Five Democratic presidential candidates will meet Tuesday night for their first debate of the 2016 election cycle. They include current and former senators, governors and cabinet secretaries. Absent from the stage, however, will be two men who are literally the most qualified Democrats on the planet for the job of President of the United States — men whose previous experience prepares them far more than anyone in either party’s slate of candidates to occupy the Oval Office.
We’re speaking, of course, about former President Bill Clinton and incumbent President Barack Obama, both of whom are constitutionally ineligible to seek a third term in office.
The Twenty-Second Amendment, which limited presidents to two elected terms, is often touted as an extension of President George Washington’s will. As a report by the Senate Judiciary Committee claimed in 1995, Washington “believed that rotation in office was a moral obligation consistent with the ideals of a republican government,” and so he voluntarily left office after only two terms. Today, we supposedly honor these “ideals of a republican government” by allowing no president to serve longer than Washington.
George Washington, however, believed no such thing — he once wrote that he can “see no propriety in precluding ourselves from the services of any man, who on some great emergency shall be deemed universally, most capable of serving the Public.”
The real history of the Twenty-Second Amendment has far more to do with partisan politics than it does with Washington’s example. Term limits, moreover, come at a high price. They lock the most experienced potential executives out of office. They periodically place untested leaders in power who may not have the seasoning necessary to handle difficult issues that arise early in their term. They increase corruption by shifting power towards lobbyists. And they strip voters of their ability to make their own decisions. If the American people actually are uncomfortable with a third Clinton or Obama term, they have an easy solution: they can vote for someone else.
The Partisan Origins Of The Twenty-Second Amendment
The timing of the Twenty-Second Amendment is a bit strange. President Franklin Roosevelt had recently completed what is widely viewed as one of the most successful presidencies in American history. Over the course of a dozen years in the White House, Roosevelt beat back the Great Depression, he discredited an economically libertarian ideology that threatened to entrench that Depression, and he mobilized the nation to defeat one of the worst tyrants the world has ever known. Roosevelt’s presidency, if anything, spoke to the virtue of allowing a president to remain in office for as long as the American people wish to keep reelecting them.
Nevertheless, the Twenty-Second Amendment was a direct attack on Roosevelt’s legacy. “The Twenty-second Amendment,” one scholar wrote “reflects the determination by the Republican Party to repudiate the invincible Franklin Roosevelt.” Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, wanted Congress to make a presidential term limits amendment its highest priority, and the Republican National Convention passed a resolution calling for such an amendment “to insure against the overthrow of our American system of government.” Roosevelt’s opponent in 1944, Thomas Dewey, similarly warned that four presidential terms are “the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.”
In 1947, when Republicans captured Congress for the first time since 1929, they heeded Wilkie’s call to make a term limits amendment one of their first orders of business. The new Congress passed the amendment shortly after its new members were sworn in. No Republican opposed the amendment, and it also gained significant support from conservative Southern Democrats. When the amendment went to the states, only 83 of the 3,272 Republican legislators who cast a recorded vote on the amendment voted “no.”
Wilkie and Dewey may have lost, but there would never again be another Roosevelt.
The Case Against Term Limits
There’s no way to conduct comparative empirical research on the impact of term limits on the presidency itself. The Twenty-Second Amendment has been in place since 1951, and there’s only one example of an American president who served more than two terms. Researchers have examined the impact of term limits on state lawmakers, however, and many of their conclusions suggest that term limits do, indeed, come at a significant price.
In 2006, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) published “Coping With Term Limits: A Practical Guide.” Among other things, the guide warned, term limits can result in a “decline in civility” which has “reduced legislators’ willingness and ability to compromise and engage in consensus building.” Indeed, term-limited lawmakers often have little motivation to build many relationships in the first place, because the colleague they befriend today will be kicked out of office tomorrow. Term-limited lawmakers “have less time to get to know and trust one another” and “are less collegial and less likely to bond with their peers, particularly those from across the aisle.”
They also don’t have time to become experts in policy or legislative procedure, and have no senior colleagues they can turn to for advice on such matters — a problem that “forces term-limited legislators to rely on lobbyists for information.” Unlike the lawmakers themselves, a lobbyist can spend years shepherding legislation towards passage. They are likely to know far more about how a particular government program functions or why a particular appropriation exists than an inexperienced lawmaker. And they may know far more about legislative procedure than anyone who actually serves in the legislature.
Term limits also weaken a powerful incentive that encourages honest dealing by lobbyists. Normally, lobbyists depend “upon their reputation to effectively do their jobs.” Indeed, “lying to or misleading a legislator can lead to a loss of credibility that quickly ends a lobbying career.” As a result, an effective lobbyist typically must be careful “to use reliable information and provide legislators with all sides of a policy debate” lest they garner a reputation for unreliability and lose access.
In a term-limited legislature, however, no one is around long enough to maintain a grudge. Gone is the long-serving committee chair who can warn junior lawmakers away from lobbyists who have proven themselves untrustworthy. A lobbyist caught in a lie need only wait a few years before all is forgotten. As a result, “short-term lobbying goals have come [to] outweigh the importance of long-term credibility.” A lobbyist is more likely to make the calculation that it is better to score a win today than to preserve their credibility for another day.
