NEW YORK — It’s only April and already the 2016 campaign has treated us to a tour of the outer reaches of democracy from arcane convention delegate selection rules to Donald Trump’s notion of rewriting the First Amendment seemingly to bar all criticism of him personally.
By November, we could be adding the nuances of the 12th Amendment to our Baedeker of citizenship lessons. To save you a research consultation with Mr. Google, the 12th Amendment dictates how we elect a president
All pundits, under the bylaws of the Columnist’s Guild, are required to periodically offer electoral fantasies to show our mastery of what-if journalism. But rather than explaining how the Republicans will nominate George Pataki on the 17th ballot in Cleveland, I will instead opt for the 12th Amendment in all its glory.
Scenario: The Cleveland Convention is as wild as predicted — and the GOP splits with, say, Trump as the nominee and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse running on a third-party line as a mainstream Republican. Partly because of Hillary Clinton’s weakness as the Democratic nominee, no candidate gets the requisite 270 electoral votes and, under the 12th Amendment, the incoming House of Representatives must pick the next president.
This possibility, by the way, was widely discussed when George Wallace (1968) and Ross Perot (1992) ran as independent candidates. And Michael Bloomberg abandoned a third-party race this year, in part, because he didn’t see how he could ever prevail in the House of Representatives.
The 12th Amendment contains two wrinkles that could complicate the selection of the 45th president: Every state gets a single vote and the only candidates are the top three graduates from the Electoral College. As a result of this top-three rule, this will be the rare political scenario under which Paul Ryan doesn’t reluctantly end up as president.
In a normal election, the 12th Amendment’s one-state-one-vote formula would guarantee a Republican president. The GOP controls 33 House delegations, the Democrats hold a majority in only 14 states and three states are evenly split. Even if the Democrats in November were to pick up all the House seats currently in play, Hillary Clinton could only count on the votes from about 20 states.
But no election can be considered normal if a disruptive figure like Trump is on the ballot. With the Republican Party sundered in two by the nomination of the bilious billionaire, some GOP-controlled House delegations would probably refuse to toe the party line. Sasse, running as the candidate of the Republican Party in Exile, would presumably hold the support of his home state of Nebraska in the House.
With each state casting a single vote, the seven legislators from single-district states — who could caucus in front of the mirror in the morning — would vault onto the VIP pedestal in Washington. Vermont (Peter Welch) and Delaware (open seat) are likely to remain Democratic. But Alaska (Don Young), Montana (Ryan Zinke), North Dakota (Kevin Cramer), South Dakota (Kristi Noem) and Wyoming (open seat) could well become the kingmaker states.
Take the dilemma that might face Liz Cheney (running as a “Strong Conservative Voice for Wyoming”) if she were to win the GOP primary for the state’s at-large House seat. It is easy to imagine Dick Cheney’s daughter romping home in November while Trump carries the state as the GOP presidential nominee.
But then what?
Liz Cheney’s foreign policy views are as unapologetically hawkish as those of her father. As she puts it on her campaign website, “We need leaders in Washington who understand that the world is safer and that America is more secure when America leads from strength.”
Trump is most decidedly not that kind of leader. His national security views might be summarized as Isolationism with a Big Wall That We Don’t Pay For. From suggesting that Japan and South Korea get their own nuclear weapons to questioning the benefits of NATO, Trump’s statements are an anathema to Cheney-style interventionism.
Imagine if it all came down to Liz Cheney’s vote in the House. Would she repudiate her father’s entire career just because Trump carries the imprimatur of the Grand Old Party and he carried Wyoming in the November election? Or would she go with Sasse (or ultimately even the hawkish Hillary Clinton) knowing that she would probably never win another election in Wyoming?
In an unsettled political year, these are the kind of questions that Wyoming voters might be asking House candidates like Cheney before the August 16 primary. But a check of news clips from Wyoming suggests that the issue has never been mentioned. And the Cheney campaign did not respond to an email asking about the topic.
Scenario : After Liz Cheney’s emotional speech on the House floor declaring, “I can’t trust the nuclear codes to a president whose judgment and emotional stability I don’t trust,” Donald Trump went thermonuclear. When last heard, the failed presidential candidate was railing against “those losers in Washington and their rigged Constitution.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro.
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