Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 72


Here is a daydream of many a political scientist: what if we could have the elections we need in a democracy, with the choice of merit and the accountability of public officials that they exist to produce, without having all the effects of elections on the behavior of candidates, especially incumbent officeholders?  All that pandering to popularity, all that diversion of time and attention from the business of public affairs to the romance of an affair with the public, all that melting of resolution to act on one’s own judgment if it would be risky too close to an election . . .

Alexander Hamilton expressed something of this kind of worry when he said, in Federalist No. 71, that it is “probable, that as [a president] approached the moment when the public were by a new election to signify their sense of his conduct, his confidence and with it, his firmness would decline.”  As with so many things in political life, no perfect solution to this problem presents itself.  The only thing that can shield a sitting president from the concerns (or the temptations) of courting the people’s favor at the expense of his performance of his duties, is making him ineligible for successive terms of office.  One term and out–that would do the trick.

But that alternative, Hamilton strongly argues in No. 72, is much worse than the problem it would putatively solve.  Dismissing a president after one term in office is detrimental both to democracy and to the stability of government.  Re-elibility, to the contrary, “is necessary to enable the people, when they see reason to approve of [a president's] conduct, to continue him in the station, in order to prolong the utility of his talents and virtues, and to secure to the government, the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration.”

Rendering presidents ineligible to succeed themselves would destroy both the energy and the responsibility that Hamilton has insisted are the hallmarks of the office.  We can expect “much less zeal in the discharge of a duty” when an officer sees his expiration date on the near horizon and experiences no inducement to reach for great goals, since no reward of a renewed hold on the office is in prospect.  Along with reduced vigor we might well see greater irresponsibility, a president being tempted to “make the best use of his opportunities, while they lasted,” for personal enrichment, corrupt shakedowns, or even usurpations of power.  Score big, and get out of town.

But even if we suppose the faithful and vigorous dedication of our chief magistrates, why banish the experienced and worthy?  Why change administrations with an unnecessary frequency?  Why populate the land with ex-presidents “wandering among the people like discontented ghosts . . . sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”

Far better to turn the high ambitions of such men to our advantage.  In a comment revealing volumes about its author, Hamilton remarks upon “the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds,” as a driving engine of good government, moving men to “plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit, requiring considerable time to mature and perfect them.”  Notice that Hamilton does not praise the love of popularity, but the love of fame–of a reputation for the ages, not for next week’s Gallup poll.  Men with either of these “ruling passions” will be inclined to reach for the re-election dangled before them.  But remove that incentive, and you will lose only the lovers of fame, not the lovers of popularity.

But what about the Twenty-second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution–proposed in 1947 and ratified in 1951–which capped presidents at two terms (or ten years if succeeding from the vice presidency)?  Does the removal of any further eligibility for a second-term president produce the very effects about which Hamilton worried?  Are presidents both weaker and less accountable executives in their second terms, in ways that should concern us?  Should that Roosevelt-reactive amendment be repealed, for the sake of both democracy and the presidency?

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)


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