Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thinking about a Palin presidency

By Robert G. Boatright

Ever since John McCain shook up the 2008 presidential election by choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, there has been much talk about Palin’s qualifications to serve as Vice President. This sort of talk happens every election year, but given McCain’s age and medical history, the possibility of the president’s death has taken on greater significance in this campaign. Whether or not Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President or President, there has been little serious discussion of what a Palin presidency might look like. If we are to do this, the best place to start is by looking at previous vice presidents who acceded to the Presidency without having won it in their own right. Of this select group there is a wide variation in background, but there is less variation in their success as President; almost all of them failed.

Past “acceded vice presidents,” or AVPs, can conveniently be grouped into three overlapping categories. There are those who deviate from the elected president’s policies; these vice presidents tend to be ignored by Congress or to face an openly hostile Congress. Second, there are those who assume a “caretaker” role, content to preside until the end of the term without advancing a new agenda. And third, there are “the enthusiasts,” vice presidents who capitalize upon a temporary outpouring of public sympathy for the deceased president, and use this outpouring to advance legislation in line with what the deceased president would have wanted.

The first group includes John Tyler, who became president in 1841, following the death of William Henry Harrison, and Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President. Both were put on the ticket to create a balance between North and South. Tyler, a southerner, was dubbed “his accidency” by Congress and was generally ignored. Johnson had little support within the Republican Party and was an opponent of reconstruction. Johnson also incurred the enmity of Congress, and was, until Bill Clinton, the only president to be impeached. Millard Fillmore, who became president in 1850 following the death of Zachary Taylor, also falls in this category. Fillmore was unable to bridge competing factions within the party or to advance a unified stance on the slavery question.

The second category, the “caretakers,” includes only Calvin Coolidge, who became president in 1923 following the death of Warren G. Harding. Because allegations of corruption swirled around Harding’s administration, Coolidge was greeted with some relief. Coolidge had little time to advance an agenda of his own during the year before the 1924 election, and his own elected presidency has been seen by many as being devoid of major accomplishments.

The remaining four AVPs were more successful, in part because they were able to frame their proposals as a continuation of their popular predecessor’s legacy. Chester Arthur, who became president upon the assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881, was able to pass the Pendleton Act as President. Lyndon Johnson arguably exerted more political muscle in guiding the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he cast as an extension of John F. Kennedy’s goals, but the remainder of Johnson’s agenda foundered as the Vietnam War escalated. Harry S. Truman is remembered for ordering the integration of the military and for his role in the rebuilding of Europe, yet most of his actions in his first term were done by executive order.

There is only one indisputably successful AVP, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt came into office in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. He deviated substantially from McKinley’s politics, pushing for a more progressive Republican party, greater regulation of monopolies and an increased emphasis on wilderness conservation. Many of Roosevelt’s major policy initiatives, however, came after 1904, during the term he had won on his own. Roosevelt’s best-known actions in his first term were his involvement in ending the anthracite coal strike and the enactment of the Panama Canal Treaty, both of which he could do with little involvement from Congress.

What does all of this suggest about the prospects for a Palin presidency?

It shows that she is less qualified than most of the prior AVPs (Coolidge may be the closest to her in experience; he served as a Massachusetts state legislator and for two years as Governor of Massachusetts). It also proves that this is not particularly important. Having a friendly Congress to work with matters far more, and vice presidential succession clearly inspires Congress to treat the new president with suspicion.

One must keep in mind that if elected, McCain will certainly face a Democratic Senate, and quite possibly a Democratic House. This does not mean that McCain would be powerless as president – unless he alienates Democrats in Congress through his campaign tactics. McCain is not, however, running on an issue-oriented platform.

Should he die, Palin would likely have a tough time claiming that anything she advocated for would honor his wishes, if only because McCain has not presented a clear policy platform. She would have an even tougher time pushing through her own ideas; she appears to be more conservative than McCain on several social issues, and she has no track record on major domestic or foreign policy issues.

The message here, then, is a mixed one. Palin wouldn’t necessarily be more of a disaster as president that other AVPs. This is hardly a reason why anyone should vote for McCain, however. Despite Palin’s dominant role in recent media coverage, this election is not about her. One has to go back to Lyndon Johnson to find a vice president who made even the slightest difference in the election outcome (LBJ was said to have helped Kennedy win Texas). Palin is likely to be no exception.

Already, favorability polls show a marked increase in the number of voters who view her unfavorably; she currently is only one percentage point more popular than McCain and Obama. Sure, the Republican base rallied after their convention, but we cannot necessarily attribute this to Palin. There is good reason for Democrats and Republicans to hope that Palin does not become president, but this has more to do with the dismal track record of other AVPs and the fact that she would preside over a divided government rather than to her experience, beliefs, or leadership qualities.

Robert G. Boatright is assistant professor of government at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

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