The Curse of the Second Term

From Wilson to Clinton, things usually don't go well for the reelected. History has plenty of lessons Bush should be mindful of

By Mike McNamee

Look at the record of Presidents in their second terms, and you might wonder why President George W. Bush is devoting hundreds of millions of dollars and months of his life to winning reelection. Just consider what happened in the fifth through eighth White House years of Presidents whose pleas for "four more years" were rewarded:

• Woodrow Wilson's internationalist vision for the post-World War I era was rejected by the Senate, and he spent his final months in office as a cloistered invalid.

• Franklin D. Roosevelt made the biggest political miscalculation of his career with his 1937 plan to pack the Supreme Court. Democrats suffered badly in the 1938 midterm elections.

• Dwight D. Eisenhower's Administration drifted along as he suffered several second-term heart attacks.

• Richard M. Nixon didn't last out his second term, forced out of office by the Watergate scandal less than two years after his 49-state landslide.

• Ronald Reagan's second term was scarred by the Iran-Contra scandal, which inflicted deep wounds on the trusting relationship the Gipper had forged with the American people.

• Bill Clinton's amorous adventures in the Oval Office (and his struggle with the meaning of "is") landed him in a pitched battle against impeachment.

"Seven Presidents in the 20th century [including Harry S. Truman] won reelection, and not one had a successful second term," says David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who worked for three of them (Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton), as well as short-timer Gerald Ford. "The tales of the past are cautionary for a Bush second term" -- especially given the President's struggle to outline a domestic policy agenda for the future.

What happens to turn these Commanders in Chief -- whose first-term successes won them the voters' approval -- into scandal-ridden bumblers? At a New York University forum on "How Would George Bush Govern in a Second Term?" Gergen mapped the tar pits that have entombed second-termers:

Hubris: "You've beaten the other side two times in a row -- the rules may not apply to you any more," Gergen says. FDR's plan to expand the Supreme Court -- designed to dilute the influence of an anti-New Deal majority -- was a prime example.

A Thin Bench: The team that originally carried a candidate to victory and labored through four hard years to a second win tends to scatter by Year 5. Second-stringers step up -- and fall short. The political masterminds of Reagan's first term -- James A. Baker III, Edwin Meese, and Michael Deaver -- were replaced by the tone-deaf Donald T. Regan.

Political Backlash: The midterm elections of Year 6 are murder on the incumbent's party. A lame duck second-termer loses whatever stroke he had on Capitol Hill.

Flagging Energy: If a President runs on his first-term record, he may lack a mandate to get much done in his second. Besides, "anything you really wanted to do, you did in the first term," Gergen says.

Scandal: See "hubris," or perhaps you could call it "chickens coming home to roost" -- but the second term is when scandals emerge (Watergate, Monicagate) or blossom (Iran-Contra).

Second-termers aren't impotent. Brought up short by Iran-Contra, Reagan (aided by his wife, Nancy) shook up his staff, overhauled the tax code, and presided over the end of the Cold War. Clinton's push to eliminate the budget deficit was a big success in his second term, equivalent to Nixon going to China and easing Sino-U.S. tensions.

So as he struggles to win a second term, Bush needs to give some thought to how he's going to defy the odds -- and make four more years pay.

McNamee is deputy chief of BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

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