Not-so-lame ducks

What’s so bad about lame ducks? It’s one of the many questions Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin raised when she stunned the political world with her announcement that she would soon be leaving office.

Once she decided not to run for re-election, she said: “I thought about how much fun some governors have as lame ducks ... travel around the state, to the lower 48 (maybe), overseas on international trade – as so many politicians do. And then I thought – that’s what’s wrong – many just accept that lame-duck status, hit the road, draw the paycheck and ‘milk it.’”

That’s quite an indictment of the elected executives in this country – most of whom are term-limited and likely to become lame ducks at some point in their careers, as Palin was in her second term as mayor of Wasilla. In Virginia, the governor achieves lame-duck status the minute he (and they have all been “he”) takes the oath because it’s one term and you’re out in the Old Dominion.

Only one U.S. president held that dubious distinction. Before he was elected in 1844, James K. Polk announced that he would only serve four years. Even so, historians consider him one of our most effective presidents – greatly increasing the size of the country by waging the Mexican War and annexing the Oregon territory. Polk also convinced Congress to enact free-trade legislation and create an independent treasury.

And look at recent second-term presidencies: Ronald Reagan negotiated a series of arms treaties with the Soviet Union, and George W. Bush signed prescription-drug coverage for seniors, the biggest entitlement expansion in decades. Both of those Republicans certainly had their post re-election problems – Democrats took the Senate midway through Reagan’s second term and won both houses during Bush’s. And both saw their poll numbers drop with the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s and the Iraq War 20 years later. Still, they used the power of the presidency to get things done.

If hobbled officeholders really bother Palin, she should go after the real culprit – term limits. Some politicians serve for a while after losing an election or, like her, deciding not to run for re-election. But most are relegated to lame-duck status because they CAN’T run again. The laws prohibit them from serving more than two terms. Those edicts are bad enough for executives; they are disastrous for legislatures. California is in a mess right now because state legislators are unable to enact a budget. They are either too green to understand the legislative process or too close to the end of their terms to care about anything but the next job.

That’s one effect of term limits – they drive politicians to run for another office, instead of serving the constituents they represent. Many of the one-term governors of Virginia have gone directly from the statehouse to the Senate. The current incumbent, Tim Kaine, is holding down a whole other job as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He clearly thinks he has more of a future in Washington than in Richmond, where he’ll be forced to pack his bags at the end of this year.

But we’re not going to hold our breath waiting to hear Sarah Palin denounce term limits. It wouldn’t play well with the doctrinaire conservatives she’s working to woo. They have been the primary advocates of the fundamentally undemocratic idea that voters aren’t allowed to re-elect a successful politician after a set period of time. Reacting to Franklin Roosevelt’s precedent-breaking four victories, Republicans in Congress pushed for and passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting a president to two terms.

We suspect that Palin’s talk about the flight patterns of lame ducks is just that – talk. What seems to be driving her decision to quit now is money. She has been the subject of endless politically motivated ethics-violation investigations, none of which has stuck. But her allies say the Palin family has chalked up legal fees in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars.

“The adversaries would love to see us put on the path of personal bankruptcy so that we can’t afford to run,” she told ABC News. If that happened, Palin really would be a lame duck, according to the term’s original 18th-century meaning: a debtor who can’t pay his bills, someone who is bankrupt. And we all know that Sarah Palin does not want to be a lame duck.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at

Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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