The worst constitutional amendment this side of Prohibition is the 22nd, which limits presidents to two terms and was ratified on this date 65 years ago.
Just as British voters sent Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party packing as soon as Hitler was defeated in World War II, Americans rejected the governing party in the first postwar congressional elections in 1946, sweeping Democrats from power. When the 80th Congress began in January 1947, the new Republican majority, setting a template for conservative legislative petulance that continues to this day, immediately lashed out against Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency, which had ended with FDR’s death two years earlier. In March 1947, after minimum debate, Congress sent the 22nd Amendment to the states for ratification.
Three-fourths of the states must ratify a proposed amendment before it can become part of the Constitution. On Feb. 27, 1951, Minnesota became the 36th state out of 48 — Alaska and Hawaii weren’t yet part of the union — to approve the 22nd Amendment.
Only two states — Oklahoma and Massachusetts — rejected the amendment. Good for you, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, for standing with democracy. Good for you.
The idea that presidents should limit themselves to two terms starts, as do several presidential precedents, useful and otherwise, with George Washington, and can be blamed on the man crushes the other Founders had on the nation’s first president. A third term was Washington’s for the taking in 1796, but he declined. He was feeling old and tired and he wanted to get home to Mount Vernon as quick as he could. As he wrote in his farewell address, “Every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.”
If two terms were good enough for George Washington, then two terms were good enough for any president who followed him, the thinking went. A two-term tradition was born because of Washington’s constitution, not because it was written anywhere in the Constitution.
Washington died in December 1799, less than three years after leaving office. Had he stayed on for a third term, Washington would have achieved another presidential first — the first president to die in office. Now that would have set an interesting precedent!
Franklin Roosevelt ran for and won a third term in 1940 largely because of World War II and voters’ reluctance to change leaders at a time when Nazi Germany controlled most of Europe and Imperial Japan ruled in the Pacific. He won a fourth term in 1944 to see the war to its conclusion, but died on April 12, 1945, only 83 days into his fourth term.
Had Roosevelt not been president during an extraordinary time, would he have broken with the tradition set by Washington and sought more than two terms? Had he tried, would voters have given him a third and fourth term?
Doubtful on both counts. A few other presidents had tried for third terms previously, but failed. Ulysses Grant, president from 1869 to 1877, had sought a nonconsecutive third term in 1880 and couldn’t even win the Republican nomination. Teddy Roosevelt, in office from 1901 to 1909, ran for another term as an independent candidate in 1912*. He lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who eight years later fruitlessly maneuvered to tie up the Democratic convention in the hope the party would break the deadlock by nominating him for a third term.
Voters might elect someone president three times: If the 22nd Amendment didn’t exist, I’m sure Bill Clinton would have run for a third term in 2000 and I have no doubt he easily would have beaten George W. Bush. And who’s to say we wouldn’t be better off for it?
Voters might even elect someone four times in unique circumstances, as they did with FDR, but five or six times? No. Presidents, no matter how great, eventually wear out their welcome. Voters eventually desire change. And presidents age. They get tired, like Washington did. They encounter a natural term limit.
The 22nd Amendment turns presidents’ second terms into a tedious four-year march toward forced retirement. But the main argument against the amendment is it limits our choices as voters. It’s “an infringement on the democratic rights of the people … an invasion of their democratic rights to vote for whoever they want to vote for and for however long,” Ronald Reagan told NBC’s Tom Brokaw in 1989 as his time in office neared its end. Reagan had no interest in someday running for a third term himself, he told Brokaw, but he intended to use part of his time and influence as a former president to push for the 22nd Amendment’s repeal. An Alzheimer’s diagnosis five years later ended Reagan’s intentions. Alas.
A proposal to repeal the 22nd Amendment has popped up in almost every Congress since the mid-1980s, though no such proposal is on file with the current Congress. The effort, such as it is, crosses party lines: Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1989 and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 1995 are among the various Democrats and Republicans who have sponsored resolutions to erase the amendment from the Constitution.
I know, I know. Given the current crop of presidential candidates before us, we might want to eliminate the office of president rather than allow someone to be elected president more than twice. But once in a rare while a president comes along whom we should keep for an extra term or two.
Supporters of the 22nd Amendment say it prevents tyranny — an argument that apparently never occurred to the Founders, since they set no term limits for the president, members of Congress or federal judges. It’s not tyranny to have additional choices. It’s democracy.
So, c’mon, people. Sixty-five years is enough time for this infringement on our rights to exist. Ronald Reagan was right. We repealed the disastrous 18th Amendment — Prohibition. Let’s do the same with the 22nd.
(This blog entry revises and expands a similar article I wrote in 2009 for an American-Statesman blog that no longer exists.)
* Though Teddy Roosevelt was elected president only once, in 1904, the 22nd Amendment still would have applied to him had it existed. Roosevelt was William McKinley’s vice president and became president after McKinley’s assassination. McKinley was only six months into his second term when he died on Sept. 14, 1901.