that voters are warmer to (Vance himself has come under criticism, with some referring to him as a California venture capitalist who only returned to Ohio when it was opportune for him to do so). Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons might be more attractive candidates for right-wing voters who may not want a Trump hand-picked candidate, while Dolan could still benefit from a split pro-Trump field.

Early voting in Ohio began on April 5th, and thousands of votes for the primaries have already been cast in that time. After the close of polls on Tuesday, we will start to see our first clues about the political mood in Ohio without Donald Trump in the White House.

Who might Joe Biden nominate to the Supreme Court?

On January 27th, 2022, Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer announced that he intends to retire from the Supreme Court at the end of the court’s term in June. Justice Breyer, a liberal, was first appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Breyer’s retirement will provide Joe Biden with his first Supreme Court appointment as President. Biden has already stated that he will appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court; such a candidate would be the first black woman appointed to the Supreme Court, the third black US Supreme Court justice, and the sixth woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. However, attention will also be paid to the candidates’ ideologies; as Breyer was associated with the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, there will likely be a degree of pressure on Biden from liberal or progressive groups to appoint a more liberal candidate as opposed to a moderate one.

So who might the President nominate to replace Justice Breyer on the Supreme Court? Commentators and media outlets have been suggesting a few names, so let’s take a look at a few potential candidates their backgrounds.

First up, we have Leondra Kruger, one of the names that has been most widely-mentioned as a potential candidate. Kruger has quite an impressive CV: a Harvard and Yale Law School graduate, Kruger currently serves as an Associate Justice on the California Supreme Court, previously clerked for United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, worked for the Obama administration in the Solicitor General’s office, and has worked as both a professor and in private practice. Judge Kruger has been described as a moderate and an incrementalist who leans moderately liberal on civil matters and conservative on criminal matters; however, liberal campaigners who wish to address what they see as an imbalance on the Supreme Court may be more concerned than enthused by her reputation as a swing vote on the bench.

Following on from Kruger, we have J Michelle Childs, who is already a highly-regarded candidate by the White House: President Biden has already nominated her for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Presently, Childs is a district court judge for the District of South Carolina, a role she was nominated to by President Barack Obama in 2009. Prior to this, Childs graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and was a partner at the Columbia, South Carolina law firm Nexsen Pruet. During this time, Childs developed a reputation for her expertise in employment and labor law. Childs is also likely to enjoy cross-party support, with Republican Senator Lindsay Graham describing Childs as “a fair-minded, highly gifted jurist”.

While Childs has been nominated for a seat on the Court of Appeals for the District Columbia Circuit, there is another potential candidate who is already there: Ketanji Brown Jackson. A Harvard graduate who clerked for Justice Breyer on the Supreme Court, Jackson has been on the Circuit since June 2021, and served for several years on the District Court for the District of Columbia before that. During her time on the District Court, Jackson made numerous rulings against the Trump Administration; this could position Jackson favourably with campaigners who would want to replace Breyer with a more liberal justice.

While these candidates have been most widely named as potential nominees by commentators, there is still room for Biden to consider a wild card candidate; at the same time as he nominated Childs, Biden also nominated Nancy Gbana Abudu to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which covers Alabama, Georgia and Florida. A daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Abudu is a graduate of Columbia University and Tulane University Law School. Despite her nomination to the Eleventh Circuit, Abudu has no prior judicial experience: she has worked for the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center as an attorney and legal director.

Joe Biden is expected to announce who he has chosen to nominate to Stephen Breyer’s seat on the United States Supreme Court at the end of February. Of course, nominating a Supreme Court justice is just the start of the process, as the eventual nominee will still need to win the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee before their appointment can be voted on in the Senate. However, the Senate is a very partisan environment: with the Senate currently tied between the Democrats and Republicans, and with a certain amount of opposition to whomever the President nominates almost guaranteed, the process for both Biden and the eventual nominee will not necessarily be a straightforward one.

Death of a President: the popular myth about William Henry Harrison

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William Henry Harrison was elected as the 9th President of the United States in the 1840 Presidential Election. Harrison was a well-known and popular figure both in American political life as well as outside it: he served a brief career as a Representative and Senator from Ohio, and previously as a territorial governor in Ohio, Indiana and the Northwest Territory, the pre-statehood American territory covering parts of the Midwest. However, he was best remembered as a military leader, leading American campaigns in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 (from which he earned the nicknames “The Hero of Tippecanoe” and “Old Tippecanoe”), as well as in the War of 1812. Given that the United States of America was still in its infancy, someone like Harrison would be an ideal candidate for President.

There are some notable facts about President Harrison: he was the first President elected from the Whig Party, and at 67 years old was, at the time, the oldest man to be elected President, a title he would hold for 140 years. He was also the last elected president to be born a British subject. However, perhaps the most notable fact about Harrison is that, at just 31 days, he has had the shortest term of any President; Harrison died on April 4th, 1841, just a month after taking office.

While these facts about William Henry Harrison are true, there is also a famous and enduring myth about him: one that concerns the manner in which he died. The popular theory is that, while giving his two-hour inauguration speech on a cold, rainy day on March 4th, 1841 without wearing an overcoat or hat, Harrison caught a cold. The cold lingered and developed into pneumonia, and the President languished, and ultimately died of the illness. At least, this is how the story goes.

A daguerreotype of William Henry Harrison taken on his Inauguration Day on March 4th, 1841, the only known photograph of the President to exist

It is certainly true that President Harrison’s inauguration speech – at over 8,000 words – is the longest presidential inauguration speech in American history. And with a reputation as a great military leader to uphold, it is possible that Harrison decided to forego an overcoat and hat on his inauguration day in order to show his hardiness despite his age: arriving at the United States Capitol on horseback for his inauguration, the incoming president must have cut a swashbuckling image for a man of 67 years of age. However, the remaining element of the story – that Harrison got sick on this day, and that this led to his death – is likely untrue.

