Guest Commentary:Re-election push overshadows the job of being the president

Associated PressPresident Donald Trump speaks to a group of young Republicans at Dream City Church, on Tuesday, June 23, in Phoenix.

Getting re-elected has now become an obsession with first-term presidents, at least since 1951 when the 22nd Amendment was ratified. Indeed, this may be one of the unintended consequences of that amendment.

By setting a two-term limit on the presidency, which had been prompted by the extraordinary four-term presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country, in effect, turned the office into an eight-year position with a midterm evaluation which the candidate could either pass or fail.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the last president ever to forgo a bid for a second term, which he decided upon in the spring of 1968. Given what all happened in the country in the months leading up to the chaotic party convention that year, that must rank among the smartest decision of the modern presidency.

The Vietnam War had begun to consume Johnson's energy and got in the way of his domestic program, the "Great Society." And he didn't know how to end the war, so, he decided to end his own political career.

That fall, Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey on a "law and order," "peace with honor" platform, and Johnson was soon back in Texas, enjoying his retirement. He let his hair grow long, looking like one of the Beatniks who used to taunt him, calling him a baby-killer. He was now invincible.

But how many politicians are smart enough to know when it's time to quit, go home and let their hair grow for a change? Quitting can be very hard when you're conditioned to see it as a defeat, a failing grade under a pass/fail system.

Remarkably, the U.S. Constitution is silent on the subject of re-eligibility. In defense of the draft Constitution, then before the New York state ratifying convention in the spring of 1788, Alexander Hamilton argued that the silence was not an oversight.

He wrote in Federalist #72, released on March 19 that year, that the Constitution was intended to avoid any term-limits for they might stifle the operation of that office.

But how could a limit on re-eligibility do that? His answer: "One ill effect of the exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior." Then, he added this: "The desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct."

The thought of placing a fixed term-limit must've been on many people's minds at the convention in the summer of 1787. But it was then widely assumed that "The General" was going to be the nation's first president. And it would've been extremely awkward to broach the subject with the man in the room, presiding!

At any rate, writing three months before Hamilton wrote those confident words, Thomas Jefferson, now in France as America's minister, told his friend James Madison that he was indeed impressed with the framers' creation, only they could've done better. There was something that "I dislike, strongly dislike," he wrote.

In that letter, dated Dec. 20, 1787, Jefferson bemoaned the "abandonment" of the "principle of rotation," especially "in the case of the President." Without a written limit attached to the office, he argued, we're guaranteeing that "the first magistrate will always be re-elected. He is then an officer for life."

Jefferson went on: "The power of removing every fourth year by the vote of the people is a power which they will not exercise." And "if they were disposed to exercise it"? Then, "They would not be permitted." He did not explain that, but one gets the drift.

Sometime thereafter, in 1788, Jefferson expressed his disappointment to Washington, as well, saying "I dislike strongly the perpetual reeligibility of the President. This, I fear, will make that an office for life, first, and then hereditary." He expressed a hope that the country would someday find a way to "prevent it."

Jefferson's wish came true 163 years later. But long before the 22nd Amendment ,the controversy resumed without him and without Hamilton, who'd died in 1826 and 1804, respectively.

In his "Democracy in America," published in 1835, a classic in its own time, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nobleman, age 29, acknowledged the towering achievement of the federal Constitution. But he lamented the American people's infatuation with the idea of equality.

A runaway democracy for Tocqueville meant "tyranny of the majority," which in turn spelled despotism. And at the heart of the problem was the privilege of self-succession, the re-eligibility in the nation's presidency.

Even though Tocqueville only saw the country during Andrew Jackson's first term in office, that gave him the vantage-point from which he could best understand the flaw in the Constitution.

What he did was to tie the lure of re-election directly to the corruption of incumbency, wherein the first term was reduced to a well-oiled machine for power-grab.

Denying an incumbent a chance to try a second term would seem counter-intuitive today, for that would deny the nation the benefit of experience. Tocqueville agreed.

But he believed that the dangers inherent in the sheer prospect of a second term far outweighed any benefits that might accrue from a positive learning-curve.

In a stunning anticipation of John Bolton's new book on Donald Trump's presidency, Tocqueville asserted that there's really nothing more important to an incumbent than "to be re-elected"; indeed, it is the "chief aim of the president."

This is what Bolton wrote: "I am hard-pressed to identify any serious Trump decision during my tenure that wasn't driven by reelection calculations."

We've had three presidents impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. President Trump was impeached by the Democratic-majority House for "abuse of power" and "obstruction of Congress." Then, the Republican-majority Senate acquitted him.

A matter of some significance in this acquittal was that the indicted president was a candidate for a second term. He had announced his intention to seek it on the very day he was sworn in as president by filing his re-election campaign with the Federal Election Commission.

That was 46 months before the next election, which compares dramatically with the numbers for Trump's five predecessors: Reagan 12, GHW Bush 12, Clinton 19, GW Bush 18 and Obama 19. Thus, none of them earlier than the third year of his incumbency.

It has been said that we now live in an age of "Permanent Campaign." This is when one can no longer tell whether the person in the White House is leading or running, governing or campaigning, because the line is hopelessly blurred, much like the horizon on the sea on a foggy morning.

Finally, if Mr. Trump is nominated this summer, as he will be, his party will have the distinction of being the first ever to nominate an impeached man, accused of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Whatever happens in November, the party will have taken a stand several weeks prior with respect to what it is, whether it's still the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Or, perhaps, it has now evolved into something less abstract, less remote, something more concrete, more immediate, more personal, with a ring to remind everyone of the importance of personal loyalty to one man, as opposed to the Constitution.

We're in a way reliving the Age of Andrew Jackson, and this is why I found myself rereading Tocqueville hoping to gain some perspective on this most singular of American political phenomena, Donald Trump.

Kang is a professor of political science emeritus at Hartwick College.

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