Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Myth of the Peaceable Presidential Succession

As Mr. Obama's inauguration approaches, we are again faced with a series of thoughts on the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. Many are wont to note the venerable tradition of opposing parties ceding power when they lose the election.

Few who perorate on this phenomenon recognize, however, that one election, the election of 1860, set up the conditions for a long civil war in which over half million Americans perished. The southern states had threatened to secede should Lincoln win, and when Lincoln won, they seceded, most of them before he even took the oath of office. Lincoln's first inaugural address can be read as a plea for the legitimacy of his succession to power.

Maybe 1860 is the exception that proves the rule. I know of nothing that comes close to that situation before or since. But it is important to keep in mind that there has not always been a peaceable transfer of power.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Mr. Obama Shakes Up the Senate, part II

I mentioned in an earlier post that Messrs. Obama and Biden's election, and the president elect's designation of Senators Hillary Clinton and Ken Salazar to cabinet posts presents a challenge to Democratic control over the Senate in the next few years.

As grist for my mill, I might note that Governor Ritter of Colorado has named a relatively unknown person, Michael Bennett, superintendant of the Denver Public School system, to take Mr. Salazar's seat. Outside of school reformist circles, Mr. Bennett is relatively unknown, and in those circles, he's a bit controversial. In other words, if he wants to be reelected in 2010, he'll need to cultivate a strong constituency that will survive a primary challenge or a challenge from the Republicans. If he does not survive a primary challenge, whoever wins the nomination will face a (presumably) stronger Republican party candidate.

On the New York front, it appears that there's some controversy brewing over the choices available to Governor Patterson, especially in light of Caroline Kennedy's non-campaign campaign. The election for that seat is in four years, and whoever is named will therefore have more time to cultivate statewide support.

In Illinois, Governor Blagojevich's appointment of Mr. Burris is fanning flames of controversy that, in my estimation, could quite plausibly deny Illinois a senate seat for most of the next two years. The controversies and ambiguities abound: if the Secretary of State, Jesse White, refuses to certify the results, and the state supreme court refuses to issue a mandamus to require him to do so (and if the US Supreme Court, assuming it properly has any jurisdiction at all in the matter, refuses to overule the state supreme court), then arguably within a few months the state legislature could enact a general election for senator (assuming it could do so over Mr. Blagojevich's veto or presuming that Mr. Blagojevich shall have exited office either by impeachment or resignation); if Mr. Burris's nomination is somehow certified, then the Senate will be placed in a position of having to decide whether to seat the senator-designate, which,it appears so far at least, it won't do; if a new governor takes office or if a general election law is somehow passed, a plausible legal dispute might very well arise over whether a governor's selection can be retroactively invalidated by t he state legislature.

I confess to being ignorant on the status of Delaware (Mr. Biden's home state) in all this mess, although I suspect that seat is probably safely Democratic.

Again, to restate my thesis, it is not uncommon for a sitting president's party to suffer in the first midterm election (it's not an iron law, either: just look at 2002). Mr. Obama's victory and his subsequent selection of two senators for cabinet posts, might contribute to this erosion by putting at least three Democratic seats in jeopardy that otherwise might not be in jeopardy. I make this argument not so much as a criticism of Mr. Obama than as an observation that the next few years will be quite interesting.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mr. Obama and King David

I've been meaning to write for some time on the sadness of what I take to be the best case scenario for Mr. Obama's imminent presidential term(s). By "best case scenario," I refer to the prospect that Mr. Obama will implement many of the reforms he campaigned on and that his governance will be beneficial to the U.S. and to the rest of the world. By whatever standard one might measure a presidency, in the "best case scenario," his presidency would be a success.

By "sadness" I refer to the toll that the presidency exacts on the president. One has only to look at the before-and-after pictures of most past presidents to realize the tremendous personal price they each (or at least most of them) pay. Even in the "best case scenario," Mr. Obama will probably look old and gray by the end of his term(s). I recall in a recent interview he gave--I believe it was on "60 Minutes"--in which he stated that he liked to take long, solitary walks and will not be able to do so now.

In Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East, the character Leo comments to the narrator on King David of Israel:

He was also a musician [like the narrator, "H. H."]. When he was quite young he used to play for King Saul and sometimes dispelled his bad moods with music. Later he became a king himself, a great king full of cares, having all sorts of moods and vexations. He wore a crown and conducted wars and all that kind of thing, and he also did many really wicked things and became very famous. But when I think of his life, the most beautiful part of it all is about the young David and his harp playing music to poor Saul, and it seems a pity to me that he later became a king. He was a much happier and better person when he was a musician.