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Past Presidents Have Faced Unique Challenges in Second Terms

January 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: It was a tough reelection fight for President Bush, but if history is any guide, the second term can be even tougher.

As inauguration festivities got under way in the nation’s capital today, we turn tonight to three former senior White House advisers to talk about the promises and perils of the second four years.

Thomas “Mack” McLarty was President Clinton’s chief of staff in his first term and was counselor to the president and special envoy to the Americas during the second term.

Kenneth Duberstein was chief of staff in Ronald Reagan’s second administration. And David Gergen served in the Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Ford and Nixon White Houses.

And just because you’ve served in so many White Houses, David Gergen, I’m going to start with you. What is the biggest risk in the beginning of a second term for a president who has just won reelection and ought to be enjoying a honeymoon?

DAVID GERGEN: Hubris, arrogance. You can often fall into a trap as you enter your second term, Gwen.

After your victory in the first term, people think you’re sort of king of the mountain within the White House. But after your second term they think you’re master of the universe.

And it brings on a certain kind of quality of, you know, you can do anything you want; everybody is at your feet. And of course that’s simply not true.

History has made it abundantly clear that from the first days of the republic with George Washington who had a lousy second term and Thomas Jefferson, who had a very forgettable first – second term — all the way through the 20th Century that second terms have proven to be – I can’t remember any president whose reputation was as strong at the end of the second term as it was at the end of the first term.

GWEN IFILL: Mack McLarty, based on your experience working in the Clinton White House do you agree with what David Gergen just said?

THOMAS McLARTY: I absolutely do. Overconfidence in the second term can be such a detriment.

And I would also say, Gwen, after agreeing with David fully on the first point, energy, renewal, getting momentum for a second term is also critically important.

And sometimes those two emotions can work against each other.

GWEN IFILL: Give me an example of both of those cases where maybe overconfidence may have hobbled the Clinton administration in the second term and also where the energy may have helped.

THOMAS McLARTY: Well I think the energy in the Clinton administration was a continuation of a strong first term particularly from an economic standpoint with the deficit reduction, welfare to work and really having prosperity at home and peace around the world.

It’s different, it seems to me, with President Bush 43 in the sense that there’s been such a focus after the tragedy of 9/11 on the war in Iraq and terrorism.

So it’s a different kind of dynamic. So that’s one in terms of renewal. I think President Bush will broaden his agenda. And I think he should.

GWEN IFILL: Well, help me out with this. What was President Clinton’s hubris in the second term?

THOMAS McLARTY: Well I think the hubris was perhaps the lack of discipline, a lack of focus in the second term and really building on the mandate really after the 1996 election and after the first Democrat to be reelected since Franklin Roosevelt.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Duberstein, do you agree with the hubris point and can you cite examples from your experience?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Well, I think the overconfidence, the hubris is certainly the problem. You come into a second term and you almost feel like you’re infallible, not just the president but more importantly the White House staff.

And as David talked about Washington and Jefferson, let’s just talk about since World War II, whether it was Eisenhower on the U-2 or Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam and Nixon on Watergate and Reagan on Iran-Contra and Clinton with Monica Lewinsky.

You always had that first year, year-and-a-half where second- term presidents went in the ditch. But what I do reject is that second terms are inconsequential. I think they are very consequential.

For example, in the second term of Reagan, we fundamentally ended the Cold War. We used the first term to build up, so in a second term you could build down — to do an INF Treaty, to do welfare reform, to do the Canada free trade agreement.

So you have a momentum if you’re bold but prudent. But you can’t overreach. And I think that is one of the lessons that Bush has learned in a first term that I think will help him in his second term.

You know, in the first term you’re really campaigning for reelection. In a second term, you’re campaigning for the history books.

And I think that is a major sway on George W. Bush as he looks at Social Security, as he looks at tax simplification, as well as the problems internationally that he has to be bold but he has to act prudently as well.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen, Ken Duberstein just mentioned Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky. Is there an inordinate risk of scandal in a second term?

