Rebuttal to Jonathan Zimmerman, "End presidential term limits"

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University who recently penned an op-ed for the Washington Post regarding the 22nd Amendment, the Amendment that establishes the two-term limit on the President (and 10-year limit on a person who succeeds to the office), and why it should be repealed.

On principle I agree with Zimmerman, that the term limits are not, in general, a good idea. But I think his efforts are misplaced. Amending the Constitution to limit the presidency in such a manner is an implicit message to the executive as to whom he answers: Congress and the States. It is not Congress and the States who answer to the President, as many seem to think and Zimmerman seems to imply in his piece:

Democratic lawmakers would worry about provoking the wrath of a president who could be reelected. Thanks to term limits, though, they’ve got little to fear.

Congress should never fear any "wrath" from the president. It is the president who should always fear the wrath of the legislature. After all it is the legislature who has the power to remove him for really any reason they happen to declare a "high crime or misdemeanor", so long as the House of Representatives can get two-thirds of the Senate to agree with them on the charges.

All power of the Federal government originates with the House of Representatives and the Senate. The smallest branch of the Federal government is defined by the longest article in the main body of the Constitution of the United States. Make no mistake that the drafters of the Constitution did this with a clear reason: to ensure all power of the Federal government originated with and was checked by the proxies for the People and States that comprise the United States.

As such to say legislators should fear any wrath from the President is absurd as the legislators should never fear the president. It should always be the president who fears the legislators.

Nor does Obama have to fear the voters, which might be the scariest problem of all. If he chooses, he could simply ignore their will.

Zimmerman is correct to say that the President no longer fears the voters. We saw this very clearly following his re-election, which coincided actually quite coincidentally with the Sandy Hook tragedy.

In the first term he was mute about gun legislation – likely out of fear of Democrat voters who are friendly to gun rights – but immediately went full-tilt in favor of gun control after the election had already passed and the electoral votes counted. He no longer feared the People on that.

But the Senate still did. It is why Senators overwhelmingly rejected key aspects of Reid’s latest attempt at gun legislation: expanded background checks that would’ve required obtaining a certified background check for even private sales, renewing the assault weapons ban (rejected by the largest margin with 60 Senators rejecting it), and renewing the magazine capacity limitation.

It is odd how people thought the Senate would readily ratify Feinstein’s proposed measures simply because the Democrats had control of the Senate. Instead it became similar to trying to pass the Affordable Care Act in that the Democrat leadership in the Senate needed to appease other Democrats. They failed miserably when fifteen (15) Democrats joining Republicans to vote down renewing the assault weapons ban.

The House of Representatives also still fears the People. And so long as the branches from which all Federal power originates can still be periodically checked by the People, I think we’ll otherwise be fine with a presidential term limitation.

The first president to openly challenge the two-term tradition was Theodore Roosevelt, who ran for a third term as president in 1912 on the Bull Moose ticket. When he stepped down in 1908, Roosevelt pledged not to seek a third term; reminded of this promise in 1912, he said that he had meant he would not seek a "third consecutive term." The New York Times called Roosevelt’s explanation a "pitiful sophistication," and the voters sent Woodrow Wilson to the White House.

Not quite.

Wilson’s election had little to do with Roosevelt seeking a second full term as President and more to do with the schism in the Republican party that started in 1910.

Roosevelt challenged William Howard Taft, who was seeking a second term as President in 1912. Taft had actually been selected by Roosevelt to be his successor on the Republican ticket, but Taft’s performance as President disappointed him, as Taft’s politics were becoming more conservative while Roosevelt and a good size of the Republican Party were becoming more "progressive".

So for the 1912 election, Roosevelt challenged Taft initially in the Republican primaries, where he failed, and then by running as a third party under the Progressive Party banner.

His presence on the ballot split the Republican party base, ensuring that Wilson won the plurality vote, and the Electoral College with it. Had Roosevelt never challenged Taft for his election, Taft likely would have been re-elected to a second term, but probably only just as the Democrats controlled about 45% of the popular vote at that time, making the schism in the Republican Party fatal with regard to the presidential run.

A cursory glance at Wikipedia would have prevented this glaring history inaccuracy from a professor of history.

Only in 1940, amid what George Washington might have called a "great emergency," did a president successfully stand for a third term. Citing the outbreak of war overseas and the Depression at home, Democrats renominated Franklin D. Roosevelt. They pegged him for a fourth time in 1944 despite his health problems, which were serious enough to send him to his grave the following year.

