A Third Term for Bush?

Fred Barnes makes what at first appears to be a ludicrous suggestion, given the president’s abysmal poll numbers: “It’s time for President Bush to think about a third term.” Upon delving deeper, though, the suggestion merely seems absurd.

No, he doesn’t need to overturn the Constitution. He can start the equivalent of his third term now, by filling his presidential staff and cabinet with new faces–or old faces in new positions–and by concentrating on new or forgotten initiatives. The goal: rejuvenation of his presidency by shocking the media and political community with a sweeping overhaul of his administration. The impact would be enormous because it’s exactly what his foes have been demanding and exactly what he is not expected to do. And it would give him a chance to escape the political doldrums that may otherwise doom his presidency through its final 34 months.


A broad transformation, playing on the media’s overreaction whenever surprised, would do more. Reporters would be forced to write stories about new officials, cover confirmation hearings, show up at press conferences they might have ignored, assess new policies, and–this is most important–take a fresh look at the president. It would be like the beginning of a new presidential term. Sure, the press and politicians would be cynical about Mr. Bush’s bold moves, especially since he wouldn’t be uprooting any policy or hiring Bush critics. In truth, there would be a large element of smoke and mirrors in his actions. The trade-off is that Mr. Bush might revitalize his presidency.

While getting rid of unpopular figures like Don Rumsfeld might help a little, it strikes me as highly unlikely that this would achieve the desired reaction. Indeed, it might be seen as further sign of collapse.

A sweeping overhaul on a smaller scale has worked before. In one swoop in 1975, President Ford replaced Defense Secretary James Schlesinger with Donald Rumsfeld, made Dick Cheney chief of staff, appointed George H.W. Bush as CIA director in place of William Colby, and stripped Secretary of State Henry Kissinger of his second post as national security adviser, installing Brent Scowcroft. These surprising and dramatic steps strengthened a weak Ford presidency. President Carter tried something similar in 1979 when his presidency was at a low point. But the overhaul was handled clumsily. Mr. Carter appeared to act arbitrarily and his presidency never recovered.

I would note that the Ford overhaul did not “work” if the goal was a continuation of Republican governance. He lost the next year to an unknown former Georgia governor with lust in his heart. And, frankly, only a handful of policy wonks even know who the National Security Advisor and White House Chief of Staff are.

At this point, Barnes engages in a bit of wishful thinking.

The president’s most spectacular move would be to anoint a presidential successor. This would require Vice President Cheney to resign. His replacement? Condoleezza Rice, whom Mr. Bush regards highly. Her replacement? Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, whose Bush-like views on Iraq and the war on terror have made him a pariah in the Democratic caucus.

Mr. Cheney would probably be happy to step down and return to Wyoming. But it would make more sense for him to move to the Pentagon to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, a job Mr. Cheney held during the elder Bush’s administration. The Senate confirmation hearing for Mr. Cheney alone would produce political fireworks and attract incredible attention. At Treasury, Mr. Bush has a perfect replacement for John Snow, someone he already knows. That’s Glenn Hubbard, former chairman of Mr. Bush’s council of economic advisers and currently dean of Columbia’s business school. He is in sync with Mr. Bush ideologically and has the added value of being respected on Wall Street.

There might indeed be some buzz generated by a Rice for Cheney swap. Cheney has become a lightning rod and Rice is an intriguing figure. But the benefit would be undone by the bizarre demotion of Cheney to SECDEF. First, it would remove any cover that might explain the resignation of a vice president. One can hardly argue he’s doing it for health reasons if he stays on as SECDEF. Further, this would merely replace an unpopular figure associated with leading us into an unpopular war with another. I can conceive of no benefit to this trade.

As a new chief of staff, Mr. Bush’s pal from his Harvard Business School days, Al Hubbard, could replace Andy Card. Mr. Hubbard is miscast as top White House economic adviser. To replace him, Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute would fit. He has close ties to the Bush White House. There’s also a natural choice for national security adviser to replace Stephen Hadley. It’s Zalmay Khalilzad, the tough-minded ambassador to Iraq. Once a permanent government is installed there, he could be summoned home.

There are perhaps fifty people outside of Washington who have any idea who any of these people are. The net buzz generated here would approximate zero.

The trickiest issue is how to handle Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff and political adviser. He is the closest thing to indispensable–on policy as well as politics–at the White House. But any overhaul that didn’t involve him would run the risk of not being taken seriously. The solution is to send Mr. Rove to the Republican National Committee as chairman and bring the current chairman, Ken Mehlman, back to the president’s staff as communications chief. The president lauded Mr. Rove as “the architect” of his re-election in 2004. Now he could be the architect of a Republican comeback in 2006. Mr. Mehlman would sharpen the president’s communication operation. He and Mr. Rove would work together, as they do now.

Hoo boy. So, we should take the only thing the Republicans have going for them at the moment–the fact that the Democrats have a genuine lunatic as their party chairman–and put the most hated Republican since Nixon in as his counterpart. That’s sheer genius!

Here’s an alternative strategy for reviving the Bush presidency and increasing the chances of a Republican succeeding him: Success.

The president is unpopular, not because he has a boring staff, but because his policies are perceived as failures. To turn that around, he needs some visible successes. Accomplish what he set out to do in Iraq and get the handover to the Iraqi government accomplished, pronto. Propose bold, popular domestic programs and get them passed. Secure our ports and our borders. Fix FEMA. Veto something unpopular. Hell, a few things.

Those things are harder than shaking up the staff, to be sure. But they are also more meaningful.

Elsewhere, Rusty Shackleford argues that Rumsfeld should be fired because he stood in the way of needed fixes in the Iraq plan and because he hasn’t done enough to win the information war. Rob Port, meanwhile, loves the Barnes plan in its entirety.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    The president is unpopular, not because he has a boring staff, but because his policies are perceived as failures. To turn that around, he needs some visible successes. Accomplish what he set out to do in Iraq and get the handover to the Iraqi government accomplished, pronto. Propose bold, popular domestic programs and get them passed. Secure our ports and our borders. Fix FEMA. Veto something unpopular. Hell, a few things.

    Your diagnosis is correct, but your prescription is hooey. This is tantamount to saying Tinkerbell will live if you just clap harder – Bush can’t just yell at Iraq and make it successful; he actually has to implement a comprehensive strategic plan that has some vague chance in hell of succeeding, and then he has to continue to pay attention to it until it does. That’s Bush’s main failure as a leader – he says ‘go do something’, hands the ball off to someone else, who may or not be competent, and then wanders off to some new shiny thing.

    It’d be great if Bush’s policies were successful. It’d also be great if lead were actually gold, but that’s not going to spontaneously happen either – Bush cannont transform himself into something he ain’t…

  2. qatmando says:

    Can anyone blame them for expecting Bush to clean up his OWN mess??!!!!!!
    GW is disliked because he is Patronizing. Like we all are kids and can’t understand the delicacies of politics. Word for the wise…we AIN’T THAT dumb…….except, maybe, the brain-dead neocomnuts who blindly support whatever buahbaby says!

  3. McGehee says:

    …the brain-dead neocomnuts who blindly support whatever buahbaby says!

    And you call Dubya patronizing.