The Effects Of Term Limits: Which Presidents Paid The Price?

Matt Kuhns of Lakewood, Ohio, says the decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to discard term limits led to this question:

Would American politics be significantly different if the presidency had never been term-limited? Or would inevitable moods for change, plus the toll which the office seems to take, have generally held administrations to two terms anyway?

Term limits on the president have had less of an impact than you'd think. They didn't exist until the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1951. Taking a posthumous shot at FDR, who was elected four times, a Republican Congress pushed through the amendment that limited a president to two terms.

The amendment's language specifically stated that it "shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed." So it didn't affect Harry Truman. But Truman's numbers were so miserable that he withdrew from a re-election bid in 1952.

The first president affected by the 22nd Amendment was Dwight Eisenhower, elected in two successive landslides, both over Adlai Stevenson, in 1952 and 1956. Eisenhower turned 70 years old in 1960 and, with the economy struggling, there was little indication that the country or Ike wanted four more years.

Then came John F. Kennedy, whose presidency was cut short by an assassin's bullets in 1963. Lyndon Johnson followed, was elected in a rout in 1964, but decided not to run again in '68 after the Vietnam War and civil unrest divided the nation and crippled his presidency.

Richard Nixon, who failed to succeed Eisenhower in 1960, came back with a victory in '68 and a landslide re-election in 1972. But he resigned less than two years later as Congress was about to impeach him for his role in the Watergate scandal.

Gerald Ford, his unelected vice president, succeeded him but lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter, in turn, lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. After two terms, Reagan's situation was similar to that of Eisenhower's. He would have been close to 78 years old had he been sworn in for a third term in 1989, and the Iran-Contra scandal seemed to sap Reagan of the vitality he had when he was first elected.

George Bush followed, winning in 1988 but losing four years later to Bill Clinton.

If the 22nd Amendment played any real role in affecting the presidency, I would argue that it was Clinton who felt it the most. For all his personal failures and foibles — and there were many — I'm not convinced Clinton wouldn't have won a third term in 2000 had he been constitutionally eligible. Yes, there was Monica and impeachment and lying under oath. And maybe the country would have expressed its outrage over his behavior by sending him packing in a third-term bid. But I can't say for sure that's what would have happened.

Clinton was, of course, followed by George W. Bush, who I can say with some certainty would not have won a third term had he been allowed to do so in 2008.

For the record — and while I usually don't express personal opinions on these subjects — I've never been a fan of term limits. I feel that if voters have had enough of the incumbent, vote him or her out of office.

At the same time, I'm well aware that incumbents have perks (such as huge campaign war chests) that challengers often don't, and so I know the difficulties in knocking off someone already in office. But it also makes a president (or, in many cases, a governor) a lame duck the moment he or she is re-elected. And that takes away the choice from the electorate.

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