city on a hill

city on a hill

A “city on a hill” is a phrase used to refer to America’s supposed standing in the world, as a “beacon of hope” which other nations can look to for moral guidance.

The phrase can be traced back to the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount (as recounted in the book of Matthew), Jesus tells his followers:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good.

John Winthrop, who helped found the Massachusetts Bay colony, was the first person to apply the phrase to America. In 1630 Winthrop and a group of his fellow Puritans traveled from England to the New World, in order to found a colony near Plymouth. While aboard the Arabella, Winthrop delivered a speech which has become known as the “city on a hill” sermon.

Winthrop told his fellow Puritans that they would have to work hard, sacrificing their own personal desires for the good of the community and for the sake of their religion: “for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

In 1961, president-elect John F Kennedy told the people of Massachusetts that, as he prepared to assume the presidency:

I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.

“We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us–and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city on a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

A few decades later, Ronald Reagan made frequent references to the “city on the hill.” Reagan made John Winthrop and the “shining city” the centerpiece of his farewell speech to the nation, at the end of his second term:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here…

And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

chilling effect

chilling effect

A “chilling effect” is a situation in which rights are restricted, often because of indirect political pressure or overbroad legislation. Chilling effect is usually used to refer to free speech restrictions.

The term, and in fact the doctrine, first became widespread in the middle of the 20th century. That’s when the courts were asked to respond to McCarthy era laws aimed at monitoring communist sympathizers. In a series of landmark cases in the 1960s, the Supreme Court ruled that even when they don’t explicitly infringe on speech, laws can effectively restrict speech through intimidation.

Today, we mainly use “chilling effect” to talk about the subtle ways that politics, money, and power can impact free speech. The phrase is in frequent use by people on all points of the political spectrum. It doesn’t always refer to free speech; a “chilling effect” can also deter people from taking unpopular political positions, or from carrying out certain actions.

In 2016, for example, a prominent critic of the Clintons argued that President Obama should not have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Peter Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” said that the endorsement was likely going to deter the FBI from investigating Hillary Clinton’s email setup.

“The timing is horrible,” he said of Obama’s endorsement. “The optics are horrible. And you’re not going to convince me, I don’t think anybody’s going to convince me, that this is not going to have some sort of chilling effect on the FBI.”

A few years later, Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that President Trump had allegedly silenced a whistleblower. The whistleblower in question claimed that he had information about Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian leader, in which Trump allegedly asked for an investigation of then-vice president Joe Biden’s son.

However, as the Washington Post reported, Democrats weren’t just concerned about the whistleblower in that case. They were concerned, they said, about the knock-on effect this might have on future whistleblowers. “The President’s brazen effort to intimidate this whistleblower risks a chilling effect on future whistleblowers, with grave consequences for our democracy and national security,” said Adam Schiff, Elijah Cummings, Jerrold Nadler and Eliot L. Engel.

Around the same time, former FBI agents told CNN that they were concerned about a possible chilling effect within the FBI as a result of comments from President Trump and Attorney General William Barr. The former FBI agents said that Barr’s “harsh” rhetoric was likely to stop current agents from “sticking their necks out” and undertaking other politically risky investigations.

“These comments will have a chilling effect on the workforce,” said one recently retired agent who has handled surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the kind abused according to the inspector general report.

Of course, the term “chilling effect” isn’t always about politicians and their actions. Sometimes, the phrase is used to describe a broader culture that discourages free speech. In 2016, for example, Conor Friedersdorf published an article in the Atlantic arguing that college campuses were becoming so obsessed with “political correctness” that they were dampening free speech.

chicken in every pot

chicken in every pot

“Chicken in every pot” was Republican campaign slogan of the late 1920s. The slogan is often incorrectly attributed to Herbert Hoover; it became a means for Democrats to attack Republicans as out of touch with economic reality.

The desire for there to be a “chicken in every pot” dates back at least to 16th century France. That’s when Henri IV supposedly wished that every peasant in his kingdom, no matter how poor, could have a chicken in his pot every Sunday. (It’s not clear whether Henri ever actually uttered these words, but the story persists.)

Centuries later, the phrase resurfaced in the United States. In 1928, a group of Republican businessmen created an ad touting the supposed gains the Republican Party had made for working Americans. The ad ran in the New York World and the headline read, “A Chicken in Every Pot.”

“The Republican Party isn’t a poor man’s party,” the ad began. It went on to say that “Republican efficiency has filled the workingman’s dinner pail – and his gasoline tank besides…Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial “chicken in every pot.” And a car in every backyard, to boot.”

Later that year, Al Smith, the Democratic candidate for the White House, waved the ad around and quoted from it derisively. According to William Safire, Smith read out some of the ad to a waiting crowd and then asked his audience, “just draw on your imagination for a moment, and see if you can in your mind’s eye picture a man working at $17.50 a week going out to a chicken dinner in his own car with silk socks on.”

Hoover easily beat Smith in the 1928 election.  It’s worth noting that Hoover never actually promised Americans a chicken in every pot, as Smith suggested. But Hoover did run on a “prosperity” platform, promising ordinary Americans a better life. That may be why the “chicken in every pot” slogan stuck to him so well, and caused him so much trouble later on.

In 1932, Hoover was running for re-election and America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Many Americans blamed the president for the economic downturn, and the language of the time reflects it. Slums were known as “Hoovervilles,” and empty, turned-out pockets were known as “Hoover flags.” The promise of a car in every back yard and a chicken in every pot seemed laughable to many, which helps explain the record turnout to vote Hoover in.

Decades later, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, he dredged up the “chicken in every pot” slogan all over again. JFK attributed the quote to Hoover, expanding the original slogan to include twice as many chickens as before. In a speech in Blountville, Tennessee, JFK said,

“It is my understanding that the last candidate for the Presidency to visit this community in a Presidential year was Herbert Hoover in 1928.President Hoover initiated on the occasion of his visit the slogan “Two chickens for every pot”, and it is no accident that no Presidential candidate has ever dared come back to this community since.”

cemetery vote

cemetery vote

The “cemetery vote” refers to a form of voter fraud, in which votes are cast in the names of registered voters who have, in fact, passed away. The term is also sometimes used when a vote is improperly cast by someone who no longer lives in the electoral district.

It’s related to “ballot box stuffing.”

In 2016, a CBS investigation found that there had been “multiple cases” of votes being cast by dead men and women in Denver, Colorado. The votes were cast months, or years, after the actual voters passed away.

In one instance, CBS found that ballots had been cast in the name of a woman named Sara Sosa in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. However, Sosa had died in October of 2009. Her husband, Miguel, died in 2008 but a vote was cast in his name in 2009.

Chicago has its own, storied history of voter fraud, and the Chicago Tribune ran a cheery editorial after CBS unearthed fraud in Colorado:

As Chicagoans, we have one thing to say: amateurs. The Denver investigation turned up only four confirmed cases of corpses actually casting ballots. And the whole scandal seems to be the work of a few hapless freelancers — presumably, someone getting hold of a ballot mailed to the home of the deceased and deciding not to waste it.

