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Two cheers for the 22nd Amendment. The two-term limit for presidents helps prevent political stagnation

By Thomas E. Cronin / February 23, 1987



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.

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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 A third of the general public, according to a Gallup poll (last October), say they would like to see this amendment repealed so presidents could run for more than two terms.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.