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Summers' misguided constitutional tinkering

Lawrence Summers has some ideas for tinkering with the constitutional framework, including the suggestion to make the presidency a single six-year term. He should stick to economics.

First of all, the case that Summers makes that “second presidential terms are very difficult for the president and his team,” while a common complaint, is actually very weak.

He can point to all sorts of second-term miseries going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the apparent pattern doesn’t hold up that well. A classic example is Richard Nixon. Yes, Watergate dominated and ruined Nixon’s second term, but the series of abuses of power that cost him the presidency -- and the initial cover-up -- occurred during his first term.

Similarly, George W. Bush’s second term was spoiled to a great extent by the Iraq war (which Summers bizarrely omits from his summary); Iraq, too, was a first-term decision.

Sure, some presidents have real second-term problems -- Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra is an excellent example. But we have a problem of missing data here: We don’t get examples of troubled first terms followed by successful second terms not because second terms are so difficult, but because presidents with bad first terms usually don’t get a second one.

Unless, as with Nixon and Bush, the full effects of those first-term disasters don’t show up until the fifth and sixth years (at which point Summers and other second-term obsessives mistakenly count those disasters in favor of their argument).

Nor is it the case that only first-term initiatives are successful. Reagan’s second-term foreign policy, despite some hiccups, is generally judged favorably, along with his efforts at tax reform. Yes, Clinton was impeached, but he also delivered peace and prosperity without the White House chaos of his first two years.

And Barack Obama? Surely it’s too soon to tell. It’s unlikely he’ll match the legislative accomplishments of the historic 111th Congress in 2009-10, but he may yet score important climate and immigration initiatives. On foreign affairs, I’d rather wait for actual failure before attempting to analyze his record.

The yearning for a single six-year term betrays a preference for technocratic rule over democratic incentives. For Summers, the re-election campaign is a “substantial additional cost.” It’s true that re-election commands plenty of time and attention from the president personally, and from the administration in general. That time is only a “cost,” however, if it is wasted.

We have to reasons to believe it isn't.

For one thing, the essence of representation is the cycle of promising, election, governing with promises in mind, and then explanation and a new round of promises during the next election campaign. Term limits (including the current two-term limit on the presidency) truncate that process, and weaken representation.

Beyond that, re-election is the main thing that properly aligns the incentives of politicians with those of their constituents. In short: politicians try to make their constituents happy in no small part because they must do so to remain in office. Without the re-election incentive, politicians are even more apt than they already are to follow their own preferences. Fans of technocracy tend to assume that voter preferences are a disruptive influence, and that left to their own devices specialists could find good solutions to most policy problems.

But in a democracy, a “good solution” is one that voters like. And at any rate, presidents who have no electoral incentive are just as likely to ignore specialists as they are to ignore voters.

If there really is a second-term problem -- and I’m not sure there is -- probably the best solution would be to remove the two-term limit. And barring that, the next best solution is to build a system in which second-term presidents are committed to winning a third term for a successor or for their party. That, indeed, is the best thing about vice presidents; it’s also a virtue of the partisan presidency, in which party loyalists rather than people dedicated only to this particular president dominate the White House.

If Summers really wants to use his experience to push a reform of the presidency, he’d be better off urging Obama and the Senate to overhaul executive branch nominations, making it easier for talented people to serve.

That’s something he presumably knows a lot about.

He should leave the constitutional tinkering to others.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg News.

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