Two cheers for the 22nd Amendment. The two-term limit for presidents helps prevent political stagnation
UNTIL President Reagan's current travails, Reagan enthusiasts rushed around the country clamoring for repeal of the two-term limitation for presidents. Ratified 36 years ago, the 22nd Amendment states that ``No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.'' Only a few months ago Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, declared that Mr. Reagan was one of ``the greatest American Presidents of all time and I want to keep him on the job.'' ``The Democrats had FDR for four terms,'' he said. ``We deserve to have Ronald Reagan for at least three.'' Saying ``the 22nd Amendment be damned,'' a Portland, Ore., gentleman launched a committee to repeal the Constitution's prohibition against third-term presidents. And a New Hampshire Republican formed a national organization to mobilize repeal of the 22nd.
Reagan came to the White House supporting the 22nd. Sometime early in his second term, however, he changed his mind. He repeatedly now says he believes the 22nd violates the people's democratic rights. The people ought to have a right to decide who their leaders will be, he says: ``If they want to vote for someone, we shouldn't have a rule that tells them they can't.''
The President made clear he did not want a third term for himself. Yet he vigorously favors repeal of the two-term limit. He believes the two-term tradition was wisely established by George Washington because at the time citizens of the new republic conscientiously watched to make sure we did not become anything like a monarchy. Reagan thinks the FDR reelection to a third and fourth term proved a multiterm presidency could occur without impairing the republic. Reagan adds, ``There are plenty of safeguards against the power of the presidency that would prevent him from becoming a lifetime monarch.''
Reagan isn't alone. A third of the general public, according to a Gallup poll (last October), say they would like to see this amendment repealed so presidents could run for more than two terms. A spring 1986 Wall Street Journal poll found even stronger support for repeal. (Not surprisingly, twice as many Republicans as Democrats favored repeal.) An impressive number of conservative and liberal intellectuals support repeal.
HISTORIAN Henry Steele Commager long ago agreed with the ``born again'' Reagan views: ``Imposing a restriction on the freedom to repeatedly reelect a president is to violate the essential principle of democracy - that people have a right to exercise a free and untrammeled ballot, even if they exercise it badly.'' Dr. Commager contends that the 22nd is a limit placed upon the electorate, the first since the adoption of the Constitution that restricted rather than expanded the voter's power.
Liberal and conservative historians alike note that the framers considered and debated the idea of term limitation and rejected it. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observes correctly that the 22nd Amendment was an exercise in retroactive partisan vengeance and that the Republicans, unable to defeat FDR in four elections, were determined to get back at him once he was in the grave. Dr. Schlesinger contends that the 22nd Amendment is antidemocratic and asserts too that it reduces the accountability of presidents to the people: ``Nothing makes a president more attentive to popular needs and concerns than the desire for reelection.'' Historians and pundits on both the left and the right also claim the country may need an experienced veteran of public and world affairs in the White House in a time of crisis - an FDR to run again in 1940 or a Lincoln in 1864.
Skepticism about the 22nd comes also from those who suggest the term-limitation ``remedy'' promotes a false sense of security that may actually hinder the development of safeguards - against overweening executive power grabs, as in Watergate and the Iran-contra scam. Surely the existence of the two-term prohibition has not prevented White House abuses of the public trust. Moreover, we already have the impeachment process and other checks and balances, some at work in the current leadership mess, to hold incumbent presidents and their venturesome aides to account.
Those who favor repeal raise good points, such as that the 22nd is an elitist and antidemocratic measure that diminishes a voter's choices.
Much of the rest of the case for repeal, however, strikes me as exaggerated, misleading, or wrong. I once favored repeal with the belief it diminished a voter's options. I shared the notion that it often served to weaken the president, if not the presidency, in the waning ``lame duck'' years of a second term.
ALTHOUGH these reasons still have validity, I now favor retention of the two-term limit. I would have, I believe, voted against it in the late 1940s when it was handily passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin in both chambers of the Congress. It was indeed a ``Republican revenge against Roosevelt.'' It is one of our least important amendments. Yet its repeal could cause more harm than good, and it could send the wrong signals. It would, for example, affirm positively the virtues of multiterm presidencies. It might weaken our national party system. It might further strengthen the institution of the presidency in a century when this has already taken place in nearly every decade - usually at the expense of contervailing checks and balances. Until a better amendment is devised, it is better to retain it.
Here are the chief reasons that two terms are enough.
