The Fortnight That Was: Debate Thresholds, Bernie’s Official, Amendment 25, and Bill Weld

Hello again, dear readers, and happy March. The political season has come into this month like a lion, but I very much doubt it will leave as a lamb.

Over the last two weeks, PPFA stuck to history, including a Presidents’ Day ranking and a bloated piece on Western history’s ninth most influential figure, Karl Marx. It’s time to get back to politics! It’s been two weeks since my “The Week That Was” column, so now it’s time for the fortnight that was.[1]

Let’s start with…


The Democratic National Committee has announced the thresholds for members of the increasingly crowded Democratic Primary to qualify for its debates. You may recall I assumed the party would, as it so often does, make a mess of things; in particular, I worried that they wouldn’t be able to cleanly separate the tiers of candidates for a “main” debate and an “undercard.” Meanwhile, it faced a dilemma: would it favor inclusivity (particularly after many felt that powerful party members tailored — or “rigged” — a 2016 debate schedule in favor of its preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton), or would it favor orderliness (a 20ish-person field, without party leadership helping to winnow the field, can easily divide Democrats into so many factions that its leading candidate might be preferred by only a fifth of the voters).

The Republican strategy four years ago seemed to favor orderliness; only certain qualifying candidates were invited to the “main” debate televised to a prime time audience, while others were marginalized in an afternoon “undercard” debate that most working Americans weren’t able to watch live. In reaction to 2016, however, it appears the Democratic Party has tilted toward inclusivity (which, it’s worth noting parenthetically, does much to show its 2020 electoral strategy). The threshold to make a debate is incredibly low. A candidate need only:

  • Reach one percent in three polls taken close to the debate. That can be through national polls…
  • …and/or early state polls (presumably Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina). This part allows a retail campaign to focus on one state despite low name recognition nationally.
  • OR, a candidate can prove their viability by receiving campaign donations from at least 65,000 people across at least 20 states.

This low threshold means we can expect all of the major candidates — ten and counting — to qualify for the debate stage. Further, in another sign of inclusivity, if the number of candidates forces them into holding two debates per venue, the DNC has determined these debates will not be two-tiered, and neither will be relegated to an afternoon time slot. Instead, the debates will occur on back-to-back nights, both in prime time, and all qualifying candidates will be randomly assigned to the two nights.[2]

The first debate, by the way, is surprisingly close: June — just three months way! It will be televised by “Fake News” MSNBC and “Bad Hombres” Telemundo. The second debate will be held the following month and televised by “Enemy of the People” CNN.


Bernie Sanders is in! Of course, that wasn’t a surprise. I wrote about his imminent entrance back on January 28. Since then, I generally stand pat on my two general takes on his chances:

  • A crowded field favors the candidate with a strong floor of support, which is exactly what helped candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Sanders has an impassioned fan base that is not in danger of switching to another candidate.
  • But his ceiling is also capped due to Elizabeth Warren splitting not only the progressive vote — but also the valuable New Hampshire Primary.

If I had to pick two relevant developments in the last five weeks, I’d say:

  • His rapid initial fundraising — nearly $6 million in the first 24 hours(!) — was really impressive. Notably, it came from about 223,000 donors across all 50 states, so in one day he qualified for the debates. He proceeded to raise $10 million in just one week. His people adore him as much as ever — evidenced by a million volunteers already — and I’ve moved his nomination chances from 10/1 to 8/1.
  • In my experience, many of his online supporters are incredibly annoying, trailing only online Trump supporters (and Russian Twitterbots) in that regard. As a result, I sometimes find myself actively rooting against him just so they see how their anti-everyone-else approach to political debate is not a terribly effective way to grow a coalition. (Note that I am not proud of my emotional reaction. Do I at least get points for honesty?)

In other news, the 25th Amendment of the Constitution has come under attack for being… unconstitutional.

After former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe claimed that officials in the Justice Department discussed starting the 25th Amendment process to remove President Trump from office, conservative commentators were outraged, and the President helped amplify their arguments. Via presidential tweet, President Trump agreed with the opinion of Fox News’s Dan Bongino, who said “This was an illegal coup attempt on the President of the United States.” The President also relayed the interpretation of Bongino’s colleague at Fox, Alan Dershowitz: “Trying to use the 25th Amendment to try and circumvent the Election is a despicable act of unconstitutional power grabbing.”

It was all rather amusing. We should first consider that McCabe is attempting to start his post-FBI career with a book tour. He’s trying to make money here, and dropping a piece of information like discussing the 25th without any corroboration should make us skeptical of his claim. And even if the 25th was whispered among members of a small circle, it clearly went nowhere. McCabe counted on a quick and melodramatic response, and the news media was only too happy to oblige, as it so often does.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s say McCabe’s account is accurate: the 25th Amendment, though never used, had a momentary genesis. Would using the 25th Amendment truly be a “coup” or “unconstitutional”? Hardly! The 25th Amendment is literally in the Constitution. Let’s take a look at its relevant component, Section 4:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

In other words, if the VP and a majority of the cabinet determine that the president is unable to carry out the duties of his office — Section 4 goes on to describe this circumstance as an “inability” — then they can Constitutionally suspend the president from office.

Dershowitz, among other Trump defenders, will say that clearly the President can “discharge the powers and duties of his office,” and that this section of the amendment should only be interpreted to apply to presidents unexpectedly incapacitated by injury, illness, or the like. On the other hand, the Constitution is frequently open to interpretation, and some think that a president might be physically healthy but also “unable” to handle the job. And some wonder if a budding or invisible mental illness qualifies as an inability.

