Just as farmers plant and reap with the seasons, political journalists consult the calendar for the best time to scatter seed and harvest, with second-term inaugurations being the preferred juncture to deploy temple-tapping discussions of the “second-term curse,” the notion that special doom awaits any modern president who wins the White House a second time.
Like most predictions, this one is for suckers. To begin with, the definition of a second-term curse has become so elastic that anything from a few policy setbacks to death can be interpreted as fulfillment of the curse. Even the definition of a second term has been debased by those who call vice presidents who complete a dead president’s term and win one on their own — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson — two-termers.
Also, as David Greenberg recently argued in The New Republic, the audit of supposedly failed second terms usually neglects to mention the triumphs, such as President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy successes in Kosovo and Northern Ireland in his second term, President George W. Bush’s winding down of the Iraq war in his second and President Ronald Reagan’s retreat from “Strangelovean apocalypticism” that created a soft-landing place for the collapsing Soviet empire.
Sifting Nexis, we learn that most of the talking heads and writers contemplating the curse in the past couple of weeks have done so to refute it. Writing in The Atlantic, legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out that “the idea of a second-term curse fails to account for basic probability,” that the curse is probably more about the regression to the mean than anything else. At Bloomberg View, Al Hunt rejects the curse in his first paragraph. Historian Douglas Brinkley has debunked the curse as mythology in multiple venues in the past week (CBS This Morning, WSJ Live, the New York Times and CNN), as did Doris Kearns Goodwin on Meet the Press and The Today Show (“I think we’ve made too much of second-term curses”).
Two guys with White House experience, David Plouffe and Joe Lockhart, gave the curse a gentle nahhhh brush-off this week, while a pair of Clinton administration insiders, Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, came closest to giving the curse a full-frontal embrace this week with their USA Today op-ed that blamed botched second terms on the “scandal-industrial complex.” In their view, the complex — equal part press, bad public servants who embarrass the president and hyper-partisans who exploit presidential miscues — can be neutralized by a White House practiced in damage control: First, confess to mistakes made; next, avoid panic; and finally, maintain the president’s power-enhancing credibility.