Moral choice or pragmatic partisan option?
Sun Feb 10, 2019 6:16pm

Scenario #1: A governor becomes embroiled in a scandal. So, amazingly enough, do the lieutenant governor and attorney general in the same state. They’re all from one political party.

But the speaker of the state house — who’s next in the line of succession to become governor — is from the other party. As a result, the state’s political system becomes paralyzed. Either a morally compromised governor will be in charge, or the legislature will execute a kind of partisan coup.

Scenario #2: The president of the United States becomes embroiled in a big scandal. So does the vice president. The speaker of the House of Representatives — who’s next in the line of succession to become president — is from the other political party. Congress faces a miserable choice: a scandalized leader or a partisan coup.

The first scenario describes Virginia right now, of course. The second scenario described the United States in 1973, when both Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were under investigation. (What, did you think I was casting aspersions on Mike Pence?)

Both highlight a problem in American government. There should always be a way to remove an unfit leader from office without flipping the partisan control of that office. But sometimes there is not.

Our line-of-succession rules often include a legislative leader high in the ranking. They do so because they typically date from a period in American history when political parties were less important. It’s time to update our rules for the new reality — even if it can’t happen in Virginia soon enough to resolve the current problems.

Lines of succession for executive offices shouldn’t mix the executive and legislative branches. They should remain entirely within the executive branch, at least for the first dozen or so positions. (Anything lower would likely matter only in the case of a catastrophe.)

For the federal government, the speaker of the House (now Nancy Pelosi) and the Senate’s longest-serving member from the majority party (now Chuck Grassley) should be removed. After the vice president would come the secretaries of state, Treasury, defense and so on. A similar order could work in states: lieutenant governor, followed by major department heads whom the governor had appointed.

The principle here is simple enough. No one person is more important than the moral authority of government. Any individual can be removed from office. Yet only an election can change partisan control of the White House or a governor’s mansion and, by extension, the entire executive branch of a government.

All of these scandal scenarios are obviously unlikely. Unfortunately, as we’re learning again this week, they’re not impossible.

If all three of the Virgina Democrats at the top of state government do resign — two for having worn blackface, one after having been accused of a sexual assault that he denies — it could have huge implications for politics there.

The new governor would be Kirk Cox, the Republican state house speaker. He could not only finish this term but then be elected to a new four-year term. Virginia is the only state in the country with a one-term limit, but it applies only to elected governors, Vox’s Dylan Scott, Anna North, and Emily Stewart explain.

The Week’s Kathryn Krawczyk points out that Cox’s role as house speaker depends on a random drawing that decided a tied House election and, in turn, control of the chamber.

In Vanity Fair, Tina Nguyen argues that the combined scandals give Ralph Northam, the governor, cover to keep his job — although perhaps at a different cost to his party. Virginia has another round of legislative elections this fall. The blackface admission by Mark Herring, the attorney general, Nguyen writes, “has increased the odds that Northam will refuse to resign, and will finish out his term as a politically hobbled lame duck as his party implodes around him.”

The editorial board of The Washington Post is calling for Northam’s resignation, arguing that the other scandals shouldn’t affect his decision.

Geoffrey Skelley points out on the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast that Virginia Democrats could conceivably try to game the line of succession. Northam could resign. Justin Fairfax, now the lieutenant governor, would ascend and quickly appoint a new scandal-free lieutenant governor. Fairfax would then resign and the new lieutenant governor — a Gerald Ford-like figure — would become governor. But Skelley admits that this chain of events is unlikely.

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