George W. Bush's job approval just hit 29% in one national poll, and the incredible shrinking presidency keeps making new lows. In some Northern states, the man's job numbers are down in the teens.
Two months ago, it was suggested in this space that the prospect of having a lame-brain lame duck in the White House for nearly three more years suggested that serious consideration be given to possibilities whereby he might be replaced. This has taken on even greater gravity in the last few days because of the rumors swirling about the imminence of the special prosecutor indicting White House political chief Karl Rove for perjury related to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Were such an indictment to come, Bush might be hard-pressed to survive, and with the same scandal lapping at the shoes of Vice President Dick Cheney, it's likely that any retirement-cum-resignation would have to be a double one. Democrats might be secretly thrilled by the possibility of having a crippled, muddied President Cheney for two years, but such a succession would never fly with the public.
I realize that this is still pure speculation, by legal yardsticks entirely premature. However, the succession aspect is extraordinary. Under the Constitution, the resignation of Bush and Cheney would hand the presidency to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, at present Dennis Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, well liked but manifestly less than qualified for promotion. Wise Republicans, however, would be aware of a critical anomaly: the person elected as Speaker of the House does not, as a matter of law, have to be a Member of the House. If Bush and Cheney were obliged to resign this summer, the House GOP could elect as Speaker a plausible interim president and have the presidency devolve on him. Someone like Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the respected Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, comes to mind.
On the other hand, were Cheney at least as soiled as Bush, he could resign first and Bush could name some Lugar-like figure (who would clearly be confirmed) as vice-president in place of Cheney. Then if Bush resigned, an ethically acceptable Republican successor would be in place before any November Democratic takeover of Congress.
For such things to unfold against the backdrop of this year's midterm Congressional elections would be little short of tumultuous. The notion that the next president would be chosen through or by Congress would dominate the autumn debate. It might ensure a Democratic landslide - but it might also give dispirited, Bush-weary Republicans a rallying point.
On top of which, two other contemporary circumstances - Bush's 29% approval and the crumbling consumer confidence that has eroded the stock market indexes - suggest that economic developments between now and November could also increase the likelihood of a Democratic takeover of Congress. Come January, that would make California Democrat Nancy Pelosi the next House Speaker, and she would become the next president in the event of Bush and Cheney resigning or being forced out of office in 2007.
Still, the Democrats could easily replace Pelosi with a national figure in the same way that the Republicans could replace Hastert. They could even make former president Bill Clinton Speaker on a few days' notice. Although he has already served two terms, the Constitutional prohibition against a president being elected to more than two terms would probably not apply to a former president taking the Oval Office by devolution in a line of succession.
Will it happen? Probably not. But over the last half century, only two prior presidents' job ratings have dipped below 30% - Nixon before he resigned and Carter before he was defeated in the 1980 election. The replacement of George W. Bush, if necessary, stands to be a little more complicated.