There are reasons to doubt the suggestion that the cold that Harrison caught ultimately killed him. According to the medical report from April 4, 1841 by Thomas Miller, the President’s attending physician, Harrison did not initially get sick until March 27th, more than three weeks after his inauguration. On this day, Dr Miller reported that the President “was seized with a chill and other symptoms of fever”, which progressed to “pneumonia, with congestion of the liver and derangement of the stomach and bowels” the following day. Whilst Harrison was reported to have taken a walk in the morning on March 24, during which he is again said to have been caught in a rainstorm, it is unlikely for this to have developed into pneumonia in just three days. The President was known for taking daily walks from the White House to get newspapers, to go to the market, and to attend church, and so would have been fairly fit and active for a man of his age. It is unlikely, given this, that he would have succumbed to any chill he got from being in the rain.

In 2014, Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine re-examined the reports and accounts of William Henry Harrison’s death. McHugh and Mackowiack highlighted that Miller was “not…entirely comfortable with the diagnosis” of pneumonia that he had made for the President[1]. Indeed, symptoms of fever and chills, whilst common with such illnesses, are not exclusive to respiratory illnesses such as colds and flu and are common symptoms with all manner of infections. By comparison, McHugh and Mackowiack say, “[Harrison’s] gastrointestinal complaints…began on the third day of the illness and were relentless as well as progressive”. Indeed, McHugh and Mackowiak point to Harrison’s gastrointestinal complaints as being the cause of his death, saying that the symptoms “were typical of “enteric fever,” a severe systemic illness caused by disseminated infection with Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi”; in other words, President Harrison’s symptoms indicate a case of typhoid or paratyphoid fever, which then turned to septic shock.

While McHugh and Mackowiak acknowledge that pneumonia may still have been present, it would have been a secondary problem and not a major contributing factor to Harrison’s death. However, given that typhoid and paratyphoid fever are water-bourne diseases, and the illness appeared to be mainly centred in Harrison’s gastrointestinal system, it is therefore more likely that Harrison died after contracting an infection – namely typhoid – from drinking bad water, rather than from pneumonia as a result of catching a chill.

There is a reasonable explanation for how President Harrison was able to contract an infection such as typhoid: Having been built on swampland, Washington D.C. would not have had a good water supply to begin with. However, during the middle of 19th Century, Washington D.C. – like many US cities – lacked a sufficient sanitation system. “Until 1850”, McHugh and Mackowiak point out, “sewage from nearby buildings simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh”. Given that the White House at the time collected its water from a spring in what is today Franklin Park merely a few blocks from this outlet, as well as an area where public waste was deposited, it is not difficult to understand how exactly the drinking water supply to the White House could become contaminated.

Through the remainder of the 19th century, construction of different city-wide sewer systems in Washington took place, but these were inadequate and did little to prevent disease; outbreaks of smallpox, typhoid and even malaria would kill thousands of people during the Civil War. It is also known that the two subsequent elected presidents – James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor – also suffered from similar gastrointestinal complaints while in the White House (Polk would die of cholera at the age of 53 in 1849, barely three months after the end of his Presidency, while Taylor himself would also die of gastrointestinal disease the following year at the age of 65); both of these could also be linked to the District of Columbia’s water supply. It wouldn’t be until the 1890s under President Benjamin Harrison – William Henry Harrison’s grandson – that a board of engineers would be appointed to oversee the development of a functional sewer system in Washington DC; it is this same sewer system that serves the city today.

We can only speculate what kind of president William Henry Harrison might have been had he lived longer; given that the United States was only 20 years away from Civil War, any actions he may have taken – as with any president – could have had a pivotal impact on future events. This speculation could easily become the subject of a future post here. In any case, while myths such as the one detailing President Harrison’s death from a cold are fascinating, I find learning the truth behind them to be just as interesting.

[1] McHugh, Jane and Mackowiak, Philip A., “Death in the White House: President William Henry Harrison’s Atypical Pneumonia” in Clinical Infectious Diseases, October 2014, Volume 59, Issue 7, p990–995. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciu470

Unpacking Tuesday’s Elections: Why the Democrats lost in Virginia

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Tuesday night’s elections were the first major test of Joe Biden’s presidency. What we witnessed were shocks, surprises, and general signs of woe for the Democrats.

First, the main event: the Virginia gubernatorial election. Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin won the election, flipping the commonwealth’s Governor’s Mansion from the Democrats and defeating former Governor Terry McAuliffe for the top job. In terms of vote shares, the election was close, with Youngkin winning by just over two points. However, Youngkin overturned a nine-point Democratic lead from four years ago, in a state which President Joe Biden won in 2020 by ten points. Like in the 2020 Presidential Election, turnout was up in Virginia from four years ago, with Republicans and Democrats both benefiting from the increase. The Republicans also flipped the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General races; Winsome Sears, the Lieutenant Governor-elect, will become both the first woman and the first woman of colour to be elected to statewide office in Virginia.

Elsewhere in Virginia, the Republicans look set to re-take control of the House of Delegates, which the Democrats in turn took control of in 2019. At the time of writing, the Republicans currently have won 50 of the 100 seats in the house, meaning one more seat will give them control. With a handful of close races yet to be called, the Republicans’ chances of flipping the lower chamber are looking good.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy held on, but only just: more than 24 hours after polls closed, Murphy was declared the winner by less than a point over Republican former State Representative Jack Ciattarelli in a race which was far too close for comfort. The Republicans have also made some gains in both chambers of the New Jersey state legislature, including unseating New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney.