After all, the famous, cheeky order to “vote early and vote often” is closely linked to Chicago. Historians are not sure who, exactly, first uttered the phrase, but it’s always attributed to a Chicagoan. It’s thought that it was either the famous gangster, Al Capone; Richard Daley, mayor from 1955 to 1976; or William Hale Thompson, who was mayor from 1915-1923 and from 1931-1935

In mid-century Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley was rumored to regularly engineer voter fraud so that his Democratic allies kept on winning. Many people said that Daley was also behind the 1960 victory of John F Kennedy; Daley supposedly “stole” the presidency for JFK by making sure that the Chicago vote went his way. That account has been disputed, but it’s still a popular and widely-believed story.

More recent reporting, though, indicates that cemetery votes are still being used in Chicago. A 2016 investigation by CBS2 found that over the course of the previous decade, 199 dead people had “voted” a total of 229 times.

A Board of Elections spokesman downplayed the investigation, dismissing the votes as accidents or as irrelevant mistakes. “This is not the bad old days,” Jim Allen told CBS. “There are just a few instances here where a father came in for a son, or a neighbor was given the wrong ballot application and signed it.” Allen argued that a number of the “fraudulent” votes were simple clerical errors.

The CBS investigation found that 60,000 voters had not been purged from the city’s voting rolls. In several cases, relatives of people who had passed away complained that they had repeatedly notified officials of their family members’ deaths – only to find out later that their family members had “voted” several times after death.

captive candidate

captive candidate

A “captive candidate” is one who is allegedly “owned” by special interests or political groups. Calling someone a “captive candidate” is similar to saying that they are the puppet or the pawn of an interest group.

As William Safire has pointed out, the phrase is often associated with Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1952. Stevenson ran against the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s campaign accused Stevenson of being in the pocket of the Democratic political bosses and the labor unions. Republicans had been making similar charges against Democrats for decades, but by 1952 they were beginning to stick.

Stevenson, though, fought back by reclaiming the word. At first he was content to laugh off the Republican allegations. Soon, he turned the expression around and used it to attack Eisenhower. He argued that Republicans in general were beholden to big business and that their voting record proved it. In a Labor Day speech to his supporters, Stevenson depicted Eisenhower as the pleasant, slightly vacant face of the Republican party:

It’s a good thing the people have the Democratic Party to count on. For it’s a sure thing they cannot count on the Republican Party. The Republicans are still the party of the special interests, still the errand boys of the big lobbies, still the ones who want to exploit labor and the farmers and the consumers. The only thing different about them this year is that they are trying to hide behind a new face–their lonely, captive candidate.

They have tried disguises before. They always try to put a new face on the elephant at election time. But the disguise never works because the rest of the elephant is too big to hide–and the rest of the elephant has the record of Republican reaction written all over him.

We might not use the phrase “captive candidate” very often these days, but similar allegations get thrown around in every election cycle. One of the most common threads in political attack ads is the claim that one candidate or another is the tool of a special interest group.

In politics, the opposite of a “captive candidate” is probably a “grassroots-funded” candidate. During the 2020 primary season, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders claimed that their campaigns were “100% grassroots funded.” The implication is that they weren’t beholden to special interests or lobbyists, since they were funding themselves through small donations from ordinary voters. As the Washington Post reported, this claim was a mixture of fact and omission.

Donald Trump put an interesting twist on all of this back in 2015, when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump repeatedly argued that his opponents were being bought by the special interests who contributed to their campaign funds. By contrast, Trump asserted, he was unbuyable – because he was so rich already that nobody could tempt him with cash.

As Politico reported, Trump imagined a scenario in which all of his rivals were beholden to their donors and would have to do the donors’ bidding down the line:

So their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton, President Walker. Pretty much whoever is president other than me. Other than me. And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign.



The acronym CREEP is short for The Committee for the Re-election of the President, which in 1972 was the fundraising organization of then-president Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. The committee officially launched in 1971 and was originally abbreviated CRP. After the Watergate scandal, it retroactively became known as CREEP. Formed ostensibly to “do whatever it takes” to get Nixon to a second term, members of CREEP would ultimately get caught up in the Watergate scandal, sending some of them prison and all of them to infamy.

As described by Smithsonian: “The Committee to Reelect the President was organized to win a second term for Richard Nixon in 1972. Headed by former Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, CRP included many former Nixon White House staffers. As advertising and marketing plans for Nixon’s campaign moved forward in the spring of 1972, so did covert plans — wiretaps and other forms of harassment directed against the president’s opponents — that would eventually bring down the second Nixon administration.”

When Nixon set out to be re-elected, he faced some fierce opposition and plenty of people that Nixon perceived to be “enemies.” As laid out on History.com, it was fertile ground for the formation of a committee like CREEP: “A forceful presidential campaign therefore seemed essential to the president and some of his key advisers. Their aggressive tactics included what turned out to be illegal espionage. In May 1972, as evidence would later show, members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President…broke into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, stole copies of top-secret documents and bugged the office’s phones.”Among the more famous members of CREEP were campaign director John Mitchell and campaign manager G. Gordon Liddy. Both of them would be indicted.

In addition to its re-election duties, and its support of the burglars who broke into Watergate, CREEP was known to use money laundering and slush funds as part of its activities. As described by Vox, the committee also illegally attempted to interfere in the 1972 Democratic primaries by promoting the nomination of George McGovern, as they thought he was more easily defeated. “CRP operative Donald Segretti was involved in many of the worst of these efforts, including fabricating multiple documents with stationery from Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, the 1968 vice presidential nominee and a strong contender for the presidency that year.”

As part of one of the biggest scandals in political history, the legacy of CREEP is one of deception, burglary, illegal banking activity, forgery and perjury. From Thoughtco.com: ”Besides bringing shame on the office of the President of the United States, the illegal acts of the CRP helped turn a burglary into a political scandal that would bring down an incumbent president and fuel a general mistrust of the federal government that had already begun festering as protests against continued U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War took place.”

concession speech

concession speech

A “concession speech” is the speech a candidate delivers after the vote results are clear, when they publicly acknowledge that they’ve been defeated in an election. These speeches are typically delivered in front of supporters, and when they’re at their best are well-choreographed political events.

Much has been written about the importance of a good concession speech. As noted in Newsweek: “One of the most sacred traditions in American politics is the loser of presidential elections conceding victory to the winner. The peaceful transition of power is one of the pillars on which the country’s democracy is built…”

In a commentary from a 2018 article in San Diego Union-Tribune, the author posits that “concession speeches are an important and necessary ritual.”

Additionally, a 2016 USA Today article points out: “How a candidate drops out can be as important as how he/she announces. A good model is Hillary Clinton, who, in conceding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, said that ‘although we weren’t able to shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling this time … it’s got about 18 million cracks in it!’”

Political scientists and speechwriters study concession speeches. In a 2012 interview with NPR, former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson claimed that good concession speeches show “unity, gracefulness and also, frankly, a kind of fundamental humility,” using Al Gore’s 2000 concession speech as an example of one exhibiting all of those qualities.

A Time Magazine article touches upon the history of the concession speech, and traces the first “congratulatory telegram” to the election of 1896, when William Jennings Bryan conceded to William McKinley. At noted in the article: “Al Smith gave the first radio-broadcast concession speech in 1928 and Adlai Stevenson first did so on television in 1952.”

The article goes on to point out the “formulaic” nature of concession speeches, adding “The basics of that formula are such: the speaker says that he or she has congratulated the winner—usually not that he or she has lost; the word ‘concede’ is rarely heard—to the opponent; the speaker calls for unity; the speaker summons supporters to both accept the result and to continue to fight for their cause in the future.”

