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It’s the economy, stupid

It's the economy stupid

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase coined by James Carville in 1992, when he was advising Bill Clinton in his successful run for the White House.

In 1992, the US was experiencing an economic recession and the incumbent president, George HW Bush, was perceived as out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans. Carville told campaign staffers to hammer on the importance of the economy at every chance they got – he even went so far as to hang a sign in campaign headquarters reading, in part, “the economy, stupid.”

The phrase became a mantra for the Clinton campaign. Since then, it’s turned into a catchphrase which pops up whenever analysts are discussing an upcoming election. The phrase has endless possible variations; it could be “it’s the schools, stupid,” or “it’s the environment, stupid,” or almost anything else. The slogan serves to highlight one key issue and to make it the central focus of a campaign.

In 2004, many Americans were angered by the US invasion of Iraq. “It’s the war, stupid,” read some demonstrators’ signs. News sites ran editorials with headlines screaming the same thing, pointing out that the war was the biggest issue on many voters’ minds. However, Democrats failed to rally behind the slogan. They failed to capitalize on the growing anti-war sentiment, as the New York Times noted:

Agree with him or not, the president does stand for something. He led, and the Democrats followed. The polls, far from rationalizing the Democrats’ timidity, suggest they might have won a real debate had they staged one… the Democratic leaders never united around a substantive alternative vision to the administration’s pre-emptive war against the thug of Baghdad. That isn’t patriotism, it’s abdication.

Today, newspapers still love to use Carville’s old slogan whenever an election comes up. “It’s the economy, stupid” is a reminder that appears in headlines every four years.

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal advised President Trump to “adopt James Carville’s mantra” and talk more about the economy – especially to audiences of color. The piece argued that Trump has done a fine job bolstering the nation’s economy, but that he just hasn’t done enough to tell voters about it:

Mr. Trump has spent a fair amount of time in front of mostly white audiences boasting about what he’s done for black people on the jobs front, and it’s not a good look. A more fruitful approach might be for the president to visit some low-income minority communities in places like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, listen to their concerns, engage them in a way that Democrats are not, and talk about what strong economic growth has enabled blacks and others to do for themselves. If there was ever a time for Donald Trump to be channeling James Carville, it’s now.

In 2020, the Boston Globe ran a piece urging Democrats to challenge Trump on the economy; the Globe argued that Democrats need to seize control of the issue, which had so far been in the president’s hands:

No matter what, it’s clear that when it comes to the economy, the Democrats have not yet created a message — or a plan — that will motivate voters to shift how they think about their pocketbooks. Perception is everything, and right now, if it’s the economy, stupid, it’s time for some candidate to get smart.

iron curtain

iron curtain

During the Cold War, the division between western Europe and the Soviet bloc countries was called the “iron curtain.” The iron curtain was never a physical barrier, but served as a metaphor to describe the limit of Soviet influence.

The phrase “iron curtain” may have existed as early as the 19th century. But British prime minister Winston Churchill was the first to use it in its modern sense. In a speech at Westminster College, Missouri in 1946, Churchill declared:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone-Greece with its immortal glories-is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation.

Historians generally agree that Churchill’s speech marked the opening of the Cold War. Not only did Churchill clearly lay out the demarcation of Soviet and western power, he also talked about the need to use maximum military strength to defeat the Soviets. Churchill also warned that there were “fifth columns” in the west aligned with the Soviet Union and conspiring to take down western democracies.

Churchill’s speech was enthusiastically received by the US president, Harry Truman, and by his administration. Truman had already begun to argue that the Soviet Union needed to be confronted with a show of strength and that it must be contained. In Russia, Churchill’s speech was described as both imperialist and racist by leaders in the Kremlin.

The iron curtain was, for the most part, a metaphorical division. However, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, which separated communist East Germany from West Germany, served as a physical symbol of that division. President Ronald Reagan played on that symbol when he delivered a rousing speech from the western entrance to that gate, in 1987. Reagan implored Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to tear down the gate and, by doing so, bring the Cold War to an end:

Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. . . . Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. . . . As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. . . .

