- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2000

Democrats do not spend many nights lying awake, tormenting themselves with the thought: “What fools we were! If only we had listened to Ronald Reagan!” Not until lately, that is.

Back in 1987, Reagan told an interviewer he'd like to start a movement to repeal the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution — the one that says a president can be elected to no more than two terms. Reagan said he didn't want the change to apply to him, but thought the American people should be free to “vote for someone as often as they want to do.” Congressional Republicans had already raised the idea, and a group called Project '88 was even urging a third term for the Gipper.

Democrats could have embraced the idea and congratulated their opponents on finally seeing the light. Instead, they decided to savor the full enjoyment of seeing Republicans get smacked by their own boomerang.

The amendment was ratified in 1951 in what University of North Carolina historian William Leuchtenburg refers to as “an act of posthumous revenge against Franklin Roosevelt.” FDR was the first president to violate the custom established by George Washington of stepping down after two terms — and eventually was elected to four. To make sure no Democrat would ever do that again, Republicans pushed successfully to change the Constitution. So as far as Democrats were concerned, the GOP only got what it deserved when the amendment mandated a premature end to the Reagan presidency.

But now, they find that revenge is sour. Bill Clinton is the first Democrat elected twice to the presidency since — well, since Franklin Roosevelt. He fought off an impeachment effort and emerged stronger rather than weaker. His popularity is greater than Reagan's was at this stage of his second term.

And who are Democrats running for president? Al Gore, who has never excited the party the way his boss does — and who at the moment is behind in the polls against a guy whose chief appeal is that he's a Republican version of … Bill Clinton.

Without the 22nd Amendment, the party could have asked the American people to keep the real Clinton around for another four years, and the people probably would have agreed. Fully 58 percent of them currently approve of the job he's doing. Clinton himself once moaned that the White House is the “crown jewel of the federal correctional system,” but no one doubts that he would leap at the chance to extend his sentence.

Few presidents, after all, leave happily. Dwight Eisenhower was said to be in a bad mood for most of 1960, thanks to his approaching expulsion. Calvin Coolidge chose not to run in 1928, but when the Republican party nominated Herbert Hoover to replace him, he retired to his room with a bottle of whiskey, not to emerge for 24 hours. Biographer Leuchtenburg says he doubts that FDR would have ever willingly surrendered the office.

One conspicuous exception to this tendency comes to mind. The grim truth for Democrats is that they could have gone along with repealing the 22nd Amendment back in 1987 without much risk of Reagan sticking around. He was 77 by the end of his second term, which was tainted by the Iran-contra scandal. Richard Norton Smith, former director of the Reagan presidential library, says, “The first lady would not have liked the idea, and the president would almost certainly have respected her preference.”

The presidency is the only federal elective office that carries a term limit. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond has been in the Senate since the Eisenhower administration. One congressional district in Michigan has been represented for the last 68 years by someone named John Dingell — first the father, then the son, elected in 1955. Al Gore could have run for vice president again as many times as he wanted. Only when it comes to the most important job in the country are citizens deprived of the right to vote for an incumbent who, in their eyes, has done a good job.

There's no good reason for the restriction. It isn't necessary to ensure competitive elections: Jimmy Carter and George Bush can attest that incumbency is not necessarily an advantage. It turns every second-term president into a lame duck, giving Congress even less reason than usual to cooperate with him. And it prevents voters from doing what the American people did in 1940 — respond to a national crisis by keeping a trusted leader.

If you have a watchdog that's as likely to bite you as a burglar, the smart thing to do is get rid of it. Having both been bitten, maybe Republicans and Democrats will conclude that this form of protection is a risk they don't need.


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