In September 1996, during a debate in his first Senate campaign, then-U.S. Rep. Pat Roberts was asked about term limits, which were all the rage in those Ross Perot years.
Roberts dodged the issue a bit — he said he supported term limits for House committee chairmen — then added, casually, “I don’t plan on serving more than two terms in the Senate.”
At some point, it seems, his plans changed. The Kansas Republican now wants a fourth term.
It isn’t unusual for a politician to rethink his or her views on term limits after serving awhile. In 1996, Roberts was running to replace Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, whose own two-term promise was amended to allow a third six-year term before she bowed out.
Other Republicans and Democrats, from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas to Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, also came to believe their own essential-ness exceeded any nonbinding length-of-service commitment to voters.
To be clear, Roberts never explicitly promised to serve just two terms, he merely planned on it. In fact, he’s long been a consistent vote against any legal restriction on how long a member of Congress can hold office.
Roberts’ campaign now says the senator thinks voters are the best way to limit terms, not laws or constitutional amendments.
But deciding if experience is a help or hindrance can be tricky. A long history in office can help a lawmaker — it takes weeks just to figure out the Senate’s arcane rules and customs — but veteran officeholders can ossify, locking in ritual and habit while rejecting solid new ideas.
Greg Orman, the independent candidate challenging Roberts, makes the latter argument. His candidacy, in fact, has largely focused on his political inexperience, a contrast to Roberts’ bring-home-the-bacon TV ads.
Kansas voters will be asked to solve the experience-versus-novelty equation over the next six weeks. It is perhaps the most important issue left for undecided voters.
Not everyone thinks limiting terms should be left in voters’ hands. In 2009, a well-known Kansas politician was one of four original sponsors of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have limited future senators to two terms.
The politician? Sam Brownback, who was leaving the Senate to run for governor.
“We’d be better off if we had term limits across the board,” he told NBC News the next year. “You ought to have a change of blood and a change of ideas.”
In six weeks, we’ll know whether Kansans share that view.