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JONATHAN CHAIT

The curse of the 22nd Amendment

January 28, 2007|JONATHAN CHAIT

THERE'S something about the upcoming presidential election that already feels terribly unsatisfying, and I think I've figured out what it is: the 22nd Amendment.

The 22nd Amendment, of course, forbids presidents from running for reelection after their second term in office. Republicans enacted it in a fit of pique at Franklin Roosevelt and his supposedly dictatorial tendencies. And the prohibition on a third term is, I suppose, one way of preventing a president from making himself a dictator (unless, of course, he's dictatorial enough to suspend the 22nd Amendment). But sometimes it makes our politics incoherent, and now is one of those times.

First consider the Democrats. The Hillary Clinton campaign is a product of the fact that her husband can't run for reelection. She is certainly highly intelligent and qualified to hold the presidency, but if her husband was running, she wouldn't be. People react to her candidacy largely on the basis of how they felt about Bill Clinton. Those who yearn for a return to his policies generally support her; those who disliked his policies don't.

Indeed, Democratic presidential politics since Clinton has consisted largely of referendum-by-proxy on Clinton. In the 2000 primary, Al Gore had the support of Clinton loyalists. Bill Bradley had the support of Democrats who opposed Clinton. You had the odd spectacle of Bradley getting support from liberal Democratic dissidents (such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who bemoaned Clinton's stingy social investment) and conservative Democratic dissidents (such as Bob Kerrey, who bemoaned Clinton's failure to slash social spending).

In 2004, Howard Dean's campaign was powered in large part by liberal dissidents against Clintonism. He railed against the Washington Democratic establishment. This was the Clinton establishment. This time around, John Edwards is trying to collect the support of those anti-Clinton liberals. His embrace of anti-poverty measures is an implicit rebuke to Clinton's focus on the middle class and support for welfare reform. Barack Obama, meanwhile, isn't attacking Clintonism per se, but he is talking about leaving behind the debates of the 1990s.

So the Democratic voters are being asked to make a choice about Clintonism, but they're being asked in a roundabout fashion. It's like junior high, where your friend asks a girl's friend if the girl likes you or likes you likes you. Shouldn't we be able to vote on the real thing, up or down, rather than sort-of-pretend we're voting on something else?

Meanwhile, the Republican situation is even more frustrating. George W. Bush is going to leave office deeply unpopular with the American public. But what do Republicans think? According to a recent poll, three-quarters of them still approve of Bush's performance.

Because Bush can't run again, though, Republicans won't have to confront whether they want to stick with him or move in a different direction. So you have the spectacle of, for instance, John McCain sending out wildly contradictory signals -- hugging Bush one day, excoriating his execution of the war the next (though carefully blaming it on others). I'm guessing McCain's plan is to convince Republicans that he mostly wants to continue Bush's policies, get the nomination, win the presidency and then announce a U-turn. If it happens, Republicans will be annoyed, and I don't blame them.

As a confirmed Bush-hater, I'm annoyed myself. Why should I only get one chance to register my verdict on Bush's presidency, especially when the vehicle for that verdict is John Kerry? Yes, the 2006 elections were fun, but punishing his co-partisans (many of whom had already abandoned him anyway) lacks the satisfying thump of actually throwing the bum himself out of office. Now Bush is going to go down in history as a two-term president, forever tied for second place in most terms awarded by the American voter.

If we had a straight dictatorship, Bush would long ago have been dragged out of the White House either by an angry mob or by disgruntled generals. (Note to oversensitive conservatives: I'm strongly against both dictatorships and assassinating Bush or any other president.) If we could vote for whoever we want, regardless of prior service, Bush would probably be dumped unceremoniously in 2008. Only our kooky current system lets him retire undefeated.

What this country really needs is to have Bill Clinton run against George W. Bush.

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jchait@latimescolumnists.com

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