There’s little debate over the fact that Tuesday night was a good night for the Republicans. However, Virginia has been notable in recent years for its pro-Democrat trend. So how did Youngkin win?

First of all, there are the issues. And one of the biggest issues in this campaign was education. The issue of school choice is a hot-button issue for many families across America as much as in Virginia, and is for many reasons, including fears that education may become too politicised, that parents’ choices may not be taken into consideration by the state, and that, quite simply, parents may not like what the schools are teaching their children. There are myriad reasons why parents across America care about school choice, and, unfortunately for McAuliffe, he landed on the wrong side of a lot of it, saying in a debate that he disagreed with parents’ involvement in schools’ decision-making. According to a statewide exit poll for the Virginia Gubernatorial Election, more than eight in ten voters in Virginia, both parents and non-parents, felt that parents should have at least “some” say in their children’s education, and of those eight-in-ten, 77% backed Youngkin over McAuliffe.

However, education was just one issue at play in Virginia: issues such as the divide between rural and urban voters and communities, rising gas prices and the security of jobs for blue collar workers, were also on voters’ minds. There was also a stunt aimed at a Youngkin rally which the Lincoln Project claimed responsibility for which backfired massively. But while issues such as school choice, blue collar jobs, cost of living and the urban-rural divide are fairly common throughout America, it is unlikely that the issues at stake in Virginia would have had a knock-on effect in New Jersey. So what national factors were at play?

I said last week that Terry McAuliffe had previously been tipped as a potential Presidential candidate, and his ratings as Governor up until 2017 certainly weren’t bad. So why wouldn’t voters back him for a second term? McAuliffe is not the most progressive Democrat by a long way, after all. Larry Sabato pins the blame elsewhere: President Biden. Joe Biden is not currently enjoying good ratings. On Tuesday – election day – he had a net approval rating of -8; only three other Presidents since the Second World War (Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford) have had net disapproval ratings during their first year in office. Aside from this, we must ask ourselves the extent to which voters still associate Democrats with unpalatable political issues. It’s worth mentioning that, on Tuesday outside of New Jersey and Virginia, voters in Minneapolis rejected an initiative to dismantle the city’s police department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, a Republican won election to the Seattle City Attorney’s office in a city that is seen as one of the most progressive in the US, defeating a progressive left-wing candidate and self-described “police abolitionist” for the job. Regardless of how accurate a representation it may be, the tying of the modern Democratic Party to a kind of woke establishmentism will likely be a difficult reputation to shift.

Tuesday night’s election results will be a stark warning sound for Democrats who will already be looking to the next major electoral fight: the 2022 midterms. Beyond just Virginia and New Jersey, the majority of governors’ mansions will be up for contention next year, along with one third of the US Senate and the entire House of Representatives, as well as countless state legislatures. To quote Miles Coleman, Associate Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, “no state is permanently red or blue“. However, if the Democrats can lose the Virginia gubernatorial election and come within a hair’s breadth of losing in New Jersey, then . The Democrats look likely to lose control of the House next year, and the Republicans only need to flip -one- Senate seat to re-take control there. And with key Senate swing states like Arizona, New Hampshire, Georgia and Nevada in play next year, they will have plenty of opportunity.

The loss of Virginia’s governorship to the Republicans certainly doesn’t spell the end of the state’s overall pro-Democrat trend. However, Glenn Youngkin’s victory has introduced us to a Republican Party unshackled from former President Donald Trump. And with President Biden’s languishing ratings at the helm, this is not good news for the Democrats. How much the Democrats can turn this around – or at least limit the damage – in the next twelve months remains to be seen.

What to look out for in November’s elections

Candidates for Virginia governor don't want to ride Biden or Trump's  coattails | KATV

On Tuesday, the first major round of elections during Joe Biden’s presidency will be taking place. While the major midterm elections – including a full sweep of the House of Representatives, a third of the US Senate and multiple governors across the US – are still a year away, Tuesday’s elections still feature a couple of major events, which I will run through here.

Most of the major activity on Tuesday will be taking place on the East Coast, including, first of all, the New Jersey gubernatorial election. Incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy is running for a second term, and will be facing off against Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former member of the New Jersey General Assembly.

While Murphy is largely favoured for re-election (the New Jersey gubernatorial race is rated as safe for the Democrats by Inside Elections and the Cook Political Report), recent polls have barely had Murphy breaking the 50% mark, which is not enough for the Democrats to get comfortable in a state that is usually one of their safe bets. However, we must remind ourselves that New Jersey had a two-term Republican Governor in Chris Christie only four years ago, and the GOP had a serious shot at flipping one of the state’s Senate seats in 2018. While polls putting Murphy at the 50% are essentially good news for the Democrats, this still goes to show that US elections are not always as simple as “red-state” or “blue-state” denotations would have you believe.

However, the state where most observers will likely turn most of their attention to is Virginia, where their own all-important gubernatorial election is taking place. In the Old Dominion, Governors are not permitted to serve more than one consecutive term, but are allowed to serve up to two non-consecutive four-year terms. Incumbent Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, will therefore be stepping aside, and former Governor Terry McAuliffe will be stepping back onto the Democratic ticket for a second term. McAuliffe will be competing against the Republican candidate, businessman Glenn Youngkim, to get his old job back.

For a state which has been undergoing such a noticeable pro-Democrat trend in recent years, the Virginia’s governor race is remarkably – and uncomfortably – tight. McAuliffe is a high-profile Democrat nationally who had been tipped as a potential presidential nominee in 2020. And yet, the polls in the race are statistically tied, with recent Democratic poll leads all coming in at under 2%. McAuliffe has been roping in support from senior Democratic figures: President Biden, former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State and 2016 Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have all been campaigning and headlining rallies for McAuliffe (Youngkin, meanwhile, has been somewhat eschewing the support of former President Donald Trump). Virginia’s gubernatorial election will likely be the key race of election night.

