Pleading the 22nd

Let’s be honest:  Deep down, we all knew this election would eventually just be about sex.  And now that we’ve finally reached that point, the only question is why it took so damned long.

There certainly wasn’t any way around it.  In a race between a serial adulterer and the wife of an accused rapist, it was foolhardy to think we’d make it all the way to November without mentioning either one, especially when the first of those candidates has absolutely no filter between his brain and his mouth.

Toward the end of last Monday’s debate, Donald Trump triumphantly declared, “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it.  I just can’t do it.  It’s inappropriate.  It’s not nice.’”

And then, on Friday, he did it.  That is, he accused Hillary Clinton of “enabling” her husband to abuse various women while he was president and for “attacking” the reputations of those women after the fact.  Media and the internet being what they are, Trump’s charges were immediately turned right around vis-à-vis his own history of sleeping with women who are not his wife and for generally being a pervy little creep his entire adult life.  To this obvious point, Trump responded the only way he knows how:  By making himself the exception to his own rule, saying, “I don’t talk about it.”

To recap, then:  According to the Donald, cheating on your spouse is politically irrelevant, but being that same spouse disqualifies you from being president.  And the mystery of Trump’s weak support among women continues.

Not to change the subject on you, but this seems like an opportune moment to rethink the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits any president from serving more than two terms.  Passed in 1947 by a Republican Congress annoyed with Franklin Roosevelt’s precedent-breaking four electoral victories, the amendment has scrambled history in ways far more consequential than we typically appreciate—more often than not, I suspect, for the worse.

Since the 22nd Amendment went into effect in 1951, five U.S. presidents have won (and served) two full terms in office, only to be denied a chance at a third.  Of those five, only George W. Bush entered his final year with an approval rating well below 50 percent, meaning that the remaining four—Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and Obama—had every reason to run again, if they so chose.  Considering how beloved that quartet of leaders were in their respective times—and how much each of them seemed to relish the gig while it lasted—who’s to say that at least one of them wouldn’t have taken his chances with the electorate in pursuit of Term Number Three?

Think of it:  Eisenhower vs. Kennedy in 1960.  Reagan vs. Dukakis in 1988.  Clinton vs. George W. Bush in 2000.  Obama vs. Trump in 2016.

That last matchup is almost too delicious to pass up, and one can’t help but wonder how different this year would’ve been if Democrats had gotten what they truly wanted:  Another four years of Barack Obama.  For all that Obama has done to annoy his liberal base over the last eight years—particularly on foreign policy, civil liberties and Wall Street—the American left is nonetheless in general agreement that Obama’s presidency has been a net-plus for humanity—not least in comparison to his immediate predecessor—and were he eligible to run for a third term, not even Hillary Clinton would stand in his way.

More to the point:  If the Democrats re-nominated Obama and the Republicans still nominated Trump, how could Obama possibly lose?

We know how savagely Obama can cut Trump down to size—and how much he thrills in doing so.  We know what a happy-go-lucky campaigner he is and how dazzlingly he can command a crowd.  On policy, he and Hillary are sufficiently interchangeable that their primary fight in 2008 essentially boiled down to character.  And speaking of character….well, regardless of whether the allegations about Clinton’s secrecy and paranoia are warranted, Obama has faced no such charges in any way, shape or form.  He may be controversial on policy, but on personal morality he is beyond reproach.

This doesn’t mean that Hillary can’t still pull this thing out, or that she wouldn’t make a perfectly decent commander-in-chief.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that an Obama-Trump race wouldn’t feature a thousand and one glittering distractions, yielding a much more competitive race than anyone could’ve thought possible.

All the same, there’s no way around the fact that Hillary’s proverbial “baggage” is the only thing preventing the 2016 election from being something close to a cakewalk.  Her penchant for concealing the truth has made Trump’s own dishonestly slightly more palatable, while her de facto tolerance for her husband’s philandering has—in the minds of our dumb electorate—all but neutralized the flagrant and appalling misogyny of her cynical, vacuous opponent.

It would be nice if a greater number of Americans could distinguish unscrupulousness from outright villainy, or could appreciate the difference between trashing your husband’s mistresses and trashing every woman you’ve ever met.

