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Second Terms: Schools for Scandal?

- June 18, 2012

Nice piece by Ryan Lizza in the forthcoming New Yorker about presidential second terms and what an Obama second term might look like.

While the focus of the article is of course on the Obama camp, it provides some very useful past advice from the Reagan transition. (Full disclosure: I provided Lizza with some of the memos he utilizes from the Nixon and Reagan archives.)

Lizza goes on to say that Reagan “had one of the most successful second terms in American history. He passed immigration reform, a major reform of the tax code, and an arms-control treaty with the Soviets.”

My point is not to quibble with this conclusion: but I do want to stress that the competition for successful second terms in American history is surprisingly thin. And even for Reagan it is surely important to leaven one’s praise with the memory of the second term Iran-contra scandal. That episode, for those who don’t recall the ’80s (i.e., all of my students), was comprised of a collection of criminal and constitutional controversies of the first order that included illegal arms sales, negotiations with terrorists, and spending unappropriated funds on activities banned by statute.  Its unfolding in the fall of 1986 caused Reagan’s public approval to drop from 63% to 47% from late October to early December and as low as 43% in March ’87; that figure hovered around 50% until the summer of 1988, climbing back to its ’86 level only in the last few weeks of his term. (Data here.)

To be sure, Obama is at 47% or so himself, and would be delighted to be able to re-run Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign ads from 1984. (Given the last jobs report, perhaps these will have to be recast as “Barely Dawn in America” – indeed, Lizza has some intriguing detail on the way the president’s campaign staff is planning to frame the fall 2012 debate in response.)

Yet the larger point – the one the Obama team might do well to consider – is that Iran-contra was not a one-off. Second terms are frequently scarred by scandals and misjudgments. A quick accounting of the postwar second terms reminds us of:

(1)  multiple charges of corruption against Harry Truman’s appointees, leading to the 3 “C’s” 1952 campaign slogan “Communism, corruption, and Korea”;

(2) the loss of Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, to the 1958 “vicuna coat” corruption scandal;

(3) Watergate, et al (For a reminder of the scope of “Watergate,” see Woodward and Bernstein’s recent joint by-line, their first in more than three decades.)

(4) Iran-contra;

(5) Monica Lewinsky, et al. (Clinton had important achievements in 1997, to be sure, as the article details, but his second term also lost a full year to the investigation that led to his impeachment.)

(6) the Plame leak, leading to the conviction of the VP’s chief of staff  for perjury; also a series of legal challenges to the unilateral prosecution of the war on terror and its detention regime (leading to several Supreme Court decisions rebutting administration claims.)

Obviously some of these administrations regained their standing retrospectively. (A David McCullough biography seems to be a good way to get this going. Also a campaign dedicated to naming things after you.) And some may argue these these investigations and scandals were unfair or unwarranted even at the time. But either way, they mattered: these largely self-inflicted wounds undercut presidential power while it could still be utilized, and lessened presidents’ influence over governmental outcomes and thus over their legacy.

Interestingly, too, many of these scandals had their roots in decisions that pre-dated the president’s re-election: Watergate, Iran-contra, and the Clinton impeachment are all in this category.  The public revelations of the Bush administration’s violations of FISA came in late 2005, but those violations also began far earlier.

So another important lesson of second terms is that first-term problems can come home to roost. This might be from arrogance or ignorance; though by the second term, one might hope it’s not ignorance…