The second term curse
By Justin Darr
In 1797, George Washington quietly returned to his Mount Vernon home after completing his second term as President of the United States. Washington could have easily been elected for a third term, however, chose to quietly step aside, creating the tradition of American Presidents serving only twice in office.
This precedent stood for a century and a half, until, much to the chagrin of the Republican Party, FDR decided to run for a third term in 1940. After Roosevelt's death in 1945, the Republicans began almost immediately to work on amending the Constitution to translate Washington's precedent into law. Whether the Republicans' motivation was one of trying to prevent a de facto "American aristocracy" where Presidents would rule for life, or merely an attempt to break the Democratic Party's domination of the political landscape is a subject of debate to this day. Nonetheless, beginning with its passage by the Congress in 1947, and final ratification by three fourths of the states in 1951, the 22nd Amendment was born.
Respect for the tradition set by Washington aside, it is time to reopen the discussion of the merits of the 22nd Amendment in light of the 50 years of political turmoil it has created.
The record of Presidential second terms since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment is a dreary one. Johnson declined to run for a second term due to the political fallout of the Vietnam War. Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment. Reagan was mired down with the Iran Contra Affair. And, Clinton was hobbled by his numerous personal and political scandals, which led to his eventual impeachment. Now, continuing the new American Presidential tradition, President Bush is caught up in his own series of embarrassments and scandals that might end his second term political agenda before it actually begins.
The affects on our nation as a result of these scandals have been disastrous. In addition to the weakening of the public's faith in the office of President, and our political institutions on general, there has been a dramatic decrease in the success of reelected Presidents in their second terms. Johnson's plans for his "Great Society" programs came to a virtual standstill in his second term, Nixon's diplomatic accomplishments with the Soviet Union and China were almost permanently derailed, and Reagan and Clinton will be remembered by what they did in their first terms far more than their last.
Why has every reelected President since Eisenhower had a scandal plagued second term? Why have previously effective Presidents seen their political momentum evaporate in the face of partisan gridlock? And, why have reelected Presidents been at times more concerned about their political "legacies" than actually doing what is right?
The "why" is that the 22nd Amendment robs Presidents of the one thing that made them successful in the first place: the fact they can be reelected. Do you think Republicans would have pursued Clinton as vigorously if they knew that he could use their failure to remove him from office as a rallying point for his supporters? Would Iran-Contra gone on as long as it did if "The Great Communicator" was stumping for a third term? No. Simply because these Presidents had the personal magnetism and popularity with the general public to not just weather these political storms, but turn them back against their detractors.
The reality of American politics is apparent. If the people love a President they are going to love him pretty much no matter what he does. This is why feminists stood by largely silent in the face of Clinton's philandering, and why conservatives tolerate Bush's big government spending programs. When any popular elected leader is under partisan attack, their supporters will naturally rally to their defense, and, in most cases, translate that support to the ballot box.
Clinton and Reagan would have both been elected to third terms despite any of the accusations against them. And, the opposing parties would have both suffered set backs as a result of the attacks on these popular leaders. In short, most of these scandals, and their subsequent political turmoil would either not have occurred, or been of drastically smaller in proportion, if these second term Presidents had the option of seeking reelection.
With the power to appeal to the electorate stolen away, the 22nd Amendment has made every popular President a lamb duck the day after their reelection. The absence of the political consequences of attacking a popular leader has created an environment in Washington of scandal mongering where anything, no matter how small or large, is seen as an opportunity by opposition parties to do what they could not do at the polls; stop the agendas of popular Presidents.
Presidents are reelected for a reason. The majority of the people like what a President has done and want it to continue. If anything, whether it is a tradition established by the father of our country, or an Amendment to the Constitution, stands in the way of the will of the people and interferes with the successful operation of government, then it must be reevaluated, and if necessary, repealed.
Justin Darr is a freelance writer living in the Philadelphia area with this wife and twin children. He can be read widely on the Internet and in publications across North America and Europe. Justin is a proud member of the MoveOff Network. © 2005, Justin Darr
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