WASHINGTON The next 11 months are likely to be the best argument for doing away with the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency, and not because anyone would expect the current occupant of the Oval Office to seek a third go-round, but because he is prohibited from doing so makes him about as important in the scheme of things as the person who sweeps up the place at night.
So until the next president is chosen, efforts to solve the most serious domestic problems a struggling economy, education, immigration, health care, Social Security and Medicare will become all that more difficult to resolve while the eventual presidential nominees of both parties assure us that they, and only they, have the answer to these difficult issues. On the foreign front, including Iraq and Afghanistan, everything will remain pretty much the same with little or no movement as the whole world realizes President Bush might as well go home now for all the influence he has.
Actually, it might be a good idea for the entire Congress to take a year's sabbatical, remaining on call only to deal with disasters and to fund the necessary operations of the government to which they can attach all those lovely earmarks for their pet projects and friends back home.
Don't expect legislative action on anything beyond the routine as the lawmakers wait for the results of next November. There will be a lot of teeth gnashing over the president's deficit-ridden budget, but the public shouldn't really be alarmed. It won't fly. The $150 billion or so economic stimulus package is expected to be the only major achievement of the year. Funds for Iraq and Afghanistan will be adopted but not without a repeat of the teeth gnashing of the past year when congressional Democrats were unable to honor their campaign pledges to get the troops home in a hurry.
If this seems inordinately pessimistic with a tinge of cynicism, chalk it up to too many years in this burg watching lame duck chief executives either spend their last year in frustration or shrug their shoulders and go through what they and everyone else knows is just an effort to look decent in the history books. That, after all, is what is left to them at this juncture.
Even the candidates selected as the nominee of the president's party pay little attention to him. Vice President Al Gore's shunning of Bill Clinton in 2000 is a good example. Hubert Humphrey began to pick up steam in 1968 only after he moved away from Lyndon Johnson. George H.W. Bush was polite to Ronald Reagan but little more than that as it was becoming increasingly evident that the "great communicator" was losing his edge in 1988.
The term-limit amendment grew out of public concern about Franklin Roosevelt's four terms, the last of which was served by Truman. The amendment was right at the time with even Truman supporting it. But today's atmosphere of uncivil partisanship and the fact that the president becomes increasingly impotent his last two years without the threat of running again has at times been counterproductive to good government. While it is doubtful that most presidents would want to seek a third term, just the fact they might makes them far more effective.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, despite his scandalous behavior with a White House intern, were popular enough at the end of their tenure to have been re-elected. Chances are that Reagan would have declined given his advanced age and signs of slipping mental acuity. Clinton, on the other hand, just might have tried for a third term. His relatively young age and his passion for campaigning probably would have served him well. Bush, with miserable approval ratings and a clear lack of interest in the job, obviously would not go again. But the mere threat that he could probably would have served him well in terms of badly needed initiatives like immigration.
So many Republicans in the House have decided not to run again as opposed to only a few Democrats, the odds are pretty strongly against the GOP maintaining any sort of parity with the majority. Those left, and the candidates chosen to succeed the departed in marginal districts, will have to do their best to step back from an unpopular president, leaving him even more isolated.What a mess. We are the real losers.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.