Lame Duck

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According to this site, this is what the term 'Lame Duck' means in a political context: person holding office after his or her replacement has been elected to the office, but before the current term has ended. In the American presidency, the period after election day in November and the swearing-in of the new President in January is known as the lame duck period.

Here's another definition that amounts to the same thing: A lame duck is an elected official currently in office whose replacement has been chosen, but not yet formally sworn in. Whether an official in this position should refrain from using some or all of their powers is somewhat controversial.

Here's one that puts it differently: A lame duck is a political adjective used in some democratic countries. It refers to a leader who, although still in power, will definitely be out of office in the very near future. The term is most often used for a president or prime minister who was not re-elected, and who is now just occupying the position until the set time when the new leader officially takes over.

Is that right? If so, then the only time a president is a lame duck is if the election is over, the sitting president didn't win the election (either having lost or having not run), and there is still time before the new president gets sworn in. Since that's not the current situation, why are people misusing the term by applying it to President Bush?

Now I'm aware the President Bush is not the first two-term president to have this term associated with his second term. Here's another definition that adds in this bit about popular usage: a political term referring to an officeholder who is soon to leave that position; refers specifically to the officeholder's substantial lack of policy-making authority during this time; phrase closely linked to second-term presidents of the U.S., who are prevented by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution (1951) from serving for more than two terms.

So there's really not much room for a conspiracy theory about liberals using this term to try to undermine Bush's second term in a new way simply because they can't do it anymore with the election fraud or recount issues, not that there aren't people doing it, but they've been so thoroughly debunked that there's little hope. It's not even as if there was a strong argument before, because the constitutional process was followed, most of the voter fraud allegations were at best highly exaggerated in numbers, and the recount would not have come out in favor of Gore, using the more likely methods of recounting. Still, enough people thought they could get mileage out of this, and now at least the more reasonable of those people don't think they can say it about this election, providing a motivation for another political narrative to undermine Bush.

I don't put it past many people to do this, and I'm sure some of the people saying this are thinking exactly along those lines, but the fact that this term has previously been used for second-term presidents means that there's something going on here that's not about Bush at all. Why is it that a term that strictly applies only to presidents who did not get re-elected is being used to describe every president since FDR who did manage to get re-elected (which isn't a large group: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush)?

The primary reason seems to be that one thing true of a true Lame Duck president is also true of second-term presidents. They know they don't have to be re-elected, so they don't have to run their term as if it's a campaign. They can feel free to do what they want without fear of the election punishing them for it. On the other hand, they also don't have to do much. They don't have to achieve anything as a ground for re-election. The pressure in a first term of having to get re-elected forces accomplishments but forces them to be within a strict range of accomplishments, the ones that voters will like more. In a second term, a president has much less pressure to do anything important at all but also has little pressure not to do things they would want to do but would have a harder time being able to explain during the next election. So those features are common to re-elected presidents and real lame duck presidents. This similarity is probably what people have in mind when they falsely call a re-elected president a Lame Duck.

The facts support this to some extent, particularly with respect to not accomplishing as much. The second terms of Eisenhower, Nixon, Reason, and Clinton were all much less noteworthy than the first term of each. Three of the four also had scandals arise, though in all three cases it stemmed from something that had been taking place throughout the first term or even before in the case of Whitewater (though Clinton had an additional scandal just from his second term, but that really seems to be more of a lifelong pattern on his part that just didn't come out with definitive proof until his second term). Other than the scandals, what these presidents accomplished in their second terms is much less memorable. Of course, there are other factors. I believe Eisenhower had the House and Senate for two years and then lost both. I think Nixon may have had the Senate for part of his first term, but I don't think he kept it. Reagan had the Senate for two years also, I think, but he didn't keep it either. Clinton had the House and Senate for his first two years and then lots both.

Bush is the only one of the bunch to have gained in both the House and Senate both in the midterm elections in his first term and in the re-election year. That's one reason right there to distance him from the others. What this also means is that he'll have the Congress on his side more often than the others did, which means he'll be enabled to accomplish more. All this does mitigate the effects of being re-elected that are similar to the effects of being a genuine Lame Duck president. At the same time, there are some important differences between re-elected presidents and genuine Lame Duck presidents that are true of all re-elected presidents and not just Bush, and I think these differences are important enough that we shouldn't call any re-elected presidents Lame Ducks.

The reasons why a re-elected president and a Lame Duck president aren't seeking the approval of voters are quite different. A Lame Duck president lost the election or has nearly exhausted a term limit after having been given time to accomplish the more important goals intended for that term as president. That means the will of the people for a replacement has been expressed, and the current president just needs to sit out the remainder of the term until the time the will of the people can be enacted. As one of the definitions above mentioned, there's a real debate as to how much authority a president in that position should be willing to use. Others seem to want to use their authority as much as possible to stave off what the next person might do.

