Pick Your Battles Wisely: Advice For Second Term Administrations

Pick Your Battles Wisely: Advice For Second Term Administrations

Pick Your Battles Wisely: Advice For Second Term Administrations
January 4, 2015

My students often ask why governors and presidents have rough second terms. While the past is not always prologue, let’s explore why re-elected governors tend to lose both policy and political momentum in their second terms.  

My purpose is not to presume that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will succumb to a second-term slump; instead, it is to accurately measure the gravitational forces underlying second terms.

First, chief executives entering their second term should recognize that their administrations are tired and thus, they should compensate to avoid the collective exhaustion that results in a loss of political energy. Four years of hard work ending in the strain of a re-election campaign takes its toll. Yes, it helps to bring new blood into a second term administration, but care must be taken to ensure that a new chemistry takes hold within the second administration that blends good policy and smart politics.  

Time and again, second terms are marred by disconnected political bases and by ignoring signals of looming political trouble. Charles Evans Hughes’ second term was undermined by political bitterness within his own party’s governing coalition after a first term highlighted by significant reform achievements. Hugh Carey’s administration took justifiable pride in how successful it had been in combating the state’s fiscal crisis, but forgot in its second term how the need for fiscal prudence frayed political nerve endings—particularly within the Democratic Party—once the days of wine and roses were over.

The second Carey administration remained sharp on policy questions, but its loss of political prestige resulted in the Legislature overriding his budget vetoes in his final year in office. History ultimately proved Carey correct as those overrides left a gaping deficit, but that was cold comfort at the time.

Nelson Rockefeller’s second term was weakened by his inability to avoid a long-term cold war with the rising conservative tide within the Republican Party, as his administration ran roughshod over the state GOP base on tax and spending issues. It was not until Rockefeller’s third term that his administration regained its political potency.

Next, chief executives would also be well advised to make wise choices in regard to second-term policy priorities. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second term as president was derailed not only by the Court-Packing Debacle of 1937, which united the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress against him, but also by his decision to double down on the failed purge of conservative Democrats in the 1938 congressional elections.

The lesson to be learned for second-term governors is simply this: don’t pick institutional battles you can’t win. In first terms, particularly if political failure and dysfunction directly preceded your administration—as it did for Andrew Cuomo—the Legislature will tend to bend to the chief executive’s policy thrusts. But in second terms, legislative bodies tend to seek a rebalancing by standing up for their own prerogatives.

Finally, pick early policy battles wisely, as they set the tone and tenor for the entire second term. Before Hurricane Katrina and war fatigue set in, George W. Bush’s second-term stagnation began with Congress tracking public opinion and rejecting his attempt to privatize Social Security. Losing early second-term battles at once saps an administration’s strength while encouraging political adversaries to pounce.

Consequently, let’s watch for Cuomo’s ability to maintain his administration’s political energy while making smart choices on policy priorities, especially in terms of winning the early battles. These three factors become interrelated links in the chain distinguishing productive from unproductive second terms.

A smart New Year’s wish for Cuomo would be to maintain both the political ballast and policy buoyancy necessary to avoid the second-term slump.


Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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Bruce N. Gyory