Why We Should Have a One-Term Limit for Executives

The presidential election season is like a train wreck — we don’t want to watch but we can’t look away. The incumbent president claims that the state of the union is improving or better than it was four years. His challenger asks you, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” You are still unsure what the challenger will actually do in office. You know what the president has been doing, and it’s not as if the sky has fallen. Your gut isn’t quite ready for a leap of faith; so, you reelect an incumbent you’re not too pleased with either.

While the president’s first term is relatively scandal-free, the second term is bumpy. Second-term woes are not uncommon; in many ways, they are the rule and not the exception. Lyndon Johnson declined to run again after a tiresome war, Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal, Ronald Reagan’s second term saw the Iran-Contra Affair, Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, George W. Bush handled a hurricane poorly and oversaw economic collapse, and Barack Obama oversaw a poorly released health insurance exchange website. The president’s staff gets worn out, and the people are worn out. After they reelected someone whose performance is likely to decline, they are always looking for a change.

The same rule applies to mayoral elections as well. Take, for example, Michael Bloomberg in New York City. While the people did elect him three times in a row, his name recognition and massive war chest was more potent than his mayoral record. Dick Daley served as Mayor of Chicago for 22 years. As such, it is very difficult to defeat an incumbent.

It’s time we change the laws. Almost every state allows the governor to run for at least two terms except one — Virginia. Since 1830, Virginia has prohibited its governor from serving consecutive terms. Theoretically, it is possible to serve one four-year term, retire, and run again four years later. This, however, has only occurred once in Virginia’s history. Mills E. Godwin, Jr. served two non-consecutive terms, one in the late 1960s and one in the 1970s.

Many of Virginia’s governors and even Virginians themselves find the one-term limit too restrictive. Here’s the thing though. This limit enables the governor to focus on the four years he or she is in office, not on the upcoming election cycle. This is especially important now. Election cycles are beginning to start much earlier than before because campaigns are becoming much more expensive. By the time midterm elections roll around, most governors are already preparing their reelection campaign. When running for reelection, public officials generally avoid any politically inconvenient moves. Many of these moves can hurt their popularity short-term but can help the people long-term.

In a two-term limit scenario, opposing candidates to incumbents are generally supported by fellow party members on the surface. However, Hillary Clinton had little incentive to vigorously support John Kerry for president in 2004 when her 2008 presidential ambitions are considered. Likewise, Chris Christie had incentive to praise President Obama’s management of Hurricane Sandy so that Mitt Romney couldn’t win. This created an opening for Christie in 2016, during which he would not have to challenge a President Romney in the primaries. Even though many Republicans vilified Christie for making this move, three or four years in political time seems like forever to many.

To sum it all up: First, members from both sides of the political aisle have more incentive to support a one-term incumbent because it won’t impact their electoral chances. They don’t need to strive to sabotage a reelection for political gain. Second, because legislators wouldn’t have to confront their own term limits, there is no selfish reason not to limit gubernatorial or presidential term limits. (Although legislators should have term limits but with longer terms so that they can actually be productive.) Third, voters have reason to support a one-term limit. Monied candidates benefit tremendously from a two-term limit because incumbents are allowed to keep campaign funds from previous election cycles. While money would continue to play a role in politics, voters don’t have to deal with the same person buying the office for decades straight. Corruption will still occur, but with the one-term limit, governors and presidents focus more on policy than on politics.

This is not to downplay the role of money in politics. It is absolutely absurd that millionaires and billionaires can simply buy a candidate, and consequently, the result of an election. Public officials are beholden to the will of the wealthy, not to the will of the people. However, confronting term limits and term lengths is a method that confronts the issue of low political productivity. If a candidate for office can’t get reelected in the near term, they have no reason to be accountable to the special interests that elected them. Instead, they can follow their conscience. The problem with all of this is the trust factor, or the fact that the people simply don’t trust their leaders to do the right thing regardless of how the system is constructed. For that, I do not offer a solution, but I do suggest that we consider creative solutions that understand the motivations of anyone involved in government.


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