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The Perils of a Second Term
by Russell L. Riley


November 19, 2004

Second terms have seldom been kind to those presidents who have won them. Richard Nixon was hounded from office over Watergate. The Iran-Contra scandal disabled Ronald Reagan with charges of malfeasance. And Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern ended any chance that his second four years would be remembered mainly for his accomplishments.

It is tempting to dismiss each of these failures as idiosyncratic: If presidents would just keep their pants up and incompetents or burglars off the White House payroll, all would be fine. But the chain of second-term disasters, reaching back over half a century, suggests a persistent pattern - and special vulnerabilities for George W. Bush.

What makes second terms presidential minefields? There are several reasons.

One is that political matters often ripen slowly. It is generally not true that presidents reap what they sow - they are often out of office before their labor yields its fruit. Second-term presidents, however, are much more likely to be confronted directly with the consequences of their own policy choices.

If, in their first four years, they have favored short-term gains at long-term expense, the costs of those decisions are likely to appear during the second four years. This may be where Iraq most closely resembles Vietnam. The consequences of the American intervention in Southeast Asia barely registered in the 1964 election. Yet the country almost fell apart over them during the next four years of Democratic rule.

That the war in Iraq may have been Bush's political salvation in 2004, making him an irreplaceable "war president," is no guarantee that it will not haunt him - or his party - in the years ahead.

Likewise, political scandals may take years to develop fully. Clinton's legal troubles with Monica Lewinsky grew out of conflicts rooted in his behavior as governor of Arkansas years before.

Bush will carry the burden of several ongoing investigations into his second term - prison misconduct at Abu Ghraib, the illegal conveyance of state secrets to Israel, and the exposure of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. These issues all maintain their political potency precisely because the key players are still in office - where they remain public targets.

Of greatest concern with the current White House, however, is the dangerous psychology that re-elections produce. As the late presidential scholar Richard Neustadt observed, the winners have passed history's big test, which conveys a sense of political invincibility. Second-term administrations are subsequently prone to arrogant, rash initiatives. There is enormous pressure to act quickly, before time reduces the victors to lame ducks.

Some of the most infamous instances of presidential imprudence have followed closely on re-election. Just after his 1936 victory, Franklin Roosevelt moved to pack the Supreme Court. Following his 1964 triumph, LBJ pressed ahead with the Great Society and simultaneously stepped up the costly war in Vietnam. And after his win in 1972, Nixon thumbed his nose at Congress by impounding funds and trying to plant his own loyalists throughout the federal government, inflaming tensions with Capitol Hill just as Watergate was erupting.

The signature Bush style - instinctual politics, a disdain for nuance, and a fluency with cowboy talk - has served him, and in some important ways, the nation, well over the past four years. But these traits suggest a special vulnerability to the temptations of arrogance that await every re-inaugurated president. History suggests that Bush's natural strength could, in a second term, prove to be his greatest weakness. Of such stuff is political tragedy made.

Russell L. Riley
Charlottesville, VA - USA


Note: Russell L. Riley is an Associate Professor and Research Fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.



Note: Comments published on Viewpoints are the opinions of the writer
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