Meanwhile, voters in Virginia will also be electing representatives to the state’s House of Delegates. The Democrats currently hold Virginia’s lower chamber with a small majority, with 55 delegates to the Republicans’ 45, having flipped the House from Republican control in 2019. The Democrats are the weak favourites to maintain control, but despite Virginia being an increasingly blue state, the presence of so many close races mean that successes for McAuliffe’s party are by no means a foregone conclusion. Back in New Jersey, elections are also being held to both chambers of the New Jersey State Legislature: here the Democrats are defending safer territory: the party has roughly a two-thirds majority in the State House, while they hold the State Senate with a similar margin of 25 out of 40 seats to the Republicans’ 15.

Away from the East Coast, two special elections to the US House of Representatives will be taking place in Ohio. In the 11th Congressional District, a strongly Democratic seat covering a large part of Cleveland and parts of Akron, former Representative Marcia Fudge stepped down earlier this year to become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Biden administration. Further south, the 15th Congressional District covers a large swathe of rural southern Ohio as well as some southern areas of Columbus; former Republican Representative Steve Stivers resigned to become president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and the seat is likely to stay with the GOP in November. Elsewhere across the US, various cities will be electing mayors, along with the usual array of local elections which take place every year.

So what this will these elections mean? Although the Democrats are on the defensive in these elections, and while midterm elections are often used to gauge national opinion of an incumbent administration, it’s important to remember that we are only nine-and-a-half months into Joe Biden’s term as President, and it is still very early on in his presidency. However, a loss or near-loss in Virginia for the Democrats, or a close race in New Jersey, would be a definite concern for Democratic Party strategists, as it would raise questions about the party’s ability to hold key offices in 2022. Similarly, a good, or at least positive, result for the Republicans on Tuesday night would likely re-energise their campaign going into next year’s midterms, where they will be looking to re-take the House of Representatives and tip the balance in the Senate back in their favour, along with a few governor’s mansions they have their eye on. However, if the Democrats can hold both gubernatorial races by better-than-expected margins, as well as possibly reinforcing their majorities in the Virginia State Legislature, then the Republicans may have to revise down their targets for next year.

The 2022 midterms will be the real test of Joe Biden’s presidency: will he continue to be assured of the support of a Democratic-controlled Congress, or will he spend the rest of his term weighed down by an opposition-controlled Congress, as so many previous Presidents have found themselves in the middle of their terms? The lay of the political landscape in New Jersey, Virginia and elsewhere once the votes have been counted may give us some early clues. However, a lot can change over the course of 12 months, and Tuesday’s election results will give both parties’ strategists the opportunity to plan for the big fights next year.

Is this the most underrated President of the United States?

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Over the last 70 years, numerous scholarly surveys have been conducted to identify the best and worst Presidents of the United States. Oftentimes the same names appear at the top of the list: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, to name a few. Meanwhile, the bottom of the list has its own usual suspects, including Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. Presidential greatness is commonly thought of as being defined by aspects such as crisis management and leadership, rousing rhetoric and vision, significant achievement and sticking power in the public memory. Meanwhile, the lowest-ranked presidents usually share scandals, crises happening on their watch and poor leadership as common factors.

But how suitable are these frameworks really for “ranking” Presidents? Is it fair to deem a president as mediocre on the grounds that he didn’t lead the nation through a major crisis, such as a war? Criticizing the notion of presidential rankings, Curtis Amlund says that “to say…that a president was average or near-great does not tell us much about anything”.[1] In the same way that you cannot always compare the crises of the past to today’s challenges, you cannot necessarily compare one President to another operating in a different time, as you will only get a partial picture.

Today I would like to discuss a particular President whom is often considered mediocre, but whom I feel is very much underrated. I will be considering his Presidency, his legacy, and what we could possibly learn from him. But not only is this President underrated, he is also oft-forgotten; a 2014 study found him to be the least-memorable President. And yet, Mark Twain is quoted as having said “it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration”.

Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States, 1881-1885

Chester Alan Arthur is a difficult man to biographise, on account of the fact he ordered his personal and official papers be burned on his death. However, I will attempt to discuss his background, presidency and legacy here. Chester A. Arthur ascended to the Presidency on September 19th, 1881 following the death of President James Garfield, 79 days after Garfield had been shot by Charles Guiteau. Arthur was not really a politician; rather, he was a career civil servant, and by all accounts was an able administrator.[2] If we exclude serving as Garfield’s Vice President for a whole 199 days and a brief stint as Chairman of the New York Republican Party, the only real political office Arthur had held was Collector of Customs at the Port of New York. It was the civil service ladder, rather than the political ladder, that Arthur climbed to the Presidency.

In the approach to the 1880 Presidential Election, the Republican Party was divided between two factions: the Stalwarts, led by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, opposed civil service reform, generally preferring they system of political patronage (the act of rewarding people, either financially or with things like political positions or government contracts, for their electoral support). Meanwhile, the Half-Breeds favoured reform, looking to build the civil service upon a merit system, as opposed to a spoils system, which was essentially patronage or cronyism. Stalwarts had opposed the attempts at reform made by Rutherford B. Hayes, and sought to re-nominate former President Ulysses S Grant for an unprecedented third term, while Half-Breeds supported Maine Senator James G Blaine’s campaign for the nomination.