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

infrastructure week

Infrastructure week

In 2017, President Donald Trump announced plans for an “infrastructure week,” a series of high-profile events which were aimed at building support for the president’s trillion-dollar plan to rebuild the country’s highways and bridges.

Said Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn: “We’ve had some achievements to date … but we’re really formally launching the things we’re doing. Next week we’re going to announce a few very interesting things.”

Vice President Mike Pence promised that the week would usher in a “new era for American infrastructure in the United States.” 

However, as The Hill noted later, the whole week was overshadowed by ex-FBI Director James Comey’s gripping testimony on Capitol Hill:

Much of the derailment on the infrastructure rollout has been of President Trump’s own making. He repeatedly veered off message in tweets and during infrastructure-themed speeches, flouting some of White House staffers’ carefully laid plans.

Throughout the Trump administration, the idea of an “infrastructure week” has turned into a bit of a running joke, as the Trump administration has announced one infrastructure week after another. The Week noted that there had been six “infrastructure weeks” in the period between 2017 and 2019, with little visible output from any of the events. The Week declared:

The words “Infrastructure Week” have become synonymous with any unsuccessful or clumsy attempts to get an actual policy off the ground, as well as with the administration’s odd tendency of pushing infrastructure whenever unfavorable headlines start appearing in the news.

The Week wasn’t alone in its derision. Infrastructure week has become an event that journalists love to hate. In 2019, the New York Times wrote:

At this point in the Trump presidency, “Infrastructure Week” is less a date on the calendar than it is a “Groundhog Day”-style fever dream doomed to be repeated.

And in fact, one “infrastructure week” after another has been derailed by other news stories. The first week, back in 2017, was overshadowed by Comey’s testimony, of course. The following event was overshadowed by the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and a later infrastructure week was buried in the headlines about the resignation of White House aide Rob Porter.

influence peddler

influence peddler

An influence peddler is one who uses their political influence to try and win favors for others. An influence peddler is a bit of a wheeler dealer, trading access in exchange for payment in one form or another.

A similar word for an “influence peddler” might be “lobbyist.” Like lobbyist, influence peddler is a very negative term. Influence peddlers are almost universally despised, and one politician after another has promised sweeping reforms aimed at limiting their powers.

Back in 1980, the Senate issued a report criticizing what it said was undue influence peddling on the part of Billy Carter, who was the brother of then-president Jimmy Carter. William Safire, writing in the New York Times, called the Senate report “an emphatic condemnation of White House venality.” 

And in 1988 Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, pledged that he would crack down on lobbyists by making it much harder for retired government officials to use their connections to lobby the government. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time,

“Dukakis promised, if elected, to issue an executive order forbidding former senior officials in his administration to lobby the federal government at any time before he leaves office.

To forestall conflicts of interest, Dukakis` proposal would expand the scope of current influence-peddling laws, which set delays of one to three years before someone who leaves government service may lobby various agencies.”

A few decades later, Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to increase transparency and to end the backdoor deals and influence peddling which, critics said, were a feature of the Bush administration. In Obama’s first days as president, he issued a series of orders aimed at just that, as the Washington Post reported:

In two executive orders and three presidential directives, Obama laid out stringent lobbying limits that will bar any appointees from seeking lobbying jobs while he is president and will ban gifts from lobbyists to anyone in the administration. He also ordered agencies to presume that records should be publicly released unless there are compelling reasons not to do so, and he loosened restrictions on the release of records related to former presidents and vice presidents.

Politicians tend to accuse the opposing party of influence peddling. It’s unusual for the party in power to admit that lobbyists are a serious and ongoing problem for them. Journalists also like to write about influence peddling, but most of the time they take aim at just one political party at a time.

