Yesterday, in “Nancy Pelosi Should Not Be President: The law of presidential succession is broken, and it ought to be fixed immediately” (The New York Times, 11/4/19) (SEE AT END), the Editorial Board devoted extensive space to what is normally an arcane topic: presidential succession especially if both president and vice president leave office.
Editorial Observer Jesse Wegman explores a scenario he says was wildly implausible a few months ago, but is unlikely but not inconceivable today. Donald Trump is forced from office over the Ukraine affair. Vice President Mike Pence takes over, and before he can name his own vice president (confirming a new vice president can be a lengthy process), Pence is impeached and removed for his own role in the scandal. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi assumes the presidency.
Wegman fears such an outcome for several reasons. For him, a line of succession ensures a smooth transition and a continuity of administration in a time of crisis: “Having a leader of the opposing party take over the White House, especially in an era of intense political polarization, would not achieve that, to put it mildly.” In addition, if Pence were impeached after Trump left office and before a new vice president was confirmed, then Pelosi would oversee an inquiry that could result in her own ascension to the presidency.
For Wegman, this would be a huge conflict of interest. Such a scenario actually happened before. In 1865 following the assassination of Lincoln, Andrew Johnson — impeached in 1868 — became president but no vice president was named. At this time, the second in the succession line was the Senate’s president pro tempore:
Consider what happened in 1868, when a Republican-led House of Representatives impeached President Andrew Johnson. In the Senate trial, one of Johnson’s most outspoken critics was Ben Wade, a Republican who also happened to be the president pro tempore. Wade voted to convict, along with 34 of his colleagues, one vote shy of the two-thirds majority necessary to remove Johnson from office. The vice presidency was vacant at the time, which meant Wade was effectively voting to make himself the president.
As would be Pelosi to Wegman’s dismay. Wegman argues the chain of succession should be immediately changed so that only serving cabinet members are eligible.
Actually, Wegman’s scenario could be even more complicated. Imagine Pelosi does not want to be president for any of various reasons. She could step down as Speaker, possibly returning to the position when the new Speaker becomes President. Here’s the wrinkle. The Constitution does not require the Speaker be a House member. The House can chuse whomever it wants.
For a political junkie, the possibilities are scintillating and endless. First, the scenario would immensely impact the 2020 election. One choice could be Hillary Clinton who, after all, won three million more votes than Trump in 2016. If she and the Democrats wanted, President Clinton could at some point enter the 2020 race, strengthened with the power of semi-incumbency.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has the experience, but he’s already running for president. Picking Biden for a stint as president would probably ensure him the 2020 nomination, but the other candidates would cry foul and many Democratic voters would feel alienated.
If Clinton is considered “damaged goods” and Biden’s selection would seem fishy, two other experienced former Democrat nominees could work: former Secretary of State John Kerry or former Vice President Al Gore who also won the popular vote. Like Clinton, both could consider entering the 2020 race at a later point.
I’d pick Kerry. Al Gore’s climate change preoccupation would turn off many voters. Kerry has gravitas. I voted for him in the 2004 election, passionately hoping his victory could end the Iraq War. Kerry’s defeat was the most bitter I’ve experienced.
There is also an outlier candidate. Barack Obama. Obama is constitutionally barred from running for president, but technically he can serve as president. Obama’s selection would have the least effect on the 2020 elections; he would basically be a caretaker president who certainly knows the job.
Better yet, how about Michelle Obama if she promised not to run in 2020. In 1974, Gerald Ford became America’s first unelected president. Michelle would really be unelected, having never run for any office.¹
There is another option both high minded and politically shrewd: former Massachusetts Governor William Weld who is currently challenging Trump in the Republican primaries. Choosing Weld allows the presidency to remain in its original party. Furthermore, if Republican senators knew that Weld was going to be president, some would be more likely to vote to oust both Trump and Pence.
Regardless, removing Trump and Pence would send the Republican nominating process into a free-for-all. A Weld presidency would certainly boost his chances in the primaries. The Democrats would probably prefer to face Weld than more formidable opponents like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio or Mitt Romney.
Another wrinkle. Trump could be removed from office but not barred from holding office again (depending on how the constitution is interpreted, see Joshua Spivak’s “Trump Can Get Impeached and Reelected”, Newsweek 10/09/19). If Trump continued his campaign after his removal, Weld would siphon off votes from Republicans outside Trumps’ base, making for a hectic Convention.
Or the House of Representatives could declare the whole thing a mulligan and reinstall Trump. Or they could pick me. If chosen, I will serve.
Yesterday, I submitted this Letter To The Editor to The New York Times. Will keep you posted.² (SEE ALSO A look inside the “readers page” from NYTimes Letter-to-the-Editor editor Tom Feyer)
¹Reader and contributor John Roche, Associate Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has followed American elections for decades. John would welcome a Pelosi presidency, but if that didn’t transpire: “One could do worse than Michelle Obama. Someone who could heal some wounds.”
² In the November 7th edition, The New York Times printed six letters responding to Wegman’s editorial (below). Often, The Times publishes one short, clever letter. Alas, Hirsh’s is shorter and cleverer than mine.