During America’s Gilded Age – the term given to the period of rapid economic growth, increased immigration and expanding industrialisation in the later part of the 19th Century – corruption was a part of American political life, and the spoils system was openly advocated by some of the political establishment. As Port Collector, Arthur himself was not immune: “Back in the days before income tax”, Sybil Schwartz writes, “the customs provided the federal government’s chief source of revenue. As collector in New York, Arthur presided over an “industry” that grossed five times more than the nation’s largest corporations”. Customs House employees under Arthur were encouraged to make “voluntary” pro bono nostro (“for the common good”) contributions “to the Stalwart cause”; this practice was perfectly legal until it was outlawed in 1872.[3] Arthur was ultimately removed from his position in 1878 by President Hayes, a reformer who had the support of the Half-Breeds, on the grounds that reform of the Customs House would be impossible as long as Arthur was in post.[4] Who better then than Arthur to champion Conkling’s cause?

Cartoon of a man kicking another man into the street
An October 1881 Puck Magazine cartoon showing President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) booting Chester A. Arthur (who had recently become President) from the New York Custom House as part of his attempts at reform; however, a path leads straight from the Customs House to Washington DC. The cartoon references Arthur’s ascent, saying “From the Toe-Path to the White House.” (Library of Congress)

After thirty-five ballots between Grant and Blaine, the longest-ever Republican National Convention finally concluded on June 8th, 1880, after six days. With both the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds accepting that neither of their candidates would win, the convention ended in a compromise: a Half-Breed, Ohio Representative James Garfield, was nominated for President, with Arthur, a Stalwart now serving as chair of the New York Republican Party, for Vice President. While Garfield supported civil service reform, the Stalwarts had hoped that, by putting Arthur on the ticket, he would temper or moderate any attempt by Garfield to enact any reforms. Indeed, part of Guiteau’s motive in assassinating President Garfield was that his successor would appoint him to a consular position through the spoils system (Guiteau lived under the delusion that he had aided Garfield’s victory in the 1880 Presidential Election, and was therefore owed a position). Or so the Stalwarts had hoped, when Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States in the early hours of September 19, 1881.

Early on in his presidency, Arthur appointed Stalwart figures to his Cabinet, including Frederick Frelinghuysen replacing James G Blaine as Secretary of State. However, to the surprise of the Stalwarts, the reform-supporting staff at the Post Office and Customs House were largely left as they were. In fact, beyond surprising the Stalwarts, Arthur made it clear he was cutting ties with his previous cronies: indeed, the President’s refusal to replace the then-incumbent Collector of the Port of New York, the reformer William H. Robertson, with a Stalwart candidate carved a deep rift between Arthur and Conkling which would never heal.

Aside from simply falling out with his former friend and mentor, however, as President, Arthur had become committed to the cause of civil service reform. When news of the Star Route Scandal broke during Garfield’s presidency in April 1881, some thought that Arthur, the friend of the Stalwarts, would sweep the scandal under the rug. The Star Route Scandal was a scam whereby contractors looking to operate inland mail routes (or star routes) would, usually in collaboration with Post Office officials, look to artificially drive the price of the mail contract beyond the price that the US Treasury would normally pay contractors for the route. Having overcharged the Treasury, the contractors and Post Office officials would then pocket the “profits” between them. However, once in office Arthur pushed ahead with the investigation begun by the Garfield administration, which resulted in the resignations of some of his former allies, including Thomas Brady, the Assistant Postmaster General.

Beyond scandals within the Post Office, however, the achievement for which Arthur is probably best remembered during his presidency is the signing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. While the Act, named for its author, Ohio Democratic Senator George H. Pendleton, began under President Garfield, Arthur – against the wishes of the Republican Congressional majority – sought $25,000 in order to fund the Civil Service Commission which would advise on reform (Congress would ultimately agree to provide $15,000).[5] Furthermore, Arthur appointed reformers to the seats on the Commission, and by 1884 the spoils system began to disappear from the civil service, with half of Post Office employees and three quarters of Customs House jobs being awarded based on merit.[6]

Arthur also had notable accomplishments outside the realms of civil service reform: aside from rejuvenating the US Navy, Arthur was also a proponent of racial equality, calling for increased federal funding for education among black and Native American communities (although his efforts did not gain ground with Southern whites). Arthur was also critical of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875; while Arthur favoured replacement Civil Rights legislation, he was not able to get anything through Congress.[7] While Arthur’s personal feelings on these issues are largely unknown due to the burning of his personal papers, he demonstrated a definite commitment to racial equality at a time where the United States were still healing and deeply divided following the Civil War and failed reconstruction attempts. One negative point from Arthur’s presidency is the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a ban on the immigration of Chinese labourers for a period of 10 years. However, in truth Congress forced Arthur’s hand on the issue with a veto-proof majority, but not before Arthur had managed to veto the previous attempt to get the Act passed, which sought to establish a 20-year exclusion period.

Official White House portrait of President Chester A. Arthur, Daniel Huntington, 1885

Ultimately, despite his attempts at reform being well-received, his change in stance came at a cost: as the 1884 Presidential Election neared, Arthur found himself rejected by the former allies among the Stalwarts, while Half-Breeds and reformers were turning towards James G. Blaine for the Republican nomination. With little support from anywhere in the Republican Party, President Arthur bowed out of the running for a full term as President, congratulating Blaine but not playing an active role in the campaign after that. Arthur’s health began to decline towards the end of his Presidency, and he died on November 18th, 1886, less than two years after leaving office.

The Presidency of Chester A. Arthur was not the most illustrious, but he is definitely a woefully underrated and under-discussed President. Thomas C Sutton argues that, as President, Arthur “focused on maintaining stability rather than on launching his own ambitious program”.[8] But does a President really need to have an ambitious program to enable him to get on with the job? Is it not enough that, immediately following the assassination of a President and during a period of rampant corruption, Arthur provided some much-needed stability and reform? Amlund argues that Presidents in office at significant periods in US history, or “great times” are unfairly judged using the same criteria as Presidents who served during quiet periods. “The term “great times”…”, Amlund writes, “implies ordinarily the existence of a war, or an economic depression of considerable magnitude; it most definitely suggests a crisis period of some kind”.[9] Therein, for me, lies the barrier between Arthur and the perceived notion of “greatness”: Arthur’s presidency was one with fairly modest but reasonably consistent achievement, one free of drama or scandal, and – perhaps as a result – one which quietly slipped from public memory.

