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From Cecil's Mailbag by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Dear Straight Dope:
On occasion, I listen to conservative talk show hosts with the same fascination that makes me want to slow down when I see a terrible accident on I-95. I recently heard one claim with horror that "President Clinton plans to run again in 2004." Well, I remember from my college poli. sci. classes that there's some debate as to exactly what the 22nd Amendment means, but I thought his return to office would be pretty much out, barring a constitutional amendment. (Which might be a good idea, if Buchanan runs again.) Is there a way under current law Clinton could be re-elected? --Anonymous
SDSTAFF David replies:
In short, no. The 22nd Amendment (adopted in 1951) specifies that, "No person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once."
So I don't really see any ambiguity here. Clinton has been elected president twice, so it seems pretty clear that he could not be elected again. In fact, I've talked to several lawyers, at least one of whom majored in political science as an undergrad, and also a friend with a Master's in history. None of them has ever heard of this "debate" you mentioned. They all found it pretty darned clear-cut--among the clearest items in the Constitution, in fact.
Now, there are always ways to find loopholes. For instance, the amendment doesn't say anything about "serving" as president, only about being elected. So it seems nothing (except maybe the voters) would prevent Clinton from being elected as the vice president, and then serving out a term if the president resigns or dies (oooh, that oughta get the conspiracy nuts going).
And there is one more related question: Could he still run, even though he couldn't be elected? In other words, could he get himself put on the ballot, even though technically he could never win the election? Frankly, I don't know what would happen. It would seem a little daft to try it, but then lots of third-party candidates run without any possibility at all that they might win. I imagine there would be an immediate court challenge if he (or anybody else in that situation) tried it, and the courts would probably rule against it just because the point would be moot. But that's just a guess.
When I heard similar conspiracy ramblings, the reason that he would be running again was that he was going to use the Y2K bug as an excuse to suspend the Constitution, which would allow him to remain president longer than the term limits allow. This doesn't seem to be the same fantasy that you mentioned hearing, but it shows you how these folks think. No matter what reality has to say, some of them would rather hide from black helicopters and make up bizarre notions about the evil President Clinton and his one-world U.N. government.
Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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