Doublethink Online | 10.6.08
By Alan W. Dowd

With John McCain trailing in national polls and fading in key battleground states, the experts say he needs another “game changer” to win the election—something that’s as bold and unexpected as the Sarah Palin pick. Peggy Noonan may have the answer: Leave the American people wanting more.

“It seems to me it would be a brilliant thing for him to announce he means to be a one-term president,” Noonan wrote earlier this year. “This would be received as a refreshment, a way out for the voters in a year they seem to want a way out. For many in the middle it would be a twofer. You get a good man, for only four years, and Mr. Obama gets to grow and deepen.”

For a country with a terminally short attention span, a proclivity to tire of ideas and people far too quickly, and a recent history of less-than-popular second-term presidents, a one-and-done promise may be just the thing to propel McCain across the electoral finish line. At the very least, it would put Barack Obama’s campaign back on its heels.

But there would be more than simple political calculation at play in promising a one-term presidency. There would be a sense of duty fulfilled, of self-restraint, of doing less than the letter of the law allows—and in doing so, perhaps living up to the spirit of the law.

History would also provide a tailwind. Only a handful of presidents—and few successful candidates for president—have term-limited themselves, but two were consequential and effective.

By my count, the self-term-limiters include James Polk, James Buchanan, Rutherford Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. (To be sure, George Washington and a handful of others could have run and easily won third terms. But Washington chose not to run—he had done his duty and no doubt wanted to set a precedent. Others followed suit, until FDR. Those others who refused to seek reelection—Harry Truman in 1952 and Lyndon Johnson in 1968 come to mind—did so because they knew what the voters had in store for them.)

Buchanan announced before Inauguration Day that he would not run a second time. It was a good thing, as Buchanan proved to be a disaster, owing to his inaction. After a bitterly disputed election, Hayes promised not to run again. And after serving out Harding’s term and winning his own, Coolidge decided not to run, citing the death of a son.

That leaves Polk and TR, the two from this small fraternity who are historically memorable and exceptional. Either McCain or Obama would be fortunate to be so successful.

In 1844, Polk campaigned on a promise to reduce tariffs, create an independent treasury and settle outstanding foreign policy and territorial issues with Mexico and Britain—and to do it all in one term.

In short, he delivered on every promise, becoming “one of the country’s most effective presidents,” in historian Saul Braun’s estimation.

It helped, as another historian has written, that Polk had “guts.” As a result, “No one bluffed him,” as Braun quotes Bernard DeVoto in the American Heritage history of US presidents (edited by Michael Beschloss). 

How gutsy was Polk? He had the guts to say this during his inaugural:

“The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our government...Foreign powers should therefore look on the annexation of Texas to the United States not as the conquest of a nation seeking to extend her dominions by arms and violence, but as the peaceful acquisition of a territory once her own…Our title to the country of the Oregon is ‘clear and unquestionable,’ and already are our people preparing to perfect that title by occupying it with their wives and children.”

From 1845-1849 James Polk pushed America’s continental empire all the way to the Pacific Ocean. US territory grew by more than a million square miles in Polk’s four years in office.

By the time his term was up, he had kept his word on all counts—and returned home. Perhaps a four-year commitment has a way of removing political distractions, focusing the mind on governing and channeling all energies to that task.

A half-century after Polk, TR completed McKinley’s term, won his own and then “on the night of his election victory in 1904…renounced a third term,” as the account in Beschloss’s collection reminds us.

TR would strengthen America’s global role and standing, broker peace between nations, end a bloody insurgency war in the Philippines, offer a “square deal” to the taxpayer, and challenge industry to live up to its responsibilities.

McCain fancies himself a latter-day TR. “I count myself as a conservative Republican, yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold,” he says. As political-historical parallels go, it’s not a bad one.

TR, after all, was a war hero and self-styled reformer. His maverick mentality wore on the party faithful. And he was also hotheaded and hawkish. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris uses words like “raucous,” “hell-raising” and “shocking frankness” to describe TR’s simmering temper.

Likewise, McCain’s temper has been described as “volcanic.” His blunt views on Russia, Iran and Iraq echo TR’s promise to “carry a big stick” and wield an “armed hand.” And his campaign against “corporate corruption” recalls TR’s trust-busting crusade.

Of course, there is an asterisk. It pays to recall that TR came back after a brief interregnum to make another run for the White House, succeeding only in siphoning off enough votes from his old friend William Taft to ensure Woodrow Wilson’s victory.

Win or lose this November, McCain won’t return four or eight years down the road to challenge some political protégé or nemesis. At 72, this is his last go-around. But don’t be surprised if McCain takes a page from TR’s or Polk’s playbook in the coming days—and promises to term-limit himself.