While it’s clear that there is a certain formula to concession speeches, historians are quick to point to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 speech as veering from that formula, breaking from tradition by saying a word no other presidential loser has ever said: “sorry.”

While there is much debate about who delivered the best presidential concession speeches of all time, a 2016 Business Insider article put together a list of the Top 10.

Compact of Fifth Avenue

compact of fifth avenue

In the summer of 1960, aspiring presidential candidate Richard Nixon met Nelson Rockefeller in Rockefeller’s New York City home to discuss Nixon’s campaign. What resulted from that meeting is known as the “Compact of Fifth Avenue.”

Also referred to as the Treaty of Fifth Avenue, the compact was a way for Nixon to receive the backing of Rockefeller, a powerful force in the Republican party. In fact, Rockefeller himself was considering seeking the nomination for the presidency that year. But when it was determined he couldn’t win, he decided to take on the role of kingmaker instead.

As laid out by Circa1865.com: “Rockefeller, though no longer seeking the nomination, was determined to influence the GOP platform. As critical as any Democrat of [Eisenhower] administration military policy, the New York governor strongly echoed the 1958 Rockefeller Brothers Fund report on national security, especially the recommendations for a mandatory national fallout shelter program, for accelerated ICBM development, and for bigger conventional forces.”

Rockefeller, long considered a more moderate voice than many Republican candidates, gave Nixon his support, but in return Nixon promised to incorporate Rockefeller’s agenda into his campaign and the ensuing presidency, should he win.

As described in the Denver Post: “This was no small tête-à-tête. Nixon succumbed to a GOP policy agenda executed by the Rockefeller, stamping this meeting as a key example of the post-New Deal moderation of the Republican Party.”

According the description of the compact from a 1967 edition of Congressional Quarterly, the key points of the Compact of Fifth Avenue were: “It called for expansion and acceleration of the defense program; strong federal action to remove discrimination in voting, housing, education and employment; stimulation of the economy to achieve a minimum 5-percent growth rate; and a medical care plan for the aged.”

Many political scientists consider this compact to be a key component of the birth of modern conservatism. But the compact didn’t sit well with all Republicans: “The so-called Compact of Fifth Avenue created controversy at the convention; conservatives saw the treaty as a backdoor surrender of conservative principles to the moderate Rockefeller.”

Fifty-two years later, during the height of the 2012 Republican primaries for president, the co-op where this so-called treaty was brokered made news again when it went on the market for $27.5 million. From Zillow.com: “Half-century later, that apartment is up for sale and the Republican Party continues to hash out divisions between conservatives like presidential hopefuls Gov. Rick Perry, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and moderates like former Gov. Mitt Romney. Real estate prices have gone up, but in some ways, it’s just like it’s 1960 all over again.”

clothespin vote

clothespin vote

A “clothespin vote” is a colorful term referring to a vote given to the “less objectionable” candidate despite a distaste for him or her. It’s commonly used during elections in which both choices are equally disliked. The concept is akin to “holding one’s nose and voting” and is closely related to the “the lesser of two evils” principle.

The term can be traced back to the tradition of depicting a person, particularly in cartoons, of trying to avoid unpleasant odors by putting a clothespin on his or her nose.

One notable example of a “clothespin vote” was during the French election of 2002, in which The Telegraph described the election as a choice between “cholera” Chirac and “plague” Le Pen, adding: “Many are promising to go to the polling booths tomorrow wearing rubber gloves, with clothes pegs on their noses as a symbol of their disgust.”

During the 2000 presidential election, William Safire lamented in the New York Times the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush:

So I’m conflicted. But failing to vote is not an option; I know that even when one’s candidate does not win, choosers are never losers. Here’s my way out: our system offers us an opportunity to hedge our bets. Even when forced to cast a ”clothespin vote” (go explain that metaphor to a washer-dryer generation that has never seen a clothesline), we have a way to ease the pain of choice.

In the summer of 2016, disapproval of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was so high that a website called Clothespinvote.com was launched. As described here: “In excess of 25,000,000 Americans engaged in the primary process did not choose Clinton or Trump as a presidential candidate. The Washington Post cited in early June over 12,000,000 votes have been cast against Hillary and more than 15,000,000 votes against Trump. These voters have three options: don’t vote, write in, or cast a Clothespin Vote for one of the options on the ballot.”

There is much debate about concept of the clothespin vote, and whether it’s worth voting at all if you strongly dislike both choices. As argued by The Foundation for Economic Education:    “Every eligible voter will have to decide, based on his or her own conscience, whether the Common Good compels voting for the LOTE. Each will have to assess the relative moral harm of the candidates, based on their own values.”

A 2016 Psychology Today article suggests that the clothespin vote – or compromise – is a hallmark of democracy:

Some people do apply the ‘lesser of two evils’ logic in their everyday life. They bolt upright and say ‘I’m not going to take this anymore. No compromise!’ It rarely turns out well for them. So why do we apply that logic to a national democratic election? To live in a democracy means compromise. Why suddenly the proud switch to a no-compromise rule when most of us know better than to apply that rule in everyday life?

can’t win technique

can't win technique

The “can’t win technique” is a campaign strategy used during the primary season. Typically, it means telling delegates and voters that your rival can’t possibly win the general election. The idea is to present one candidate as more electable, while diminishing the other, more exciting candidate.

In the mid 20th century, Robert A. Taft was an ambitious senator from Ohio. His father, of course, was the former president William Howard Taft. A fiscally conservative Republican, Taft led a coalition of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans; he was considered a formidable foe to President Truman. Taft was widely known as “Mr. Republican” and was seen as a natural opponent to the East Coast, moderate branch of the GOP.

Taft tried to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, 1948, and 1952. By the second time he ran, Taft’s rivals were declaring that “Taft can’t win.” And sure enough, Taft lost the Republican nomination in 1948. In 1952, Taft’s rivals again convinced the Republican party bosses that Taft didn’t have a chance. Eisenhower ran against him and won. The race is generally seen as a contest between a moderate (Eisenhower) and a hardliner (Taft), but it’s also an instance of the can’t win technique at work.

Further back in American history, a man named Henry Clay fell victim to the can’t win technique. Clay, known as the “great compromiser,” was running for the Whig nomination to the presidency in 1840. That’s when Thurlow Weed, a political boss who wanted Martin van Buren to win, started a campaign to convince Whigs that Clay didn’t have a chance of winning. Weed’s plan was effective. (Years later, a bitter-sounding Clay said, “I’d rather be right than be president.)

In modern elections, voters often agonize over who the most “electable” candidate might be. The more polarized the electorate, the more voters fret about electability. In the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, many Democratic voters said that they wanted to choose whichever candidate had the best chance of defeating the incumbent president, Donald Trump. Unfortunately, though, this led to what some journalists called a feedback loop, or a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As NBC News described the can’t win technique: Some pundits and voters say one candidate — former Vice President Joe Biden — is the most electable, so they tell pollsters they want Biden, which produces media coverage that reinforces the idea that Biden is most electable, which then filters back down to voters concerned about “electability.”

And in fact, some people – like the pollster Nate Silver – argue that it’s almost impossible to know who is truly electable:

Political scientists study electability, but electability ain’t no science. Instead, researchers say, it’s basically a layer of ex post facto rationalization that we slather over a stack of psychological biases, media influence and self-fulfilling poll prophecies. It’s not bullshit, exactly; some people really are more likely to be elected than others. But the reasons behind it, and the ability to make assumptions based on it, well …

clean sweep

clean sweep

In politics, a “clean sweep” occurs in an election when a candidate or party achieves an overwhelming or complete victory, winning in all or almost all districts or precincts. A related term is “landslide” or “wipeout” victory.