So it’s pretty unclear what it would take. Indeed, Constitutional Convention delegate John Dickinson asked, “What is the extent of the term ‘disability,’ and who is to be the judge of it?” Then as now, no one seemed to know. Therefore, like so many other vagueries of the Constitution (impeachable offenses, for example), the issue was punted to future generations who must color their own circumstances into history’s greatest outline.

Still, to fully understand just how far McCabe and his supposed co-conspirators were from their “coup,” it’s also worth noting that Section 4 of the 25th Amendment lays out more steps beyond my excerpted paragraph. Even if the VP and a majority of the cabinet determine the president to be unfit, the process is not over. They can indeed remove him and install the vice president as “Acting President,” but then the president may dispute the removal and make his or her case to his or her cabinet officers. The dubious cabinet members then have four days to re-consider. If they change their minds, the president is back (and the VP can sheepishly return to wherever a disgraced and emasculated VP goes). If they still insist the president should be removed, the VP remains as “Acting President” and the matter goes to Congress. To sustain the decision made by the cabinet and permanently remove the president, two-thirds of both chambers are required. Anything short of that and the president gets to stay.

This is almost certainly not going to happen — not now, not ever. Not only does this particular President have too much Congressional and popular support, but cabinets in general are extremely loyal to the person who picked them for their job. Perhaps McCabe and other Justice officials could have wrangled a cabinet member or two, but a majority? No way. If it did happen, we can assume there would be a very good reason.

Nevertheless, this process is not a “coup,” which is generally considered an overthrow of the government via an illegal or non-Constitutional process. If McCabe and his Justice allies took a gun into the Oval Office and replaced the President, that’s a coup. The steps outlined above are very much a Constitutional process.

Instead, it would be more accurate to call cabinet officers exercising their Constitutional authority not as “illegal,” a “coup,” or “unconstitutional,” but as “undemocratic.” It would indeed be elites making decisions, not the voters. Then again, some might say that’s kind of what the Electoral College is. Democracy said Hillary Clinton should be president, but it was via the Constitutional process that Trump won the election.[3] I doubt Bongino and Dershowitz consider that anywhere near a coup. Someone should ask them.


Finally, the Republican Primary actually has a second major candidate — well, kind of major anyway. Citing President Trump’s instability, mismanagement of the debt, “awful” foreign policy, and a general desire to purify the Republican Party, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld has formed an exploratory committee to run for the Republican nomination. If he officially joins the race, he’d become the first (and perhaps only) significant Republican to challenge President Trump for the GOP’s 2020 nomination.[4]

If nothing unexpected ends Trump’s re-election bid — his death, his resignation, a removal from office, or a decision to not run because making America great again isn’t worth all the fake news criticism that comes with it — Weld has a roughly zero percent chance to win the nomination. Even as the President’s overall approval never strays far from the low 40s, his support from Republicans remains in the high 80s. Republican voters, extremely supportive of this President, have no interest in considering another nominee. The Republican National Committee can pull strings to weaken Weld, and state party leaders might even cancel primaries, a drastic measure that South Carolina’s GOP boss wouldn’t rule out for his state’s important early primary.

Why the resistance? After all, if Trump is so popular in the party, what have party leaders to fear from a challenger? Weld will tell you it’s because Republican leadership wants “to sail through this without anyone having to think or analyze issues.” Calling Trump “not indispensable,” Weld sees a way forward for the Republican Party to continue pushing Republican issues without kowtowing to this often embarrassing leader.

He isn’t totally wrong. Though it’s unfair to say the party doesn’t want to “think,” he’s right that it doesn’t want anyone in the party to hesitate in their support of their President. Three sitting presidents in the last 45 years have faced notable primary challenges:

  1. In 1976, President Ford eked out a win over Governor Ronald Reagan.
  2. In 1980, President Carter held off Senator Ted Kennedy.
  3. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush disposed of Pat Buchanan.

The thing they all had in common? Though they all held off their party’s challenger, all three incumbents lost in the general election. And I’m not even counting heir-apparent nominees Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, whose coronations faced resistance from Bill Bradley and Bernie Sanders before they too lost their general elections. Primaries are great for debates, but bad for Novembers. We can therefore expect Governor Weld, and any other Republican challengers, to face all the resistance GOP leaders can muster.


FOOTNOTES:

[1]The word “fortnight,” which means “unit of time equal to two weeks,” should not be confused with “Fortnite,” which means “online game that ruins the lives of countless American teenagers.”

[2]PPFA hopes this random assignment will be televised, as it’s the closest thing us political junkies will have to a sports draft, like the NBA’s or NFL’s. The different combinations of opponents can have a huge effect on how the debates and primary at large evolve. I’m considering too many possibilities to get into here, so I’ll stick a pin in it for now and remove it for a future post.

[3]Like the people elect a president who appoints cabinet officials, the people choose the party that appoint their state’s Electors.

[4]In my mind, “major” or “significant” candidates are ones that have held previous state-wide or Congressional offices — or have a hundred million dollars or so to self-fund a national campaign. As of February 25, there are actually 72 official candidates who have filed the proper papers to seek the Republican nomination, but only Trump and Weld fit my criteria as “major.”

10 thoughts on “The Fortnight That Was: Debate Thresholds, Bernie’s Official, Amendment 25, and Bill Weld

  1. Will we get Democratic Primary mock drafts? Predicting who will be on what stage and possible outcomes from it?

    Like

    1. I am getting ahead of myself, but the candidates should be able to trade picks in future debates. I am so excited for this now.

      Like

      1. Unfortunately, it’s not a true draft. That would be AMAZING, though. Imagine Biden deciding whether to either duck Sanders or go after him.

        Like

    2. It’s impossible to predict a random lottery, but I do want to write a piece analyzing how the a debate will be affected depending on who’s on the stage, and how the overall primary discourse can be affected as well.

      Like

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