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Remember the term-limits movement? The idea was that to prevent the perpetuation of a privileged political class, we needed to force elected officials to move on after six or 12 years. The old ideals of the "citizen politician" and "rotation in office" won a powerful new following, at least for a while.
But just as fast as you can say "George Nethercutt" - the Republican who promised to limit his service in his 1994 campaign against House Speaker Thomas Foley, then dropped the pledge when he hit his six-year limit - the idea sputtered. When the Republicans took over Congress, they remembered that the ultimate right to limit terms can be found in polling places. The Idaho Legislature this year voted to repeal term limits.
But a new development suggests that there might be a different answer to the term-limits question than yes or no - at least for major executives like governor. Maybe we ought to allow people to run for office as often as they like, but only if they take time off between every run.
The recent budget breakthrough engineered by acting Gov. Jane M. Swift presents powerful evidence for the proposition that getting clear of electoral distractions sometimes is the key to good governance.
Just a little more than a month ago, Swift was stuck - low in the polls, abandoned by putative allies and barraged with a new budget or managerial crisis every day. Democrats who want her job mocked her on the stump, while Olympic CEO Mitt Romney cleverly undercut her capacity to address any issue authoritatively.
Then she drops out of the race. Poof! All of a sudden, she doesn't have to worry about making the bold statements against income-tax rollbacks or wonder whether meeting with legislative leaders will do any good. She convenes a mini-summit to resolve the issue and gets the job done. A leading Democrat marveled: "I went in very skeptical on Friday, but Swift did an outstanding job. She just kept things moving and kept the partisanship out of it."
By taking charge of the worst fiscal mess in a decade, Swift may be rehabilitating her career. She has the opportunity to show people what she can do. All of the plots and subplots about behind-the- scenes maneuvering and exotic end games have vanished. Rather than constant chatter about triangulation and the shifting alliances involving the governor, House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Thomas Birmingham, everyone is free to do what's best. Politicians made compromises to address a common problem. So much for the lame-duck syndrome.
There are five states - Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia - that limit governors to two terms but then allow them to run again after a four-year hiatus. The time off allows a much- needed refresher for the governor - and allows the public to get to know other politicians. It also allows people to bow out gracefully when their time is over.
Recent history in Massachusetts suggests that governors might work best when they get away for a while. Michael Dukakis was most energetic after spending four years out of power. William Weld and Paul Cellucci would not have left such messes behind if they had a mandatory exit with a chance to return. And Swift expanded her political capacity when she walked.
Why should a politician be blocked, then allowed to come back? It creates the right incentives. You want a politician to do a job with an eye on public judgment, but you want the pol to be more concerned with long-term than shortterm assessments. It's easier to make the right choice if you know you'll be judged for it later on when the dust has settled.
But there's another reason for staggered terms. If gives both parties a reason to build grassroots strength. Incumbency's appeal is that it allows for continuity. Under a staggered-terms system, the governor can have the greatest influence if she can make sure the office is in good hands in her absence. Staggered terms might also lead to some real party-building, sorely lacking under Weld and Cellucci.
Imagine an electoral system that encouraged governors to look beyond the immediate period and build a real party to push their agenda beyond their time in office.