Curse of the second term leaves US presidents as lame ducks

Almost exactly one year later and with the administration in high anxiety over the threat of criminal charges being filed this week at the end of the CIA leak investigation, talk of the curse has inevitably resurfaced. Mr Bush has fallen foul of the same spell that so many of his two-term predecessors suffered.

If anyone in his administration's inner circle - notably his political aide Karl Rove or the chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, Libby Lewis - are slapped with indictments in "Plamegate" the political damage for Mr Bush will be severe. For Mr Cheney it could be more ruinous.

But even without the Valerie Plame affair, consider the wider range of Mr Bush's troubles. While it is true that an important energy bill and a free-trade pact with Central America have both been passed this year, elsewhere his agenda is, at best, in limbo. Items on hold include his pledge to reform Social Security, to eliminate death duties in the US and to extend his round of tax cuts. His poll ratings are miserable.

The economy, with rising interest rates and faster- rising energy costs, are contributing to the slide. So too is the perception that his administration badly mishandled the Hurricane Katrina crisis. On top of that, a stink of scandal has settled on Republicans in Congress. The former House majority leader Tom DeLay is under indictment and the Senate leader, Bill Frist, is under investigation on stock trading suspicions.

History tells us none of this should be a surprise. Dwight Eisenhower's second term is remembered only for its empty record. Watergate meant Richard Nixon didn't finish his second term at all. Ronald Reagan's return to the White House was marred by Iran-Contra. Then there were Bill Clinton's embarrassments thanks to a liaison with a certain blue-dressed intern.

Part of what has vanished since last year is the famed discipline of the Bush White House and the Republican Party. It is partly because Mr Bush will not be on the ballot in 2008 that some Republicans on Capitol Hill no longer feel obliged to support him slavishly. That's the lame-duck curse. Conservative members are wounding Mr Bush most notably over his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

"It's not unusual that lawmakers are not vigorously defending Bush", remarked Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University. "Before presidents are lame ducks, there is a sitting-ducks tendency. This is part of a natural cycle called the second-term curse." He noted that conservative-leaning Southern Democrats all but abandoned Bill Clinton in his second term.

"The Republicans have been unusually well-co-ordinated and cohesive because they decided it was the best way to get everyone re-elected," said Ronald Peters, a congressional scholar at the University of Oklahoma. "We saw this in 2002 and 2004. But all that changes when the President is no longer on the ballot."

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