The Second Term Slump

The NYT editorial board begins with the conventional wisdom that second presidential terms seem to be plagued with scandals and missteps and meanders off a cliff.

For one thing, the two examples they provide, the bothching of the Moussaoui case by the stupidity of TSA lawyer Carla Martin and the bizarre tale of Claude Allen, have virtually nothing to do with the White House. It’s not like there aren’t actual examples of bad judgment on the part of the Bush team.

From that weak premise, they come up with this profound observation:

The founding fathers understood that there would be times in American history when the country lost confidence in the judgment of the president. Congress and the courts are supposed to fill the gap. But the system of checks and balances is a safety net that doesn’t feel particularly sturdy at present. The administration seems determined to cut off legitimate court scrutiny, and the Republicans who dominate the House and Senate generally intervene only to change the rules so Mr. Bush can do whatever he wants. (If the current Congress had been called on to intervene in the case of Mr. Allen, it would probably have tried to legalize shoplifting.)


Clue for the NYT: Checks and balances are working just fine. In the case of Martin’s misconduct, a federal judge (i.e., a member of the Judicial Branch, i.e, not the Executive Branch) threw out the evidence even remotely tainted by it. That’s a pretty powerful check, don’t you think?

And how does checks and balances impact the Allen case? He was arrested by local authorities (Federalism, yes, Executive overreach, no) for actions allegedly committed in his capacity as a private citizen and having nothing whatsoever to do with his position in government. He will quite likely be tried in the courts (checks and balances have been replicated at the local level, too).

Sure, the administration is trying to expand its powers in some issues of national security policy at the expense of the other branches. That’s hardly novel. But we have had numerous rulings by the appelate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, all of which the administration has abided by. Further, if Congress changes the laws, that’s part of the system, too.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    The NYT editorial board is just expressing its chronic grumps over the progression of political outcomes from 1994 through 2000, 2002 and 2004. No big deal.