DAVID GERGEN: There is a risk of scandal in the second term. As Ken pointed out, it doesn’t always come from the president and Iran-Contra, that was very much a matter of the staff going off the reservation, some cowboys.

And Ken was one of the people brought in after that scandal, came in to help the president and I think rescued the Reagan administration in its second term. It was consequential in the end as he said.

But a scandal often is a product of hubris. It is sort of the rules that don’t apply to us. We’re sort of above it. And that’s what I think in part was Iran-Contra.

But hubris can also reach as Ken suggested and Mack suggested to overreaching. And the most famous example of that in the 20th century came from the master of all presidents in the 20th century and that was Franklin Roosevelt who won this landslide for reelection for a second term and came in and tried to pack the Supreme Court in the first year of his second term and badly stumbled and had the rug pulled out from under him.

Essentially the New Deal began coming to an end in ’37 and ’38, the first two years of his second term.

I think part of this also, Gwen, is not simply what the response is within the White House staff and the dangers there but it’s also a question — you’re a lame duck in the eyes of others.

Even Lyndon Johnson, who had this massive landslide in ’64, brought his team in and said, fellows, we’ve got 12 months because the power is going to start slipping away from us as our friends start running for reelection in the off-year election.

And you’ve got this capital that’s all built up in the second term but there are a lot of leaks in the bottom of the barrel in the second term and they come from surprising places.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you about that, Mr. McLarty, because if it’s through that there’s a 12- month to 18-month lame duck window, then how much does it matter that the president in his second term change the cabinet, change the staff?

We’ve seen not a lot of change in White House staff but a pretty reasonable overhaul in President Bush’s second-term cabinet.

THOMAS McLARTY: It’s a natural rhythm, Gwen, I think for the cabinet to be renewed and changed.

But I think most of the changes that President Bush made as with President Clinton and other presidents before President Clinton, they had been largely filled with people who had already been in the administration.

So there is a certain level, I think, of continuity but I do think you have a beginning, kind of the middle years is what you’re really in, in a second term if a president is fortunate enough to get that, and the end.

This middle period is — must be a productive one. And I think President Bush and his staff fully recognize that.

GWEN IFILL: You think this is the middle period right now.

THOMAS McLARTY: No question.

GWEN IFILL: Before true lame duck status sets in.

THOMAS McLARTY: Yes, although I would also say– and I think Ken would agree– lame ducks can still fly because President Clinton, for example, had the China accession to the WTO, a very important piece of legislation.

Ken of course finished on a very strong note with President Reagan. So I wouldn’t rule out that last 18 months but clearly from a history book standpoint this is a critical period.

DAVID GERGEN: You can do more internationally.

GWEN IFILL: Ken, I want you to follow up on something that Mack McLarty just said, which is if lame ducks can still fly, can they do it when Congress, now seeing that they don’t have to worry about the president’s reelection but do have to worry about their own reelection, can Congress be a hindrance to that?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Well, of course Congress is an overhang and recognizing that they’re on the ballot and the president is not. But I agree with both David and Mack.

The first year, year-and-a-half of a second term can be consequential. Look at Reagan with tax reform — the big domestic initiative of his second term.

But also remember that a lame duck is not a dead duck. It’s lame. What it means is that in the end those last two years, as the power is starting to drain out, you also rise above politics and you can get some things done that people would have questioned earlier in your administration, an INF Treaty.

It was all the summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. It was the Berlin Wall. It is fundamentally ending the Cold War. That was done when everybody acknowledged that Reagan was a real lame duck.

But it also keeps the power in the presidency so that if, in fact, you’re succeeding at the end of your second term, you can have some degree of help as far as electing a successor.

At the beginning of Reagan’s second term, everybody was dismissing that he could help reelect or elect a Republican president. By the end, it became Reagan’s third election when George Herbert Walker Bush was elected president, in large measure because of Reagan’s last two years.