In open democracies that are deeply partisan, as in the United States, clean sweeps on a national level are uncommon. Even locally, true clean sweeps, in which one candidate or party receives the vast majority of the vote, are rare.

In the history of presidential elections, there has never been a true clean sweep, but in 1972 Richard Nixon won 49 of 50 states, and in 1984 Ronald Reagan lost only Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

Notably, in many countries where corruption is built into the political system, clean sweeps are much more common, as in Belarus and Iraq, in which Saddam Hussein would commonly boast of “clean sweeps,” often winning 99% of the vote.

There are examples of legitimate clean sweeps occurring in nationwide elections, when there is overwhelming rejection of a country’s political class, as in the 2018 national elections of Barbados, in which the opposition party won every seat in the country’s parliament.

Sometimes, if an opposition party boycotts an election, a clean sweep can happen by default, as was the case in the Jamaican elections of 1983, in which the Conservative JLP party “won all 60 House seats and formed a one-party legislature.”

One of the most storied true clean sweeps in electoral history took place in 1987 in New Brunswick, Canada, as described by the CBC: “Liberal Frank McKenna had expected to win, but he never expected this. His Liberal party has won every single seat in the New Brunswick legislature. A clean sweep like this has only ever happened once before, in P.E.I. in 1935. ‘I did not anticipate it, and I guess it really hasn’t sunk in yet, as to what it means,’ says a stunned McKenna in this CBC news clip. McKenna must now get to work to figure out how to run a government with no opposition.”

Not limited to politics, the term “clean sweep” is also used in sports, as in Major League Baseball, where there have been 21 World Series sweeps, in which a team has won the series without losing a game.


“Camelot” is a reference to President John F. Kennedy’s administration.

Kennedy’s brief, ill-fated presidency has been highly mythologized; some people point to it as a shining example of what the US government should look like. Calling that administration “Camelot” highlights its idealized qualities.

Camelot, of course, was the castle at the center of Arthurian Britain. In legend, King Arthur and his knights of the round table lived in Camelot, or at least they rested there in between adventures. (Camelot is an imaginary spot, but historians believe that it may have been based on a real location in Cornwall or Wales. In the same way, Arthur may have been based on a real Celtic leader.)

The word “Camelot” evokes utopian ideals and high hopes. King Arthur and his knights are supposed to be pure-hearted, chivalrous, and endlessly courageous. In the same way, the Kennedy administration is sometimes remembered as a period of optimism, expanding opportunities, and humanitarian goals. JFK has been lionized as a civil rights hero; he is also remembered for his dream of exploring outer space.

Jackie Kennedy, the widow of John F. Kennedy, was the first to refer to the JFK administration as Camelot. She gave an interview to Life magazine just days after JFK’s assassination. Jackie deliberately brought up Camelot during the interview, and even quoted from a popular musical of the day.

“Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot,” she said, borrowing a line from her husband’s favorite Broadway musical. Years later one of Jackie’s Secret Service agents, Clint Hill, wrote that Jackie had deliberately planted the reference. “She wanted to be sure he was remembered as a great president,” Hill said.

Of course, calling the JFK administration “Camelot” also implies a kind of monarchy. The Kennedy family is sometimes called “American royalty,” and pundits love to talk about how that family is the closest thing America has to a royal family. Linking the administration to one of the most famous kings in history just furthers that association.

It’s worth noting that JFK’s critics argued that he never managed to achieve most of his own high-flown goals. His plans to enact Medicare and to expand civil rights were postponed until the Johnson administration. His actions may have helped embroil the U.S. in Vietnam. And his Bay of Pigs invasion was a thorough failure. Even so, Kennedy’s idealism and charm have gone a long way to make him the most popular president in American history.

Decades after JFK’s death, Barack Obama tried to sum up the Kennedy legacy:

To those of us of a certain age, the Kennedys symbolized a set of values and attitudes about civic life that made it such an attractive calling. The idea that politics in fact could be a noble and worthwhile pursuit. The notion that our problems, while significant, are never insurmountable. The belief that America’s promise might embrace those who had once been locked out or left behind. The responsibility that each of us have to play a part in our nation’s destiny, and, by virtue of being Americans, play a part in the destiny of the world.



A “cabal” is a group of people involved in a secret plot or conspiracy. Cabal can also refer to the plot itself, or to the secret organization of the plotters.

Cabal originally is derived from the Hebrew word Kabbalah, which refers to a mystical Jewish tradition centered around the “direct receipt” of scriptural knowledge. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Christians in Europe were becoming more aware of the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah. Still, it was little understood and was associated with a sense of mystery and with secret, jealously-guarded knowledge.

Cabals can operate on a small or a massive scale. There are, of course, true plots and cabals, some that might be hatched in “smoke-filled rooms.” But more often, cabals exist in the realm of paranoia. They’re often the subject of conspiracy theories, with people imagining that a secret cabal is plotting to take over the world. The BBC has noted, for example, that the Bilderberg Group, an organization of businessmen and politicians, has spawned any number of conspiracy theories. So has the Freemasons organization.

In modern times, conspiracy theories spread more quickly than ever. QAnon, for example, is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory which claims that a cabal of “Deep State” activists are plotting against the president. The left has its own theories about the Trump administration’s involvement in secret cabals.

In 2018 Ben Rhodes, who served as a national security adviser to President Obama, published an op-ed in the New York Times. It was titled “We Are Not a ‘Cabal,’ Just Critics of Trump.” Rhodes was responding to a National Security memo obtained by The New Yorker, in which members of the Trump administration claimed that a “network” of former Obama officials was working together to “undermine President Trump’s foreign policy.” Rhodes wrote that

“the memo is a glimpse into a world in which dissent is viewed as dangerous. A group of aides to a president from a different party must be part of some cabal, manipulating the media and working against America’s interests. This goes hand-in-glove with the “deep state” conspiracy, which has led President Trump to disparage the intelligence and law enforcement community, purge the State Department of expertise, urge investigations into political enemies and strip security clearances from former officials.”

Of course, the Trump administration is not the first administration to imagine that its enemies are conspiring against it. Back in the 1990s, the Clinton White House put together a 332 page report about an ongoing “conspiracy commerce” against the president. The memo claimed that there was a “vast right wing conspiracy” against the Clinton White House and that the media was being used to spread false information about Whitewater and about the suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster.

The memo, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, confirmed what many reporters already believed about the state of mind at the White House.

The Washington Post wrote:

The conclusion has long been a favorite of Clinton loyalists: that a cabal of right-wing extremists had figured out how “fantasy can become fact” by advancing rumors about Whitewater and Clinton’s personal life through a “media food chain” that starts in ideological journals and ultimately finds its way onto the front pages of mainstream U.S. newspapers.

Chatham House Rule

The Chatham House Rule is a system for holding discussions on potentially controversial topics, particularly in politics and public affairs.

At a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule, you are free to use information from the discussion, but you are not allowed to reveal who specifically provided it. The rule is intended to increase openness of debate. It also allows individuals to speak for themselves and not necessarily for affiliated organizations.

