President Obama this week announced in Africa that he would be confident of being re-elected, but was blocked by the 1951 22nd Amendment, which prevented U.S. Presidents seeking a third term. My first reaction was of course a crassly partisan sigh of relief, but then I began thinking about term limits in general, and about democratic leaders worldwide who had gone on for more than a decade – and I came to the conclusion that in principle, never mind in U.S. practice, the Republican 80th Congress, drafters of the Amendment, had got the answer right, and other countries would do well to adopt similar provisions.
Getting the partisan point out of the way first, the Amendment is far more likely to affect Democrat Presidents than Republican ones. The Republican Presidents who could potentially have won third terms, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, were both effectively prevented by age and infirmity from doing so and in any case could through age have served at most one further term. The danger from third terms is the President elected in his forties with the backing of the media, who could potentially be re-elected for another 20 or even 30 years, at the end of which democratic institutions would very likely be in disrepair.
Harry Turtledove’s new novel “Joe Steele” which has an American Joseph Stalin, son of immigrant parents elected in the chaos of 1932 after FDR is killed in a mysterious fire, being re-elected five times until his death in 1953, shows very clearly how the democratic decay would operate. (However my personal view is that Turtledove’s ultimate catastrophe, a succession by J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, would have been a great deal better than what had gone before.)
Because of the two parties’ bases of support (the “youth vote” is largely Democrat in most years), and the natural biases of the media, that danger comes more naturally from Democratic Presidents than Republican ones. Obama himself, Bill Clinton and (had he not been assassinated) John Kennedy were all elected in their forties, and enjoyed massive media support. Given that support, they would not have needed to be anything more than mediocre Presidents to cement themselves in office for decades.
Internationally, there are other examples that reinforce this point. Turkey has got itself into trouble precisely because Recep Erdogan, a generally admirable leader, is trying to prolong his term of office beyond its natural conclusion. Russia, nominally a democracy, would surely be in far better shape today had Vladimir Putin been fully constrained by the two-term limit and retired for good in 2008. Venezuela has cemented a dozy and authoritarian leftist regime into place through transfer payments, precisely because the country’s economic structure allowed a client class to be created over time who voted robotically for the eternal re-election of Hugo Chavez. Every educated person in Argentina is counting the minutes until they can get rid of Cristina Kirchner under Argentina’s term limits, and the Brazilian business classes are rapidly approaching the same position with respect to Dilma Rousseff under Brazil’s.
Fantasists will claim that allowing unlimited terms of office would permit the true genius leaders to serve for as long as they were physically capable, but the reality is: it wouldn’t. Britain has no term limits, yet Margaret Thatcher, as good a prime minister as Britain had enjoyed in 100 years (albeit still not perfect) was hugely unpopular by her last year. She was the target of a sustained and vicious hate campaign in her last year in office, from both the media and many of her colleagues, which eventually forced her out at the hands of the despicable and inept Michael Heseltine, to be succeeded by the less despicable but even more inept John Major.
Even Tony Blair, generally beloved by the media and the chattering classes, would have found it very difficult to go on much beyond the 10 years he served. There is thus no disadvantage to term limits in removing really good leaders; by the time 10 years have passed, they are generally toast anyway.
Economically, there is also no plausible argument against term limits. The kind of austerity that Greece has gone through, and that may eventually be necessary to repair the damage done by the last 20 years of U.S. monetary policies and 14 years of fiscal policies, is highly unpopular. Indeed, it seems impossible to sustain it for more than a year or two, unless policymakers are blessed with a lengthy period without elections. After eight or ten years, any economic reforms that have been implemented will have had their effect, allowing the electorate to vote for or against them on a rational basis.
Reforms that take more than eight years to implement, like Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 2005 plan to privatize Japan Post in 2017, aren’t worth attempting – any such important action must be taken within at most half a decade. Even if Koizumi had been granted 15 years in office, he would have lost power in mid-term and been unable to complete his plan.
In the United States, we are this year seeing that term limits can apparently be got round by families who have several marginally plausible candidates for the Presidency. The campaign structure can be passed on from one family member to another, as can the list of donors. Consequently, it is becoming clear that once one member of a family has succeeded in gaming his party’s nomination process, other members can use the same machinery to the same end, even if through inability (George W. Bush) or temperament (Hillary Clinton) they would never have stood a prayer of achieving the highest office on their own merits.
We have yet to see how that process would work if a really able President had one or more potential family successors of similar levels of ability – maybe the Presidencies of Julie Nixon or Maureen Reagan would have been valuable. However we are seeing now that a mediocre or worse performance by the original family President is no bar whatever to successors from the same family holding the same office. Apparently the “low information voters” gain such a level of “name recognition” from even an inept President that others with the same name and the same campaign team can rely on their vote ad infinitum.
This is not healthy for democracy; indeed it turns what was once a democracy into something resembling the less pleasant periods of the Roman Empire. Hereditary monarchy is fine if it produces a succession of able monarchs, or even a succession of pleasant well-meaning rulers like the first three Georges. But if after a good Augustan start the ruling family descends into a Tiberius, a Caligula and a Nero the system of governance can hardly be said to be optimal. Still less optimal is it if there was never an Augustus in the first place, but merely a feeble Nerva or a sybaritic Heliogabalus.
We need a further constitutional amendment. Not only should Presidents be prevented from serving for more than two terms, but all those who through marriage or the first three degrees of consanguinity are related to Presidents should be ineligible to serve as President for fifty years following the President’s term of office.
This would cause the occasional hardship among Presidential nephews and nieces who were forced to wait until their old age to succeed their beloved uncles, but it would prevent the current abuses. It would also ensure that those who were deemed Presidentabile, whether male or female, would find themselves maritally unattractive to strong-minded individuals in the same line of work, but would be instead compelled to espouse dozy housewives and beta males, who would play no policy role in their administration, but would merely promote libraries, drug control or sport, looking decorative as they did so.
In the meantime, let us be thankful that the 22nd Amendment prevents Obama from a third term. We could feel still more secure with my suggested amendment, which would prevent a campaign by Michelle Obama, and ensure that Malia and Sasha, if they got the Presidential bug, would have to wait until 2068 to run. At present however, we can only hope that the electorate, exhibiting a rare bust of common sense, will reject “family” candidates from either party. If they don’t, we will have embarked on a slippery and unpleasant slope.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)