Some critics of Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded with a measure of ridicule and criticism in the Spring of 2019, after remarks she made about the introduction of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which imposed a two-term limit on the U.S. presidency.
The Washington Examiner, for example, wrote:
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez D-N.Y., might want to brush up on some history after asserting, incorrectly, that Republicans in Congress amended the Constitution to kick President Franklin Delano Roosevelt out of office.
“They had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure Roosevelt did not get reelected,” Ocasio-Cortez said [March 29] during a night hall event with MSNBC with Chris Hayes.
According to AOC, Congress amended the Constitution to prevent FDR from being re-elected:
Ocasio-Cortez was referring to the 22nd Amendment of the Constitution which passed in 1947.
The text of the amendment states, “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.” FDR died in 1945, meaning he was dead for a full two years before presidential term limits were implemented.
That article was re-published on the website of Fox News, along with the headline “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez alsely claims Republicans amended Constitution to kick FDR out of office.”
The New York Post joined in the criticism, writing:
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be getting A’s in social media — but she’s getting an F in basic history. The Bronx-Queens Democrat flunked 20th century world events last week when she claimed during a town-hall meting [sic] that the Constitution was changed to keep President Franklin D. Roosevelt from being re-elected. In fact, he died two years before the amendment to which she was referring was passed and six years before it was ratified by the requisite number of states.
A video clip of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks was prominently shared on Twitter by Tom Elliott, who added: “According to AOC, Congress amended the Constitution to prevent FDR from being re-elected: ‘They had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure Roosevelt dd not get reelected.’ (Reminder, FDR died in office in 1945; the 22nd Amendment came in 1947).”
According to AOC, Congress amended the Constitution to prevent FDR from being re-elected:
“They had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure Roosevelt dd not get reelected.”
(Reminder, FDR died in office in 1945; the 22nd Amendment came in 1947) pic.twitter.com/DImHj0caVy
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) March 31, 2019
Critics of Ocasio-Cortez pounced on her remarks as evidence of a purported lack of historical knowledge on her part. However, the Congresswoman’s subsequent comments on the subject, along with clarification provided by her spokesperson, indicated the intended meaning of her remarks was that the catalyst behind the development of the two-term limit (which was ultimately enshrined in the 22nd amendment) had been Roosevelt’s repeated re-elections during the 1930s and 1940s, and not that the introduction of the 22nd amendment (as opposed to Roosevelt’s death) prevented what would have been his fourth re-election.
What Ocasio-Cortez Said
The Congresswoman’s remarks came during a web-only question-and-answer session recorded during her appearance on MSNBC’s “All In” with Chris Hayes on 29 March, whose focus was the “Green New Deal,” a plan put forward by Ocasio-Cortez ;and fellow Democrat Senator Ed Markey to tackle climate change and create jobs centered around renewable energy.
Mark Paul, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, asked Ocasio-Cortez what lessons she had learned from the “New Deal,” the series of economic projects FDR introduced in the 1930s with the intention of helping the U.S. economy to recover from the Great Depression, and the program to which the “Green New Deal” is an allusion.
One of the points Ocasio-Cortez made in response to that question was to highlight the importance of Democratic success in facilitating the passage of legislation that introduced New Deal programs. Here’s a (lightly edited) transcript of that segment, which can be viewed below:
Paul:…What are the lessons from the New Deal that we can bring in today?
Ocasio-Cortez: There’s [sic] a lot. One is, you know when we talk, when we start picking apart the problem of political will –you know, “Technologically possible, is it politically feasible?” — one of the big parts of political will is fear, especially fear within our own party. “If we do this, if we are a little too bold, we will lose our majorities, we will lose everything.” And it is a difficult question because the House has been gerrymandered in ways that are extremely difficult. But I think there’s [sic] a couple of lessons. One is that, when we look into our history, when our [Democratic] party was boldest — the time of the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights Act and so on — we had and carried supermajorities in the House, in the Senate, we carried the presidency. They had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure Roosevelt did not get re-elected. And there were so many extraordinary things that were happening in that time that were uniting working people, and so that, I think, is one of the encouraging lessons …
The point Ocasio-Cortez was making in that section of the interview was to highlight the role that electoral success for Democrats — not least of which was FDR’s repeated presidential victories during the 1930s and 1940s — played in facilitating the introduction of major reforms such as the New Deal programs. FDR was first elected in 1932, then re-elected three times, in 1936, 1940, and 1944.
To illustrate the extent of FDR’s power and popularity at that time, the Congresswoman said: “They had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure Roosevelt did not get re-elected.”
The manner in which she phrased that statement (“They had to … to make sure”) indicated, on its face, that Ocasio-Cortez was saying that the introduction of the two-term limit in the 22nd Amendment was required in order to prevent FDR from being re-elected a fourth time.
