Monday, March 24, 2008

The wisdom of a split presidency

From Slate, Akhil Reed Amar has an interesting plan for how the Democratic presidential candidates can stop their internecine conflict - by using the 25th amendment to switch the President and Vice President in the middle of the administration. It's an interesting idea but the question I think needs to be asked (and the which Amar mostly avoids) is how important the role of contiguity intra administrations is to achieving political/policy objectives. I'll post my thoughts more extensively in a bit, but here's the link:

http://www.slate.com/id/2187034

8 comments:

Lang said...

It's a nice theoretical exercise, but there are tons of practical problems with it, the most obvious being it would never work.

This is especially true given that the candidates have (some) policy differences, clearly different governing ideologies, and have both attacked each other as unqualified for the job (Clinton lacks judgement, Obama lacks experience...). This is also, IMO, the biggest impediment to actually running a "dream" or "unity" ticket - How does Obama run with Clinton as his VP choice after disparaging Bill Clinton's presidency, saying she lacked judgement on the biggest foreign policy question she faced as a senator, saying we need to get past the "battles of the 90s" and bring in new, non-Washington-based blood?

Conversely, how does Clinton run with Obama as her VP choice after attacking him as too inexperienced? The main job of the vice president is simply to have a pulse, in case something happens to the president, in which case they take over. Any actual policy decisions or issue campaigns led by the VP are only given to the VP at the behest of the president. If Obama is too inexperienced to be President, clearly he's too inexperienced to be VP as well, since that job leaves him as President should anything happen to the president.

An Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket, to me, seems doomed to be repeatedly hit with simple ads of Obama and Clinton disparaging one another. There are more than enough clips that the Republicans could make a new ad of the democratic candidates attacking each other every week between the Democratic Convention and the general election...

Garbo said...

Simply because an idea is constitutional, does not mean it is necessarily a good one. Regardless of one's candidate preference, I do not like the precedent that would set by such a move. Pessimist that I am, I fear a blurring between the roles of President and Vice President. We have already seen the disastrous consequences of the of an ill-defined administration hierarchy thanks to Bush and Cheney. While I do not believe either Clinton or Obama, regardless of who would be at the top of Amar's hypothetical ticket, would approach the level of executive irresponsibility and endanger the Constitution to anywhere near the same extent, no matter how clear a handover of the Presidency from one to the other, the likelihood of such endangerment would increase.

For example, what if President Clinton hands the reins of power to Vice President Obama as Amar suggests. He wins election with her as Vice President and has an immensely successful term. The 25th Amendment cannot force the President to handover power and if the President (in this case Obama) is popular and enjoys high approval ratings, the only constitutional remedy available to Congress to enforce a handover agreement would be impeachment and removal from office. What Congress would impeach and remove from office a popular President, particularly if Congress remains in Democratic hands. President Obama could not be forced to hand power back to Vice President Clinton, despite an earlier promise to do so and there is nothing in the Constitution or pertinent case law, as far as I know, that would require him to do so.

Conversely, let's say that the Clinton -> Obama handover occurs and this time, it is Clinton who has the succesful presidency and Obama, while not a failure, does not succeed to the same extent. While he could not be forced to hand back power, could he be pressured into returning it early? And if he did so, what consequences would that have on his electoral success, and therefore, Clinton's?

However, I think that the most interesting question would be what if the VP-turned-President lost in 2012 (or 2016 or 2020, etc.), particularly if the President-turned-VP would have won. Thoughts?

ebl2009 said...

Even if constitutional, this idea reeks of discontinuity and associated problems in policy.

If Obama comes into power for the first two or three years of an administration, he'll take a part. position likely somewhat different from Clinton's. When the switchover would occur, would this policy stay the same? If not, then you give the bureaucracies, foreign entities, and the Congress an incentive to just wait out the President until the next comes in, threatening deadlock in the federal govt.

And what about the staffs associated with such changes? Most administrations (Bill Clinton's was notorious for this)took a long time to get policy work off the ground - including filling nominated positions and figuring out the general politics of the relationships between the presidency and congress, the bureaucracy, and the military (who can forget his first real interaction with the military, the 'gays in the military' furor that tarnished his image with the institution?). If you have a split presidency, each candidate is likely going to want to import their own staff, reward their own supporters etc. Are you going to completely switch staffs halfway through the presidency? And wouldn't this have problematic effects on the ability of the President to be effective in getting legislation passed and dealing with other countries?

Finally, such an arrangement doesn't deal with the Bill Clinton-as-undue-influence - something which not only makes the arrangement unpalpatble to Obama but also raises more questions about how the team would work in practice.

Lang said...

Additionally, the article also raises the possibility of having 4 terms as 'co-presidents', since each would only be elected twice.

Does anyone really think that a) the American public would stomach the same two people in office for 16 years, or b) that they'd stomach a clinton in the whitehouse for 24 out of 32 consecutive years?

Garbo said...

It took World War II to elect Roosevelt to his third term and he was drafted at the 1940 convention. He did not run. 1944, if I remember correctly, went much the same way. Moreover, he had three separate Vice Presidents: Garner (1932, 1936), Wallace (1940), and Truman (1944). The American people only had to "stomach" on person in the White House for 16 years (though he died in his 12th) and they elected him each and every time and each time by a landslide.

Now, I hold both Senators Obama and Clinton in very high regard. I think each of them would make good Presidents, but neither of them (at this juncture if ever)are FDR. It took an extraordinary individual and extraordinary world events to defy precedent(not to mention the absence of the 22nd Amendment). I hope that such a situation confronts the United States in order to justify what is, at best, an interesting and deeply flawed constitutional hypothetical.

Lang said...

This also touches on a possible way to skirt the 25th Amendment that I'd thought of before - let's say George W. Bush (or Clinton in 2000, Reagan in 1988, etc.) wanted to run for a third term. What would the reaction be to a popular, two-term president, who then ran for vice president at the end of their administration?

What if they did this, and their running mate, the presidential candidate, declared that, on the day of my inauguration, I will resign from office, thus giving someone a third term in office? The amendment only prohibits someone from being elected to a third term, not from actually serving three terms...

Garbo said...

Actually, Lang, the 12th Amendment would prohibit that sort of succession. It states, "no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States." I do not know if this would preclude a former, two-term President from succeeding if he or she became Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, or some other position within the line of succession, but it would preclude Bill Clinton or George W. Bush from the Presidency in the scenario you describe.

Lang said...

touche