Chester A Arthur may not be a memorable – or even a “great” – President, but he certainly deserves praise and a reputation beyond that which he usually gets. The Arthur presidency saw no new major scandals, wars or crises; instead, Arthur simply got on with the job he never really wanted in the first place. Despite his career being built through patronage, and despite being seen as a man who was made by – and who could have championed – the corrupt civil service spoils system, President Arthur turned his back on the system, becoming an advocate for reform, a fighter of corruption, a man committed to racial justice and running an honest administration. He left office with a reputation as an honest and decent man.

And in our present era of stark partisanship, media soundbites and the notion of the “celebrity president”, are those not good characteristics to have in a President?

[1] Amlund, Curtis Arthur, “President-Ranking: A Criticism” in The Midwest Journal of Political Science, Vol. 8, No. 3, August 1964, p309-315, p311

[2] Newcomer, Lee. “Chester A. Arthur: The factors involved in his removal from the New York Customhouse” in New York History, vol. 18, no. 4, 1937, p401–410, p403

[3] Schwartz, Sybil. “In Defense of Chester Arthur” in The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 4, 1978, p180–184, p182

[4] Newcomer, p407

[5] Theriault, Sean M. “Patronage, the Pendleton Act, and the Power of the People.” In The Journal of Politics, vol. 65, no. 1, 2003, p50–68, p56

[6] Howe, George F, Chester A. Arthur, A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics, 1966: New York: F. Ungar Publishing Company, p209-210

[7] Sutton, Thomas C. “Chester A. Arthur” in Gormley, Ken ed., The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History, 2016, New York: New York University Press, p276-287, p279

[8] Schwartz, p183

[9] Amlund, p310

What exactly is in the Infrastructure Bill?

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On Monday, less than seven months into his term in office, US President Joe Biden got a step closer to what could be the first major accomplishment of his presidency: the passage of his $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill. The plan has been weaving its way through Congress for months, and has been the subject of lengthy bipartisan talks between President Biden and both parties in the Senate.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which runs to over 2,000 pages, still falls short of the proposed $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan which Biden had been hoping for. However, the fact that a bipartisan deal has been agreed on such a sweeping, significant bill, as well as at a time where partisanship has been rampant – is a positive result for all involved.

So what exactly is in the bill? The list of investments is a long one: it includes $110 billion for roads, $40 billion for bridge repairs, $39 billion to modernise public transit, $66 billion for improvements passenger and freight rail, plus $12 billion in partnership grants for intercity rail (the President is well-known for his enthusiasm for Amtrak), $65 billion for broadband investment, $17 billion in port improvements, $25 billion in airports, $15 billion in electric vehicle infrastructure, and $73 billion to upgrade the electric grid and $55 billion to upgrade water infrastructure, plus an extra $50 billion to make it more disaster-resilient. And that’s just some of it.

Supporters of the bill say that a sizeable investment in infrastructure will be crucial in creating jobs and ensuring the US makes a good post-COVID recovery, as well as bolstering the economy, introducing more green technology, and ensuring that the US will continue to be able to compete with other global powers such as China. Aside from this, it means that sections of America’s infrastructure will get the help and renewal it desperately needs. A press release from the White House said “The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will grow the economy, enhance our competitiveness, create good jobs, and make our economy more sustainable, resilient, and just”, adding that “these investments will add, on average, around 2 million jobs per year over the course of the decade”.

Some key points from Biden’s American Jobs Plan were left out, however, including $400 billion to expand Medicaid, as well as services for ageing and disabled people, as well as increased pay for home health workers, along with improvements to Veterans’ Affairs hospitals and investments in training. Also left out of the deal were new and increased corporation taxes, which Biden hoped would have helped pay for the bill.

Despite the bipartisan support, opponents have described the bill as irresponsible, arguing that the bill would add $256 billion to the deficit over the next ten years. Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who opposed the bill, argued that the bill would be more than Washington had ever spent before, and that the government would be spending money it didn’t have. Former President Trump had also voiced opposition to the bill, calling it a “terrible deal” (repairing America’s crumbling infrastructure was something that Trump had said at length was part of his administration’s plan, as did other previous Presidents, although no bills were introduced during his term). Ultimately, however 19 Republicans voted with the Senate Democratic Caucus to pass the bill 69-30, above the 60 vote threshold which was needed.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could be a defining moment of Biden’s presidency. If nothing else, the passage of the bill through the Senate is an early vindication of Biden’s pledge to work across the aisle, something his former boss, Barack Obama, was not able to achieve with his cornerstone legislation, The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare did not have bipartisan support – not that it needed it – was divided straight down party lines and has been the subject of contention ever since).

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act still has to survive the House of Representatives – which is not guaranteed to be an easy task – before it can get to President Biden’s desk. Even if it gets signed into law, there is nothing to say there won’t be challenges, both legal and political, or delays to the plans. However, the fact that the President and Congress have been able to work together so far on such a huge piece of legislation will probably make Joe Biden’s first year as President of the United States a productive one.

Towards a Greater Idaho? Why some voters want an Idaho-Eastern Oregon merger

The Malheur National Forest in central-eastern Oregon, which would become part of Idaho under the proposals

On Tuesday, voters in five eastern Oregon counties approved a measure to break away from the state and join up with Idaho, across the border to the east. Voters in Baker, Grant, Lake, Malheur and Sherman counties all approved the measure instructing county officials to initiate the process.

