This Endless Interregnum

December 11, 2008

Wisconsin history professor John Milton Cooper, Jr. has an interesting op-ed piece in the NY Times on Woodrow Wilson’s plan for an immediate transfer of power in 1916 in the event that he lost the election (which, in the end, he won):

“The precarious state of relations with the nations at war in Europe, particularly Germany, made Wilson fear for national security in the event of an interregnum — which then, before the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933, lasted more than a month longer than it does today. A former professor of political science who had studied and admired parliamentary systems, Wilson decided upon a drastic plan to shorten this uneasy period.
Two days before the election he had a sealed letter, which he had typed himself, hand-delivered to the secretary of state, who was then third in line of succession to the presidency. Wilson wrote that if he lost he would immediately appoint his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, secretary of state, and then he and his vice president would resign, making Hughes president at once. Wilson said he was proposing this plan because those were not ‘ordinary times’ and ‘no such critical circumstances in regard to our foreign policy have ever existed before.'”

Primarily because of the electoral college, we have in this country – unusual in a democratic system – a nearly 3-month wait from the election to the day when the winner finally takes office. Under ordinary circumstances, this may not be such a big deal, but in times of crisis such as these, and when the incoming president is from the opposition party and represents a potentially radical change in policy (and when, as is the case now, the incumbent is wildly unpopular), those 3 months can be very long indeed.

Additionally, this interregnum raises the question of democratic legitimacy. To what degree can it be said that the president is acting in the name of the people when that president is disapproved of by large majority, the last election represented a sounding rejection of the president’s party and policies, and the incoming president campaigned in large part on criticism of the current president? Over those 3 months, the administration in power is left with several bad options: to remain idle (in the face of national crises that demand action), to continue to pursue policies without a popular mandate (that will likely be undone), to cooperate with the incoming president and carry out policies it does not favor or perhaps even believes are dangerous or immoral, or, finally, to try to push through last-minute self-serving policies or even try to sabotage the incoming administration. None of these options serve the public well.

As Cooper points out in his piece, this interminable wait for the new administration has caused significant problems in our nation’s history. Hoover remained in power for months during the Great Depression while FDR sat on the sidelines. The election of Lincoln itself triggered crisis, while the new president was unable to act for months.

Cooper points out that Wilson’s plan is untenable today because the Secretary of State is no longer 2nd in the line of succession (the Speaker of the House is). One obvious solution is to amend the Constitution (this was done recently done – we moved the inauguration from March to January, largely as a result of the Hoover-FDR transition). Another, and I’m certainly not the first to think of this, is to have the Vice President resign. The president could then appoint the president-elect as the new VP. Then the president herself or himself would resign, putting the president-elect in power and free to appoint the VP-elect as the new VP. This would, of course, require the Senate’s approval, but it is unlikely this would be a problem. More problematic might be the time it would take to carry out all of the necessary steps.

Also, as we’ve seen in the past, elections in this country can drag on for quite some time. Al Gore conceded in 2000 in December 13th, just over one month before the inauguration. This was, of course, a highly unusual case, but it is entirely plausible that an earlier transfer of power could lead to fiercer court battles over close election results in order to prolong that transition.

To put all this into perspective, in Britain, for example, once the Prime Minister is voted out, he’s out on Downing Street, bags packed, immediately. If the same were to happen ti Bush on Pennsylvania Avenue, I can’t imagine there being many complaints.

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