To Republicans, these developments echoed the fascist trends enveloping Europe. "You will be serving under an American totalitarian government before the long third term is finished," warned Wendell Wilkie, Roosevelt’s opponent in 1940. Once the two-term tradition was broken, Wilkie added, nobody could put it back together. "If this principle dies, it will be dead forever," he said.

In 1933 talk of FDR assuming dictator-like powers was being thrown around Washington. Take that notion, memories of it likely still floating in heads in Washington , along with the fact that FDR successfully broke the ceremonial two-term limit that Jefferson started, and you’ve got a good reason for a paranoid Congress and a paranoid country.

And as difficult as it might be to believe, the word "dictator" was being thrown around as if it was a good thing, and Walter Lippman said to NPR, "The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers." The idea even appealed to FDR’s wife.

The situation to which Lippman is referring, of course, is the Great Depression.

Ratified by the states in 1951, the 22nd Amendment was an “undisguised slap at the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” wrote Clinton Rossiter, one of the era’s leading political scientists. It also reflected “a shocking lack of faith in the common sense and good judgment of the people,” Rossiter said.

Common sense and good judgment? I’ll just quote what I said in a previous article (from "Advice and consent"):

The People do not have nearly as much ability, especially given how easily we can be reduced into pesky, pestilent, squandering, argumentative and belligerent mobs, often at the mention of only a few words. In other words the People tend to act in a democratic fashion, as history has shown, and that is the fastest way to erode a republic.

The Founders knew this. This is why prior to the Seventeenth Amendment the more powerful chamber of Congress was left to the selection and safeguard of the State governments. This is why the power of advice and consent was left solely with the Senate and not with the House of Representatives. The Federal government was intended to be insulated from the People for reasons we have been witnessing since about the time of the Civil War.

Sorry but the people tend to not have or act with common sense and good judgment. This is why the drafters of the Constitution put so many barriers between the People and the Federal government as possible, preferring instead to have the State governments have more direct involvement with the Federal government than the People.

When they succeeded in limiting the presidency to two terms, they limited democracy itself.

"I think our people are to be safely trusted with their own destiny," Sen. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) argued in 1947. "We do not need to protect the American people with a prohibition against a president whom they do not wish to elect; and if they wanted to elect him, have we the right to deny them the power?"

Again the President was not intended to be directly electable by the People, so there was no limitation on democracy. Instead the limitation lies with the temptation of power. Just look at all the kind of messianic and imperialist displays that were made in 2009 and 2010 not long into Obama’s first term. They treated him as if he was, as Sean Hannity rightly observed, an "anointed one", as if he was the savior of America.

Given all of this, given how trumped up the perspective of Obama was during his first term, early in his first term, how can we trust a man to limit himself with power? On the campaign trail he said he would "fundamentally transform America" while calling for a "civilian national security force" that is "just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded" as the Department of Defense. This is similar to the call for "storm troopers" during FDR’s first term in office.

The only reason Obama was elected to a second term is his opponent was Mitt Romney. We would be insane to hand him a third term in office.

Given that not even the people can be completely trusted with even the legitimate power that rests with the Federal government, let alone the illegitimate power it has seized over the last century and a half, how can we trust one person with the presiding office of the Federal government?

Clearly as FDR showed, we cannot, especially when that person is seeking to maintain power in the middle of a crisis. FDR’s policies only perpetuated the Great Depression and, with it, his hold on the highest executive office in the country. With people initially talking dictatorial powers for him, about him acting under some kind of martial law to stem the chaos as best as possible, and looking at the entirety of FDRs term and what he did, it should be no surprise that not only were the Republicans handed power in 1946, but they used that power to limit the presidency.

While some called it a slap on FDR’s legacy, it was most certainly a reassertion of power by Congress and the States on the president, a reassertion to the executive as to whom he answers.

As such, it is not "time to put that power back where it belongs", because history shows time and again what people do. We don’t act rationally and responsibly when it comes to exercising our voting authority. We devolve into bickering mobs and factions, and such devolution operates on a hair trigger. The very things the Founders warned of in the Federalist Papers can be seen today.

As such, the more safeguard we have on the Federal government, the better. The 22nd Amendment should remain in force. And so long as it takes a full amendment process to accomplish, such will be the case.

Anything less diminishes our leaders and ourselves.

Except President Obama is not our leader. He is the presiding officer of the Federal government and the commander-in-chief of the military. He is not to lead us at all. Instead he answers to us. He answers to the Senate and the House of Representatives. He answers to the Federal judiciary.

And it’s about time he remembers and acknowledges that.