Specifically, the rule states:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

The rule is invoked by the host of the meeting stating up front that the meeting is operating under the Chatham House Rule. Of course, the effectiveness of the rule relies on trust and sometimes requires disciplinary action, such as exclusion of the violating participant from future meetings.

The rule is essentially a compromise between private meetings, where revealing what was said is forbidden, and on the record events where the discussion is usually attributed to the speakers.

As a result, it is typically not used in an official setting where public meetings of lawmakers and government officials must be open to the public.

The rule is named after the headquarters of the U.K. Royal Institute of International Affairs, based in Chatham House, London, where the rule originated in June 1927. The rule was refined in 1992 and 2002. The Chatham House building was once the home to three British Prime Ministers.

The rule has also been translated into several languages.

contested convention

contested convention

A “contested convention,” sometimes also referred to as a “brokered convention,” occurs when no single candidate for president secures the majority of delegates needed to win a political party’s nomination in advance of that party’s convention.

When that happens, a candidate might still get enough delegates by the time that the convention’s first ballot starts, but if that fails to occur, then the delegates become free to vote for whichever candidate they want, leading to a situation in which the convention becomes ‘contested’ or ‘brokered.’

In a contested convention, depending on the rules of the party, all regular delegates who were pledged to support a certain candidate during the primary voting process are “released” and can be convinced to support someone else.

For most people who follow politics, a contested convention conjures up images of “multiple ballots, horse-trading, smoke-filled rooms, favorite sons, dark horses and other colorful elements that have enlivened American political journalism…,” as described by Pew Research.

Parties try to avoid contested conventions because they typically signal that a party is fractured, split and not unified going into a presidential election.

But that doesn’t stop the speculation that precedes almost every convention. From the Washington Post: “Speculation about a brokered, deadlocked or contested political convention surfaces every four years with the regularity of Brigadoon rising from the mist…. Such predictions show up in virtually every cycle when there’s even a hint of the possibility — usually early on, when a platoon of still-viable candidates suggests that a divided primary contest will fail to produce a winner.”

But as frequently as they’re predicted, contested conventions have almost never come to pass in the modern electoral system.

From The Week: “Since the GOP’s first convention in 1856, there have been 10 presidential elections in which no Republican candidate came into the convention with a majority of delegates. In seven of those elections, the eventual nominee was not the person who had the most delegates at the start of the convention. Of those 10 brokered conventions, six of them produced a Republican nominee who went on to win the general election Since 1952, no convention — Republican or Democratic — has gone beyond the first ballot.”

That year, in a hot and stuffy Chicago, Adlai Stevenson blew the Democratic convention wide open, and was eventually nominated for president on the third ballot.

In 1984, there was a close call when Democrat Walter Mondale arrived at the Democratic convention 40 delegates short of outright victory. But when the superdelegates supported him, it pushed him over the top to the nomination.

The modern primary system still awaits its first truly contested convention.


A pejorative used by alt-Right conservatives to insult moderate Republicans.

It implies they have sold out and is similar to the term RINO. The term is a combination of ‘Conservative’ and ‘cuckold’ (one whose wife is cheating on him). It implies that those moderates are weak and effeminate.

The term originates from the white-supremacist blogospher which started using it in 2015. The term gained favor during the 2016 Republican presidential debates and has continued through the presidency of Donald Trump.


A “cromnibus” bill is legislation which combines a long-term omnibus spending bill with a shorter-term continuing resolution.

Marketplace: “It’s that time of year again. No, not the holidays, but Congress’ annual maneuvering to pass a budget. It has to figure out a way to keep the government running beyond Dec. 11, when current funding runs out. A lot of terms have been used to describe this annual ritual. Remember fiscal cliff? Now there’s a new one: Cromnibus. It’s part omnibus – that is, a long-term funding bill – and part continuing resolution, or CR – for short-term funding. CR plus omnibus equals cromnibus.”

Chicago-style politics

“Chicago-style politics” is a phrase used to characterize a supposedly offensive tough, “take-no-prisoners” or “hardball” approach to politics.

Jacob Weisberg: “Chicago-style politics, in common parlance, refers to the 1950s-1970s era of the Richard J. Daley machine… The strength and durability of the Daley machine was its ethnically based patronage network, a complex system of obligations, benefits, and loyalties that didn’t depend on televised communication with a broader public. It was a noncompetitive system that in its heyday had a lock on urban power and the spoils that went with it.”

Don Rose: “Time was the term ‘Chicago politics’ or ‘Chicago-style politics’ had a special meaning based on our history from the Al Capone years through the regime (1955-76) of one Richard J. Daley, aka Da Mare. Nowadays, like our unique political lexicon, it seems to have become a generic insult for just about any politics one disagrees with.”

cracker vote

The “cracker vote” refers to native Floridian white voters, whose families have typically lived in the state for generations.

Former President Bill Clinton told CNN in late 2008 that he would travel to Florida on behalf of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign: “If we’re trying to win in Florida, it may be that — you know, they think that because of who I am and where my political base has traditionally been, they may want me to go sort of hustle up what Lawton Chiles used to call the ‘cracker vote’ there.”

Though the term “cracker” often has racial overtones, the Weekly Standard notes that Chiles used the word in a non-pejorative manner, including at least once during a 1996 campaign event with Clinton: “I know this fella from Arkansas. And I can tell you he knows how to speak cracker.”

candy desk

The “candy desk” is where a supply of candy is kept in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. George Murphy (R-CA) originated the practice of keeping a supply of candy in his desk for the enjoyment of his colleagues in 1965. In every Congress since that time a candy desk has been located in the back row of the Republican side, on the aisle and adjacent to the Chamber’s most heavily used entrance.

Cherokee Strip

A “Cherokee Strip” is the seating area in the U.S. Senate chamber when some members of the majority party mist sit on the side of the minority party.

From the Senate historian: “Occasionally one party maintains such an overwhelming majority that it has become necessary for majority party members to sit on the minority party side in the Senate Chamber. During the 60th Congress (1907-1909), 10 Republicans sat on the Democratic side, while during the 75th Congress (1937-1939), 13 Democrats sat on the Republican side. Such seating became known as the ‘Cherokee Strip,’ a reference to the region in Oklahoma, which was land belonging neither to the Indian Territory nor to the United States. By the 1930s, it had become the practice for senior senators to take front row, center aisle seats; junior majority party members who filled the “Cherokee Strip” were assigned either rear row or end seats on the minority party side.”

The last time a “Cherokee Strip” existed in the Senate was during the 76th Congress from 1939 to 1941. Six of the 69 Democratic senators sat with the 23 Republican and 4 Independent senators.


“Chum” is campaign gear such as bumper stickers, lawn signs, and campaign buttons.

The term is derived from the bait used to catch fish because in a political campaign these items are frequently used to entice volunteers and voters to get more involved in a campaign or bringing them to events. The distribution of chum is organized by a candidate’s advance man.

Time notes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s campaign “set up little tabletop trinket shops, known as ‘chum stores’ because all those little Obama-branded doodads aren’t only keepsakes; they are also bait. Every person who buys a button or hat is recorded as a campaign donor. But the real goal of the chum operations was building a list of workers, supporters and their e-mail addresses.”


A “carpetbagger” is a politician who runs for office or tries to appeal to a constituency in a geographic area where he or she has no roots or connection.

