For some reason I’ve been fiddling with this in my head for the last few days: what would the American presidency have looked like if the 22nd Amendment had never passed? (The 22nd amendment was the one limiting presidencies to two terms, passed because FDR decided he was cool enough for four.)
Now, obviously, there’s a lot of butterfly-effect stuff that might have happened with this, and most of that I’ve ignored, although it might be fun to play with later. The main rule I’m working with is that people who were interested in the presidency stay interested in the presidency. So, for example, you can imagine that different Presidents might have altered our Vietnam policy from what it was, and that if our Vietnam policy is different, perhaps John McCain is never shot down and imprisoned for five and a half years, or perhaps whoever is in office intensifies the war and McCain never even makes it out. For the purposes of this conversation, McCain survives the war and is still interested in being President during the years he ran. If you want to play along and go into more detail, feel free, but that’s where I’m coming from.
So. That in mind, here we go:
All elections before 1952 are unchanged, because there was nothing preventing Presidents from running for a third term– and, in fact, both the Roosevelts did— only the tradition that no one should serve longer than Washington did.
1952 election: This actually remains unchanged. Truman was grandfathered in by the 22nd Amendment and could have run again had he wanted to, but he lost the New Hampshire primary to Estes Kefauver and dropped out quickly. Dwight Eisenhower becomes President.
1956 election: Eisenhower demolishes Adlai Stevenson, and is elected to his second term. No change.
1960 election: Still able to run, and not much trusting his Vice-President, Eisenhower runs against a young Senator named John F. Kennedy. In the actual election, Kennedy only barely squeaked by an unsupported Richard Nixon and may only have won by cheating in Chicago. In my alternate universe, Eisenhower easily wins a third term.
1964 election: Real-world Eisenhower started having major health issues in 1965. In my world, after the stresses of a third term, those health problems manifest a bit earlier and Eisenhower declines to run for a fourth term in office. The 1964 election is therefore Nixon vs. Kennedy again, and Kennedy wins.
Note that because Kennedy was not President in 1963, he’s still alive in this scenario. I’m choosing to decide that Oswald would not have shot Eisenhower. Kennedy was in Dallas on a campaign stop, after all; Ike may as well have gone elsewhere.
1968 election: Kennedy easily defeats Barry Goldwater and wins a second term.
1972 election: Running against Richard Nixon again, Kennedy wins a third term in office. In 1973 his Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson passes away from a massive heart attack (NOTE: this actually happened) and Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, JFK’s original pick for the Vice-Presidency, is named to fill the role.
1976 election: Finally unable to deny his health issues any longer, JFK declines to run for a fourth term. Sitting Vice-President Stuart Symington is unable to defeat former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary, but California governor Ronald Reagan wins the election.
1980 election: Reagan defeats Carter again.
1984 election: Reagan makes a thin paste of Walter Mondale and spreads it on his toast for breakfast, winning 49 states and beginning his third term. (NOTE: You could make a good argument that Mondale, having never been Carter’s VP, would not be the nominee in 1984. I would contend that Reagan loses to no one in 1984 so the name of the punching bag is irrelevant.)
1988 election: Reagan becomes the third three-term President in a row to decline to run for a fourth term. We all know his Alzheimer’s was starting to kick in in 1998 anyway, and now he’s at the end of three terms, not just two, so it probably would have been worse. Gerald Ford, his VP, runs against Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and easily wins election.
(Why Ford? Because George HW Bush’s career becomes mightily murky if Nixon is never President. He had just lost an election for the Senate when Nixon appointed him ambassador to the UN in 1971, and didn’t hold elected office again until being elected Vice-President with Reagan in 1980. Without Nixon in the White House, he never runs for Senate (it was Nixon’s idea) so maybe he’s still in the House or still in the Senate and maybe he would have run; it’s hard to say. This is another place where folk can argue.)
1992 election: Ford, not actually a very good President, is defeated by Bill Clinton, serving the same single term he’d served anyway, just not in the same years.
1996 election: Clinton defeats Bob Dole for a second term.
2000 election: Clinton runs against George W. Bush, the former Governor of Texas. Now, in the real world, Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the electoral college, at least partially because of his incomprehensible choice to run away from Clinton’s accomplishments as President. Clinton himself, a much savvier politician with sky-high approval ratings (68% in 2000) and unlikely to run away from his own record, easily defeats Shrub for a third term.
2004 election: Clinton bucks the tradition set by the previous three three-term presidents and chooses to run for a fourth term, because, really, Clinton would have to be dead to decide not to run for office. However! After 12 years of Clinton scandals, the nation has decided it would rather shoot itself in the face than ever hear the word “Whitewater” again, and a popular maverick politician by the name of John McCain narrowly defeats Clinton in the 2004 election.
(I can hear you: whaaaat? I put it to you that GWBush destroyed John McCain, and McCain was actually a fairly popular politician on a bipartisan level before, specifically, the 2000 South Carolina primary. The shame of having had to endorse the guy who used his own daughter against him in South Carolina broke something in him. I think this is at least arguably possible. And if not, well: fight me! That’s what this is for. 🙂 )
And, at any rate, it doesn’t matter much anyway, because:
2008 election: Barack Obama defeats McCain anyway, stopping him after a single term in office. (And this is fuzzy too, though, right? If Clinton is still in office, does 9/11 happen? Do we go to war in Iraq? Obama used the war as a cudgel against both Clinton and McCain. Absent that war, potentially, what happens? Or does McCain start a different war in between 2004-2008?)
2012 election: Barack Obama wins a second term, defeating Mitt Romney.
2016 election: Barack Obama wins 48 states against any of these yahoos, for the easiest third term since Reagan.
So. What did I get wrong? Let’s argue!