Once in a while, though, newspapers publish a sort of “plague on all their houses” editorial, condemning the all-around culture of influence peddling. That’s what the LA Times did, for example, in a 2019 article about the relatives of powerful politicians cashing in on their influence. The Times argued that Hunter Biden had traded on his father’s (Joe Biden’s) influence, but that Trump’s children had done much the same thing – as had others: 

Hunter Biden is only the latest in a long line of relatives of elected leaders who appear to have used their names to open doors. In recent decades, Presidents Nixon, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush all had troublesome family members.

Which brings us to three other children: Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump.

incumbent

incumbent

One who already holds a political office. Usually, in US politics, the word incumbent refers to the sitting official who is running for re-election.

A lot of ink has been spilled about whether the incumbent has a better chance of winning elections than a challenger does. In presidential races, at least, the incumbent has historically had a strong advantage. In the course of US history, only ten presidents have run for re-election and lost. 

In the 20th century, the presidents who tried and failed were William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. So far, every president in the 21st century has won re-election.

It’s only natural that the incumbent should have an edge over the competition, experts say. Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, told NPR:

Incumbents have the following advantages. Name recognition; national attention, fundraising and campaign bases; control over the instruments of government; successful campaign experience; a presumption of success; and voters’ inertia and risk-aversion.

The website Open Secrets has also pointed out that incumbent members of Congress have a strong advantage when it comes to being re-elected. In the House of Representatives, re-election rates hover somewhere between 90 and 100 percent most of the time, only occasionally dipping down to around 80 percent. In the Senate, rates are a little bit more volatile, with a few major dips during politically charged years (as in 1980, for example, when President Reagan swept into the White House). Still, even accounting for those dips, the incumbent is overwhelmingly favored.

Most pundits agree that when it comes to electing the president, voters are overwhelmingly making their decisions based on the economy. As NPR noted in early 2020, that fact may hand President Trump the advantage:

Every presidential election revolves around this simple question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? For most people — at least in terms of the economy — the answer is yes. Unemployment has continued to tick down the last few years, and the stock market is booming. Gross domestic product growth is not what Trump wanted, but fears of a recession have not materialized. And notably, wages have risen faster for low-income workers since 2018 than for others.

Of course, NPR’s piece came out well before the coronavirus pandemic, and its impact on the US and global economy.

It’s worth noting that the presidents who lost re-election in the 20th century almost all presided over struggling economies. Herbert Hoover, of course, came into office in 1929, the year that the stock market tanked and ushered in the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter presided over a period of rampant inflation (or “stagflation”) and soaring oil prices, which made it difficult for the government to continue most of its social spending programs. 

Last but not least, George H.W. Bush presided during a recession; inflation and oil prices were not a huge problem, but unemployment soared. The president was also widely seen as oblivious to the country’s economic woes – and Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, never missed a chance to bring it up. 

imperial presidency

An imperial presidency which one characterized by greater powers than are clearly provided for in the Constitution.

The historian Arthur Schlessinger popularized the term with a book, Imperial Presidency, published in 1973. Schlessinger’s book focused on what he saw as the abuses of the Nixon administration, and called on Congress to impeach the president for going so far beyond the bounds of his constitutional powers. 

Schlessinger argued that, with the end of World War I and the onset of the Cold War, the United States had turned into the most powerful nation on earth. By extension, the US president had become a kind of elected world emperor. More specifically, Schlessinger complained that Nixon was abusing war powers which should have been reserved for Congress. 

Since 1973, the term “imperial presidency” has been applied pretty routinely to many administrations, both Republican and Democrat. In 2001, for example, the Cato Institute summed up President Clinton’s tenure by calling him an imperial president. The group argued that Clinton had been “Nixonian” in his foreign policy, and that he had completely bypassed Congress in his bombing of the Balkans and in his threats to invade Haiti:

As President Clinton’s tenure ends, pundits are trying to define the “Clinton Legacy.” Many have focused on the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, but Clinton may find his legacy in a less sordid but no less shameful aspect of his presidency: his abuse of executive authority in foreign affairs.