The term traces its roots back to the Civil War era, when it was first coined as a way of deriding someone from the northern states who migrated to the Confederacy to opportunistically benefit from the Reconstruction. Southerners who resented these interlopers started referring to them as “carpetbaggers,” a reference to the satchel – or cheap carpet bag – that held their meager belongings.

At the time, these so-called “carpetbaggers” headed south because the Confederate states needed significant capital investment, and there were financial opportunities that that didn’t exist in the north. Over time, this influx of northerners began to alter the political realities in the south, and the term “carpetbagger” became synonymous with an ill-intentioned foreigner who aligned with slaves, and had an aspirations to hold office in a region in which they were either not welcome or not part of the community.

Often confused with the term “scalawag,” the History Channel explains the difference. While a “carpetbagger” was an interloper who imposed their views on the south, a “scalawag” referred to someone already living in the south who was sympathetic to the northern cause, or specifically in this case, was anti-slavery.

Taken broadly, all northerners who went south in search of opportunity could be called carpetbaggers, but in reality the label didn’t apply to just anyone. To quote a 2014 Mother Jones article: “If you came South and joined up with the Democrats, you were a gentleman, not a carpetbagger.” Hence, it was a mostly partisan label, hurled by Democrats at Republicans.

Famous Restoration carpetbaggers included Adelbert Ames, Hiram Revels, Albion W. Tourgee, and Daniel Henry Chamberlain.

In more modern times, satchels made of carpet are no longer in vogue, and the term carpetbagger can refer to a member of any political party; nor is it limited to Republicans who migrated south. Modern carpetbaggers are sometimes accused of “district shopping.”

One of the most noted examples of modern carpetbagging occurred in 1964, when Bobby Kennedy sought the New York Senate seat. As noted by American Heritage: “…For controversy, comedy, and sheer audacity, no act of carpetbagging is likely to measure up any time soon to what happened when Robert F. Kennedy invaded the Empire State in 1964.” Of course, Kennedy ultimately appealed to New York voters, and he won the seat he sought.

High profile carpetbaggers abound. In 2014, when Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts decided to run for office in New Hampshire, instead of eschewing the charge, he embraced it. As reported in the Washington Post, Brown said “Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. ‘Cause, you know, whatever.”

In 1999, when Hillary Cilnton ran for the New York Senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, charges of carpetbagging accompanied her bid, but were mostly shrugged off by voters. Hillary went on to win to election by 12 points.

cuff links gang

According to Time, a “cuff links gang” refers to the group of friends who helped Franklin D. Roosevelt run for Vice President in 1920 “and to whom he gave sets of cuff links in remembrance of that unfortunate political campaign.”

The gift of cuff links to political operatives has since become a sign of being an early insider with a politician.

cattle call

cattle call

In politics, a public event at which a big group of political candidates all speak.

The term comes from the acting world, where a “cattle call” is a massive audition to fill a part in a movie or play. Merriam Webster notes that the term was first used in 1952.

The event serves as an audition for the part of presidential candidate. A cattle call allows all the candidates in a race to make their stump speech, to be heard, and to get the media exposure they so badly need. It’s also good practice for the advance team.

Typically, a cattle call takes place early in the election cycle, in a state with an early primary contest like New Hampshire or Iowa. Cattle calls are especially common in Iowa, where voters traditionally put a lot of value in being able to meet the candidates face to face. The events are usually organized by advocates of specific causes, or by political party organizations.

Tim Albrecht, a long-time GOP strategist in Iowa, explained the benefits of the cattle call this way: “You have a megaphone from the inside out. There’s no other place these candidates can go where they will see 200 media confined to one location. That’s potentially 200 stories they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. With these kinds of events, it’s a very low bar to participate and to even be invited.”

In theory, a cattle call gives candidates the chance to distinguish themselves from their rivals and stand out from the crowd. In practice, this can be trickier than expected. When the field is crowded, candidates can start to blur into one another, at least in the mind of the audience. The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich, a veteran of many Iowa cattle calls, has grumbled that the events tend to be “mind numbing,” with hours of speeches and little opportunity to get to know the candidates.

In June 2019, 19 Democratic candidates took the stage in Iowa to speak to prospective voters. As Time Magazine reported, most of the audience seemed to have trouble telling the candidates apart. “When are we going to start seeing some real contrast?” an Iowa Democratic operative reportedly complained, adding, “Somebody’s gotta throw a punch.”

Cattle call is often used in a slightly negative way, implying that an event is not very serious. During the 2019 primary season, for example, The Washington Times ran an op-ed describing one of the Democratic debates as little more than a cattle call. The piece argued that not only was the stage crowded, but the candidates failed to stand out from each other:

“The goal in a real debate is to arrive at a conclusion which best solves a problem. This is what is so frustrating about these badly constructed cattle calls; either no one proposes a workable solution to a real problem or the problem is ignored altogether.”

It’s worth noting that years before “cattle call” had its current political meaning, it was a hit song recorded by Eddy Arnold, full of nostalgia for the cowboy’s way of life. And before that, of course, it was just a way of calling in the cows.


Checkers speech

The Checkers speech was a nationally-televised address made by Sen. Richard Nixon (R-CA) on September 23, 1952 as he was fighting to retain his spot on the national Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee.

Nixon had been accused of improprieties relating to a fund established by his supporters to reimburse him for his political expenses. In an attempt to stem the controversy over the fund, Nixon spoke to about about 60 million Americans about his humble upbringing which led to an outpouring of public support for him. He was retained on the ticket by Dwight D. Eisenhower who won the election in November 1952.

During the speech, Nixon said that regardless of what anyone said, he intended to keep one gift: a black-and-white dog which was named Checkers by the Nixon children, thus giving the address its popular name.

The speech was an early example of a politician using television to appeal directly to the electorate, but has since sometimes been mocked or denigrated. “Checkers speech” has come more generally to mean any emotional speech by a politician.

cookie-cutter campaigns

A “cookie-cutter campaigns” are political campaigns run by political consultants who use virtually identical strategies in different jurisdictions. The typical sign of such campaigns are websites or direct mail advertisements that use identical layouts and stock photographs.

The increased number of cookie-cutter campaigns in recent years is due, in large part, to the rise of political consulting on the local level.

But they’re also due to consultants having found campaign tactics that work again and again.

Walter Shapiro: “There is another intriguing reason why campaign tactics in both parties are about as creative and innovative as those employed by the French general staff during World War II. No major candidate is willing to risk his or her political future on untried campaign plans built around embracing new media and playing down TV spots. With a Senate seat or a governorship at stake, the political herd instinct is as powerful as it is debilitating. So every campaign resembles every other campaign with cookie-cutter ads since the creative potential of 30-second spots was exhausted decades ago.”


A “czar” is an unofficial title used to refer to high-ranking executive branch appointments.

Czars are usually given responsibility for a specific policy area and do not have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. They usually have an official title, but are referred to as czars by the media: For example, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is simply known as the drug czar.

Bernard Baruch, appointed by Woodrow Wilson to head the War Industries Board in 1918, was the first to be called a czar. The usage of the term, only one year after the Russian Revolution, was originally derogatory, although it is less so today.

The term czar was used more frequently in reference to appointed executive branch officials under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. In 1942, the Washington Post reported on the “executive orders creating new czars to control various aspects of our wartime economy.”

Committee of the Whole

The Committee of the Whole is a procedural device used to expedite debates in the U.S. House of Representatives.

