TCS Daily


FDR's Revenge

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - March 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Conservative columnist John Podhoretz would like to support the Bush Administration. Indeed, it appears that he does. But recent events have left him an unhappy camper:

"The more we learn about the Dubai ports deal, the less worrisome it seems. The more we see the White House in action these days, however, the more worrisome it seems -- for conservatives and Republicans, at least. Democrats and liberals have every reason to be beside themselves with glee.

"'Can't anybody here play this game?' baseball manager Casey Stengel famously cried out in the midst of the legendarily awful first-season team fielded by the New York Mets. In conversation after conversation this week, that same cri de coeur has erupted on the right.

"What has happened to the Bush White House? Throughout President Bush's first term, it functioned like a well-oiled machine. It would be hard for friend or foe to point out more than a handful of occasions when the White House lost control of an issue. Even in its darkest days -- say, when former White House counterterror chief Richard Clarke came out with guns blazing against Bush -- the administration kept a clear head and effectively fought back from the brink.

"Not now. Only a few days after the furor over Dick Cheney's shooting accident subsided, the story of the transfer of ownership at U.S. ports to a company owned by Dubai exploded."

Podhoretz believes that the White House should never have allowed the Dubai ports deal to go through because the politics of the situation play against Republican strengths. I personally think that the ports controversy is silly and that debate concerning it has brought out some of the worst features of American politics. But as to Podhoretz's apt quotation of Casey Stengel, it is worth asking why the political operations of the Bush Administration appear to have run aground in a very alarming manner.

Much of the answer has to lie with the Bush Administration proper. After over five years as Chief of Staff -- bear in mind that usually, Chiefs of Staff last for about two years, as the job does lend itself to an almost incomprehensible degree of burnout -- one can be forgiven for wondering why (especially in light of the Administration's recent political failures) Andrew Card is not called into the Oval Office and invited to spend more time with his family. Perhaps the "Boy Genius," Karl Rove, is not as brilliant as people have given him credit for, or if he is, he has lost his touch. And any number of other reasons can be cited for specific political failures on the part of the Bush Administration, reasons that are specific to the Administration's political operations -- including, perhaps, a tin ear for politics on the part of the President himself.

But any 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.

Having retaken control of both chambers of Congress in 1946 and having been haunted by the memory of the brilliant political gamesmanship of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- gamesmanship that won FDR a record four terms in the White House -- Republicans pushed through the 22nd Amendment to ensure that

"No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once."

The passage of the 22nd Amendment was seen as a reasonable check to a dramatically empowered Presidency, and a chance to ensure that there would be no more FDRs to make life miserable for Republicans in election cycle after election cycle. But what the 22nd Amendment has in fact done is to make any re-elected President an almost-instant lame duck.

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.

Again, none of this is meant to excuse the Bush Administration's own unique political lapses, which I have criticized in the past. But even the most competent of political operations will find themselves hamstrung by the fact that a President who can no longer run for re-election is a President whose power has been severely curtailed. Second-term administrations have the deck heavily stacked against them thanks to a constitutional amendment that limits their capacity to influence events. It is high time for that limitation to be removed. A President who is able to go to the voters repeatedly is a President with political power and the capacity to make his/her administration more of a success than a President who becomes a lame duck the moment after he/she wins a second term. If we are interested in helping to ensure that the office of the Presidency remains consequential and influential -- and by the way, if we are interested in respecting the opinions of voters who may like a particular President and may want that President to remain in office for longer than two terms -- we will do ourselves and our political institutions a great favor by repealing the 22nd Amendment.

It seems that FDR's legacy haunts us still. Only now, instead of worrying as we once did about a Presidency with dramatically expanded powers, we should properly worry about one whose effectiveness is institutionally weakened. We could, of course, continue on our way and prevent Presidents from seeking more than two terms. But what will prevent those future second-term administrations from sliding into the same morass of unimportance that their predecessor second-term administrations have sunk into? And how much longer must serious students of politics be willing to entertain a choice between refusing to re-elect a President no matter how much you may agree with him/her because of well-founded fears regarding a second-term curse, and voting to re-elect a President while hoping against hope and history that by some miracle, the 22nd Amendment's ability to make near-ciphers out of second-term Presidents is avoided?

Pejman Yousefzadeh is a writer and lawyer living in California. He maintains the popular blog Pejmanesque.

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