Term Limits And The Presidency
Presidents, admittedly, are not entirely analogous to state lawmakers. Among other things, the federal government invests significant resources to ensure that the president is briefed and well-informed on the many issues that are likely to cross his or her desk. The President of the United States typically does not need to call up a professional lobbyist to explain how a particular program works.
Dealing with outside interest groups, however, is a necessary part of governance. A new administration is likely to have a less-experienced staff who may not know right away which interest group lobbyists can be trusted — or even who they should turn to to find a particular piece of information that they need. A new president, like a new lawmaker, also may not have built working relationships with key allies and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially if they have not previously worked at high levels of the federal government.
Indeed, the consequences of a president not being familiar enough with key legislative players led to a very high stakes game of chicken between President Obama and Congressional Republicans in 2011. The Republicans, emboldened by recent electoral victories, threatened to make the United States default on its national debt unless Obama agreed to deep spending cuts. Many Republicans added outlandish demands such as a constitutional amendment permanently implementing Republican budget policy or legislation eliminating entire cabinet departments.
Meanwhile, President Obama, who had no experience dealing with a Republican Congress, believed that the best strategy was to actually try to strike a deal — the so-called “grand bargain” — with lawmakers who were actively engaged in extortion. In the end, after a tense standoff that led independent rating agencies to downgrade U.S. debt, Obama eventually signed $2.1 trillion in spending cuts as the price of preserving what remained of America’s credit rating.
Compare this outcome to the resolution of the government shutdown in 2013, when Republicans got nothing more than token concessions out of a more experienced President Obama. That time around, Obama simply refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling.
The Myth Of George Washington
Against the very real costs of forcing experienced officeholders to leave office even if voters wish to retain them, supporters of term limits have built a mythology around a sainted hero. In 1792, after serving only one term, President Washington considered retiring from public life. As the nation’s first president pondered this choice, James Madison — who, along with Thomas Jefferson, led a faction that was skeptical of federal power and sought to impose extra-constitutional limits on the national government — drafted a farewell address for Washington. In that address, Madison included a line about the virtue of setting “an early example of rotation in an office of so high and delicate a nature.” This line is often quoted as evidence that Washington supported mandatory term limits.
But Washington, of course, never delivered the speech Madison drafted for him and he sought a second term. Washington’s actual farewell address, moreover, offers a very different reason for the president’s decision to retire than the one Madison tried to place upon Washington’s lips. “Every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome,” Washington told the nation in 1796. The president, simply put, was old, and he was feeling his advanced age more than he could bear while still in office.
Washington’s private writings, moreover, suggest that he did not agree that future generations of Americans should be forbidden to choose a president who had already spent a considerable amount of time in that office. “I can see no propriety in precluding ourselves from the services of any man,” Washington wrote the Marquis de LaFayette in 1788, “who on some great emergency shall be deemed universally, most capable of serving the Public.”
Though Washington may not have been a supporter of term limits, however, the next man elected to serve two terms as president did believe in the “necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President.” Indeed, Thomas Jefferson raised the possibility of a constitutional amendment similar to the Twenty-Second Amendment, which he viewed as a shield to ward off monarchy. “If some termination to the services of the chief magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution,” Jefferson wrote in 1807, “or supplied by practice, his office, nominally for years, will in fact, become for life; and history shows how easily that degenerates into an inheritance.”
It’s easy to see why the leader of a young republic, one that had recently extracted itself from monarchical rule and begun an experiment in a new form of government, might fear that the absence of term limits could lead to life-long terms or worse. The American system of government had not been tried before, and the democratic norms that exist in many nations today did not exist anywhere on the globe in 1807.
More than two centuries later, however, we now know that there is nothing special about an eight year limit on a national leader’s tenure that is necessary to ward off tyranny. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has held her job for nearly ten years, and the next federal election in Germany is not likely to happen until 2017. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has held office for more than nine years (although polls suggest that he is likely to be turned out in upcoming elections). Britain’s Margaret Thatcher served more than eleven years as prime minister, while Tony Blair served more than ten. Australia’s John Howard served more than eleven years as his nation’s highest elected official. New Zealand’s Helen Clark served as prime minister for nearly nine years.
None of these officials, however, declared themselves rulers-for-life, and they certainly haven’t tried to pass their jobs along through hereditary succession. Modern democracies, in other words, function just fine without American-style term limits.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons why a Democratic primary voter might prefer a candidate who is not Bill Clinton or Barack Obama to bear the party’s standard in 2016. They may feel like America is overdue for a woman in the White House, for example, or support the decidedly more-left-of-center policies embraced by Sen. Bernie Sanders. They may also agree, as a matter of policy, that “rotation in office” is typically a good thing.
Thanks to a partisan effort to lash out at President Roosevelt, however, there are two choices that these voters cannot make, and those two choices are the two people who have more experience at the highest levels of American government than any other Democrat in the nation. None of the actual candidates for the presidency, after all, have actually been president.