Undeclared wars and contempt for constitutional limits on presidential power mark Clinton’s foreign policy. Future historians may well remember Clinton as the man who ensured that the “Imperial Presidency” would not vanish with the end of the Cold War.”

A few years later, the New York Times was applying roughly the same language to the George W. Bush administration:

The war is hardly the only area where the Bush administration is trying to expand its powers beyond all legal justification. But the danger of an imperial presidency is particularly great when a president takes the nation to war, something the founders understood well. In the looming showdown, the founders and the Constitution are firmly on Congress’s side.

President Obama’s critics also accused him of abusing executive powers, especially when it came to immigration, relations with Iran, and natural gas. (His critics on the left complained about his allegedly illegal use of drone strikes, too.) As it happens, President Trump is the first president in recent memory to not face accusations of being “too strong.” Still, Trump’s critics complain that, even when the president is in a weak position, he may be misusing the powers of the presidency. At least, that’s what one op-ed in the New York Times suggested:

The president may seem weak, but the presidency remains strong. Mr. Trump has illustrated that even a feeble commander in chief can impose his will on the nation if he lacks any sense of restraint or respect for political norms and guardrails.  True, Mr. Trump has not been able to run roughshod over Congress or ignore the constraints of the federal courts. But he has been able to inflict extensive damage on our political institutions and public culture.

I’d rather be right…

I'd rather be right

Henry Clay was a U.S. congressman who eventually served as Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams. Clay also ran for the presidency three times, losing on each venture. Today, he is probably best-remembered for a speech in which he said, “I’d rather be right than be president.”

Clay’s complex stance on slavery probably lost him the chance at winning the presidency. In 1839, Clay was running for the presidency for the third time. After his two filed presidential runs, Clay believed that he might finally have a shot in the 1840 presidential cycle. However, he was having trouble positioning himself on the divisive issue of slavery. Clay considered himself to be a moderate – he claimed to dislike the institution of slavery, but he also disagreed with the abolitionist movement. As a result, Clay had enemies on both sides of the political divide, and he was often painted as an “extremist” in one direction or another.

In February of 1839, in an effort to prove that he was not a wild-eyed abolitionist, Clay gave a speech on the Senate floor expressing his opposition to the abolitionist movement. Ironically, the speech cost Clay the support of anyone opposed to slavery. Clay must have realized that the speech was costing him any chance he might have had at winning the presidency, which is why he said, “I’d rather be right than be president.” 

Clay was known as the Great Pacificator, or, sometimes, the Great Compromiser. A slave owner himself, Clay described slavery as a great evil and a dark stain on the United States. He called for a gradual end to slavery and advocated relocating freed slaves to Africa. Clay was a member of the American Colonization Society, or the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States. The organization held that freed slaves could never be successfully integrated into American society and that former slaves should be relocated to western Africa.

Clay also brokered the series of compromises — the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Tariff Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850 — which put off, for a while, the national crisis over slavery. 

However, Clay was also fiercely opposed to the abolitionist movement, which he saw as extremist and dangerous. And when it came to his own slaves, Clay was unwilling to compromise. In 1829, a woman named Charlotte Dupuy, a slave in Clay’s household, sued for her freedom. Dupuy claimed that her former master had promised her freedom, and she filed a suit with the U.S. Circuit Court. Clay described himself as “shocked and angered” and fought against Dupuy’s claim with all his might.

Decades later, “I’d Rather Be Right” was the title of a Broadway musical. The 1937 musical told the story of a young New York couple who wanted to get married, but couldn’t quite afford it. Luckily, president Franklin Roosevelt appears in the play, along with his entire cabinet and a host of his New Deal programs, ready to save the young couple and, by implication, the entire nation.

I am the law

“I am the law” is a phrase attributed to Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City from 1917 until he retired in 1947. He is remembered as the ultimate political boss, in an era when bosses ruled local politics.

