Speaking Politics phrase of the week: '14-year-rule'

A political truism suggests that politicians become president within 14 years of their first election. But that doesn't quite work this presidential campaign. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama passed the 14-year-rule with a decade to spare.

14-Year-Rule: A political truism – also known as the “freshness test” – indicating that politicians have, in essence, a 14-year “sell-by date” between the time they win their first major elective office and either the presidency or vice presidency. 

Former National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch came up with the concept in 2003, though he credited a presidential speechwriter named John McConnell. 

“It is well known that to be elected president, you pretty much have to have been a governor or a U.S. senator,” wrote Mr. Rauch, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “What McConnell had figured out was this: No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency. Surprised, I scoured the history books and found that the rule works astonishingly well going back to the early 20th century, when the modern era of presidential electioneering began.”

He said it has shown that in previous elections, “the public wants seasoned fillies, but not old mares.”

Barack Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004 and became president four years later. The timeline for his predecessors: 

  • George W. Bush: 6 years
  • Bill Clinton: 14
  • George H. W. Bush: 14
  • Ronald Reagan: 14
  • Jimmy Carter: 6
  • Richard Nixon: 6
  • John F. Kennedy: 14

The only exception was Lyndon Johnson, who took 23 years to get from his first House victory to the vice presidency. Generals such as Dwight Eisenhower “and other famous personages can go straight to the top,” Rauch wrote. 

The question now, of course, is whether it applies to Hillary Clinton, who was first elected to the Senate 16 years ago, and Donald Trump, who’s never been elected to anything. 

The Weekly Standard’s Jeffrey H. Anderson said last year that the rule was “bad news” for Mrs. Clinton. Meanwhile, Rauch noted in 2012 that the Republican Party has become more inclined to nominate less-seasoned candidates than it had in the past. 

“That accords with what we know about the Republicans’ shift toward anti-government populism,” he said. “They value experience less; indeed, experience, for many tea party types, is a liability. The change attracts newcomers who, in the Reagan-Ford-Dole era, would have been rejected as neophytes.”

More recently, Rauch wrote in an Atlantic magazine cover story, “How American Politics Went Insane,” that Mr. Trump, along Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, “are demonstrating a new principle: The political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms, and, as a result, renegade political behavior pays.” 

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is now out.

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