Morbid Political Curiosity
[Can't tell the difference between politics and policy? Need personal advice of a political nature -- or vice versa? Send your question to Stumped. Questions may be edited.]
With all of the talk of Sen. John McCain's age and reports of heightened Secret Service protection for Sen. Barack Obama, I wonder: Are there are any guidelines for succession if either were to die or become incapacitated before becoming president?
Presumably, it would be up to the parties if such a tragedy were to occur now, with neither candidate having declared a running mate. But what if the event occurred after the No. 2 position on the ticket had been filled? Would that person automatically become the candidate? And what would happen if the president-elect were to step in front of a bakery truck sometime between winning a clear victory in November and taking the oath of office in January?
As a patriotic American living abroad, I hope our country is never in such a position. But I am curious if protocols are in place.
It's an interesting, if morbid question, because it serves as a reminder -- as did the 2000 Bush-Gore stalemate -- of how ambiguous and undefined our government's ground rules can be. Specifically, the answer to your question underscores the confusion surrounding who actually elects our nation's president, and when.
When we cast our ballots on the first Tuesday in November, we assume the winner that day (and admittedly it's the winner in the state-by-state Electoral College arithmetic, not to the popular vote) becomes the president-elect. But the Electoral College is called the Electoral College for a reason, and as a constitutional matter, it is arguable that the country does not have a president elect until the "electors" meet in their state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December (got that?) to cast their votes.
If a presidential or vice-presidential candidate is incapacitated between a party's nominating convention and the meeting of the Electoral College, the party's central committee would gather to pick a substitute candidate. Again, what's interesting about this timeline is that the intervening general election (that supposedly huge day between the conventions and the Electoral College balloting) would turn out to be fairly irrelevant. While a party would presumably feel great pressure to appoint its vice presidential candidate as its presidential candidate, it could probably choose someone else.
Things get more nebulous if a candidate on the ticket dies or becomes incapacitated after the Electoral College vote in December but before the congressional certification of the results in January. During this period, does the country have a president-elect? The technical legal answer: Kinda. The most reasonable argument (bolstered by statutory history of the 20th Amendment, which deals with succession issues) would seem to be that the person who obtained the most electoral votes is the president-elect, even if Congress hasn't yet certified the votes.
The relevance of inquiring precisely when the next president becomes president-elect is that the 20th Amendment states that the vice president-elect becomes the president-elect if that person can't take the office at the beginning of his or her term. So, whenever the winning candidate becomes president-elect (and you can choose between the November general election date, the December Electoral College vote or the January congressional certification) is the point at which the succession is taken out of the party's hands and the Constitution kicks in -- making the vice president elect's ascension to the top of the ticket automatic.
Okay, that is the long answer. The short answer is that, in the unfortunate event a candidate is incapacitated in the period between the election and the inauguration, the party and Congress would improvise, and disaffected individuals would take the matter to the courts, and the Supreme Court would tell us what the rules are. And just for fun, as it did in 2000, the court might add that its decision has no precedential value for future elections.
I am in a relationship with someone who is hyper-political, and I just can't keep up. I care about current events, but I don't obsess over the daily ins and outs of this endless campaign, and I worry my boyfriend is getting annoyed that I no longer care as much as we did back in the halcyon days of Iowa and New Hampshire. I keep waiting for his level of interest to ratchet down, as it does in the sports world after a Super Bowl or the Final Four, but there appears to be no letup on the horizon. I don't want him to dump me because I am not following the two candidates' daily conference calls (!) -- but I also want to have a life. What to do?
If your worry is that your boyfriend is going to dump you because you're not as interested in the presidential campaign as you once were, then my worry is that -- how to put this gently? -- you both need to get a life.
Of course, it's a healthy sign that you at least realize that you have (or once did) an unhealthy obsession. But without knowing more about your relationship, I am reluctant to dispense advice. Does your boyfriend say things like, "If you really cared, you'd help me tabulate this county-by-county budget spreadsheet for Obama's field operations in Ohio"? Then it may be time to make a preemptive strike and move on yourself. But as I said there are far too many unknowables, to paraphrase Rummy, for me to say for sure.
But look, I've been there: I've known women who pretended to have a deep interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers from December to January, during the playoffs, only to ask, "The Pittsburgh who?" when the draft came in April. So even though I know what your boyfriend feels like, I can also say that your boyfriend is the one acting abnormally.
At this point in the campaign, you should expect to have a diminished level of intensity. We are in a bizarre no-man's land, with two presumptive nominees yet to be formally nominated. Even ardent political junkies are taking a stretch, going to the bathroom, treating these weeks as a kind of halftime. (Maybe Campaign 2008 needs a disclaimer: "Voters exhibiting heightened political passion lasting more than five months should call their doctor.")
The real question is why your boyfriend needs you to share his obsession. You clearly appreciate and share it to some degree, but it is unhealthy for him to require you to be as invested in the campaign minutiae as he is. Do you have the same need to have him validate all your interests and obsessions? I suspect not.
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