To use it, the House adjourns and enters into a committee, with all representatives being members – this procedure allows congressmen to debate legislation subject to the simpler committee rules, and is often used to dispense with funding bills quickly. Non-voting delegates can vote in the Committee of the Whole, although their votes cannot be the deciding ones.

The U.S. Senate used the Committee of the Whole as a parliamentary device until May 16, 1930, when the practice was abolished with respect to bills and joint resolutions. The Senate continued to utilize the Committee of the Whole for consideration of treaties until February 27, 1986.


The Copperheads were Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and wanted a peace settlement with the Confederates.

Republicans started calling them Copperheads, likening them to the poisonous snake. Interestingly, they accepted the label but because the copperhead to them was the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.

Perhaps the most famous Copperhead was Ohio’s Clement L. Vallandigham. Many counties in Ohio and Indiana continued to exist as a kind of solid south in exile for years along the Ohio River.

convention bounce

A convention bounce refers to the surge of support a presidential candidates may enjoy after the televised national convention of their party.

The size and impact of a convention bounce is sometimes seen as an early indicator of party unity.


A “codel” is short for “Congressional Delegation”, and defined as a trip abroad by a member or members of Congress.



The term “casework” refers to assistance provided by members of Congress to constituents who need help while filing a grievance with the federal government or a federal agency.

In a lot of cases, constituents don’t know how to get help if they have an issue relating to federal government services or a problem with federal programs. “Casework” gives these constituents a chance to seek that help from their representatives in Washington.

Casework is an extensive and all-encompassing term that covers a lot of ground: “Each year, thousands of constituents turn to Members of Congress with a wide range of requests, from the simple to the complex. Members and their staffs help constituents deal with administrative agencies by acting as facilitators, ombudsmen, and, in some cases, advocates. In addition to serving individual constituents, some congressional offices also consider as casework liaison activities between the federal government and local governments, businesses, communities, and nonprofit organizations.”

In 2016, the MinnPost described casework as Congress’ most important function (that almost no one uses),” adding: “An enormous amount of time, effort, and resources flows toward casework, and many members of Congress will tell you that helping constituents is their most important responsibility.”

A 2017 report issued by Congressional Research Service highlighted some areas which see the most frequent use of casework:

Tracking a misdirected benefits payment; filling out a government form; applying for Social Security, veterans’, education, and other federal benefits, explaining government activities or decisions; applying to a military service academy; seeking relief from a federal administrative decision; and seeking assistance for those immigrating to the United States or applying for U.S. citizenship.

To let Americans know about the availability of casework, certain members of Congress provide information on their websites about how their constituents can seek out help, as seen here on Maryland Rep Jamie Raskin’s site. And here on the site of South Dakota Senator John Thune.

Of course, casework only goes so far. As explained by the New York Times, “caseworkers are wary of promising too much on this front. They are not supposed to talk to your lender; they can only speak to its regulator, often the comptroller of the currency. And they will usually do so only if they believe a legitimate question has gone unanswered.”

As Congress Foundation points out, Congress has its ways of making sure a constituents request for casework is legitimate: “Though many constituents come to their congressional office to ask for legitimate help with an agency issue, there are plenty of inquiries that are not serious or require a caseworker to step in. Asking constituents to sign a Privacy Release Form is a professional way a caseworker can ensure a constituent is serious about their problem and willing to provide the necessary information to pursue a solution.”

cats and dogs

Cats and dogs are are leftover “stray” bills on minor subjects saved for days when the House or Senate have light floor schedules.

coattail effect

The coattail effect is when the popularity of a candidate at the top of the ticket boosts the fortunes of candidates from the same party lower down on the ballot.

The “coattail effect” is a phenomenon whereby a political candidate or leader’s popularity leads to improved vote totals for fellow party candidates further down the ballot.

A coattail refers to a part of the coat extending below the waist that provides extra coverage. The coattail effect or the alternate phrase “riding on someone’s coattails” is a relatively recent entrant into the political lexicon. The concept’s origins are murky though U.S. Rep. Abraham Lincoln’s 1848 speech discussing General Zachary Taylor’s “coattails” seems to be the first notable use.

In this speech, Lincoln highlighted Democratic Party hypocrisy in their critiques of Whigs hiding under presidential nominee Taylor’s “military coat-tail.” The future president pointed to two decades of Democratic hiding under Andrew Jackson’s coattail as evidence of this hypocrisy. Lincoln’s use of coattail refers more to a presidential candidate providing cover for fellow party members rather than a rising political tide lifting all boats.

The Google Books Ngram Viewer points to the recency of the coattail effect’s use in political literature. In a search of all books from 1800 to 2008, there are no mentions of this phrase until 1947. There is a spike in the term’s use by 1957, which peaked by 1996.

The presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton illustrate positive and negative coattail effects. Eisenhower was a popular figure following his role in Allied victory in World War II. This popularity and his reluctance to political power contributed to his election in 1952 and Republican control of the House and the Senate.

Reagan’s appeal to conservative Democrats and Republicans helped him win the presidency in 1980. Republicans regained the Senate for the first time since Eisenhower’s first term due to the down-ballot effects of Reagan’s election.

Clinton emerged from a three-candidate race in 1992 with a Democratic Congress. After two years of an embattled presidency, Republicans retook the House and Senate by offering a Contract with America to counter what they viewed as presidential overreach on healthcare. Clinton’s struggles weighed heavily on Democratic congressional candidates.

Recent studies have raised questions about the power of the coattail effect. The University of Virginia Center for Politics published a report in 2011 that highlighted inconsistencies in a president’s impact on congressional races. Political scientist Robert Erikson’s 2016 study of the coattail effect found that Democratic votes for Congress fluctuate for both presidential popularity and evaluations of the likelihood of Democratic victory.


Fox 5 Atlanta (February 7, 2020): “Biden argued that he’s the only Democratic candidate who’d have a coattail effect for Senate candidates in battleground states and GOP-leaning states like North Carolina and Georgia.”

The Hill (June 18, 2016): “‘They’re whistling past the graveyard,’ said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, when asked about GOP skepticism of a presidential coattail effect in 2016.”

The New York Times (October 17, 1982): “But a poll by The New York Times indicates that the coattail effect is weak, with supporters of one Democrat often planning to vote a split ticket, and vote against the other candidate.”

checks and balances

checks and balances

“Checks and balances” refers to the Constitutionally mandated separation of powers that results from divided branches of government.

The U.S. Constitution divides power among the three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — to prevent any one from having too much power. Each branch is said to have the ability to check the power of the others, thereby maintaining a balance in the government.

Though it’s sometimes said the United States has three “equal” branches of government, in reality the power of each has fluctuated throughout history.

Examples of checks and balances include:

  • The president (Executive) is commander in chief of the military, but Congress (Legislative) approves military funds.
  • The president (Executive) nominates federal officials, but the Senate (Legislative) confirms those nominations.
  • Both the House and the Senate have to pass a bill in the same form for it to become law.
  • Once Congress (Legislative) passes a bill, the president (Executive) has the power to veto it.
  • The Supreme Court (Judicial) and other federal courts can declare laws or presidential actions (Executive) unconstitutional.

The idea of checks and balances in government dates back to ancient times, as described by History.com: “In his analysis of the government of Ancient Rome, the Greek statesman and historian Polybius identified it as a ‘mixed’ regime with three branches: monarchy… aristocracy…and democracy. These concepts greatly influenced later ideas about separation of powers being crucial to a well-functioning government.”