It is therefore understandable that some commentators seized upon her remarks and made the rather obvious point that the 22nd Amendment was not required to prevent FDR’s fourth re-election, because FDR died in 1945, six years before the amendment was ratified and came into effect.
(FDR died two years before the U.S. Congress passed the amendment, but it was not implemented until it was ratified by the requisite number of states six years after his death, contrary to the Washington Examiner‘s inaccurate statement that he had died “two years before presidential term limits were implemented.”)
However, that was not the intended meaning of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks, according to a spokesperson for the Congresswoman. The spokesperson told us it was “pretty clear” that her intention was simply to point out that FDR’s repeated re-elections, and the sustained implementation of his policy agenda, had been the catalyst for Republican efforts to introduce a term limit on the U.S. presidency, a plan that began while FDR was still alive.
That this was Ocasio-Cortez’s intended meaning is also supported by the fact that the Congresswoman approvingly tweeted out a Newsweek article that presented the “full story” behind her remarks, which reported that:
The dates appeared to leave the argument cut-and-dried, with both Fox News and the Washington Examiner running the story and calling Ocasio-Cortez’s claims false.
However, some eagle-eyed social media commenters pointed out that the original architects of the 22nd Amendment were inspired by Roosevelt’s monopoly on the White House and began campaigning long before his death … The National Constitution Center also had Ocasio-Cortez’s back. On its website, the nonpartisan organization explained: “Talk about a presidential term-limits amendment started in 1944, when Republican candidate Thomas Dewey said a potential 16-year term for Roosevelt was a threat to democracy.”
F.D.R. and Term Limits
It is unquestionably true that efforts to introduce a two-term limit on the U.S. presidency began before FDR’s death and were intensified by his unprecedented third and fourth elections in 1940 and 1944.
FDR’s decision to break precedent and seek a third term in 1940 was in itself a significant part of Republican candidate Wendell Willkie’s platform that year. In a speech accepting his party’s nomination in August 1940, Willkie said: “I should like to debate the question of the assumption by this President, in seeking a third term, of a greater public confidence than was accorded to our presidential giants, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.”
In a newspaper advertisement published days before the election, Republicans put “The Third Term” at the top of a list of major issues, writing: “Violating all principles of freedom, and a sacred American tradition of 150 years standing, the President forced his own nomination for a third term at the Chicago convention … and gave as an excuse I was drafted.’ Are we Americans that gullible? … Let us say together, ‘There is no indispensible man. There shall be no third term.'”
(In order to avoid the controversy of actively seeking to break the two-term tradition, FDR coyly declined to openly declare himself a candidate in 1940, and instead his supporters arranged for him to be “drafted” as a nominee by delegates at the 1940 Democratic National Convention.)
In a statement issued the day before the election, Willkie called specifically for a constitutional amendment to limit the presidency to eight years, saying that “When elected, in order to prevent any subsequent demonstrations of such ambitious views, in my first message to Congress I shall recommend that they submit a constitutional amendment limiting the time any one president may serve to eight years or less.”
Before FDR’s third re-election in 1944, his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, also called for a term limit of the kind ultimately encapsulated in the 22nd Amendment. In a speech delivered in Buffalo, New York, just days before the election, Dewey said a fourth term for FDR would be “the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed,” adding, “I believe that two terms must be established as the limit by constitutional amendment.”
FDR won his fourth presidential election that year, but he died just five months later, in April 1945, leaving Vice President Harry Truman to serve out nearly all of what would have been his fourth term.
After the House of Representatives and Senate switched from Democratic to Republican control in the 1946 mid-term elections, the path was cleared for the 22nd amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1947. It eventually entered the U.S. Constitution in February 1951, when Nevada and Utah became the 35th and 36th U.S. states to ratify it, providing the required approval by three-quarters of the states. (The U.S. comprised only 48 states in 1951, with Alaska and Hawaii joining the Union in 1959.)
The 22nd amendment states, in part:
No person shall be elected to the office of the 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 the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
What Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said on MSNBC on 29 March was that, “They had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure Roosevelt did not get re-elected.” It is understandable that some of her critics viewed this as her saying that the introduction of the 22nd Amendment was required to prevent FDR’s fourth re-election, an assertion which would make no sense because FDR died in 1945, six years before the amendment entered into force.
However, according to clarification provided to Snopes by her spokesperson, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s intended meaning was simply to point out that the catalyst for efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution and impose a two-term limit had been FDR’s repeated re-elections during the 1930s and 1940s. As we have shown, that is certainly true, and calls for such a constitutional amendment began to intensify even before FDR’s second re-election in 1940, almost five years before his death.