Hague was famous for bending the law to his own purposes and wielding absolute power of his small corner of the world. In one famous story, he declared, “I am the law.” There are a few different variations of the “I am the law” story, but they all boil down to the same rough idea: 

A boy, not yet 16 years old, was caught skipping school. The truant officer hauled him in again and again, but the boy refused to go to class. Eventually, the boy was brought to Hague, who asked him why he wasn’t going to school. The boy explained that he wanted to get a job so that he could help his mother make ends meet. 

Hague was understanding. He turned and asked one of his aides to get the boy a job so that he could earn some money. The aide explained that since the boy wasn’t yet 16, it was against the law for him to work full time.

“Against the law?” Hague is supposed to have hollered. “In this case, I AM THE LAW! Now get this young man a job!” 

Hague himself was expelled from school at the age of 13 for bad behavior. The son of poor Irish Catholic immigrants, he grew up in the rough streets of Jersey City’s “Horseshoe” neighborhood, an area which had been carefully gerrymandered to maximize the Democratic vote. 

Hague won his first election at age 21, when he became a constable. His campaigning style was telling; Hague borrowed 75 dollars from a local bar owner and used it to win friends and votes. Hague’s years as mayor were marked by both a reform-minded agenda, aimed at helping the city’s many immigrants, and also a general disregard for the niceties of the law.

Of course, Hague was not the only politician to set himself above the law. His famous declaration, “I am the law,” is a nice echo of the French absolutist king, Louis XVI. Louis once announced, “l’etat, c’est moi,” or, “the state is me,” as a way of describing his oneness with the law and the government.

A few decades after Hague’s time, President Richard Nixon expressed a similar sentiment, reasoning that the president had an executive prerogative that allowed him to break the law, or rather to change the definition of the law, at least in wartime or in the case of a national security crisis. “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Nixon told the journalist David Frost. Nixon went on to explain,

I do not mean to suggest the president is above the law … what I am suggesting, however, what we have to understand, is, in wartime particularly, war abroad, and virtually revolution in certain concentrated areas at home, that a president does have under the Constitution extraordinary powers…

invisible primary

An invisible primary is said to begin when a candidate formally announces their plans to run for office. The invisible primary comes to a close when the actual primary season begins.

The invisible primary is a testing-ground for candidates and their advance teams. It’s an opportunity to find out how much support they can gather before the real primary is held. In fact, the invisible primary can often make or break candidates – candidates who don’t get enough shows of support during the invisible primary often end up bowing out of the race, sometimes before the primary season even begins.

A key example of that in the 2020 presidential race would be Sen. Cory Booker. The New Jersey senator dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 13, 2020, almost a month ahead of the Iowa caucus. Booker had been struggling in the polls for some time; he also wasn’t able to raise enough money to keep his campaign going and to maintain his reputation as a serious candidate.

The invisible primary is often referred to as the “money primary.” That’s because pundits and party bosses are closely watching to see how effectively each candidate can fundraise. Critics of the invisible primary say that effectively, it forces candidates to curry favor with the most wealthy and powerful Americans. Big donors, as well as well-connected fundraisers (“bundlers”) have a disproportionate role in picking candidates.  On the right, wealthy donors like the Koch brothers, or Sheldon Adelson, have traditionally held a great deal of sway. On the left, prominent fundraisers include George Soros and the Facebook founder Denis Moskowitz.

In recent years, more and more presidential candidates are, themselves, extremely wealthy men who have the capacity to fund their own campaigns. This has arguably changed the whole nature of the invisible primary, and may have lessened the power traditionally held by wealthy donors and fundraisers.

incumbent rule

The “incumbent rule” is a rule of thumb used by pollsters that says incumbents rarely get a higher percentage in the election than they receive in polls, and that voters still undecided on the very last poll tend to “break” disproportionately for the challenger.

Michael Barone: “The assumption has been that voters know an incumbent, and any voter who is not for him will vote against him.”

