Why you should care
Because the 45th presidency of the United States is quickly going off the rails.
With every passing day, it looks increasingly likely that, unlike his three predecessors, Donald Trump will not make it through a full eight years as president, and perhaps not even through a single four-year term. Which means, among many other things, that there is but one person at both the front of the queue and the top of the oddsmakers’ sheets when it comes to becoming the 46th president of the United States: Vice President Michael Richard Pence.
The paths to a Pence presidency are many, and they are widening. Even if the myriad scandals and investigations confronting the White House do not sink Trump, and he manages to dodge the potential health risks and assassination threats that any older, unpopular (and likely unhealthy) president faces to serve out a full term or two in office, the relatively unscathed Pence will be there to take the torch. But just how well do Pence’s chances of assuming the presidency stack up, and how do they compare historically?
The end of the Trump presidency is no longer just a liberal parlor fantasy.
Most presidencies do not end ahead of schedule, but presidents do die and leave office for other reasons, and the prospect of a vice president becoming president is hardly an academic one: It has happened nine times in American history. And the end of the Trump presidency is no longer just a liberal parlor fantasy. The prospect of a Trump-less White House would give the Republicans in Washington a better chance of advancing their agenda upfield without having to worry about their quarterback getting sacked or spiking the ball at the 30-yard line along the way. In the wake of the firing of FBI Director James Comey and other recent events, impeachment has become a more realistic scenario than before, says Steffen Schmidt, a politics professor at Iowa State University, and many more Republicans are seeing “a much less dangerous Pence presidency as a real opportunity.”
While the news in coming weeks and months may well focus on the potential legal case for impeaching the president, including the meaning of legal and constitutional terms like “obstruction of justice” and “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the act of impeachment really comes down to a political, and not a legal, calculus. And as such, the president’s popularity, and not evidence of misconduct, will likely be more important to what action Republican House and Senate leaders take. Trump’s approval rating is below 40 percent, and, according to Gallup, since 1946, whenever a sitting president has an approval below 50 percent, his party has lost an average of 36 seats in the midterms. Recall that one of the reasons Bill Clinton and his team avoided having to leave office like Richard Nixon was Clinton’s popularity with his party and the American public, including a 70 percent approval rating by the time the GOP-led House impeached him, in December 1998.
Somewhat paradoxically, while Trump’s unpopularity could improve the chances of impeachment and a Pence presidency, barring such drastic developments, they could harm Pence’s long-term chances of assuming the office. Given his prominence in an increasingly unpopular administration, says Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency, “it is very possible that Pence’s chances of being elected president may have been greater as a defeated vice presidential candidate than as a successful one.”
Still, although his role in defending Trump’s statements and actions, including his firing of Comey, could harm Pence’s own credibility and political future, thus far at least, the vice president has managed to remain largely unsullied and relatively popular — the only political figure to have a net positive favorability rating in a recent USA Today–Suffolk University poll. Is it time for Americans to get used to the idea of President Pence?
Goldstein is not convinced that Pence’s chances of becoming president exceed those of some other U.S. vice presidents. For example, when Harry Truman became vice president in January 1945, president Franklin D. Roosevelt was already in very bad health (and would die less than four months later), and serious talk of impeaching Nixon had already begun by the time Gerald Ford became his vice president in December 1973 — two months after the infamous Saturday Night Massacre.
America may soon find itself in a similar situation again, watching as an untested vice president, with only a matter of months of high office under his belt, is asked to assume an even higher one.