The measures are supported by the conservative grassroots organisation Move Oregon’s Borders for a Greater Idaho (MOBGI), which believes that the current Oregon-Idaho border “doesn’t match the location of the cultural divide in Oregon”; many feel that rural counties in eastern Oregon are closer ideologically to Idaho than to the state’s government in Salem, as well as the rest of the Willamette Valley, the dominant region in the state, which is also home to the city of Portland. While only five counties in eastern Oregon voted for these measures, the wider plan supported by MOBGI and others is to expand Idaho into a “Greater Idaho”, which would see the state absorbing most of the south and east of the state of Oregon, meaning that – among other things – Idaho would have a Pacific coastline.

The organisation, which is not afraid of publicising its conservative leanings, wants to move rural Oregonians in conservative counties who live under “blue-state law” which “refuses to protect citizens from criminals, rioters, wildfire arsonists, illegals, and the homeless, but then infringes your right to defend your family with firearms” to a more conservative state (MOBGI also believes that “Idaho would have the sense of purpose and the satisfaction of freeing 1.2 million people from immoral blue-state law” by agreeing to move the border). However, they believe that all Oregonians can benefit from the re-adjusting of the Oregon-Idaho border; MOBGI calculates that the average Willamette Valley taxpayer spends $367 a year subsidising southern and eastern Oregon, and that adjusting the border would benefit them by raising the state’s average income and giving the Democrats a greater hold on the state government.

The idea is not as crazy as it sounds, and it is certainly not without precedent. MOBGI references a 1958 compact which saw the adjusting of the Oregon-Washington border: the border had previously been defined as being the middle of the main channel of the Columbia River, but both man-made and natural changes to the river’s currents meant that governance over some sections of bridges and highway came under dispute, and so an adjustment of the border was necessitated. MOBGI also cites an April 10, 1961 cessation of land in Clay County, Minnesota to North Dakota after an avulsion of the Red River left two parcels of Minnesota land totalling around 23 acres connected to North Dakota; the decision was made to transfer the land to North Dakota.

However, there is a big difference between these precedents and what MOBGI and other supporters of the move are seeking. When a natural feature such as a river forms a border between states, it makes sense to adjust the borders slightly when geographical changes occur. However, the changes above only concerned small areas of land (and the areas formerly in Clay County, Minnesota had no residents), while the plan proposed by MOBGI concerns nearly three-quarters of Oregon’s 98,000 square miles and would affect 1.2 million Oregonians. The move, while perfectly permissible within law, would effectively constitute the largest transfer of land from one state to another in American history.

The first phase of MOBGI’s Greater Idaho proposal (map from greateridaho.org)

Regardless of the size of the cessation, however, the right to self-determination is paramount. So how would it work if eastern Oregon wanted to join up with Idaho?

The process in theory is fairly straightforward: if residents in one state wished to cede to another, then both state legislatures would need to agree to it, and then the move would require congressional approval. MOBGI claim to already have the support of a number of leaders in the Idaho legislature, including the Senate Majority Leader, and also claim that Idaho governor Brad Little is on board with the idea (provided the would-be Oregonians recognise that the state would be Idaho). In practice, however, there are further considerations that would need to be made beyond just moving the Idaho-Oregon border, including the additional cost to Idaho of subsidising a host of new counties as well as the objections of residents who oppose the secession. There is also the chance that the Oregon State Legislature in Salem simply might not agree to it. In terms of representation, Idaho would most likely gain a single congressional district from the re-arrangement, as most of eastern and southern Oregon is covered by the state’s Second Congressional District; Oregon, which is set to gain a new congressional district in 2022, would sill be divided into five districts.

So how likely is any secession to happen? From where we are now, it’s fairly unlikely, at least in the next few years anyway. The five counties that approved the measure do not all border Idaho, nor even each other. While there is nothing in law to say that the counties have to border the state they want to secede to, there are 21 Oregon counties in which either in whole or part form part of the Greater Idaho plan; it would be far more practical – politically, financially, logistically – for the counties to secede as a bloc rather than individually or in small groups. Of course, none of this is to say this wouldn’t happen, but don’t expect any changes overnight, as it will be a long process.

However, there is an underlying issue to be considered here: while the city of Portland has a reputation as an ultra-liberal and progressive city in the Pacific Northwest, the same cannot be said for the rest of Oregon. The stark divide politically between urban and rural communities is perhaps more evident here than in many other states. In the 2020 Presidential Election, the five Oregon counties which voted for secession – Baker, Grant, Lake, Malheur and Sherman – gave Donald Trump a higher percentage vote share than the state of neighbouring Idaho did on average. Furthermore, Lake County produced the most lopsided result in Oregon during the Presidential Election, with Trump winning 79.5% of the vote to 18.2% for Joe Biden.

The five Oregon counties which voted to secede have either increased or maintained their Republican presidential vote share, but the biggest increase was in 2016-2020. Source: Oregon Secretary of State.

In this age of increasing partisanship and polarisation, divides such as these are likely to grow. Meanwhile, out-of-state residents, mostly from California, have been moving to states such as Oregon to seek out cheaper house prices and a more relaxed pace of life, meaning rural Oregonians feel increasingly left behind. However, this is not just an issue in Oregon; across the most conservative states in the western US, including Montana, Wyoming and Utah as well as Idaho itself, are experiencing the growth of new residents from out-of-state as people seek to move away from big urban areas (MOBGI suggests that adding conservative-leaning counties from Oregon to Idaho “would prevent Boise from drowning out the state’s vote in the future”). And, as seemingly with everything, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this issue as urban and suburban residents have less of a need to live near a big city. However, the issue of polarisation works both ways; while the Willamette Valley area has grown more liberal, southern and eastern Oregon has remained a safe zone for conservatives. While Portland, with its progressive politics and perceived penchant for violent protest, is often viewed as extreme, opposing extremities are also present in rural areas of Oregon, which is visible in the high levels of Trump support and general anti-government sentiment (you may recall that, in 2016, an armed militia of far-right activists briefly occupied a wildlife refuge on federal land in eastern Oregon). In any case, what this issue shows is is that state borders are not always the best way of denoting social, political and cultural boundaries.

