Monday, March 26, 2007

Do we always want a lame duck?

Every now and then I post on a topic that I hope everyone will catch their partisan breath, step back for a moment and consider whether we should do it.

And so it is today. I believe that we should repeal the Twenty-second amendment, which prevents the President from serving for more than two terms.

What?!? Do I, a confirmed Bush-basher, want more of Bush?

Absolutely not. But if that was your reaction then you are guilty of the myopic view that I am trying to get you to see past, and you can go to the end of the line. For one thing, Jeb Bush was quietly assembling a campaign staff last year as he considered a bid to become the next link in the Bush dynasty, and wisely backed out of the race recognizing that America would dearly have loved to slap down George W. Bush at the polls (as happened by proxy last November), and if Jeb ran then he would certainly have been punished for the sins of his brother.

I know there are conservatives who occasionally stop by here. Is this some trick to bring back Bill Clinton?

Also no, and now you can go to the back of the line. It is true that Clinton, who left office with 60% plus approval ratings, would probably be a more viable candidate for a third term than George W. Bush, whose approval ratings can't seem to break out of the low to mid 30% range. However, I was never that big of a fan of Clinton or of the DLC, and frankly if people want to go back to the Clinton era then they already have a way to get there, by voting for Hillary.

My concern has more to do with the effect of a lame duck Presidency on the country. Traditionally, Presidents never served more than two terms (a Vice President who became President and served more than half of a term as President was considered to have served for a term.)

That tradition of not running again changed with Roosevelt. No, not Franklin, but Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was considered to have served two terms, acceding to the Presidency after an assassin shot William McKinley in 1901, then being elected in his own right in 1904. So after the election of 1908, Theodore Roosevelt left office on schedule and was succeeded by William Howard Taft.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt became unhappy with the return of the establishment leaders of the Republican party (he had been chosen VP in 1900 primarily as the hero of San Juan Hill, in an age when Vice Presidents were considered to be nearly useless, except to win votes for a ticket.) So being relatively young (he turned 54 that year) he unsuccessfully challenged Taft for the nomination, and then put together his own party to challenge both the Republicans and the Democrats. He lost, but he got 28% of the vote and actually beat Taft-- the only time in post-Civil war history that a third party candidate has finished ahead of the nominee of either of the two major parties. Clearly, while many voters did not want Roosevelt back, millions did and the 'third term' issue did not affect them.

Then in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt decided to run for a third term. Unlike his distant cousin he was successful. In 1940, Hitler's armies were marching unchecked all over Europe and the future looked bleak. Even people who may not have liked him voted for Roosevelt to serve a third term, prefering proven leadership to an inexperienced candidate like Wendell Wilkie as America and the world seemed headed, willingly or not, into one of its darkest hours. Roosevelt, his health failing but determined to see the war through, was also re-elected to a fourth term but died just weeks after his inauguration and approximately the same amount of time before the war ended.

In 1947 (with ratification occuring by 1951), Republicans pushed through the twenty-second amendment. As Roosevelt ally Elmer Davis said, the amendment was 'an act of retroactive vindictiveness.' Davis went on to say that 'they couldn't beat Roosevelt while he was alive, so they kick him when he's dead.'

At the very least, the amendment says that the voters are too stupid to vote out of office a President who hasn't been terribly effective (ask Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush about that). No one wants a 'dictator for life' in the White House, and I believe that the voters of America would not stand for it. As I mentioned earlier, 1940 was an extraordinarily dark time in history, so people voted for the leader they knew could lead.

What has the effect been? The first President who would have been eligible to run for a third term would have been Eisenhower. But in 1960, his health was already starting to fail him (though he lived until 1969) and he had been a somewhat reluctant President to begin with, so it is likely that he would not have run, Nixon would still have lost to Kennedy and history would not be significantly different.

The next time the amendment barred a President from seeking a third term, it was Ronald Reagan in 1988. And Reagan did make some comments to the effect that he would like to run again and was supported by conservative GOP representative Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, who proposed legislation to repeal the amendment. But the legislation got nowhere. In any case, Vice President George H.W. Bush was seen as the heir to Reagan, and it seems likely that either man could have defeated Dukakis. History might not have been hugely different, though then again it might have since Reagan might not have turned his back on the Shiite insurgency and the Iraqi army officers who considered deposing Saddam Hussein in 1991 after the Gulf War. Another thought is that Muammar Khadafy's regime, which timed the Lockerbie attack for when Reagan was on his way out of office (revenge for Reagan's bombing of Tripoli) might not have done it at all-- to be blunt, Khadafy was more afraid of Reagan than he was of Bush (I know that some of my readers won't want to hear that, but a fact is a fact.)

The third President who the amendment applied to was Bill Clinton. It seems likely that after twelve years of Republicans the charismatic Clinton would have beaten the Republican nominee in 1992 (likely Bob Dole, four years early) even if Reagan did have a third term. By 1992 his health was deteriorating and he would certainly not have sought a fourth term. So history to that point would not have been appreciably different.

In 2000, it is true that Clinton had promised Al Gore that he would support him in a Presidential run after eight years, and while Clinton's approval ratings were very high, much of that was in reaction to disgust with the GOP overreaching and trying to impeach the President, ultimately for lying about sex. Clinton very well might, if he ran again in 2000, have been a stronger candidate than Gore and won a third term, but let's assume for the sake of argument that he did not and let Gore seek the Presidency in 2000. No historical difference, right? Wrong.

