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."

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, then a flight officer from the carrier USS Ticonderoga, who was patrolling the air above the Maddox and the Turner Joy at the time of the alleged second attack, told his superiors that he saw "no boats, no boat wakes, no ricochets off boats," and "no boat impacts, no torpedo wakes." Ordered to bomb North Vietnam the next morning, in answer to "last night's attack on the destroyers," Stockdale later wrote that he "felt like I had been doused with ice water," saying, "How do I get in touch with the president? He's going off half-cocked." In a 1968 hearing investigating the second attack—the justification for the Tonkin Gulf resolution and the foundation stone of the Vietnam War—senators confronted Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara with evidence that the Administration had deceived Congress about the attack. "I must say," Senator J. William Fulbright told McNamara, "this raises very serious questions about how you make decisions to go to war."

"Credibility gap" entered the political lexicon in 1965, according to the historian Robert Dallek, one of Johnson's biographers, in reference not only to Johnson's misrepresentations about Vietnam but also to his "exaggerating" of the threat of a communist takeover in the Dominican Republic, which he used to justify sending in the Marines. "How do you know when Lyndon Johnson is telling the truth?" a period joke went. "When he pulls his earlobe or scratches his chin, he's telling the truth. When he begins to move his lips, you know he's lying." After the Tet Offensive, in January and February of 1968, exposed the chasm between the Administration's claims of progress in the war and the reality, Johnson disappeared over the edge of his credibility gap and significant opposition to his renomination emerged from within his own party. On March 31, 1968, perhaps mindful of Truman's similar speech on March 30, 1952, Johnson announced that he would not seek another term. Less than four years earlier he had won office by the largest popular-vote margin to that point in history.

The reader will see where this is going. The still missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction constitute Bush's Tonkin Gulf. We now know that everybody in the Administration above the rank of messenger—except the President—knew that the documents linking Saddam Hussein to an effort to obtain uranium from Niger were forgeries. We know that the intelligence agencies cast doubt on Saddam's continued possession of WMD and on his supposed ties to Osama bin Laden. We know more every day. By next year we should know enough to decide whether the President was misled or misled us about the WMD and the "imminent threat" posed by a nation that spent $1 billion on defense last year to a nation that spent nearly $400 billion.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was a popular war. The occupation of Iraq will not be popular. Already Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, has admitted that our troops face a "guerrilla war" in Iraq, and military experts have revived a locution from the Vietnam War to describe current U.S. strategy—"counterinsurgency." At this rate it won't be long before Bush starts urging Americans weary of what many will call the Iraqi "quagmire" to "stay the course."

If Bush had leveled with us about the millennial strategy behind his war, if he had said, "We don't know whether Saddam has WMD, but we think he does. We are pretty sure he has no current ties to al Qaeda. We know he had nothing to do with 9/11. But we must put American lives at risk and kill Iraqi soldiers and civilians, possibly in great numbers, and we must spend billions occupying and rebuilding Iraq after Saddam is gone, in order to make Iraq a democracy and unleash a tsunami of democracy across the Arab world, which in the long run is our best defense against Islamist terrorism"—if he had delivered such a speech, Congress would have voted down his war resolution. The UN Security Council would have dispelled any wisp of international legitimacy by not giving its oblique endorsement of a U.S. attack on Iraq. There would have been no war.

"The war is supposed to be over," a sergeant in the 110° heat of an Iraqi summer told a reporter for The Washington Post, "but every day we hear of another soldier getting killed. Is it worth it? Saddam isn't in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here?" If the guerrilla war in Iraq drags on, more and more Americans are likely to ask the same question; and many will be led to ask how we got there in the first place. In his famous 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, a decorated veteran of the war, said, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" By next fall Americans may be asking a tougher question: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a lie?