Election Overhaul: Fixing Presidency Means Fixing America

Αssociated Press

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Forget for a few moments your feelings about Donald Trump, whether personally or in his ability to govern as president. In fact, forget your thoughts about any particular president: Obama, the Bushes, Clinton, Reagan…etc. Instead, focus on the reality that affects virtually all presidents: the ability to establish true beneficial and transformational policy without the risk of alienating key voters who might cost him reelection. That is a reality essentially every president faces. That  Trump is the current focus is only because he is the current incumbent.

Nowadays, for instance, much of America, Democrats and Republicans alike, await some type of policy to emerge from Washington to address the worsening problem of mass shootings. Americans as a whole also want to see some sort of meaningful immigration reform, whereby the borders are secure and the problem of illegal entry and stay is greatly minimized, all the while achieving humane resolution for asylum seekers with bona fide claims and for individuals brought to the United States illegally as children, often too young to remember and some not even realizing they are not American-born. Also, when Americans learn the basics of our trade relations vis-a-vis China, many if not most understand that a level playing field is vital.

Yet all of these issues face electoral risks for the Trump, as they would for any president.  Much was made about the fact that he lost the popular vote in 2016  to his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, but presidencies are won and lost in the Electoral College. Even so – his boasting of a lopsided electoral victory aside – Trump won a little over 56 percent of the electoral vote, only the 46th largest electoral victory percentage in 58 total presidential elections. A little over a year until the vote for his reelection, Trump’s chances of winning again are far from outstanding. Accordingly, if Trump were to take bold, decisive, and transformational action regarding just these three important issues – not to mention others – he risks losing the election. There are many Trump supporters who see absolutely no reason to restrict gun ownership and possession rights any more than they are now. In fact, many of them believe that more people ought to have easier access to guns, and then there would be less of a risk of mass shootings. It’s the old Archie Bunker point of view: “Arm all of your passengers” on an airplane, and no one will hijack it, the classic 70s television sitcom character said.

On immigration, there are advocacy groups and high-profile pundits (e.g., Ann Coulter), who think Trump is too lenient on PHIs (Persons Here Illegally) because he does not do enough to deter illegal entry and stay. Never mind that Trump has spoken more forcefully against open borders and sanctuary cities than any president in recent memory, these extremists think he’s too soft on the subject . If Trump were to give even an inch on immigration reform (for instance, give Dreamers a pathway to citizenship in exchange for a wall, increased border security, and an emphasis on merit-based (not relative-based) immigration, too many of his supporters would simply stay home on Election Day.

Regarding trade, the fickle, cautious, lukewarm country club conservatives who see a successful America through the narrow lens of corporate profits are probably too pragmatic to stay home in November, 2020 or worse yet, vote for a socialistic Democrat, but their aversion to Trump’s tariff war with China might afflict overall enthusiasm Trump supporters typically express for their candidate.

To put it another way, if Trump were to be guaranteed reelection, he could effectuate meaningful reform in terms of guns, immigration, and trade today – and we’d all be better off for it.

Thinking beyond Trump to all presidents in general, they would be less inhibited to accomplish their goals if they weren’t saddled with the pressure of having to win reelection. Consider this sweeping proposal that would accomplish that goal: propose a Constitutional amendment that would

  1. Set presidential terms are for three years, not four;
  2. Establish that an incumbent president will be elected to a second term unless a general election rival gained at least 65 percent of the electoral vote;
  3. Set presidential term limits at three, not two;
  4. Establish that in incumbent president would be elected to a third term only by winning at least 70 percent of the electoral vote; and
  5. Establish that the amendment would go into effect after the completion of two presidential elections from the time it was ratified.
Consider this example, to illustrate: suppose the amendment in question, which would be the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, was ratified in May of 2021.  Beginning with the 2032 election, the Amendment would take effect. Suppose that Jane Doe was elected president in 2032 and decided to run for reelection three years later, in 2035. President Doe could only lose reelection if one of her general election opponents captured at least 65 percent of the popular vote, which would mean at least 350 votes. In other words, if Roger Rival ran against her and beat her in the Electoral College race 322 votes to 216, that would merely give Rival a 60-40 percent margin, not good enough to unseat an incumbent under the 28th Amendment.

In 34 of the 58 presidential elections, which is more than 58 percent, the winner captured more than 65 percent of the electoral votes. However only 16 of those, or 27.5 percent, involved incumbents. Therefore, by promulgating the 28th Amendment, it would be very difficult, though not impossible, to unseat an incumbent president. But what if the incumbent wanted to run for a third three-year term, and thus serve a total of nine years? This time, the challenge would be for that incumbent to win at least 70 percent of the Electoral College vote. In only 24 percent of presidential elections did incumbents capture at least 70 percent of the vote to win reelection and in all but one case (Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944 was the exception) were only elected to a second term, not a third one.

Under this proposal, most presidents would serve six years; they would have to be particularly unpopular to lose a second term, but unusually popular to win a third.

Moreover, most presidents experience a lull after their sixth year in office. Reagan’s age began to show more ostensibly – and both President Trump and most of his biggest Democratic threats are even older now than Reagan was at the time – and even  the young, charismatic President Clinton fell victim by his sixth year to what was being described as “Clinton fatigue.”

There is little doubt that Trump – or just about any other president – would rise to the occasion and generate bold and meaningful change in the United States if this 28th Amendment were ratified. Constitutionalists will rail against tampering with the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, but during the first 50 years since the Constitution became law of the land, the average age of a president was 58. That’s a far cry from today, and far more reason to advocate a law whose practical effect would result in two three-year terms for most presidents.

Then, with candidates no longer being shackled by reelection-related phobias, we might actually see some good ideas become law and policy, and improve our nation’s overall quality of life.