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grouchy this morning

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn have an interesting op-ed in this morning’s Times called No More Second-Term Blues. In it, they argue for the repeal of the 22nd amendment. Now, I’ve been on record as being against term limits (for any office, but particularly for the presidency) for some time, so it’s nice for me to have an excellent historian such as Mr. Burns agree with me (I’m not familiar with Ms. Dunn’s work; her reputation is excellent also). On the other hand, I found myself reading the op-ed with growing skepticism. Their arguments against the power of incumbency seem a bit weak, and they place a good deal of emphasis (as historians are wont to do) on the history of the amendment, rather than on its merits.

Really, though, I was concerned that the column didn’t address what I perceive as a growing, majority or near-majority sense that elections are not central to who we are. I agree that term limits disempower voters, but there is much more than that going on. The last two presidential elections went seriously awry, resulting in what were essentially fraudulent victories for Our Only President. The out-of-cycle redistricting in Texas, along with other redistricting fiascos, further demoralized citizen non-voters.

Ten years ago, the combination of the term limits movement and the campaign finance reform movement, together with the increase in non-participation, led me to worry that Americans, on the whole, no longer thought of their elections as being free and fair, in the sense of representing the will of the constituency. Both of those movements have died down, to a great extent, but if anything I think the general disenchantment has increased.

In a democracy, the thing that provides stability is not the people’s intelligence, or their knowledge, or even the government’s ability to govern well. It’s the belief in democracy. If the populace in a democracy believes in democracy, then it will ride out almost anything between elections, and it will keep riding it out between elections pretty much forever. If, on the other hand, the populace loses its faith in democracy, it will soon feel that the government is illegitimate, and that the next one will be, too, and then anything can happen.

It’s not that repealing the 22nd amendment is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s that repealing the 22nd amendment is like putting out a fire in the boiler room on the Titanic. It might keep us afloat long enough to hit the iceberg.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


on this issue "the neocons" have a point. if unity is important across groups - and isn't just a good way to keep working people working and not militant - common good has proven a less potent motivator than common purpose-enemy. i don't think it's a matter of economics or rewards, what do it get out of participating, etc. more that we've changed from a free population to one that sees itself on one side or the other of prison bars. see the world through the ten commandments and what's to vote about? what's to share except keeping out of trouble.

there are lots of people active, though. what keeps more people out of it i think is how few of us are economically independent. institutions dominate all aspects of life. it's more important to people to fight inside their employer's hierarchy.

since i'm spamming, about the article itself: what a *&^$%& crock! scandal after scandal about presidents using their powers of office to win reelection and somehow that translates into lame duck malaise?

let's translate their argument: because power corrupts, corrupt people should retain power indefinitely, to keep others pure.

On your first point, I think it's fair to point out that although the neocons have managed to (a) take and hold office, (2) implement a small subset of their policy plans, and (iii) loot the public treasury, they have not managed to unify the country. Our Only President took office after a slender legal victory, and took a second term after a slender victory by suppressing votes for his opponent. The Senate and House are shaky; both are very evenly split, particularly when you note how few conservative Democrats there are (compared to the past, that is).
Your second point is quite good, though. I think that the Founders didn't foresee substantial participation by people who felt disenfranchised economically, because they didn't see those people as having a substantial voice to begin with. We don't have good statistics for people who don't vote, but I suspect that many non-participants are struggling economically, and devote their energies that way.

I agree with you that the belief in democracy is incredibly important in creating stability, but only among those people who perceive themselves as being out of power. The people who perceive themselves as being in power are generally content with the status quo, and will not seek major changes.

For the people who perceive themselves as being out of power, the reason that a belief in democracy is important is because it offers the hope of a change. Term limits guarantee some sort of change, and thus reinforce that hope.

In the specific case of presidential term limits today, there are many Americans who are losing faith in the current government. For the sake of stability, we want those Americans to hold onto the hope of change through future elections rather than treat the current government as illegitimate. If you remove the 22nd Amendment now, you will make those disaffected Americans more disaffected on the whole, not less. That's bad for stability.

The Burns and Dunn op-ed is simply fodder for Bush apologists. It's not his actions or his policies that have caused a slide in popularity, according to their theory -- it's the 22nd Amendment. Opposition to the administration is inevitable, and therefore can be dismissed as a symptom of "second termitis" rather than listened to, understood, and responded to.

Their particular arguments are full of internal inconsistencies and misleading rhetoric. "In a democractic republic, only the Constitution should trump the will of the majority." Is the 22nd Amendment not part of the Constitution? The 22nd Amendment was pushed through the House "after only two hours of debate," as if members didn't know what they were voting for, or had not been considering the amendment for quite some time, or as if the length of floor debate is positively correlated to the wisdom of passing a piece of legislation. "State legislatures rushed to ratify the amendment, with virtually no public participation in the debate." In the current fetish for popular referenda, this lack of public participation may seem suspicious; but for historians to pretend that this was not typical in American history is disingenuous at best.

A second-term president's "party leadership frays as presidential hopefuls carve out their own constituencies for the next election." Under the 22nd Amendment, few people from the leadership of the president's party dare challenge the first-term incumbent. This reduces the level of two-party democracy by essentially removing one party's primaries. Rather than cheering the greater democracy and larger number of choices for voters in second-term elections, Burns and Dunn argue for repealing the 22nd Amendment so that the leadership of the president's party doesn't dare challenge the president in later terms as well. That might or might not happen if the 22nd Amendment were repealed, but neither outcome would be positive under their arguments. Either the party leadership will still fray in a second term because presidential hopefuls don't want to put their ambitions on hold forever and we have the same "second termitis," or the party leadership will not challenge the president and the voters from that party will have no meaningful primary.

The element of their op-ed that I find most disquieting, however, is their assumption that the president should obviously have tremendous power. They cite Hamilton's concern that term limits would discourage presidents from undertaking bold new projects. A balance of power should naturally put the initiation and approval of bold new projects in the hands of the legislative branch, since the executive branch is charged with carrying out those projects. Coming on the heels of revelations that W believes himself authorized by the Constitution both to secretly ignore the law (FISA) and to publicly change the law (signing statement on torture), the "bold new projects" are exactly what many people want to discourage presidents from undertaking. Downright chilling is the phrase in the next sentence: "a man whose leadership might be essential in a time of emergency." When W refuses to name a single Consitutional or legislative constraint on his actions, when the integrity of our electoral system is being widely questioned, and when that phrasing is commonly used to justify coups and ongoing dictatorships, well, I certainly lose my taste for repealing term limits.

it's not that the neocons have succeeded, or that their perceptions of the need for a big lie are accurate - how it should be true for them and not stalin/hitler/mao is unclear - just that, as has been observed from time to time, from place to place, people when thinking with their mob instincts prefer big lies to vast quantities of small truths.

watching the power of nightmares i was reminded of the neocons' "invisible apocalypse" canard - the "team b" thing, taking the absence of evidence as evidence of giant threats hidden by unimaginably advanced technology. the engulfing darkness. one doesn't need 100% of the lights on, one needs only 55% to fear the results of hittting the switch.

I'd just like to mention that in one comment above, the phrase "lame duck malaise" was split across lines such that I only saw "duck malaise" and parsed it as "duck mayonnaise". I don't really have anything substantial to say about the actual subject matter here, I just wanted to comment on that particular--and thankfully non-existant--condiment: ewww!

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