There could be an entire series of articles written on the growing political urban-rural divide, or the flight of residents from California and other areas to more rural areas of America, and for that reason I won’t dig too deeply into the issue here. However, with MOBGI supporting pro-cessation ballot initiatives in a further seven Oregon counties, the issue is not likely to go away any time soon. I do not know if the endeavour will be a success, but it is clear that a re-think of how rural and sparsely-populated areas of America are represented is needed. For now though, it seems as if rural Oregonians looking to redraw the Oregon-Idaho border are taking the view that, if you can’t beat them, join a state that suits you better.

How did Walter Mondale transform the office of Vice President?

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Walter Mondale, Vice President under Jimmy Carter from 1977 until 1981, has died at the age of 93. A longstanding and recognisable figure in American politics, he served as a Senator from Minnesota before joining Carter’s ticket, and later served as Ambassador to Japan.

Carter’s single-term presidency was not the most successful, being beleaguered by a poor economy and the Iran Hostage Crisis, as well as questions about Carter’s ability as President. Carter and Mondale were roundly defeated for re-election in 1980 by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and Mondale would then go on to lose the 1984 Presidential Election to Reagan by a landslide, winning just his home state of Minnesota – and then by just over 3,000 votes – and the District of Columbia.

However, for the lack of success he had as a candidate on Presidential tickets, Mondale’s successes lay elsewhere, namely in how he transformed the very office of Vice President of the United States.

When Carter selected Mondale as his running mate, Mondale sent Carter a seven-page document outlining what he hoped his role as Vice President might look like. In it, he highlighted some key areas in which he felt he could be of greatest help to the would-be President: firstly, as a general advisor to the President. Mondale felt that previous administrations had been let down by “the failure of the President to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or often what others want him to hear”. Mondale, using his experience in government and politics, felt would be the best-placed person to offer Carter impartial advice. In order to achieve this, he required access to the same intelligence information as the President, a role in key meetings, and access to the President, including an office of his own in the West Wing of the White House and weekly lunches with the President – a tradition that continues today. Secondly, the Vice President would be a troubleshooter, as well as play a role in foreign relations. Overall, Mondale placed a greater importance on his re-imagined role than his duties as President of the Senate, a role which he viewed as “ceremonial with the exception of casting tie-breaking votes”, and one demanding “a minimum amount of time”.

It was Mondale’s eagerness to be of as great a practical use to the President as possible which was the key to the success of the re-imagined office; the Vice President was to be the President’s right-hand man and most trusted confidant, rather than – as Paul Light described – “errand-boys, political hitmen, professional mourners and incidental commission chairmen”.[1] While many Vice Presidents have used the office as a stepping stone into the presidency (Danny M. Adkison in 1983 suggested the Vice Presidency was “a kind of internship or apprenticeship” for future presidents[2]), Mondale developed a Vice Presidency which existed to support the President in his work. Indeed, Vice President Mondale set to work in his new role during the transition period, and travelled the world extensively during their four year term, playing a part in defining issues of the Carter Presidency, including the Camp David Accords and addressing racial discrimination in Southern Africa, as well as, domestically, the Chrysler bailout. However, despite selling Carter the advantage of having him on hand to advise, Mondale never tried to unduly influence Carter beyond his provision of advice and support.

While subsequent Vice Presidents have varied in their deference to the ‘Mondale model’, the impact of the changes Mondale made to the Vice Presidency have been carried by subsequent administrations; Al Gore and Joe Biden served as close personal confidants to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, George H. W. Bush provided Reagan with a solid résumé of government experience, and Mike Pence played a sizeable role in foreign relations in the Trump Administration. All have enjoyed offices close to the President, weekly lunches and greater access, all thanks to Mondale. Joel K Goldstein agrees that “[t]he Mondale tenure made the vice presidency a far more significant institution”, adding that it is thanks to him that subsequent Vice Presidents have enjoyed an office in the West Wing, increased access to the President and his classified information, and a role in the executive decision-making process.[3] Beyond this, the Mondale model has lead to greater attention being paid to Presidential running mates due to the level of influence the office now holds.

The modern Vice Presidency is Mondale’s success, and his enduring legacy. Reflecting on her 2018 book, First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power, Kate Andersen Brower said “every former vice president [since Mondale]…rhapsodized about the partnership between Carter and Mondale. That is because Mondale made the vice presidency — an oft-maligned position — into an actual job.”

Walter Mondale was probably the person who best understood the needs required by the office of the President, despite never having served in it himself. Marie D. Natoli wrote in 1977 – within the first few months of Mondale’s Vice Presidency – that “no matter how inept any President might be, he will be remembered while even the most brilliant occupants of the second office are dim shadows from the presidential administration of which they were part”.[4] Not so for Walter Mondale; he re-imagined the office of the Vice President into a dynamic, influential and engaged one, the model of which has continued to be embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike.

[1] Light, Paul. “Vice-Presidential Influence under Rockefeller and Mondale.” Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 4 (1983): 617-40.

[2] Adkison, Danny M. “The Vice Presidency as Apprenticeship.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1983): 212-18.

[3] Goldstein, Joel K. “The Rising Power of the Modern Vice Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 38, no. 3 (2008): 374-89

[4] Natoli, Marie D. “The Mondale Vice Presidency: Is the Die Cast?”, in Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 2/3, 1977, p101–108.