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Vice presidential follies: 1944 and 2024

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As Erik’s post this morning acknowledges, Joe Biden is really old and Joe Biden is almost certainly, absent some major health crisis, going to be the Democratic presidential nominee two years from now.

I know I’ve harped on this (sue me if I post too long), but one thing we humans are not very good at is adjusting for the statistical difference between linear and exponential functions.

For example:

Risk of an American man dying over the next four years at different ages

42: 1.2%

52: 2.7%

62: 5.7%

72: 11.6%

82: 28.9%

Biden would be 82 and two months in January of 2027, so that kicks it to over 30% during a projected second term.

Now obviously these are actuarial averages, and Biden seems healthier than the average 79-year-old I suppose, although this has to be balanced against the fact that actually doing the job of POTUS is about a googolplex more stressful than what the average 80something is doing with his day (watching FOX News obvi) and stress is really bad for your health. (I doubt that the extraordinary health care the POTUS gets makes much of a difference at the margin in these age ranges).

Also too, the other huge variable here is that death is just one age-related risk, and from a practical standpoint not even the most important risk, faced by a very elderly president. Loss of cognitive/general physical function to a point that isn’t severe enough to clearly require the invocation of the 25th amendment is even bigger hazard, and harder to quantify than pure mortality risk.

But a rough back of the envelope guess is that there’s something close to a 50/50 chance that Biden either dies or suffers a debilitating major health crisis/deterioration during a second term.

So naturally this brought to my mind thoughts of the summer of 1944, and the rather twisted tale of how Harry Truman ended up replacing Henry Wallace on the Democratic presidential ticket. FDR himself doesn’t seem to have been eager to replace Wallace, but he was pressured very heavily to do so by various party bosses, who back in those smoke-filled room days had far more leverage over a POTUS, even a titanic figure like FDR, than any comparable group would have in the early 21st century, with the exception of the GRU of course.

FDR was lobbied to dump Wallace right up to the week of the convention, but he dealt with the situation in a strikingly diffident manner, eventually agreeing to release a letter saying he would be fine with either Truman or Wallace as his running mate. (The other top contender until the last minute was William O. Douglas, and what a fun-filled counter-factual hypothetical that makes).

What I hadn’t realized until I looked at that series of events is that at the time even FDR couldn’t literally choose his running mate: all he could do was use his very considerable influence to try to get the convention delegates to choose who he wanted in the position. He could have told Wallace to stand down from being nominated, and as a practical matter Wallace would have had to do so, but FDR didn’t do that, and on the first ballot Wallace actually got way more support than Truman: 429.5 to 319.5 votes.

Only when it became clear that FDR wasn’t going to force the issue in Wallace’s favor did Truman get the nomination on the second ballot.

Anyway, the point is that back in the day an elected president didn’t have unfettered discretion to replace his vice president with his own choice of a replacement (Interestingly I believe FDR is the only president in American history to have dumped his VP between terms — and he did it twice, getting rid of John Nance Garner in 1940 after Garner ran for president, when FDR refused to say prior to the 1940 convention whether he was running for a third term. (Garner also opposed FDR’s court-packing plan back in 1937. )

Things are different today, I hear every mother say, and of course Biden has the practical freedom to replace Kamala Harris in 2024 with whomever he wants who will agree to take the job.

Since it’s abstruse hypothetical day here on LGM, the question is: could such a move make sense? Harris’s approval ratings over the past 19 months exactly mirror Biden’s, while always being a bit worse, so it’s unclear to say the least whether replacing her would be beneficial from a horse race perspective Obviously it would be prudent to offer her some plum appointment — next SCOTUS justice? — to make sure she was a good soldier, if Biden wanted to go in a different direction.

But the real question here is substantive: How enthusiastic are Democratic voters about the idea of Kamala Harris not as vice president, but as president of the United States, since there’s probably something close to a coin flip’s chance that ends up happening if Biden is re-elected?

On a related note, it’s standard today to claim that back in the summer of 1944 “everybody” knew FDR was dying, so the choice of his new vice president was truly momentous. I suspect this is a considerable exaggeration, born of 20/20 historical hindsight: There’s no question political insiders knew that FDR was in quite poor health — I doubt the public as a whole had any real sense of this at the time — but I also very much doubt that those insiders thought it was likely that FDR was going to die or become totally incapacitated during the course of a fourth term.

But Biden is so old that we pretty much know there’s a HUGE risk that he will have to be replaced during a second term, either because of death or acute or chronic disability. That tends to concentrate the mind when it comes to his vice president.

I should say I have no particular opinion about Kamala Harris as a vice president — how the hell do you evaluate a vice president as a vice president anyway?– and only a weak sense of whether she would make a good POTUS (She would of course make an infinitely better POTUS than any Republican, as it should be unnecessary to point out in these troubled times).

But, given the actuarial situation, it’s a question everyone has to ask, including most especially Joe Biden himself.

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