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Chapman’s News & Ideas The Summer 2024 Presidential Succession Crisis Explodes

Originally published at The American Spectator

As I wrote in my last TAS article:

The importance of settling remaining issues pertaining to presidential succession can hardly be overstated. Of 45 prior presidents, nine failed to complete their term: four were assassinated; four died of natural causes; and one resigned. Of 48 prior vice-presidents, 18 did not complete their term: 9 died of natural causes, 2 resigned; 9 ascended to the presidency. In the 179 years prior to the 1967 ratification of the 25th Amendment, the republic was without a vice-president for 37-3/4 years — 21 percent of the time.

A Debate Inflection Point

After Thursday night’s presidential debate, one thing is clear: Joe Biden will NOT be nominated at the Democratic Convention. He will be persuaded to announce that he will not run for re-election — a reversion to his 2020 campaign pledge, made to assuage voter concerns about his age, that he would serve as a one-term president.

Longtime passionate Biden supporter Van Jones gave his evaluation (1:00): “It was painful.” He called for replacing Biden on the ticket. CNN’s chief national correspondent, John King stated (1:27) that the Democrats, after a “game changing” debate, are in “a deep, a wide and a very aggressive panic” over Biden’s disastrous performance. He added that among the options party insiders are considering is to visit the president at the White House and ask him to step down, or to have “prominent” Democrats call publicly for his resignation.

Early in the debate Biden had an episode of slurred speech, and then a brain freeze (4:20, at 0:28-0:42). Finally, there was the spectacle of First Lady Jill Biden escorting (4:37, 0:1 to 0:18) her clearly physically frail husband off the debate stage.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, a longtime critic of the former president, in her Friday column, called the debate “as consequential as any presidential debate in history, and the worst night for an incumbent in history . . . an unmitigated disaster for Mr. Biden . . . a rout for Mr. Trump.” She added that were the election held the next day, Trump would win in a landslide.

Friday saw the New York Times editorial board — literally the Bible for many influential Democrats — call upon the president to step down:

There is no reason for the party to risk the stability and security of the country by forcing voters to choose between Mr. Trump’s deficiencies and those of Mr. Biden. . . . It’s too big a bet to simply hope Americans will overlook or discount Mr. Biden’s age and infirmity that they see with their own eyes.

There is yet a further complication: The text of section 4, the involuntary disability provision of the 25th Amendment, does not specifically contemplate permanent removal of the president — only that a president’s involuntary inability makes the vice-president an Acting President — exercising the “powers and duties” of the Office, without holding the Office of the Presidency. It provides, in pertinent part:

If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

Thus, in a worst-case scenario, the president can renew, seriatum, requests for restoration of presidential powers, leading to an endless cycle of presidential application and Congressional rejection.

A further problem is now to deal with Kamala Harris, who is viewed even more unfavorably by voters. One way is to select California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has made himself publicly recognized as a presidential nominee; per clause 3 of Article II, section 1, which provides:

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for Two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “inhabitant” as residing permanently in, having established domicile in, or being a citizen of, a State. Both Newsom and Harris were born in, and are permanent residents of California. (Between 1966 and 1986, Harris resided elsewhere much of the time, but has resided continually in California since 1986.)

Thus, California Electors who vote for Newsom as president cannot also vote for Kamala. To be sure, California’s Democrat Electors would choose another Democrat. But if the November presidential election result yields a margin of less than 52 electoral votes for the victor — widely considered a virtual certitude — were Newsom elected president, he would be saddled with a Republican vice-president. This could prove consequential in event of 50-50 tie votes on legislation or federal judicial nominations; a GOP vice-president could cast the tie-breaking vote against Newsom’s nominees.

Bottom Line. Few believe that a manifestly weakened president can handle the immense daily workload of the presidency. Those making decisions behind the scene resemble the clandestine regency that arose for the last 17 months of Woodrow Wilson’s second presidential term, triggered by the president’s massive stroke.

But that clandestine regency succeeded in considerable measure due to the pre-modern state of national and global communications. There was no television, with its compelling visual images; only newsreels aired in theaters days later; let alone were there 24/7 videos online, trillions circulated by social media. Broadcast radio was in its infancy: The first commercial radio broadcast, from KDKA Pittsburgh, was aired November 2, 1920 — exactly 13 months after Wilson’s October 2, 1919 disabling stroke.

It seems clear that, one way or another, Democrats will find a way to get Biden to drop out of the race and — though this is fraught with risk of losing support among several core Democratic constituencies — manage to replace Kamala Harris as well. With Trump viewed as Evil Incarnate, the Democrats will wager that most voters will come home this fall. It is a better wager than betting Biden’s inability to vigorously campaign won’t worsen.