THE US constitution is a much-abused document both for what it contains – gun rights and freedom of speech – and what it does not, such as clear provision for women’s right to an abortion, gays’ right to marry and a general repudiation of conservatism in all its forms.
One eventuality the framers did not foresee was America’s Biden-Harris predicament which by extension is also ours, since we are all dependent on the West’s most important country. When the US fails, we are all caught up in the consequences.
The constitution does of course lay down what happens when a president becomes unable to carry out his duties. He is succeeded by the vice president who, it is assumed, would have been chosen for his or her own executive competence, a fully formed president in waiting.
This is the nub of the predicament. President Biden, at 78, is a blundering old man who cannot do the job. Should he be replaced by Kamala Harris, whose own competence is in question?
There have always been doubts about whether Sleepy Joe could see out a full term of office. His performance in power had shown up his shortcomings even before the astonishing Afghanistan fiasco. Inflation is rising, the job market is sluggish and the flow of illegal immigrants unchecked.
Vice President Harris is 56 and mentally has a full, if limited, deck. But she is a product of Californian machine politics who was picked for her gender and not being white rather than her practical political abilities. Nothing she has done as vice president has increased confidence that she could cope with the presidency. But Biden, if he died or were forced to resign because of his health, would be automatically succeeded by Harris, in whom a majority of Americans have even less confidence than they do in Biden. Next in line, by the way, is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is 82, and fourth comes Senate President Patrick Leahy, 81. Any resemblance to the late Soviet Politburo is strictly coincidental.
Since presidents are normally vigorous and mentally alert when elected, not much is expected of their vice presidents other than loyalty, although the choice of obvious duds such as Dan Quayle were protested against. George H W Bush was elected in his own right after serving as Ronald Reagan’s understudy. America was fortunate in having Harry Truman to take over when President Roosevelt died in 1945 and Lyndon Johnson to replace the assassinated JFK in 1963. It was a relief that Vice President Spiro Agnew had already been forced to resign for corruption before President Nixon was overwhelmed by Watergate. Agnew’s and then Nixon’s successor was Gerald Ford, an experienced congressman.
Now that the succession to the presidency has become a live issue, the question is whether the United States needs a vice president. European republics do not bother with them. When General de Gaulle resigned the French presidency in 1969, an election to succeed him was held and won by Georges Pompidou. When Pompidou died in office, another election was held for his successor. Political life went on seamlessly.
Could the United States adopt the European system? If abortion and gay marriage rights can be found in the constitution, it should require little imagination to find a reason between the lines to dispense with vice presidents. They could call it the Harris Amendment so Kamala would still be guaranteed her place in history.
Of course, the whole problem could be avoided if the political parties did not nominate defective candidates, as the Democrats cynically did. Who trusts the parties, however? All they care about is winning.
The main argument against change is that it would disrupt the established electoral cycle if the presidency became vacant in between times and a special election had to be held to replace him. Elections to the entire House and a proportion of the Senate are held every two years and for the presidency every four and always on the same day.
Replacing a Democratic president with a Republican or vice-versa out of order would upset the political equilibrium Americans and their political parties are used to. Other considerations include the fact that presidential elections are divisive and cost billions of dollars.
Biden has been in office only since January and, each election being worse in tone than its predecessor, only the leatheriest of political veterans would welcome another bout of campaigning before 2024.
The predicament needs a solution though. For now, do the Democrats prop Joe up through whatever happens during the next three-and-a-half years or do they fabricate an honourable resignation in favour of Harris who is unlikely to be better and likely to be even worse?
The lesson from Afghanistan is that however much a figurehead a president is, he or she has the last word. Biden personally owns the national humiliation brought about by Afghanistan. That’s how powerful even feckless presidents are: there’s no one to say No.