Friday, August 28, 2020

The Unasked Question about Joe Biden’s “Transitional” Presidency

In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Sherlock Holmes solved a murder mystery by investigating the dog that didn’t bark. Similarly, one of the biggest wild cards of a potential Biden presidency comes from a question the media haven’t asked.

Given his septuagenarian status, reporters have queried Biden about his mental and physical health. ABC’s David Muir posed the question in an interview right after the Democratic National Convention.

But while Biden has answered questions about whether he would need to leave the presidency involuntarily, due to death or disability, this observer has no recollection of a reporter asking him whether he would leave the presidency voluntarily, to “grease the skids” for Kamala Harris to succeed him. It sounds far-fetched, but it happens in Washington quite often.

No Second Term?

In the interview with Muir, Biden said he was “absolutely” leaving himself “open [to] the possibility you’ll serve eight years if elected.” But as Biden himself might say, Come on, man!

Politico has noted that, based on Biden’s age and sex, the 77-year-old has a roughly one in five chance of not completing his first term (using the same calculations, Donald Trump has a roughly 15 percent chance of not completing his second). The idea that he would run for re-election, which would see him leave office at age 86, is absurd on its face.

That fact explains why Politico reported late last year that Biden told his friends he won’t seek re-election, and why he has publicly called himself a “transition candidate” within his party.

Congressional Machinations

If Biden won’t run for re-election — and his responses to Muir notwithstanding, the smart money assumes he won’t — that raises the question of who would succeed him, and when and how. Among all elected presidents, only Richard Nixon resigned early, due to the Watergate scandal. But while the presidency has yet to see abrupt, premature, or questionably timed departures, Congress sees them just about every election cycle.

Earlier this year, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) lost the Democratic primary in his Chicago district. But 15 years ago, Lipinski originally won the seat due to the machinations of his father, Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.). In 2004, Bill Lipinski announced he would retire from Congress after he had already won the Democratic nomination, and promptly arranged for the state Democratic Party to nominate his son for his seat — even though Dan Lipinski lived in Tennessee at the time. Having been gifted the Democratic nomination, Lipinski moved back to Illinois and won eight successive terms in Congress.

Over the years, both Republicans and Democrats have engaged in this type of “swampy” behavior during election cycles. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) faced similar charges late last year, when he announced his retirement shortly one day before the North Carolina filing deadline, leaving those potentially interested in running little time to prepare a campaign and paperwork to run for the seat. Meadows resigned from Congress in March to become White House chief of staff, and the candidate Meadows supposedly tried to time his resignation to favor lost the primary contest to succeed him.

“The People’s Seat”

As part of their push to pass Obamacare, Massachusetts Democrats took these “swampy” machinations to a whole new level. In 2004, the state’s legislature had taken away the governor’s power to appoint replacements to the U.S. Senate. At the time, Democrats in the state legislature feared that, if then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) defeated George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) would appoint a Republican to replace him. They stripped the governor’s appointment power (over Romney’s veto), requiring a special election to fill all Senate vacancies.

But after Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) died in August 2009, Democrats found they had put themselves in a box. The special election couldn’t occur for months — and the vacant Senate seat meant Democrats didn’t have 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster and ram through Obamacare. As a result, the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts legislature passed another bill giving the governor — Democrat Deval Patrick, who succeeded Romney — the ability to appoint a temporary senator for the five months between the declaration of the vacancy and the special election.

That maneuver gave Democrats the 60th vote they needed, in the form of temporary Sen. Paul Kirk (D-Mass.), to pass Obamacare on Christmas Eve 2009. But Massachusetts voters didn’t react very well to the way state Democrats treated a place in the Senate — what liberals and the press called “the Kennedy Seat” — as their plaything. In January 2010, Republican Scott Brown decisively won the election to replace Kennedy, running to fill what he called “the People’s Seat.”

A Son’s Influence?

If a President Biden announces he won’t run for re-election, he would likely come under pressure from within his party to depart the presidency early. Such a move would allow Harris, his running mate, to succeed him, gaining the benefits of incumbency while seeking a term in her own right.

One argument might persuade Biden to reject any pressure to resign prematurely: The influence of his son Beau. The Democratic National Convention featured a video highlighting that Beau Biden turned down an appointment to succeed his father in the Senate when Joe Biden became vice president, and then chose to serve out his term as Delaware attorney general rather than run for the Senate seat in 2010. Joe Biden might cite his son’s example as a reason he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, leave the presidency until his term expires.

But at the very least, someone should ask Biden whether he will publicly commit to serving out his full term of office if healthy and able. As with questions surrounding his health, the American people have a right to hear his answer, and judge it for themselves, before they vote.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.