New York Times opinion writer David Leonhardt floated an interesting proposal last week, based on two very current, very real-world examples: What if, as a condition of removing somebody from public office, that person’s replacement should come from the same party?
This could become an issue in Virginia, where the Democratic governor and the two Democrats in line to succeed him, the lieutenant governor and attorney general, are all embroiled in scandal — Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring for having worn blackface in their younger but still adult days, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax for two allegations of sexual assault. The fourth in line is Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox.
Depending on how Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation pans out, the federal government could find itself in a similar situation. In the unlikely event that both Republican President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence leave office, then the presidency would fall to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Arrangements such as this can absolutely affect whether fellow politicians decide to stand by an official in trouble or let the chips fall where they may. This was most certainly the case in 2007, when Louisiana’s Republican U.S. senator, David Vitter, first became embroiled in his prostitution scandal. Had Vitter been pushed out, he likely would have been replaced by a Democrat appointed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco — a reality that surely influenced the GOP’s decision to rally to his side.
Just compare Vitter’s situation with the plight of another Republican senator who got in trouble around the same time, Idaho’s Larry Craig, who was arrested for lewd conduct in a Minnesota airport bathroom. His governor was Republican, and the party quickly pushed him aside and made way for a like-minded replacement.
Robert Mann, an LSU communications professor who had already left his job as a top Blanco advisor by the time the Vitter scandal broke, wrote on Twitter last week that he had suggested to his former colleagues that Blanco announce she’d appoint a Republican if Vitter stepped down. That didn’t happen, and Blanco likely would have been accused of unilateral disarmament by fellow Democrats if it had. Something like this only works if it’s a rule that everyone agrees to honor, which alone makes any change unlikely.
Which is too bad, because, as Leonhardt wrote, there’s a strong practical case for it.
“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,” he wrote. Yet only an election can change the partisanship of the office itself.