The LA Daily News reports that a few more congressmen have joined up with a bid to repeal the 22nd Amendment’s two-term limit for presidents. Doesn’t seem to have a chance, and it’s hard to get worked up over one way or the other, but I do think the country would be a hair more democratic without the amendment. I generally think it’s a good thing for us to have social norms against third terms of the kind that already existed before 1947, but that’s a decision for primary and general election voters to make for themselves (or, in the case of FDR, not to) in each election year, not one for another generation to make for us. And it’s a norm individual voters should each decide to uphold or reject in their own selections, not grounds for a current or past majority to deny members of a minority or future majority the chance to vote for the candidate of their choice (same goes for the far less sympathetic ban on foreign candidates, especially in an era when the ostensible threat some English prince using his wealth and residual pro-British-empire sympathies as a springboard to the Presidency is that much less of a reasonable concern…). As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, when the system works, “we have term limits in this country: they’re called elections.”
The real implications of term limits are far greater here in Mexico, where elected officials at all levels are government are limited to single terms. I heard a convincing lecture here at UDLA last week echoing what some political scientists in the US have warned about term limits: they shatter the already-fragile subject-agent relationship between voters and candidates, in which voters do their best to evaluate the performance of their representatives and reward or punish them at the voting booth. That’s why the conventional wisdom we’ve heard repeated non-stop recently is that your first term as President is for re-election, and the second is for history – a charming idea, maybe, but not a very democratic one. And it becomes much worse when no one’s term at anything is concerned with getting elected again. Defenders of the term limits I spoken to here argue that in a parliamentary system where voters are choosing parties rather than candidates (a set-up the lecturer is opposed to as well, though I’m not), this makes little difference, even holding voting based on parties constant, in a scenario without term limits voters have the chance in party elections to reward or punish incumbents, and if those incumbents make it to the top of the party’s list, then all voters get the chance to take performance into account. This professor isn’t the only Mexican I’ve spoken to here who identifies term limits as one of the reasons they feel ignored by their elected leaders, who are looking ahead not to re-election but to currying favor with party elites to make it onto the ballot for a different office (Mexico also seems to provide support, incidentally, for another hypothesis about term limits: that they reduce institutional conflict between different branches of government as you see more of the same people cycling through different offices). Of course that concern is also heightened by the overwhelming perception of party corruption, which is itself the main argument I’ve heard from Mexicans for keeping term limits in place. So earning faith that the system works seems the first step here towards convincing voters here that elections are term limits enough.