Connoisseurs of the spectacle of chickens coming home to roost should heed President Reagan's recent plaint that he felt "handicapped" by the "lame duck" status of his presidency because of the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits a president from serving more than two consecutive terms.
It's a nice bit of poetic justice. In Reagan the Republicans have the most potent political weapon in a generation, one whose name is mentioned in concert with that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in terms of political power and effectiveness. He is a party leader who has Republicans talking seriously of majority status, of a major party realignment for the first time since FDR, and who has the capability of helping them consolidate and expand their substantial gains.
But their predecessors in the GOP tied his hands politically a generation ago with a constitutional amendment that was born, pure and simple, out of frustration with FDR's unprecedented election to four terms. It has no basis in any study of the Founding Fathers' intent in drafting the Constitution.
There has been a lot of talk that the president is still the president despite this, but the fact is that the 22nd Amendment robs the president of much of his power to influence Congress, name his successor and establish continuity both in his second term and afterward.
Many responsible Republican leaders such as Gov. Richard Thornburg of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, began worrying about the future of the party post-Reagan even before the ballots were counted last November. Republicans meeting recently at Mackinac Island, Mich., with several of their possible 1988 candidates expressed concern about the divisiveness of the sort of early presidential free-for-all that they have already started; some, for example, fear that it could hamper their efforts to win the Michigan state house next year.
Congress is defying the president on a number of issues in a way it wouldn't have dreamed of in Reagan's first term, and it's difficult to believe that the members -- of both parties -- wouldn't be singing a different tune if they knew he might run again iun 1988.
In the second term of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ironically was the 22nd Amendment's first victim, Prof. Sidney Hyman wrote about the loss of the president's power to reward friends and punish enemies to impart a coherence to his tenure. His second term, Hyman noted, becomes primarily a battle over his succession.
That may well be the case with Reagan. He may or may not give George Bush a thundering endorsement, but the fact is that his power to name his successor has been considerably truncated.
"It used to be that a president could say, 'Gee, I want X,' and if the others said, 'No, we want Y,' he could say, 'Well, gosh, I guess I'll just have to run again in that case' and that could be a real power with someone like Reagan," says John Sears, a former Reagan campaign manager and a close observer of the presidency.
Eisenhower denied that he could notice "any effect of the so-called lame duck," but observers noted at the time delays in passing the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine for the Middle East, opposition to his domestic programs and the boldness of Sen. William Knowland of California -- before he was so rudely defeated in his 1958 gubernatorial race -- in eyeing the 1960 presidential nomination early in Eisenhower's second term.
Frank Fahrenkopf, the energetic and imaginative Republican national chairman, has an ambitious long-term plan to win a majority of the state legislators and legislatures by 1990, which is as good a definition of realignment as there is. He generally isn't much for hypothetical questions, but he sounds a slight note of wistfulness when asked about Reagan.
"Just the possibility that he'd be around for another four or eight years would be a tremendous boost to our efforts," he says. "We have the possibility of two realignments in this century, both led by popular presidents, first FDR and now with Reagan.
"He's leading it. The young people don't agree with him on social issues, but they like him as a strong leader."
The Republicans began talking about a two-term limit after Roosevelt ran for his unprecedented third term in 1940, but put it on hold during World War II. After they won control of the House in the 1946 off-year elections, however, they made short work of getting the 22nd Amendment through both houses in the first two months of the 80th Congress.
They cited Washington's two-term precedent and the Founding Fathers' concern that a long-tenured president might become a monarch or dictator, and they talked piously of the desirability of reducing political calculations in the Oval Office. But their real motivation was frustration over Roosevelt's success. The Framers of the Constitution were satisfied that making the chief executive accountable to the electorate every four years would address the problem of tyranny.
And there's a benefit to a president's having to think about the possibility of facing the voters again -- it can save him from himself and his ideology and keep him thinking politically. That alone is an enormous benefit the Republicans could enjoy if Reagan had the option of running again.