(Warning: long and rather political, although I try to stay objective.)
Alright, this is sort of coming out of left field. I wanted to post about the period of time between my last post and now, which has been interesting, but when I go over it in my head I keep getting side-tracked to this topic. This will confuse those of you who actually have some idea of how my weekend went. Don’t worry, it confuses me too.
In the wake of the death of FDR, and after the Republican party had gained control of congress, a law was passed in the United States stating that presidents could only serve two terms. I think this law was short-sighted and damaging to the country as a whole. I do think there’s merit in the idea of term limits, but I think they are better applied to the Senate than the White House. But I suppose before one even considers that thought, one should take into account which branch of government, *ahem*, writes legislation.
So let’s look at the statistics on this. Prior to FDR, there were 30 people who could have possibly been president for more than two terms. “But,” you interject after checking Wikipedia, “Roosevelt was the 32nd president! There were 31 presidents before him!”
Shut up. Cleveland is counted as president twice, but as a person once. The number 30 stands. Not that it really matters.
Of those thirty people, none of them served more than two terms and several of them served fewer than one (W.H. Harrison comes to mind). Some of them probably *should* have served more than two terms, as evidenced by the disappointing leaders that followed their exit from the presidential race, whether that was through a conscious decision to pass the torch (Teddy Roosevelt) or through a gunshot to the head (Lincoln). And looking at FDR himself, realistically we were better off with him in the White House for a decade and a half. He was able to deal with two of the greatest issues that the US ever faced (Great Depression, WWII) in a manner likely better than any of his vice presidents (Truman inclusive: note that his most significant contribution to WWII was the instant death of 250 K civilians) or any of the Republicans that ran against him.
So the one example of where the system supposedly failed, the country ended up better off. Now let’s look at the presidents whose terms were limited by the law:
Eisenhower: We’d probably have been better off with a third Eisenhower term, even given that he was followed by Kennedy. That’s assuming, of course, that he would have chosen to run a third time. He was getting kinda up there in age. But Eisenhower was a fair and level-headed president, and looking at the major decisions that Kennedy had to make, I think Eisenhower’s decisions would have had equal merit. The reason I say “probably better off” is that I’m moderately certain that the Bay of Pigs disaster wouldn’t have happened under Eisenhower. The operation was planned and designed by Eisenhower’s people, and then dropped in the lap of Kennedy’s people, who had less interest in it. What do you think is going to happen in that scenario?
Kennedy: Assasinated. Not a candidate.
Johnson: Chose not to run in ’68. Not a candidate.
Nixon: Resigned from office. Not a candidate.
Ford: Lost to Carter. Not a candidate.
Carter: Lost to Reagan. Not a candidate.
Reagan: This one’s interesting, but possibly moot. Reagan would almost definitely have won a third term if he had run, but his health wasn’t that great even when he entered office eight years previously. I have some doubt he’d have been willing to run. However, Bush was very similar to Reagan politically, and a lot of people consider his presidency to merely be an extension of Reagan’s. If you look at it in that way and consider Bush/Reagan to be one person, that reign still only lasted three terms, and I can’t objectively say that Bush’s term was particularly bad.
Bush: lost to Clinton. Not a candidate.
Clinton: I think this is our first real possibility of any sort of dynasty of the kind that was feared by congress in the 1950’s. But consider the alternatives: much as I’m a huge fan of Al Gore, I think a third Clinton term would have done better for the country than Gore would have in the event that the aftermath of the 2000 election had gone in his favor. And I don’t think I have to go into the damage I feel Bush did in his first term alone, let alone the two that he got. In any case, I don’t think the country would have had patience for more Clinton by the end of 2004, and I don’t think he’d have wanted to make a fourth run in any case. The only real threat of a dynasty would have been if Hillary then took up the torch. This one’s a little too recent for me to give a reasonable estimate of better or worse, but I’ll give a tentative “I’d have rather had 16 years with some combination of Clintons in the White House than 8 years of Clinton followed by 8 years of Bush.”
Bush: By the time his second term was nearing an end, even his supporters were distancing themselves. Not a candidate.
Obama: If Clinton was too recent for me to come to a conclusion on, Obama technically represents something that hasn’t even happened yet. I wouldn’t add him to this list if it weren’t for this: one of the lines I’ve heard from Obama’s detractors a lot is “he’d have been a great president if he waited a few years, but he wasn’t ready yet.” I’m not going to say I agree with that, but taking it as an interesting point of origin, it’s a strong argument against term limits. I will state that I do believe Obama was the best qualified out of any of the realistic candidates (including primaries) that ran in 2008. So in order to be in the “ideal” scenario where he’d have been elected when he *is* ready, the country would have to sacrifice at least four years under someone not as good as him, even off of his peak. We can’t function in a society where that sort of choice needs to be made: elections were designed to select the person who’s currently best fit for the job, regardless of whether they’d be better fit in the future. So we’ve got a choice of limiting this man’s potential as a leader or nurturing that potential and sacrificing the now. And I think that’s a really damaging choice to make, no matter which way you go.
So, right. Out of the ten presidents whom the law effected and who have finished their political careers (Obama is omitted from this count), only four even served two full terms, and of those four, two probably wouldn’t have run anyway for health reasons and a third probably would have lost his third election even if he ran against Pauly Shore. The remaining one was immediately followed by a period of political uncertainty and poor leadership.
So, to the extent that term limits have had any effect at all, I think it’s safe to conclude that they’ve been detrimental. Now why do we have this law?