The New York Times’ Real Feelings on Term Limits

The funny thing about the New York Times editorial yesterday about getting rid of term limits (10/1/08) is that the Times editorial board members no doubt tell themselves that they make up their own minds on issues based on the merits, not on whom their boss has had dinner with. Editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal would like you to think that publisher Arthur Sulzberger is a disinterested colleague who likes to be kept informed: “If we’re changing a long-standing position, or staking out a position on a very big issue, I make sure that Arthur knows what we are doing and is comfortable with it,” is how he puts it.

But surely Michael Bloomberg knows how the newspaper business works: When he wants a third term, he goes to Sulzberger and the other newspaper barons in town because he knows they can deliver what he needs: their newspaper’s support, which comes in the form of the editorials endorsing term-limit scrapping that appeared over the past couple of days.

And the funny thing is, you almost feel like the Times editorial yesterday was trying to let you in on the secret–that the arguments that it was putting forward for changing the rules so that Bloomberg can keep being mayor were so absurd that they were intended to convey that the board really felt the opposite way. Like the idea that the city doesn’t need term limits because it has “a strong public campaign-financing system”–this when Bloomberg got reelected by outspending his opponent in 2005 by $78 million to $9.5 million.

And although the paper used to say that term limits that the electorate voted for twice should only be overturned via another referendum, the Times now says “a vote by the Council is probably the most democratic way to address the matter” because special elections “do not attract many voters”–surely that’s not an actual claim that the city council is more likely than a referendum to express the electorate’s real position on term limits, but an attempt to signal that the board has to conceal its own true feelings?

As it happens, the New York Times editorial board has made those feelings clear–in a discussion about the nightmare of unlimited terms threatening to strike Venezuela. That editorial, published less than a year ago (12/1/07), described ending term limits is not as an attempt to “serve the larger cause of democracy” by giving “voters the ability to choose between good politicians and bad,” as it is when Bloomberg tries to do it, but rather Chavez seeking “the option to stand for re-election as many times as he wants” as part of “his plan to become president for life.”

In Venezuela, getting rid of term limits is an essential part of Chavez’s “lunge for power”: “His favorite provisions, of course, would extend the presidential term from six to seven years and remove presidential term limits.” This scheme should be rejected by voters “for the sake of Venezuela’s battered democracy”–oddly enough, given that in New York City, term limits “severely limit” “the bedrock of American democracy…the voters’ right to choose,” and therefore should be eliminated by the City Council, even though the voters have chosen them twice.

Of course, in Venezuela, as the Times points out, there is the problem of the president using oil wealth to “buy up popular support.” That’s not a problem in a city where the billionaire mayor can outspend his opponent by 8 to 1–or is it? Editorial board, blink twice if you understand what I’m saying.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.