Politics September 2003

The One-Term Tradition

Bush should not be overly sanguine about his chances for re-election

If George W. Bush knows what's good for him, he won't run for a second term—the nemesis of presidential reputation. If Bill Clinton had retired after one term, both he and the public would have been spared his impeachment over the Lewinsky matter. A single-term Ronald Reagan would not have somnambulated into the impeachment-worthy Iran-contra affair. If Richard Nixon hadn't run again, "Watergate" would refer merely to the complex at the corner of Virginia Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway, in the District of Columbia. If FDR had not won a third term, in 1940, he would have been remembered as much for his dictatorial attempt to pack the Supreme Court, among other hubristic second-term blunders, as for the New Deal.

Haunted by the ghosts of the doughboys he had led into World War I, Woodrow Wilson in his second term lost his capacity for pragmatic accommodation in his fight for the League of Nations, which was to him the only redemption for their sacrifice and the only balm for his guilt. Refusing to compromise with the Senate, Wilson broke his health campaigning for the League; and then the Senate, in his words, "broke the heart of the world" by rejecting it. William McKinley and Abraham Lincoln paid for their second terms not with their reputations but with their lives.

The second-term curse is democracy's revenge on unaccountable power. A President who does not have to answer to the voters is a sort of lame-duck king. Knowing that his power is inexorably diminishing can tempt a President to overreach before it runs out. Beginning with the second administration of Thomas Jefferson, whose "Dambargo" shut down the nation's commerce ("At New York during 1809," a nineteenth-century historian tells us, "thirteen hundred men were imprisoned for no other crime than being ruined by the embargo"), few lame-duck Presidents have resisted the temptation to act like kings—a proclivity to trouble sleep next November.

Since the era of mass politics began, with Andrew Jackson's victorious campaign in 1828, nine of the nineteen Presidents who sought a consecutive second term have been spared the embarrassment by either their party (Franklin Pierce) or the voters. Seven Presidents chose not to run for a second full term. Five Vice Presidents who came to office after the death or resignation of a President have been denied election to a full term. If we subtract the five one-term Presidents who died in office, nineteen of the twenty-nine remaining Presidents since Jackson were effectively one-termers. Clearly, "the 'tradition' of two terms," one careful scholar concludes, "is no tradition at all ... The American presidential tenure experience comes closer to being a one-term tradition."

What are the odds that George W. Bush will be a one-termer? For any President, history suggests, the odds of re-election are about even; for Bush they are perhaps worse than that, whatever the polls now suggest. There are no laws of political history, but a review of why incumbents have lost may help us understand why Bush may lose too.

The nineteenth-century incumbents lost for reasons too various and time-bound for useful comparison. Not so with their twentieth-century fellows in defeat, who lost because a third party split the vote (Taft), or the business cycle disobliged them (Hoover, Carter), or both (G.H.W. Bush). President Bush won't face a third-party challenge from a former Republican President, as Taft did in 1912, or from a billionaire paranoiac, as his father did in 1992. He will, however, come before the voters with the abysmal distinction of being the first President in decades to have lost America jobs during his tenure: that is, barring a barely conceivable surge in growth, there will be fewer total jobs in November of 2004 than there were in January of 2001. Even Bush's father, even Jimmy Carter, created jobs. In November of 2004 interest rates and inflation will be low, unemployment may be lower than now and growth higher, but a chart graphing the number of jobs created or lost in every presidency since 1928 will still show every President above the line of ignominy except two. You don't want to be compared to Herbert Hoover.

You don't want to be compared to Lyndon Johnson, either—the last of the four twentieth-century Presidents who did not seek re-election. On the night that the first, Theodore Roosevelt, was elected to his first full term, in 1904, he promised not to run again in 1908. Calvin Coolidge would have won easily had he run in 1928. Harry Truman did not have a prayer in 1952. Johnson needed a prayer in 1968. Korea sank Truman. The Korean "police action," as he called it to avoid "war," had the support of nearly three quarters of Americans when it began, in 1950; but stalemated, it became deeply unpopular. Vietnam sank Johnson—its endlessness, but also his inveterately deceitful handling of it.

In December of 1966 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remarked on a "diffuse discontent and disquietude" in the country that was prompted by "President Johnson's character" as well as by the war. Johnson's escalation of the war began in deception, with the Tonkin Gulf incident. After three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2, 1964, hitting it with a single bullet, and after the captain of the Maddox made a claim two days later (quickly retracted) that a second attack had been made on his ship and the Turner Joy, Johnson asked Congress for a resolution—which he later likened to "grandma's nightshirt," because "it covered everything"—authorizing him to take offensive action in Vietnam to defend U.S. forces. He did not tell Congress that the Maddox had been conducting electronic espionage against the North, or that the whole incident had been preceded by South Vietnamese commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast—a context of provocation that would have undercut his charge of North Vietnamese "aggression."

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of The Rascal King (1992) and The World According to Peter Drucker (1998). He is at work on a book about business and politics in post-Civil War America. More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In