The Downside of Term Limits

Over at TAP, Dana Goldstein seems to have come away from the Bloomberg-term limits soap opera with the ultimate impression that limits have little practical effect, especially when it comes to increasing participation in public office. Still, there’s at least one line that caught my eye:

Bloomberg has been, undoubtedly, a more-than-competent mayor. Though advocates for issues ranging from education to affordable housing to historical preservation call his record mixed, the facts on the ground are that crime is down, tourism is up, and the mayor has built his second term around a bold plan to make New York City a worldwide leader on environmental sustainability, with the goal of cutting carbon emissions by 30 percent over the next two decades.

So given his 70 percent approval rating and credible claim to a progressive legacy, should liberals and good-government types throw caution to the wind and embrace Bloomberg’s power grab? After all, the drive to enact term limits during the 1990s was funded by private interests and part of a nationwide conservative attack on the concept of making a career out of elected public service. In hindsight, many states and municipalities that embraced term limits have come to regret it, realizing that governing, like any other job, is done best by those with expertise and a long view.

Phil Hardberger, the mayor of San Antonio, recently told The New York Times that term limits have been an “unmitigated disaster” for his city. “We do a lot of churning here, but we don’t produce a lot of butter,” said Hardberger, who is leading a ballot drive to allow officials to serve four terms instead of two.

Not that it’s fundamental to Goldstein’s overall point, but I don’t really see why “good government types” would embrace term limits in the first place. Governments, especially in such major urban areas as New York City, are big complicated things. It takes time to learn your way around, and certainly takes time to craft policies. As the mayor in the example lets on, the problem with term limits is that, by the time you’ve gotten a feel for things and eveyone’s crafted a package, the positions are forcibly turned over and everything gets scuttled. There’s no time for expertise to be built up, and because power bases can’t be cultivated, aspiring officials become dependant on interest groups to facilitate their runs for legislative office, in particular.

But more than that, if anyone fancies themselves a “good government type” and also favors term limits, I have three words for you; George. W. Bush. Imagine for a second that President Bill Clinton could have sought a 3rd term in 2000. He went into the year carrying an approval rating well into the 60% range, he’d won two broad electoral victories already, and he would have had the advantage of incumbency at a time when people were generally happy with the direction of the country. Indeed, even his dull, politically awkward Vice-President won the popular vote and came within a hair of winning the electoral college, Clinton could have taken 52% of the popular vote and added, at least, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Ohio to the states Gore carried, and pretty easily won re-election against Governor Bush.

And the results? No upwardly skewed tax packages busting the budget in 2001 and 2003. Less systematic dismantlng of environmental regulations. No “Rovian politics.” No Iraq war. No Gitmo. No Vice-President Cheney. I could go on like this all day long, and it’s pretty hard to argue that the course of history would have been drastically different had George W. Bush not been President in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And it’s not unfair at all to lay a substantial part of the blame for that unfortunate circumstance square at the feet of the 22nd amendment.