September 29, 2008

Dinosaurs and Presidential Succession

Some might ask why be concerned about Sarah Palin anymore. Tina Fey has lampooned her to within an inch of her political credibility on SNL (and props to Amy Poehler for being such a good foil for that):

And the latest projections are as bad for the McCain-Palin team as I've seen since Gov. Palin joined the ticket.

But where I had been initially intrigued and pleased with her, I've had to ask myself whether I would want this woman becoming President under troubled circumstances (when the President dies, it is by definition a crisis) and all the jokes and lampooning aside, I'm not comfortable with the idea of her hand at the helm. She thinks that the world is six thousand years old and that dinosaurs walked the earth along with humans. To her credit, she does not seem anxious to impose that belief system on others. But as I wrote earlier this month, if someone holds and expounds a bizarre world view, that fact alone raises a serious issue about their judgment and therefore their qualification for high office.

John McCain is a mortal man. He would be the oldest President in our history -- as old when he takes office as Ronald Reagan was when he left office.* Some have questioned his mental abilities, although personally I do not see cause for alarm there. But he is also a cancer survivor who must live with a lifelong threat of remission. And of the 43 Presidents we've elected, eight (Harrison I, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Roosevelt II, and Kennedy) have died in office. That's a Presidential mortality rate of just under 19%. And it's been made deliberately obscure just how physically and mentally up to the job some other Presidents who survived their terms were by the end -- Woodrow Wilson had suffered a debilitating stroke and Ronald Reagan was beginning to feel the effects of Alzheimer's during his last days in office, for instance. Never mind Presidents who had become politically unviable like Buchanan, Johnson I, Ford, or Carter. Those men were all, at least, alive and physically and mentally able to discharge their duties; they were just incredibly unpopular by the ends of their terms.

All told, 14 of our 46 Vice-Presidents (just over 30%) have gone on to become President themselves one way or another. Eight of those 14 have done it during the twentieth century, and Al Gore came really close to doing it in 2000. So the office has become a better launching-point for the top job in modern times.

So on the currently about one-in-five chance** that McCain-Palin defeats Obama-Biden, there's a better than one-in-four chance of Sarah Palin becoming President herself. Much as I would like to throw my support wholeheartedly behind McCain, I haven't been able to make myself feel even reasonably comfortable with the idea of President Palin.

None of which makes Barack Obama look any better to me. We can't afford to implement his platform, especially not after our government takes out a second mortgage on our future to the tune of three-quarters of a trillion dollars in order to shore up financial institutions from the consequences of their own bad decisions. So do I hope for Obama to get elected but for his administration to suffer legislative stalemate? That doesn't seem reasonable, either.

* I've heard suggestions that because his parents and grandparents were all long-lived, that means McCain has a prolonged life expectancy, too. I've no way of evaluating that claim and I am moderately interested in actuarial data -- not anecdotes -- to see if there is anything to that.

** While my favorite projection site currently reports Obama winning just over 80% of its projected elections based on current state-by-state polling numbers, we can expect those numbers to narrow as the election draws closer simply because that's what the imminence of an election does. And I'm still feeling pretty good about that bottle of scotch, Mr. "Grant."


zzi said...

You Volunteers out there, this is what passes for being a conservative LA. ". . . and Ronald Reagan was beginning to feel the effects of Alzheimer's during his last days in office, for instance".

Burt Likko said...

Are you saying it's untrue? If not, why shouldn't a conservative acknowledge reality?

zzi said...

Yes. I know a little about it.

He wrote "that hand- written note" on Nov 1994 and then died in June 2004.

The dates don't add up.

Burt Likko said...

I don't know about that. What I said was he was "beginning" to feel the effects by the time he left office by early 1989 when he left office. The 1994 letter was written shortly after President Reagan received a definitive diagnosis of the disease. The disease obviously sets in and its symptoms begin to take effect before the diagnosis -- very often, it is years between the first onset of symptoms and the time of a diagnosis. The timing looks right to me.

Which is very sorrowful to contemplate, whether you liked Reagan as I did or even if you disliked him (which doesn't seem to the be the case for you, Joe).

And which does not in any way diminish Reagan's considerable and admirable achievements in office.

But all of this is only peripherally relevant to my central point for the post, which is that Gov. Palin gives me the impression that she is in over her head. Hopefully -- and I sincerely hope this -- she can vindicate herself from that impression tonight when she debates Sen. Biden.