By Steve Chapman
On political issues, it’s been said, where you stand depends on where you sit. Bill Clinton can vouch for that. He finds that some things look different to a sitting president once he’s an ex-president, who in this case is not sitting but pacing.
Clinton recently expressed a desire to alter the 22nd Amendment, which contains a proviso he finds unfortunate: “No person shall be elected to the office of president more than twice.” There are two people in the universe currently constrained by that limitation, and Clinton is one of them.
He would like it changed so that a president who has served two terms could leave office and later run again. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But Clinton insists the change would not be for his benefit. It would be “for future generations.”
Said he, “There may come a time when we elect a president at age 45 or 50” — Clinton was elected at 46 — “and then 20 years later, the country comes up against the same kind of problems the president faced before.” In that case, “people would like to bring that man or woman back.”
But because of the 22nd Amendment, the people would be stymied.
There was not a groundswell of support for this idea among Republicans, but Clinton can count one major Republican ally. Ronald Reagan also came to regard the limitation as folly. “It actually is a pre-emption of the people’s right to vote for whoever you want to vote for and as many times as they want to vote,” he advised.
One of the reasons poison gas fell out of fashion as a weapon of war was that it had an unnerving tendency to drift back and victimize the army that used it. The 22nd Amendment has been like that. Each party has rejoiced in having it at times and regretted it at others.
It was ratified in 1951 thanks to Republicans, who pushed it through after losing four straight elections to Franklin Roosevelt. He was the only president in American history to depart from the tradition established by George Washington — gracefully relinquishing power after two terms. Republicans were determined never again to let themselves be victimized by someone like FDR.
Instead, they were victimized by their own amendment. In 1952, they finally managed to elect one of their own. But in 1960, the still-popular Dwight Eisenhower had to leave. After that, no president completed two full terms until Reagan.
When Reagan came out against the 22nd Amendment, Republicans didn’t embrace the cause because it was too late to win one more for the Gipper. Democrats didn’t jump at the idea because they were glad to see the GOP caught in its own snare. Besides, by then they were starting to wonder if they would ever elect a president to one term, much less two.
The 2000 election gave them their turn to walk into the booby-trap that had previously caught only Republicans. The irony was particularly cruel because Clinton was turned out of the White House at an age (54) younger than most presidents are when they arrive.
More galling still for Democrats was that, despite scandal and impeachment, he was still popular. In the final months of his presidency, notes polling expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, he had higher approval ratings than Reagan had at the same point in his tenure.
Instead of pursuing the ultimate vindication, Clinton had to step aside for his vice president, who managed the feat of losing to someone who got fewer votes.
But for the first time, it’s just conceivable that the two parties could find common ground in taking on the 22nd Amendment. Democrats looking at their options for 2004 have to be feeling nostalgic for Clinton, who still makes their hearts flutter in a way that Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt couldn’t do if they had a defibrillator.
Republicans looking ahead might want to take his idea and go him one better — not just revising it to allow a chief executive to leave after two terms and then come back later, but repealing it entirely. In 2008, after all, George W. Bush may be an incumbent with enough public support to win again. And if the Democrats wanted to nominate a has-been like Bill Clinton, imagine the joy Republicans would take in giving him his final comeuppance.
They don’t have much to lose by opening up that possibility. In 2008, they could put George W. Bush up against Bill Clinton. Or maybe they’d rather run somebody you’ve never heard of. Against Hillary.
Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.