GWEN IFILL: David Gergen let’s not take the duck metaphor any farther.

DAVID GERGEN: I agree with that. Drown the duck.

GWEN IFILL: But let me give you an example of something where Congress sometimes can be, even a Congress of the president’s own party controlling both chambers.

We saw the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee say “I don’t know so much about this Social Security plan.” We have other Republicans saying “I don’t know so much about the president’s guesswork or immigration plan.”

Sometimes members of your own party can be the bigger problem even when you control both Houses?

DAVID GERGEN: That’s what’s really interesting, Gwen, about what’s happened in the last few days.

I think one of the two big surprises since the election; I think many of us felt there would be more healing in the country since the reelection of George W. Bush before this inauguration.

And he comes in with a country that’s still feeling raw wounds, emotional wounds from the election.

GWEN IFILL: And a 50 percent approval rating according to the Los Angeles Times.

DAVID GERGEN: And deep chasms between those who support the president and those who don’t.


DAVID GERGEN: At the same time the other surprise is there’s a more restive Republican Party than one would have assumed.

And Bill Thomas, the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, actually went farther yesterday in saying the president’s Social Security plan as envisioned will a dead horse– not duck– dead horse.

GWEN IFILL: It’s not a duck.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Not quite, David.

DAVID GERGEN: And really said we have to move away from that. For the chairman of your own party of that Ways and Means Committee, this really powerful committee to say dead on arrival from a main initiative…

GWEN IFILL: And Bill Clinton had a few more problems.

THOMAS McLARTY: In ’93 when we first came to office we had control of both the House and the Senate. And clearly it was not a smooth road. Thank goodness for us and for the administration it was a successful road in terms of legislation but not a smooth one.

GWEN IFILL: Does that shrink the window then?

THOMAS McLARTY: It does. I think Gwen also you have an unusual situation. You mentioned the 50 percent approval.

But also you have, I think, even perhaps more doubt or less certainty about the policies of President Bush.

In our second term, I think there was a large agreement on the policies and direction in the country. I think that’s another very important point as we begin this second term with President Bush.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Duberstein.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: I also think with this perpetual campaign people are already starting to focus on 2008.

But in the Senate, in the Republican majority, people are already active in trying to figure out who is going to replace Bill Frist who has announced that he will not run for reelection as the majority leader of the United States Senate.

So you have inside the Republican Conference itself the beginning of fissures as people start jockeying for position both in 2006 and 2008, let alone the Democratic jockeying that is also already taking place.

GWEN IFILL: Certainly.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: I think that complicates as an overlay on everything that President Bush is about to propose.

GWEN IFILL: Even though President Bush doesn’t like to talk about the “l” word, that is, legacy. There is obviously some pressure on second-term presidents to worry about legacy or to position himself for legacy.

DAVID GERGEN: They don’t talk about it, but there’s no question that his team is dedicated to building a legacy.

One of the differences between, I think, where George W. Bush is going and where some of his recent predecessors are going is he’s not only trying to build a substantive legacy but clearly this is a party builder; he wants to leave his party stronger when he leaves.

He and Karl Rove are trying to create a dominant Republican Party for the next twenty or thirty years in the McKinley model as we all know. And that’s quite different.

Actually, Democrats lost seats during the Clinton years and Republicans lost seats during the Reagan years. The Republicans have gained seats during the Bush years.

THOMAS McLARTY: The first time I believe in almost eight decades.

GWEN IFILL: How much time, Mack McLarty did you have to spend in the second term briefly worrying about legacy?

THOMAS McLARTY: It’s not mentioned but I think you almost worry about it from day one of the second term because you see that’s really the mandate of a second term of any president of what are you going to truly leave behind as your landmark.

GWEN IFILL: Mack McLarty, David Gergen, and Ken Duberstein, thank you all very much.

THOMAS McLARTY: Thank you so much.

DAVID GERGEN: Thank you.