Monday, February 25, 2013

The Trouble With Lameduckery

The president’s office is time sensitive because of term limits. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has served more than two terms or eight years in office.

Mr. Roosevelt was the only president elected to a third term; his supporters pointed to the war in Europe as a reason for breaking with precedent. Mr. Roosevelt won a fourth term in 1944 during World War II but suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in office the following year and died. After more than a dozen years in office, the bloom had fled the rose.

The 22nd amendment owed its inspiration to a precedent established by President George Washington’s farewell address and Thomas Jefferson’s aversion to monarchy. In 1807, Jefferson wrote in reply to a query from Vermont’s legislature, “if some termination to the services of the chief Magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally four years, will in fact become for life." 

New York Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano reintroduced a bill in Congress early in January of this year repealing the 22nd Amendment, but the bill is not likely to pass, however infatuated more than 50 percent of the American public and 90 percent of the news media have become with wunderkind President Barack Obama.

The presence of a presidential term limit presents both opportunities and problems for the chief executive.

Mr. Obama was looking on the bright side of his lameduckery when he whispered to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" to deal with contentious issues like missile defense after the U.S. presidential election.

During talks in Seoul, Mr. Obama “urged Moscow to give him ‘space’ until after the November ballot, and Medvedev said he would relay the message to incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin,” according to a March 2012 Reuters report.

Two months after Mr. Obama begged Mr. Medvedev for more space, Vladimir Putin was elected, for a second time, President of Russia. The present Russian government, apparently unconcerned with Mr. Jefferson’s quibbles, is a product of centuries of monarchical government, followed by a promising but betrayed revolution, followed by 30 years of Stalinism, monarchy’s modern counterpart. Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have managed to satisfy an apparent hunger in Russia for democratic forms by swapping jobs every so often, a modern tyrant’s answer to the 22nd amendment.  

Had Mr. Putin been running for president of the United States, he would not have been eligible to serve, because the 22nd amendment is a bulwark against proto-Stalinist chief executives; it nips in the bud the megalomania of the larval tyrant by giving the president of the United States only two terms of “space” in which he may ruin the country and bring republican government to its knees.

Here is the hitch with lameduckery: At some point during a second term in office, it becomes obvious to presidential supporters that the duck is lame. At that point, politics pivots. During the second term of virtually every president who labors under the austere restrictions of the 22nd amendment, the president is found gathered together with his ardent supporters during his first term -- including party leaders in the Congress -- and everyone in the room realizes that there is but one lame duck in the room; the rest of them will be running for re-election long after the president has strut his hour upon the stage. They begin to think, dangerously, of surviving in a political universe that does not include the nominal leader of their party. This is a prelude to funeral rights, the beginning of the end of what the French call “la trahison des clercs,” the betrayal of the intellectuals, in many authoritarian regimes the footstools of megalomaniacal tin pot political saviors.

Modern monarchical and authoritarian regimes, both fascist and communist, solve the problem by having non-subservient intellectuals -- usually violently or artfully repressed in authoritarian regimes -- shot or imprisoned or socially castrated.

Authoritarian regimes fail for a good reason: The larger and more omnicompetent a central authority strives to be, the more incompetent it becomes; a government that strives to do everything will do nothing well. There are no small errors in fascist or quasi-fascist regimes. Even in Cuba, the balled fist is loosening: One half of the Castro tyranny, Raul, a boilerplate communist, recently announced that he was considering term limits.

In governments operating under republican constitutions, the pivot, that point during which a party understands that the captain of the ideological ship will soon be departing, occurs usually midway into a second presidential term.

Assuming Mr. Serrano is unsuccessful in scuttling the 22nd amendment, political commentators will begin mapping the ideological cracks in the Obama administration around the second year of the Mr. Obama's second term. A collapse in the economy will of course push the date closer to the beginning of his second term.
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