Many people got really upset at President Clinton's abuse of his pardoning privileges at the end of his second term, and his last-minute imposition of policies that he knew Bush would be blamed for reversing but also knew Bush would need to evaluate before continuing was just low. The only other example I can think of was Gray Davis' last-ditch attempts to get some Democratic policies through before turning things over to Arnold Schwarzeneggar, which many angered Californians. I'm sure there are Republican examples as well. I'm just not thinking of any at the moment.

The key difference between a re-elected president and a Lame Duck president is that an election expresses the people's desire for a new person, and removing the current party and replacing them with a new administration altogether is very different from renewing the party either with a new person or the same person in a second term. That's what people mean when they say Bush has a mandate. It's true that this was a close election, though it was nowhere near as close as everyone expected, and Bush is now the first president to have won more than 60 million votes. That's no mean feat. Calling him a Lame Duck ignores the fact that he just won an election, and that means something. He ran on his record and his proposals, and enough people voted for him that he won another term.

Dismissing the next four years as if he has no right to do anything now that he won't have to run again in four years is more than unfair. It's not recognizing the democratic process that four years ago people were complaining wasn't democratic enough. If all those who wanted to remove the electoral college after 2000 were consistent, they would be saying that Bush's 2004 re-election means that it doesn't even matter if he won Ohio. In their minds he'd be the legimitate winner even if Kerry had managed to pull ahead and get Ohio's electoral votes. I hope they acknowledge this. I hope most of all that they realize that this re-election means Bush does have a right to implement his program, and any attempt to stave that off or make it look illegitimate through calling him a Lame Duck president is itself pretty lame.

7 Comments

The first person who I heard call Bush a "Lame Duck" was Bush himself! I wasn't paying very close attention at the time, but if I remember correctly, the context was that he was saying that he wouldn't need to placate special interests anymore as he didn't have to worry about elections anymore. This, as you noted, was one of the less precice but somewhat commonly used ways of using the phrase "Lame Duck".

So I don't think that the use of the phrase is meant to somehow undermine Bush's presidency (though I've only heard it used a couple of times in reference to Bush, none of them in a derogatory manner; I'm probably missing the cases which prompted you to write this post). After all, Bush surely wasn't trying to undermine his own presidency. ;)

A colleague of mine used it to say that Bush probably wasn't going to do much during his second term. I've seen it used in comments on some leftward sites (including Kevin Drum and Crooked Timber but a few others as well) when saying that Bush is going to abuse the fact that he doesn't have to run again and that he needs to be careful not to take advantage of that (which is the opposite of what those saying he won a mandate are saying). I don't know if I've heard it on cable news, though I thought it had come up at least once. It's much more common among people commenting on other people's blogs.

The natural conclusion to me seems to be that the dictionaries are just wrong. A lame-duck President is a President whose end-date has already been determined.

Jonathan, resorting to that kind of conclusion seems to me to fail to make the kinds of distinctions I was making throughout the post, and those are important distinctions.

I think part of the reason he is being called a Lame Duck is tied into the fact that Dick Cheney will not be running for President. A typical Lame Duck has little in the way of political capital because you know that they will be out of office soon, i.e. a couple of months. I take it that political capital is the carrot and stick of our political machination. A typical Lame Duck then will have few carrots, and small sticks. I guess that you might expect a Vice President to carry out many of the promises and threats of his predecessor, or at least you need some people to believe that he will. What I think this is supposed to mean for Bush is that he will have to expend whatever political capital he garnered in the election early in his second term, because the closer he gets to the end the more he will become a Lame Duck.

It occurred to me that my last comment seems to be saying something I didn't intend. I don't mean to say that, just because a distinction can be made, we should make all our words absolutely clear in their application so as to ignore usage and fit that distinction. Much of the time I don't like it when people do that.

What I meant was that since the word seems to have a classic meaning and a more recent one (if I'm wrong on this I'd like to see the data), and since a proper distinction can be made between what the original meaning got at and what the new one is getting at, we should resist the trend to use this word in this newer way and try to find another word to capture that context. Maybe it's partly my tendency toward linguistic conservatism whenever it's not utterly absurd to do that (which doesn't stop some people), but I think I have a philosophical reason too.

I just found this origin of the term 'lame duck'. It has to do with ducks that couldn't keep up with the flock and get elected, so they decide to cause all sorts of trouble before they finally lost the opportunity. If that's the point of the imagery, then it's pretty bad to use it for people who just got elected to a second term.

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