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Don't Repeal the 22nd Amendment

by Christopher Chantrill
March 05, 2006 at 7:33 am


WE ARE AT THAT stage in the political cycle when the supporters of the president, like Pejman Yousefzadeh, or even critics-with-a-book-out like Bruce Bartlett, start mourning that the 22nd Amendment—the one that limits the President of the United States to two terms—is severely cramping his power to get things done.

And well may they mourn. The glorious hopes of every political cycle inevitably evaporate into despair as “events, dear boy, events” conspire to prevent the president from changing the world. If only we could have got one more Big Push, the generals moan, we could have shoved the president’s agenda over the top.

America’s political philosopher, Lee Harris, in an elegiac piece for President’s Day, A Father without a Son, reminded us why we have a 22nd Amendment. It is because President Roosevelt violated the unwritten rule of presidential succession. In 1940 he ran for a third term.

Back in 1787, before we elected our first president, political opinion was sharply divided on the question of a chief executive. Americans knew, after the failure of the Articles of Confederation, that something stronger than a purely legislative government was needed. So the Constitution’s Article II declared that “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” But how, worried men like Thomas Jefferson, would we ever make the President go away?

After all, Jefferson was fully aware that the first President was going to be George Washington. Everyone knew that—just as everyone knew that the Presidency would remain in Washington’s hands for as long as he wished to hang on to it. Washington, elected once, was in essence elected for life.

Fortunately, Washington had no son, so even if he had stayed in office until he died, the Washington dynasty would have died with him. But Washington determined that “He would not die in office; instead, he would be elected for two terms, and then he would not run again.”

This noble renunciation of power served as a brake, a gentlemen’s agreement, that restrained the ambitions of presidents for nearly 150 years.

It was not until 1940 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after 8 years of failing to lead the nation out of the Great Depression, decided that he needed one more Big Push.

After FDR had broken the gentlemen’s agreement the nation was forced into an act of national hygiene. Congress passed in 1947 and the states ratified in 1951 the 22nd Amendment.

The great problem of the nation in 2006 not a lack of presidential power. It is the encrusted privilege and patronage of the welfare state, the government entitlements like Social Security and Medicare over which the Democratic filibuster guards with a passion equal to the old Southern filibuster of the 1950s. Yet at the height of his power in the months after reelection in 2004 the president was unable to get traction on Social Security reform. How would repeal of the 22nd Amendment have made any difference?

It is not political power that gets things done; it is the power of ideas. Rudy Giuliani was able to bring New York City back from the brink of meltdown in the 1990s because of the heavy lifting done by conservative thinkers, as Fred Siegel shows in The Prince of the City. It was James Q. Wilson and George Kelling who developed the “broken windows” policing that Bill Bratton implemented, first in New York’s subways and then on its streets. David Osborne’s Reinventing Government showed how state and local governments could do more by “scrapping rule- and input-driven bureaucracies in favor of stressing outcomes and accountability.” George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty showed that progressive taxation functioned as a tollgate on the road to the middle class, and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground “set the stage for welfare reform.” If Americans aren’t ready for Social Security reform it is because we haven’t persuaded them.

When conservatives have won the next battle of ideas the question of presidential power or of the 22nd Amendment will not matter. Just as the old Southern filibuster was routed by the civil rights revolution of the early 1960s, today’s welfare state filibuster will come to its deserved, inglorious end not because of presidential arm-twisting but because of the power of ideas.

What we can do with the president’s political power is cut taxes, cut, and cut again. And it just so happens that Senator John McCain, who opposed the president’s tax cuts in 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005, is supporting the Tax Relief Extension Reconciliation Act. I wonder why?

For those Republicans still hankering after repeal of the 22nd Amendment, think of this. Absent the 22nd Amendment who can doubt that President Clinton, no gentleman and no George Washington, would have run for president again and again and finally handed off the presidency to his daughter?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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