Years later, in his work “The Spirit of the Laws” in the 18th century, Enlightenment author Montesquieu codified the idea of “checks and balances” when he warned of the threat of despotism by suggesting that there should be different parts of the government to exercise legislative, executive and judicial authority, all under the rule of law.

Montesquieu’s suggestion was later adapted by James Madison who, often described at the Father of the Constitution, wrote: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Most historians agree that, like with any part of living history, the system of checks and balances has served our country well but goes through periods of stress, particularly during events like government shutdowns. As noted by Politico: “Our forefathers in their wisdom established a system of checks and balances in our Constitution to limit power in any one branch of government. That system has worked effectively for more than 200 years to limit power, but it also led to periods of legislative gridlock. We are in one of those periods of total gridlock with the current partial shutdown of the federal government. Each of the parties has dug in.”

Throughout the years, many have argued that the system of checks and balances is failing, as noted here, in reference to NSA’s controversial practice of telephone surveillance of U.S. citizens.

During the Trump administration, the system of “checks and balances” came under intense scrutiny, with a litany of articles suggesting the 45th president, with help from Congress, had placed too much power in the hands of the Executive branch.

The Bulwark: “The Trump administration’s radical expansion of executive power is beckoning what the Founders called “the very definition of tyranny.”

The Atlantic: “By the letter of the Constitution, and by the unwritten norms of American separation-of-powers governance, the main restraint on an overreaching, dishonest, or incompetent executive is a resolute legislative branch. But today’s legislative leaders—Mitch McConnell and his slim Republican majority in the Senate, Paul Ryan and his large Republican majority in the House—are ostentatiously refusing to play that check-and-balance function.”

Many blame the rise of intense partisanship over the last 20 years to further erosion of our system of checks and balances.


An informal meeting of local party members to discuss candidates and choose delegates to their party’s convention.

The term can also refer to informal groups of Members of the House of Representatives or the Senate used to discuss common issues of concern and conduct policy planning for its members. There are also regional, ideological, and ethnic-based caucuses in Congress.

The term comes from the Algonquian language and means “to meet together.”

William Harris: “The term Caucus is first attested in the diary of John Adams in l763 as a meeting of a small group interested in political matters, but William Gordon’s History of the Independence of the United States of America, 1788 speaks of the establishment of caucus political clubs as going back fifty years earlier than his time of writing in 1774, so a first-occurrence date for the caucus can be estimated in retrospect as early as 1724.”

Congressional Record

The official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress. It is published daily when Congress is in session. At the back of each daily issue is the “Daily Digest,” which summarizes the day’s floor and committee activities.

The Congressional Record is available online from 1994.


House Democratic cloakroom

In politics, cloakrooms are spaces adjacent to the chambers of the Senate and the House where politicians from both parties can gather to discuss Congressional business privately. There is a separate cloakroom for each political party. Put simply, a cloakroom is to politics what a breakroom is to a normal office.

Cloakrooms were first established in the late 1800s as actual places for members to store their coats, umbrellas, hats and other apparel, but that usage became obsolete as more office space was built over the years. With the creation of individual offices for members, cloakrooms were converted into places for members to gather to talk about legislation, meet privately to discuss issues facing Congress, make secret deals, or just vent to each other about Congressional matters.

These rooms are closed to everyone except for Senators, Representatives, Senate Pages, some select staffers, and they may even have their own private phone numbers.

An elaboration of life in the cloakroom from CNN: “Floor assistants and cloakroom attendants are among those who work in the rooms. Their duties include alerting lawmakers when votes are coming up, telling them whether the chamber will be open on a snow day and working with pages to deliver messages.”

C-SPAN explained up the cloakroom environment as “food, phones, frivolity, and fights.”

They are noisy, smelly, and cramped spaces. The House cloakrooms both have snack bars (basic diner food, e.g. hot dogs, sandwiches, and soups, and yes, they have to pay), but when they’re still voting late into the night, it’s better than nothing. Senators don’t have snack bars, but Senate catering sends left-over food platters from receptions to the cloakrooms, so there is usually something to nosh on.

All the cloakrooms have old-fashioned phone booths and the cloakroom staff tell Members which numbered booth they can use to take or make a call. There are stacks of flyers from the Whip offices about the floor schedule; from outside groups stating their position about that day’s votes, and copies of leadership Dear Colleague letters to their troops. The furnishings are modest, even a little shabby: large leather lounge chairs, sofas, and many ash-trays because that’s where all the serious smokers hang-out. Talk about a smoke-filled room, the cloakrooms are it! There are wall-mounted television sets and regular tiffs about the remote control. Sometimes sports events are favored over the floor proceedings occurring just on the other side of the door.

And the New York Times described them this way in 1986: “The Republican and Democratic cloakrooms are situated just off the floor of each chamber, and there a handful of men and women scramble to keep the members abreast of activity…”

“Although members of Congress themselves use the rooms a lot less frequently that their predecessors of earlier eras did, many still come around on the House side to take advantage of snack bars in the cloakrooms and occasionally to watch a crucial baseball game specially broadcast into the rooms.”


“Cloture” is legislative procedural term that refers to a motion or process by which debate is brought to a quick end.

From the French word meaning “the act of terminating something,” cloture is “basically a vote to go ahead on a vote, a procedural oddity of the Senate that allows a majority leader to ‘push past a recalcitrant minority,’” as described in a Pew Research article from 2017.

Simply put, cloture is a “is a blunt tool for managing the Senate,” wrote Brookings Institute’s Sarah Binder four years earlier in The Washington Post.

While it’s true that most legislators would prefer to come to a consensus rather than force an end to floor debate, cloture is a tool that began over 100 years ago under contentious circumstances. The Senate’s own website explains: “In 1841, when the Democratic minority hoped to block a bank bill promoted by Kentucky senator Henry Clay, he threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close debate. Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate’s right to unlimited debate.”

It goes on: “Three quarters of a century later, in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as ‘cloture.’”

The first time that cloture was actually used was two years later, in 1919, when the Senate invoked the rule to end a filibuster of the Versailles Treaty.

One of the most notable uses of cloture occurred was 45 years later, in order to put an end to a 57-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite some important uses of cloture, over the decades it became clear that the two-thirds majority needed to invoke it was prohibitive. Indeed, cloture was only successfully used 4 times from 1917 to 1960.

As described here, the rule was finally changed in 1975:

“The majority needed to invoke cloture in the Senate remained two-thirds, or 67 votes, of the 100-member body from the rule’s adoption in 1917 until 1975, when the number of votes needed was reduced to just 60.”

As result of the change to three-fifths, cloture became more common, and was used a record 187 times during the Democrat-controlled 113th Congress, which served during the Obama administration, a period of intense filibustering by Republicans.

While the three-fifth rule for cloture passed in 1975 eased the threshold for invoking the rule, there’s an additional option at the disposal of the Senate, the so-called “nuclear option.”

Famously used by Senate Republicans to speed up Trump administration judicial nominees, the nuclear option allows a cloture vote to pass with a mere majority of Senators. Here’s how it’s characterized by Politico: “The nuclear option — a change of the Senate rules by a simple majority — gained its name because it was seen as an explosive maneuver that would leave political fallout for some time to come.”

Cloture, and its use to end objections to certain legislation or approvals of nominees, remains a lightning rod to this day, a contentious and highly partisan tool of the U.S. Senate.