National Journal picks up on a truly odd moment from today’s Morning Joe in more ways than one. Joe Scarborough tells Bill Clinton that he will be inundated with e-mail and calls after the end of their segment asking why Bill Clinton can’t run for a third term in office, and then blames Republicans for “not wanting another FDR” after his fourth term ended in less than three months due to his death. “Shouldn’t Americans have that choice?” Scarborough asks Clinton, who seems pleased with the notion:
Where to start? First, the 22nd Amendment codified what had been tradition in American presidential politics, starting with the first American President, George Washington, who turned down an opportunity to be a lifetime President (and probably dictator) by declining a run at a third term. Hailed as the American Cincinnatus, no American President ever arrogantly thought himself so great as to transcend Washington until FDR in 1940. When he passed away, the nation figured that it should protect against another arrogant politician by defining term limits for the most powerful office in the US — and given that it took two-thirds in both the House and Senate to pass the Amendment and then three-quarters of the states to ratify it, that sentiment was clearly shared by more than just the Republicans of that time. Or does Scarborough not understand the process of amending the Constitution?
Next, there are very large qualitative differences between the American presidency and Prime Ministers in parliamentary systems. The former runs the executive branch independently, with a co-equal Congress providing checks and balances but not authority over the President. In modern times, the presidency has become ever more powerful and difficult to oversee, which makes Washington’s precedent even more necessary. Parliament exercises authority over Prime Ministers in those systems, and can bring down a government on a single vote of no confidence if necessary, prompting new elections within weeks. Serving three or four terms in that position doesn’t create the issues of unchecked power that three or four terms in our federal system could produce, and almost certainly would produce with an executive who somehow feels that no one else alive should hold the job he (or she) had held for two or more terms already.
In general, I don’t favor term limits for the reason that Scarborough offers here, which is that voters should determine who best represents them in legislatures at all levels. (They also don’t have the cleansing effect people presume, which California has amply demonstrated over the last two decades.) But we have imbued the Presidency with so much power and so many hurdles to true oversight that it remains in our best interest to cleanse the office on a regular basis — and that’s just as true of Clinton as it was of Bush, and would be of Obama as well if he ever manages to win a second term at all.
Update: Ugh. Joe may not know the process, and I may not know how to count. Of course it was the 22nd, not the 25th, Amendment that controls presidential term limits. The 25th covers presidential succession.