Fans of Term Limits Changing Their Tune

Whether Rudolph Giuliani and his aides succeed in gaming the electoral system or not over the coming weeks, we now have learned the real position of Republican conservatives concerning term limits: raw, frantic opportunism. They seek to legislate term limits when that serves their immediate purpose; they seek to undo term limits when their purpose changes. They simply want what they want, and they don’t much care how much damage they do to democracy to get what they want.

This is a spectacle which would not please the nation’s founders, who omitted term limits from the Constitution for good reason.

Limiting the service of public officials arbitrarily has always been a puerile, undemocratic and phony notion. Historically, its most enthusiastic exponents have tended to be Republicans and conservatives, sometimes naïvely well-intentioned and sometimes cynically self-serving. Its basic tenet-that government will somehow be improved by restricting the choice of candidates for public office-has now ironically boomeranged on its most reliable advocates, including the Mayor himself.

After the past two weeks, any impulse to criticize Mr. Giuliani personally is muted by his continuing, truly exemplary service to New York and the nation. Entreated to stay on by so many sincere people, he is in a difficult position. By now his faults are as familiar to us as his strengths, and he clearly feels a strong sense of duty as well as a desire to keep his job.

But it is nevertheless unappetizing to watch the bizarre maneuvering of his aides and associates, those whom the Mayor evidently has deputized to find, invent or rip a loophole for him. The byzantine dealmaking, the whispered rumors, the petty conspiracies of the moment-all are more appropriate to a corrupt royal court or a tin-pot tyranny than the first capital of the world’s most enduring republic.

Even more ridiculous and less excusable is the dizzying turnabout of pundits and politicians on the right, from the Manhattan Institute to the Conservative Party. Remember that term limits were foisted upon apathetic voters by the former Conservative Party candidate for Mayor, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, in part to avenge himself upon Mr. Giuliani and in part to ingratiate himself to the right-wingers in the national G.O.P. That was back when term limits were an article of faith in the Contract with America, a selling point in Newt Gingrich’s pitch to win and maintain control of Congress.

It didn’t take long for most of the Republicans who had sworn fealty to that great principle to change sides. Perhaps the most notorious example was a certain George Nethercutt, the Washington State politician who unseated Democrat Tom Foley, then the Speaker, in 1994, although he was hardly alone in his hypocrisy. Like nearly all of his fellow firebrands, Mr. Nethercutt said he’d discovered that competence comes with experience.

The notion that term limitation would mean “reform” has also been amply disproved over the past several years. Wherever it has been successfully enacted, such as California, it has empowered lobbyists and vested interests rather than the public. Indeed, the legislators begin to apply for employment as influence peddlers almost as soon as they’re sworn in.

All such warnings were dismissed, however, when members of the New York City Council tried to repeal term limits. They were trashed as self-serving hacks by the same loudmouths who now demand, in the name of the people, precisely that same action.

Aside from the inherent defects of term limits, it is generally a tool of demagogues like Mr. Gingrich. What we are seeing today instead is a demagogic attempt to overturn term limits; the rhetoric is different, but the unhealthy effect is the same. Among the worst offenders in this outbreak of pseudo-populism is Governor George Pataki. Soaking up the Mayor’s reflected glory-some of which he surely deserves-Mr. Pataki is showing signs that he cannot be trusted to safeguard the democratic process. By telling New Yorkers to waste their franchise with write-in votes for Mr. Giuliani, the Governor displayed poor judgment and bad taste. (The Mayor had the good sense to discourage that silly plan.) Of course, Mr. Pataki was only reflecting what he takes to be the popular will.

On the eve of a scheduled election, there is something ominous and un-American about these appeals to the emotions of “the street.” One of the city’s more excitable tabloid columnists insisted on Primary Day that the “real election” was taking place in delis and ballparks rather than polling places; that the ineligible incumbent had already “won”; and that his tenure ought to be extended on an “emergency” basis.

The most eloquent contradiction to such foolishness has been uttered again and again by Mr. Giuliani, in his exhortations that amid mourning and uncertainty we must return to normal life. With respect to the democratic process now underway to replace him, the Mayor should heed his own wise advice.

Fans of Term Limits Changing Their Tune