Eight years is long enough. Americans have never liked the idea of a permanent president or one who looked upon the job as a career. Presidents like Jefferson, Jackson, and John F. Kennedy praised the notion of rotation in office as desirable and healthy. Jefferson warned that ``history shows how easily [unlimited tenure] degenerates into an inheritance.''
The presidency is an awesome position for any person, however experienced and talented, to hold. And its powers and responsibilities have become enlarged enormously in the last 50 years, and this shall doubtless continue in the next 50. The rise of the mechanisms and resources of power available to presidents such as once unimaginable nuclear weapons, covert operations, satellite intelligence systems, and a veritable ``electronic throne'' suggest new dangers even to those of us who want a strong presidency. The 22nd Amendment may not have been needed in 1947, but it will prove to be an invaluable additional check and balance in the future, without taking away from the effectiveness of the good presidents. It is a check against the ultimate type of corruption - the arrogance that a president is indispensable, the very inclination that motivated Ferdinand Marcos, Gen. Anastasio Somoza, Fidel Castro, the Duvaliers in Haiti, and countless other one-time friends of our country. The 22nd might, like impeachment, be needed only once a century, yet it would be there as a protection.
Eight years is ample time for a president and an administration to bring about major policy changes. If these changes have been valued and effective, they will be continued and honored by the succeeding presidents of whatever party. Further, an able and honest president need not become lame - though most presidents understandably witness a diminution of power in their last years because of normal fatigue and the reality that they have already advocated and fought for their best ideas in their first term-and-a-half. Ike's effectiveness was not impaired in his second term because of the 22nd. Nor was Reagan a lame duck in 1986 when he won immigration, tax, and contra aid votes in Congress. (His lameness at present is mostly self-inflicted.) Note too that a ``lameness'' set in on many a president before the adoption of the 22nd. (Wilson, Hoover, and Harry S. Truman saw their authority erode in their last year or two.)
The two-term limit is healthy for the two-party system. It helps prevent political stagnation. The two parties benefit and are rejuvenated by the challenge at least every eight years of nurturing, recruiting, and nominating a new term of national leaders.
Most Americans reject the idea that any political leader is indispensable. We are a nation of 65 times as many people as we were in 1789. There are plenty of talented leaders. If a president of the stature of a Washington, Lincoln, or FDR were available and the nation faced exacting emergencies, their services could be retained in the role of national counselor, roving ambassador, or Cabinet member without portfolio.
Although the 22nd does somewhat diminish the choice of the voter, this restriction is likely to occur only once every 50 years, if then. Most presidents never even get a second term. Most of those who serve a second gladly retire because of deteriorating health or diminished polticial support, or a combination of the two. Note also that the voters don't appear all that upset by this diminution of their voting privilege - 60 percent support retention of the two-term limit. Moreover, the charge that the 22nd Amendment is undemocratic is irrelevant. Ours is not a pure democracy. It is a republican government under a federal system. A republican government purposely limits the majority of voters in a number of ways and protects the minority, however small. The limits of the 22nd stand together with judicial review, age, and residency requirements to run for office, and the supermajorities needed for treaty ratification or amending the Constitution as safeguards against undesirable or excessive majoritarianism.
Big-city mayors who have stayed for a third or fourth 4-year term provide additional skepticism about repeal. There are exceptions. Yet in Boston; Chicago; Detroit; Newark, N.J.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Washington, multiterm mayors have often been less responsive, less accountable, and more tempted to engage in arrogance or corruption than in their first or second terms.
A president who stays for 12 or 16 years would very likely be able to stack if not pack the Supreme Court and fundamentally alter the partisan leanings of the entire federal judiciary. FDR appointed nine justices in 12 years. Nixon appointed four in just five years. Do we really want presidents these days who could dominate and thereby control two branches of government?
The 1986 boomlet to banish the 22nd from the Constitution was a partisan ploy to retain the White House for another four years and to reap the political advantages of patronage, judicial nomination, and Reagan's once magical fund-raising abilities. Congressman Guy Vander Jagt would not have sought repeal if Gary Hart or Joseph Biden were in the White House.
The Constitution should not be amended, or unamended, for short-term partisan advantages. Fortunately the drive to repeal this amendment died with the revelation of the Iran-contra affair. Similarly, the last boomlet to repeal the 22nd halted with Nixon's 1973 tailspin.
The 22nd Amendment has drawbacks. Its virtues, however, will be appreciated in future generations. It is an acceptable, if imperfect, compromise.
Thomas E. Cronin is the McHugh professor of American institutions at the Colorado College.