November 1, 2013
Six years only?
President Obama addresses nation from the White House. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Apparently there’s no idea that’s so bad that a 17-day government shutdown can’t revive it. We’ve been inundated for a month now with all sorts of plans to change the entire U.S. political system — as if no other nation has ever seen a case of political mismanagement. Never mind whether the proposed reforms have any relevance to the specific problems that produced the shutdown. It’s just open season on the Constitution.

At any rate, I think the low point of this trend (I hope!) is today’s piece by Alex Seitz-Wald in which he endorses Larry Sabato’s proposal that presidents should have a single six-year term. Yes, because Mexico has such a history of brilliant governance.

Now, if someone wants to push repeal of the 22nd Amendment, returning the Constitution to the original scheme in which presidents could stay in office as long as voters wanted them there, I might take it more seriously. After all, one could argue that, to some extent, Barack Obama’s troubles could be tied to the fact that he’ll never be on a ballot again, and, therefore, no one will ever be on a ballot with him, or against him. It’s not just that; term limits probably push presidents toward thinking about “legacies” instead of focusing on what’s politically expedient — which is a big problem, because focusing on the politics of presidential decisions is an excellent way for presidents to make good choices.

A single six-year term would turn every newly elected president into an automatic “lame duck.” It’s nice to think that every president would govern brilliantly if he or she could just do what’s right instead of what’s popular, but it’s a fairy tale. The reality is that presidents aren’t experts in what’s right; they are experts, however, at politics, and figuring out how to manipulate the system for their own self-interests. Which, in democracies, strongly tends to be what’s good for the nation. Trying to get presidents to give up on politics and just try to do what they believe is best isn’t just massively undemocratic, it’s also probably a short route to policy fiasco.

More broadly? My suggestion to everyone is to step back and get some perspective. A constitutional system that’s worked pretty well for more than 200 years isn’t ruined by a government shutdown every few decades.

At least, however, those who want to replace the U.S. system of separated institutions sharing powers with a parliamentary scheme have a case to make, albeit one that I strongly disagree with. But this one doesn’t even have that going for it.