Yesterday Rush Limbaugh asked a former U.S. serviceman who called into his show a totally-hypothetical-and-not-in-any-way-designed-to-impugn-the-patriotism-of-the-sitting-president-kind of question:
Are you aware of any military contingency plans for a president who might not be your prototypical pro-America president? Are there contingency plans to deal with a president who may not believe that the United States is the solution to the world's problems?
Marc Ambinder provides both a succinct ("No.") and a more detailed answer. Now, some readers might take umbrage at the partisanship of Limbaugh's question, but I think it dovetails nicely with some recent research interests of my own. In particular: what would happen if the president was under threat of turning into a zombie?
Let's break this down into two phases: A) a president who's been bitten but is still clearly human; and B) an undead POTUS.
The first situation could distort the government's initial policy responses. After all, the actors with the most immediate stake in sabotaging any attack on zombies are those who have been bitten by zombies, and the human relatives of zombies. By definition, the moment humans are bitten, they will inevitably become zombies. This fact can dramatically alter their preferences. This change of mind occurs in many zombie films. In George Romero's Land of the Dead (2005), the character of Cholo has the most militant anti-zombie attitude at the outset of the film. After he is bitten, however, he decides that he wants to "see how the other half lives." In Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (2002), as well as Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Survival of the Dead (2010), family members keep their undead relatives hidden from security and paramilitary forces.
Clearly, soon-to-be-ghouls and their relatives can hamper policy implementation. One would expect a soon-to-be POTUS to order research efforts on finding a cure rather than focusing on prevention, for example.
If the situation is unclear when the president is infected, all hell breaks lose once he becomes a member of the differently animated. The law here is extremely murky. From Ambinder:
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 spells out a procedure. Let's look at 3 USC 19, subsection "E." We're dealing with a situation where there is no President, no Vice President, no Speaker of the House and no President Pro Tempore. The law then appoints the Secretary of State as President until either the end of the current president's term in office OR someone higher in the chain of command suddenly re-appears or recovers from injuries and is able to discharge the powers of office. (The Secretary of Defense is sixth in line, after the Secretary of the Treasury.)
This seems clear: If it's not clear, after some sort of decapitation attack, whether the President, the Vice President or the two Congressional successors are alive, or if they're all alive but disabled, then the Cabinet secretaries become acting President -- until and unless a "prior entitled individual" is able to act.
Let's say that the POTUS, the VPOTUS, the Speaker and the President Pro Tempore are all injured; only the Vice President recovers. As soon as that person is eligible, he or she can "bump" the Acting President aside whenever he wants....
The problem is that, in a catastrophic emergency, the people who need to know who is in charge might not have the resources to find this out immediately. These people are, in particular, the Secret Service, and the folks who execute lawful orders from the National Command Authority (which is another name for the commander in chief's executive powers).
Well, then what the hell happens if a president is bitten by a zombie, dies, and then becomes a zombie? It seems to me that the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 doesn't cover this contingency.
There is also the question of the conflicting bureaucratic imperatives that some organizations, like the Secret Service, would face in this scenario. For example, in Brian Keene's The Rising, the U.S. government falls apart almost immediately. A key trigger was the Secret Service's difficulties altering their In divining bureaucratic preferences, where you stand depends on who you eat. standard operating procedures. After the president turned into a zombie, he started devouring the secretary of state. As a result, "one Secret Service agent drew his weapon on the undead Commander-in-Chief, and a second agent immediately shot the first."
I think the lesson to draw here for Rush and others is that in divining both bureaucratic and presidential preferences, where you stand depends on who you eat.
I hereby applaud Rush for being brave enough to highlight this troublesome question during a week when nothing else is going on in the world.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.