Polling Report: “It seems that undecided voters are not literally undecided, not straddling the fence unable to make a choice – the traditional interpretation. An early decision to vote for the incumbent is easier because voters know incumbents best. It helps to think of undecided voters as undecided about the incumbent, as voters who question the incumbent’s performance in office. Most or all voters having trouble with this decision appear to end up deciding against the incumbent.”

Nonetheless, empirical data suggests the rule may be a myth. Nate Silver notes that it is “extremely common for an incumbent come back to win re-election while having less than 50 percent of the vote in early polls.” In addition, “there is no demonstrable tendency for challengers to pick up a larger share of the undecided vote than incumbents.”

inside baseball

The term “inside baseball” refers to any subject matter which is considered too highly specialized to be appreciated by the general public. In politics, inside baseball usually refers to the technical details and the finer points of political strategy, as opposed to big ideas and emotional appeals.

Inside baseball began, of course, as a term describing a particular way of playing baseball. In the 1890s, inside baseball meant relying on bunts, small hits, and stolen bases to win games, instead of trying for home runs and other dramatic plays. Today, that kind of approach is usually called “small ball.” Edward Hugh Hanlon, a turn of the century baseball player and manager, was considered the father of inside baseball.

Over time, the term took on a broader meaning. It came to be used often in political coverage, where it referred to the kinds of issues that only political junkies really care about. The details about how Congressional hearings are run, for example, could be classed as inside baseball. So could the specific rules at a campaign event. Any aspect of politics which is “wonky,” or “nerdy” can also be described as inside baseball.

The term is often used in a negative sense, to criticize an elitist or overly narrow focus. William Safire noted that by 1978, the Washington Post was poking fun at Senator Ted Kennedy for making “inside baseball” jokes in the middle of “boring hearings” in the Senate. Merriam Webster argues that the term is a few decades older than that and, in fact, dates back to at least 1952. In that year, an article in Boston Traveler wrote, “The evidence indicates the Eisenhower staff is going to have to learn their ‘inside baseball’ the hard way.”

William Safire also noted that politicians on the campaign trail often grumble about reporters who, in their view, focus too closely on the details: “In politics, candidates who say they want to discuss larger issues look down their noses at the journalists and think-tankers who bedevil them with questions about campaign techniques, fund-raising plans and poll results. To them, inside baseball has a pejorative connotation that the phrase never gained in the baseball world.” Similarly, journalists sometimes agonize over whether it’s worth reporting on the nitty-gritty of how Washington operates.

At the same time, some journalists argue that reporting on inside baseball is crucial, since it gives the public a window into how the government actually operates. Inside politics can mean the details of how fundraising and lobbying are carried out. It can also include reporting on the nitty-gritty of how bills get passed into law: pork barrel spending, earmarks, logrolling, and other backroom maneuvers can all be described as inside baseball.

In its more positive sense, inside baseball political reporting can mean covering third party politics in detail. It can also mean illuminating an area of politics which would normally be overlooked because it may not be of interest to the general public.

William Safire: “From its sports context comes its political or professional denotation: minutiae savored by the cognoscenti, delicious details, nuances discussed and dissected by aficionados. In politics, candidates who say they want to discuss larger issues look down their noses at the journalists and think-tankers who bedevil them with questions about campaign techniques, fund-raising plans and poll results. To them, inside baseball has a pejorative connotation that the phrase never gained in the baseball world.”

impeachment

An impeachment is a formal charge of criminality raised against an elected official in the first step to remove them from office. In the federal government, only the House of Representatives may bring an impeachment while only the Senate may try and convict the accused. A conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate and results in removal of the accused from office.

Impeachment can also occur at the state level, according to their respective state constitutions.

The impeachment process should not be confused with a recall election which is usually initiated by voters.

inside the Beltway

The area inside the Capital Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C.

An issue that is described as “inside the Beltway” is said to be only of concern to the people who work in the federal government and is of little interest to the nation at large.