Then again, it would also be nice to live in a country that overwhelmingly recognized Donald Trump as the greedy, selfish, emotionally stunted man-child that he is, and thus never nominated him for president in the first place.

But apparently that country is unavailable this year, so instead we have to pretend that all sexual and ethical peccadilloes are created equal and that it makes total effing sense that the party of “family values” and “Christian conservatives” would ally with—and defend—a twice-divorced beauty pageant guru who cusses like a sailor and refers to the communion wafer as “my little cracker.”

As a non-Republican, I of course find this hilarious, just as I assume every true blue conservative finds it repulsive.  For all that is wrong with the Democratic Party as a political organization, it nonetheless always manages to nominate for president an intelligent, clever, empathetic, even-tempered public servant; never in my lifetime has it succumbed to someone like Donald Trump—a fact that will have to serve as silver lining for the dumb rule that prevents any party from simply nominating the same guy over and over again until we’re actually sick of him.

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One and Done

For whatever reason, April 2014 has swiftly become Living Ex-Presidents Awareness Month.  Whether by chance or design, the former occupants of the Oval Office are eating up newsprint everywhere you look.

You’ve got Jimmy Carter popping up on talk shows from coast to coast, promoting his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.

There was the gathering in College Station, Texas, over the weekend to observe the 25th anniversary of George H.W. Bush coming to power, and to honor the legacy of Bush’s administration, on which there are several books in the works.

Over in nearby Dallas, there was a gallery opening at the George W. Bush Library, featuring oil portraits of foreign leaders by our most recent former commander-in-chief.

And Bill Clinton?  Well, since when has he ever taken a day off?

For my money, the most interesting of our living ex-presidents’ exploits at this moment concern Carter and the elder Bush—two men who, for all their political differences, share the dubious distinction of having lost their bids for re-election.  Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 amidst the Iran hostage crisis and a lousy economy.  Bush lost to Clinton in 1992 in a three-way contest that also featured H. Ross Perot, in a campaign centered, again, on a lousy economy.

As duly noted by most people, to be a one-term president is axiomatically to be a failure.  Whatever one might have accomplished in four years as America’s chief executive, if one fails to be re-elected—for whatever reason—then nothing else really matters.  Sure, forging a lasting peace in the Middle East is all well and good, but if you can’t then secure 51 percent of the vote here at home, what have you really brought to the table?

Accordingly, most of these electoral rejects spend a great deal of their post-presidential years in a kind of defensive crouch, having to underline their successes against a chorus that seems only interested in reciting their faults.

Of the ten highest-ranked presidents in U.S. history—based on the average of 17 scholarly polls dating back to 1948—the first nine were elected to a second term.  Today, let us attempt to draw some wisdom from the tenth, James K. Polk.

The nation’s 11th president, serving between 1845 and 1849, Polk is periodically cited as among America’s most underrated chief executives.  Probably his biggest “legacy” concerns his gift as a land-grabber:  In the quest for expanding the official borders of the United States, Polk essentially picked up where Thomas Jefferson left off.  Following the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain, the United States under Polk secured more than one million square miles of new territory—an expansion greater even than the Louisiana Purchase.

You may well ask:  With such a titanic accomplishment to his name, why did Polk not get elected to a second term?

Answer:  Because he didn’t run for a second term.  In fact, he never intended to.  At the highly-contested Democratic convention of 1844, Polk made it abundantly clear that, if nominated and if elected, he would be a one-term president.  Period, full stop.

Whatever the political calculus was at the time, Polk made good on this campaign promise.  According to legend, he outlined four specific policy goals upon taking office and accomplished all of them within his four-year tenure.  As such, he could then depart the White House in March of 1849 with his head held high, his mission having been accomplished.  Polk retired to private life, died three months later, and that was that.

I wonder:  If Jimmy Carter and/or George H.W. Bush had announced at the outset that they would not seek a second term, and if their presidencies had otherwise shaped out exactly as they did, would we view their tenures differently than we now do?  Do we not lay far too much emphasis on winning re-election as an indication of presidential fortitude, compared to what one actually accomplishes while one is in office?

