Thursday, September 22, 2005

Katrina and the Republican succession

Reader PS asks a rhetorical question, "Why hasn't Cheney been named the reconstruction czar already?" He's got a hypothesis: that Bush/Rove plan to handpick their preferred successor to the throne by designating him (presumably him) the proconsul for Katrina recovery. Doing so will give the nominee $200B with which to build an immediate grateful constituency -- lots of doing good, sympathizing, photo ops, all at no political cost to the czar. But PS goes one step further: he believes the plan then is for Cheney to resign after the midterms and to appoint the Katrina Czar to the Vice Presidency -- thus allowing him to run with the advantages of quasi-incumbency in 2008!

I like this theory mainly for its appreciation of the Machiavellian (Mayberry or otherwise) nature of Bush-Rove political team. The idea that the political team that runs this country might try to change in some fundamental way how Presidential succession takes place in this country is certainly within the bounds of reason: they have repeatedly shown a ruthless willingness to disregard and even trample of the customs of our democracy. It's easy to imagine how the reasoning might go for Rove: "Who says long-sitting incumbent Vice Presidents shouldn't resign so that we can groom a successor? OK, OK, it's true that it might seem at first glance like the procedure undermines democracy since, just in case the President dies before the next election, we'll now suddenly have a President who the people never voted for -- but hey, how often to Presidents just up and die anyway? Furthermore, it's a myth that the Vice President is really elected anyway. Does anybody think that Cheney v. Lieberman swung a single significant vote in 2000? Given that, why not use the Vice Presidency as a grooming procedure for the next President? In fact, wouldn't it actually be better for the country if Presidents had a period of apprenticeship, as it were, getting to see how Washington operates, so that there won't be any administrative bumps during the handover? After all, don't well-run corporations -- those repositories of administrative best practices, disciplined as they are by the marketplace -- make a very big deal about providing a long-running plan for ensuring orderly successions of chief executives? Why should we accept that our country be run worse than most companies?" Etc etc.

(As an aside, I note that this willingness to trample on customary notions of political fair play is the most disturbing thing about this political team, and the thing that really makes one feel as if some kind of Caesarian moment could be approaching the Republic. As Mark Schmitt rightly points out, political customs and norms are at least as important as the actual rules to keeping a democracy in working order:

Politics, like much of civilization, depends on the existence of some unquestioned, "it just isn't done" customs. An example that I've mentioned a couple times is the explicit theory, on display once again in the CAFTA vote, that you want to pass a bill with as narrow a margin as possible, because every vote over 218 in the House is wasted and might represent a compromise. That's not something that legislative strategists ever thought of before -- they wanted to go into votes with the most comfortable margin, and to win with enough to have a clear endorsement against future challenges. And I'm convinced that Bush/Rove brought that same mindset to the presidential campaign. Most incumbents would want to have a nice Reagan-in-1984-type landslide in order to feel a clear mandate. But Rove/Bush thought that of every vote above 51% as a wasted concession; they knew that all Bush had to do was win, and he could declare the mandate.
I suppose Rove would dismiss Mark as a sentimentalist, and Rove would also probably point out that most pivotal presidencies -- notably Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR -- have radically revised previously held conceptions of acceptable political practices.)

Despite the fact that I consider it plausible that Rove/Bush might try something like this Katrina czar and/or VP stunt, I remain skeptical. My reason for skepticism has nothing to do with any illusion that these people consider elections a preferable way to determine political succession. Nor is it because I think the Democrats would sniff out the ruse and effectively put a stop to it. Rather, I think it's likely to fail because of internal opposition within the GOP itself. There are a lot of Republican Senators and governors who are currently fantasizing about the White House in 2008, and a plan like this would be opposed by every single one of them. In sum, Rove would have to push his own party's strings to get this thing done. It's one thing to bamboozle Democrats and liberals -- it's another to hornswoggle your own team.

Moreover, it's not clear to me that being the VP/incumbent is much of an advantage, as the record shows. It's a well-known fact that Bush I is the only sitting Vice President in the last 200 years to win the Presidency. The other recent efforts, Gore in 2000 and Nixon in 1960, resulted in losses.

Then again, a Vice President who had successfully overseen the Katrina (and Rita?! gulp!) disaster recovery efforts might well be a formidable candidate. And these people, as I say, will stop at nothing short of the outright criminal, and maybe not even there.

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