In the late 1990's, Clinton was the classic lame duck. The GOP Congress was launching investigation after investigation, and tying his ability to get anything done. He would not be on the ballot again (since he was legally prohibited from it) so they had no reason to hold back (except perhaps if they had read the real mood of the voters over the impeachment saga). More to the point, in 1998, Saddam Hussein saw how bogged down Clinton was and ordered the U.N. weapons inspectors to leave. Clinton spent four days bombing Iraq after that, but even that reaction was excoriated by Republicans as an attempt to divert attention from the Lewinsky scandal. Note that it was Iraq's failure to comply with U.N. sanctions, especially his kicking out the inspectors, which George W. Bush later used to push through the AUMF and justify his ill-planned and ill-conceived war in Iraq. Also in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal, on August 7, 1998, bombs blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa and killed hundreds. This fairly screamed for a response, and there was one-- an attempt to get bin Laden eleven days after the African embassy bombings. Unfortunately, bin Laden, who was notoriously late to meetings, started and ended on schedule that day and had departed before cruise missiles arrived at the camp where the meeting was held. And what was the reaction of the right? It was that the whole bin Laden threat was overblown and the bombing was an attempt to steal a headline from Monica (which would have been the case most days in 1998).

“"I think we fear that we may have a President that is desperately seeking to hold onto his job in the face of a firestorm of criticism and calls for him to step down.”

Senator Dan Coats, R-IN August 19, 1998.

This comment, the day after bin Laden was saved only by virtue of his finishing his meeting ahead of schedule, must have been very comforting to him.

In other words, the lame duck status of the President had become not only a hindrance to his domestic agenda (which I have no problem with, then or now-- I've always felt that a strong Congress was preferable to a strong executive), but had also been a hindrance to his ability to conduct foreign policy-- and to the detriment of the United States.

What about the present? Well, there are a lot of congressional probes going on, about everything from pre-war intelligence to the firing of the U.S. attorneys. And I think that is great, we should delve in and find out what has been going on in this administration behind closed doors. Some of what we are learning about the disdain with which this White House has treated the law and the Constitution is downright scary, and it is time to reign it in. And such domestic priorities that the President pushed when he entered his second term in office in 2005 as Social Security privatization and making the Bush tax cuts permanent are either dead or on life support, just not a priority of this Congress.


But then look at the fact that the Iranians, knowing that we are overextended in Iraq, have been pulling the west's tail, doing things like openly flouting U.N. sanctions, pushing ahead with their nuclear program, not even trying that hard to cover up their involvement in Iraq, and now the incident involving the British sailors (note that Tony Blair is also on his way out), seem to similarly be taking advantage of a lame duck President.

Not so good.

I've made proposals about what we should do about Iran before (and it is not a military solution) but the fact is, I believe that in giving our enemies (and we do have some) four years of a President who they know for sure won't be on the ballot again we are making a mistake, because they know that they can pull exactly this kind of garbage late in the term and not get called on it (or at least get called by a guy whose power is waning). And if you are a foreign adversary, or even a trading partner and don't like who we have sitting at the negotiating table, well as it stands now you can just let the clock run out and start over with a new (and likely inexperienced) President. You know you can, because the U.S. law says so. It is an intrinsic weakness of democracy that it is at its weakest during the transition between leaders (maybe another reason for the timing of Lockerbie, as well as the timing of the pre-election October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole), but at least on an international scene is it wise to extend this period to virtually half the time a President is in office?

And if you want, then write the amendment in a way that 'grandfathers' it in-- just as the original 22nd amendment (passed in 1947 and ratified in 1951) exempted President Truman. Playing to the paranoia on both sides word it similarly to the original 22nd amendment and prevent Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from running again.


Anonymous said...

I'd just as soon keep the Amendment in effect. Popular presidents today essentially form personality cults, and enforced departure is a way to keep someone from remaining in office for many terms simply because they haven't screwed up enouugh to get voters mad enough to vote them out. I've seen governors and mayors who can get reelected as long as they can, and it's pretty uniform that their third terms are their worst: during the first term there's new policy to implement; during the second term there's refining those policies so they become resistant to repeal later; but during the third term it's pretty much a personality cult. Look at Pataki and Cuomo in New York, or Duklakis in Massachusetts (3 nonconsecutive terms), or the last three Boston mayors (Menino, Fynn, White).

My belief is that both Clinton and Reagan would have run again had they been permitted to, and that each almost certainly would have won since there was no compelling reason in most voters' minds to change direction. Reagan, with his Alzheimer's, would have been a very poor candidate in his third term (and I can't see him orchestrating the Gulf War Alliance the way Bush did). Clinton probably would have turned 9/11 patriotism to his advantage (like Bush did) and won himself a 4th term in 2004, and imo he wasn't a good enough president to warrant a third term, let alone a 4th term.

Anonymous said...

Interesting idea, though I'm with indy voter on this one. The amendment has served us well (though I doubt that Clinton if he were re-elected in 2000 would have invaded Iraq.) The thought of George W. Bush running for another term and God forbid-- winning it, gives me the 'willies.' (pun intended.)