Time to End Presidential Term Limits?
Pejman Yousefzadeh argues that President Bush is falling prey to to a familiar trend.
[A]ny reasonably informed observer of the American political system will likely point out that just about every second-term administration in recent times has suffered dramatic political reversals and bouts of severe unpopularity. The reasons vary from administration to administration, but there is a great deal of writing and thinking available on the second-term curse that seems to afflict Presidents who successfully persuade the American electorate to give them and their administrations four more years.
I am more than willing to fault the Bush Administration’s political shop for blunders that it could have easily avoided. But I am also more than willing to believe that any administration will likely fall victim to the second-term curse given the current state of our political structure. And the blame for that larger problem lies with the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Once a candidate for the Presidency wins election for his/her first term, the next Presidential campaign begins almost instantly, with hopefuls spending an inordinate amount of time in Iowa and New Hampshire even before the first month of a new President’s administration is out. Such is the nature of the permanent campaign. That’s fine; even though this insta-campaigning is going on, a first-term President still has plenty of political power with which to govern and the prospect of a re-election campaign with which to receive a mandate for a particular set of policy positions, as well as helping political allies win elections of their own.
But once that process is over, the President’s power becomes alarmingly ephemeral, with opponents and even allies helping to make a second term a sort of deathwatch, counting down the days, hours and minutes before the administration must leave office. No one fears the President because everyone knows that he/she will be going soon. Politicians who do not face term limits of their own can more easily afford to defy and outlast a term-limited President, thus handicapping an administration that will continue to try to win policy battles. And presidential aspirants further help weigh down the political operations of a second-term administration by poaching their best political operatives with the argument that the administration they currently serve is something akin to a caretaker government and that the operatives in question should devote their time and talents to future presidential campaigns instead of the deeply important policy and political struggles of the present.
Yousefzadeh states numerous times in the piece that first and foremost he blames Bush and his staff for most of their problems and that the lame duck issue is merely secondary. I agree.
I have been opposed to presidential term limits and other constitutional limits on the voters’ will (minimum candidate age, candidate residency requirements, presidents must be native born, etc.) for as long as I have been concerned about such things.* Were there no 22nd Amendment, Bill Clinton would almost certainly have been re-elected in 2000 and, who knows, again in 2004. That would have been an unhappy result from my perspective but it should have been the people’s prerogative.
It is also undeniable that the inability to run for a third term hampers a president’s leverage, especially later in his term. Of course, that is precisely what it was intended to do. Sure, it was an act of petty partisanship on the part of Republicans angry that FDR elevated the presidency to new heights but it was also intended to restore the historical understanding that presidents would serve a short time and then go home.
Further, limiting presidents to two terms has not restored the preeminence of Congress. (See my TCS piece “Real Power Is Something You Take” for background.) Even as lame ducks wounded by scandals and low poll numbers, all of the two-term post-22nd Amendment presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) managed to maintain the position of the president as the dominant actor in American politics and get significant legislation passed. In the first three cases, they did so even with the opposition party in control of Congress.
Nor am I convinced that having grandstanding presidential wannabes in the incumbent’s party is much of an argument for repeal. The Framers intended Congress to be jealous of its own institutional power and without permanent alliances with the executive. The nature of the party system has turned that on its head. The fact that John McCain and other rivals for the Republican nomination might oppose Bush’s agenda to further their own helps restore the natural checks and balances of the system. Getting legislation passed is supposed to be incredibly difficult, after all.
The most convincing argument for repealing the 22nd Amendment, then, remains freedom. If the people want to re-elect a charismatic leader who is probably fresh out of good ideas and a little shopworn, that should be their right.
*More recently, I have supported term limits for Members of Congress. This is a different issue for institutional reasons: Senior Members have inordinate power vis-a-vis junior ones, distorting the geographical parity that the Framers intended. Were they merely voting for their own representatives, I would say citizens should have the right to vote for anyone they want, no matter how decrepit and out of touch. In reality, however, those who live in districts or states who have very senior Members are in essence voting for the leadership of the Congress without the rest of us having a say.