Twilight of Our Political Gods

For some time I thought that the Twenty-Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was probably the best way to ensure that political leaders do not overstay their welcome, and, just as importantly, wear out their effectiveness. This Amendment bars US Presidents from holding office for more than two four-year terms.

Perhaps I had forgotten the travails of President George W. Bush’s predecessors in their second term, but his own current predicament shows that the constitutional limit has its own problems. For one thing, it makes the President a lame duck sometime in his second term. Does anyone remember that after his re-election Bush promised to reform the pension system (“Social Security”)? Now he is clearly hamstrung not only by the Democratic opposition, but also, and perhaps more so, by the succession struggles within his own party.

However, the fate of Bush’s friend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, shows that lame-duck status can occur even without a constitutional term limit – indeed, without a written constitution at all. Blair made the fatal mistake of setting his own limit to his tenure of office by saying that he would not contest a fourth election as leader of the Labour Party. But, even without such a vow, he would find it difficult after nine years in office to combine a program of reform with a sense of what can be achieved given the mood of his party and of the country.

Indeed, reforms announced by Blair increasingly sound like empty promises, because the apparently inevitable has happened: the Prime Minister has lost touch with the public. What used to be his charisma is now the permanent re-enactment of the all-too-familiar.