In the future, might the country be better served if more candidates took Polk’s lead by pledging a single term with a short, but clear, list of goals?  Such an approach would surely take most of the guesswork out of assessing whether a particular leader is a success, and it would lower the impossibly high expectations branded upon even our most modest commanders-in-chief.

Most important of all, self-imposed term limits would concentrate the mind and workload of the president in question, freeing him to tackle a specific, narrow and realistic agenda, rather than attempting—inevitably in vain—to solve all problems at all times.

It sure seems like an experiment that would be worth trying.  It’s not like it hasn’t been done before.

Bloomberg, Revisited

Last July, I sprinkled faint praise on Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, for having the gumption to push through his initiative to ban large containers of sugary beverages in his city’s theaters and restaurants, no matter how many people objected.

In a political world of timidity and pandering, I wrote, here at least was a guy with the courage of his convictions and the force of will to get the job done.

It appears that not everyone in America agrees.

Last Tuesday was to be when New York’s famous (or infamous) soda ban took effect, except that on the previous day, a New York Supreme Court judge invalidated the whole bloody thing, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.”

And the floodgates of schadenfreude burst open.

As reported pretty much everywhere, response to the news of the soda ban’s sudden demise, both within and without New York’s city limits, has been decidedly of the “good riddance” variety.  The Onion, reliable as ever, summed things up nicely with the headline, “Opposition To Soda Ban Sad Proof That Americans Still Fight For What They Believe In.”

A good deal of this antipathy seems as much against Bloomberg himself as against his latest public health pet project.

In point of fact, for as long as he has been mayor, Bloomberg has invited intense feedback from his not-always-adoring public.  He could fairly be described as a “polarizing” figure, not least for his ability to provoke a polarized reaction in a single person.

As a case in point, it is worth recalling Bloomberg’s rather memorable 2008 campaign to extend his own tenure.  Faced with an imminent forced retirement from the mayoralty thanks to a 1993 term limit law, Bloomberg successfully lobbied the City Council to extend the mayor’s maximum reign from two four-year terms to three.

Tellingly, New York public opinion was largely against the term extension idea—voters have affirmed such limits every time they have been given the chance, including in 2010—yet Bloomberg nonetheless won a third term in 2009 and has maintained relatively high approval ratings for most of his rule.

In short, however strongly the good people of New York have judged Bloomberg’s ideas and works, they have come to stridently disapprove of his methods.  The ends are not justified by the means, and in this case, the people didn’t much care for the ends, either.

The scorn of the Onion notwithstanding, I can only applaud this state of the public mind as a rare and admirable defense of principle over personality.

To be certain, the principle being defended in the present controversy is not a noble one.  The right to pour indiscriminate amounts of high fructose corn syrup down one’s gullet without having to shuffle back to the counter for a refill is (probably) not what Patrick Henry quite had in mind in proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

But that does not make such a concern illegitimate, for the principle behind the principle—the right to do what one damn well pleases—is as central to the American way of life as ever it has been, and must always be guarded and reaffirmed.

The challenge, then, is to direct these healthy and essential affirmations of one’s liberties toward more weighty matters.

I am reminded of the old gripe about how much better shape America might be in if the folks who spend an entire weekend camped outside Best Buy to purchase the newest iPhone were able to summon equal passion and dedication toward, say, eradicating HIV in Africa or combating climate change here in the States.

Our great country is not suffering from an enthusiasm deficit so much as a seriousness deficit.

As for Mayor Bloomberg himself:  With this setback in his quest for a healthier New York (following so many successes), he has perhaps been humbled to learn, at long last, that the keys to Gracie Mansion and a few billion dollars license a person to accomplish only so much unilaterally.  That if the common folk are truly disdainful of their leader’s actions, they will eventually rebel.

Then again, Bloomberg has vowed in no uncertain terms to continue his war against liquid sugar to the bitter, bubbly end.  In the arrogance department he, like Charles Foster Kane, may “need more than one lesson.”  The question is, with less than a year left in his (apparently final) term, whether there is time enough for him to receive it.