V.D. Hanson, Meet A. Hamilton

by Matthew J. Franck

In his NRO column today, Victor Davis Hanson argues that because two terms in office “wear out” our presidents, and second terms are so often failures, “[o]ne-term presidencies — or a constitutional change to a single six-year presidential term — make better sense.”

Knowingly or not, Hanson recapitulates arguments considered and rejected at Philadelphia in 1787.  In the Federalist, Alexander Hamilton defended the decision of the framers to make presidents re-eligible for multiple terms–originally, with no limit, before the Twenty-Second Amendment was added to the Constitution.  The twin goals of the framers, Hamilton argued, were energy and responsibility in the executive.  A presidency both vigorously powerful and responsible in the uses of power was more likely if the office was unified (with power concentrated in one person), if the term of office was lengthy enough to achieve something (four years was considered relatively long in 1787), and finally if the president could be rewarded for his achievements with re-election, or punished with defeat or deterred by failure from even seeking re-election.

But tell a president, or any executive, that his first term is his only one, and he has less incentive to be either energetic or responsible.  He is a “lame duck” from day one, and the Congress need only stymie him and wait him out.  The temptations are great to divert one’s ambitions from service to the public good to serving only one’s own private interests, either with ill-considered, showboating policy proposals, or with plain old corruption with a view to what one will do next.

There is one constitution among the fifty states that is unwise enough to limit its governors to one term, and that is Virginia.  (Technically, one can serve as governor more than once, but one cannot succeed oneself–so there has only been one governor ever to serve two nonconsecutive terms under the present constitution.)  It has by far the most imbecilic executive branch in America.  The constitution’s effect has been to give the commonwealth a long succession of governors both weak and irresponsible, and the landscape of the Old Dominion is littered with idle ex-governors who, seeking the office too young, accomplishing little, and exiting it still in the prime of life, are now wandering about seeking second acts in their careers.  The state’s two senators are ex-governors, and then there’s the where-are-they-now crowd (Wilder, Allen, Gilmore, and now the disgraced McDonnell).  None of them has much to show for his service as governor, except some mess or other left behind for his successors.  Four years from now (in this case, thank heavens) Terry McAuliffe will be an ex-governor, trying to figure out what to do now after his four years of little achievement.

This is not a change I could wish on the presidency.  Nearly all the problems VDH identifies would be exacerbated by a one-term presidency.  Far better to repeal the Twenty-Second Amendment, and return to the wisdom of the framers.