Nikki Haley says the United States is ready to move beyond “the stale ideas and faded names of the past,” and embrace a “new generation” of leadership. The newest Republican presidential contender is reinventing herself as a forward-looking populist. So what big, bright, innovative notions has Haley brought the people? As far as I can tell, two — neither of which has any chance of coming to fruition.
“In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire,” Haley explained. “We’ll have term limits for Congress. And mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.” Term limits were already around in the Roman republic and Athenian democracy. These days, it’s a cheap way to tap into voter anger at the political class. And, hey, I hate those monsters as much as the next person. But the returns on limiting legislative terms are negligible, at best. It rarely promotes better governance or less incompetence or corruption. Most partisans vote lockstep, whether new or old.
What term limits often end up doing is forcing out the handful of legislators with genuine expertise or institutional knowledge and replacing them with more amateurish ideologues. Does anyone believe George Santos or Eric Swalwell have improved the quality or decency of Congress merely because they’re newer?
Term limits also end up making our lives more politics-obsessed while creating instability in legislatures — which wouldn’t be terrible if it didn’t also create stronger executive branches. A lame-duck politician, the thinking goes, is going to be more responsive to voters because he has no reason to ingratiate himself to the powerful. The ugly reality is that term-limited politicians often need institutional support more because they want to run elsewhere — in states with term limits, politicians play musical chairs their entire careers — or they want an administrative appointment, or they want to run the party apparatus or find some cushy lobbying position. They need voters less.
Cincinnatus is a myth.
Anyway, we already have access to term limits. It’s called voting. People claim to detest incumbents, yet they habitually re-elect them. What we really hate is the other person’s incumbents. But it’s the voters, not the dark money or television ads or the media, who are responsible for keeping these people in power.
Haley’s other big idea is to institute mental competency tests for candidates over 75. This isn’t exactly a new thought, either. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor, called for senility tests a couple of years ago. Theoretically, it too makes sense. The thought of a mentally brittle Joe Biden running the world’s most powerful military is indeed terrifying.
There are eight people in Congress right now who were born in the 1930s. There are 15 people in Congress older than the 80-year-old Biden — and they include powerful names like Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, Jim Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Dianne Feinstein, and Chuck Grassley. Donald Trump turns 77 in June. There is no arguing we have something of a gerontocracy.
Numerous states have age-based mental competency requirements for drivers’ licenses, so why not politicians? Well, for one thing, the DMV rarely hijacks tests for partisan gain. My confidence in a state that is unable to differentiate between a Chicom spy balloon and a hobbyist’s $12 pico balloon dictating the terms of mental acuity in our elected officials is in the vicinity of zero. Will Democrats and Republicans agree on what level of mental competency is needed for public office or which test should be administered? Of course not. They’re going to politicize tests that exist to warn real people about mental decline.
Actually, they’re not going to do anything. There will never be any law instituting competency tests.
The mental acuity of candidates should be determined by voters, using the candidates’ performances and debates, ideally with the help of media that ask useful, tough questions. Obviously, in the case of Joe Biden, the press helped the candidate hide behind Covid, denying voters the ability to scrutinize his mental fitness. But there will be no question next time. If mental competency is truly a central issue, voters have plenty of information to make an educated choice.
And if we’re going the mental fitness route, why only test those over 75? Sure, the older you get the more chance there is of decline. But this week we learned that Bruce Willis was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia at age 67. And then there is John Fetterman, 53, who recently checked himself into a hospital because of clinical depression. We wish him the best of luck, but it was clear, despite the efforts of many in the media to conceal his affliction, that, because of strokes, Fetterman was not competent to hold office. Voters didn’t care. And I understand the instinct. I’d sooner vote for someone in a coma than a progressive leftist. We’d probably be better off forcing politicians to take civics tests.
There’s little downside to running for president these days. You’re going to raise money. You’re going to be interviewed and feted. You might parlay the campaign into a vice-presidential nod. And you never know what can happen. Sometimes front-runners get caught in scandals or unexpectedly bow out. Prospective candidates everyone believes are going to kill it — Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Hillary Clinton — end up failing.
Most people didn’t give two of the last three presidents much of a chance when they first ran, either. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, whatever you think of them, tapped into the political zeitgeist. It seems unlikely that Haley will be able to do the same. And relying on cheap political gimmicks and identity politics, rather than accomplishments and fresh ideas, is certainly no way to get started.