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D.C. Dispatch | October 21, 2003
Who Can Win in 2004? Just Use This Freshness Test.
Like milk, presidential hopefuls have a sell-by date. They only have 14 years
to make it to the White House.
by Jonathan Rauch
Last week, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida pulled out of the
Democratic presidential race. It was sad but inevitable. Graham is a good
man and a fine public servant, but he can never be president. Only four
candidates have a shot next year. They are President Bush, retired Gen.
Wesley Clark, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and Sen. John Edwards
of North Carolina. The rest are history. Sorry, Dick. Sorry, John. Sorry,
Dennis, Joe, Carol, and Al. Turn off the lights behind you.
How do I know? Am I psychic? Mad? Possibly and probably; but in this
case I rely on two factors. Following the conventional wisdom, I assume that
former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich,
and civil-rights activist Al Sharpton are too marginal to win, though I wish
them luck. That leaves Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Their problem is
different. They've expired.
As every grocer knows, many products have sell-by dates. Bread lasts a
day or two, milk maybe a week. Well, presidential aspirants have a sell-by
date, too. They last 14 years.
Herewith, Rauch's Rule. Actually, it was pointed out to me by a young
political genius named—but I can't tell you his name, because he works in
a government job and asked me to keep his name out of my article. Sadly, I
must myself take credit for the Law of 14:
With only one exception since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, no
one has been elected president who took more than 14 years to climb from his
first major elective office to election as either president or vice
George W. Bush took six years. Bill Clinton, 14. George H.W. Bush, 14
(to the vice presidency). Ronald Reagan, 14. Jimmy Carter, six. Richard
Nixon, six (to vice president). John Kennedy, 14. Dwight Eisenhower, zero.
Harry Truman, 10 (to vice president). Franklin Roosevelt, four. Herbert
Hoover, zero. Calvin Coolidge, four. Warren Harding, six. Woodrow Wilson,
two. William Howard Taft, zero. Theodore Roosevelt, two (to vice president).
The one exception: Lyndon Johnson's 23 years from his first House victory to
the vice presidency.
Wait a minute: zero? Right. The rule is a maximum, not a minimum.
Generals and other famous personages can go straight to the top. But if a
politician first runs for some other major office, the 14-year clock starts
"Major office" means governorship, Congress, or the mayoralty of a big
city: elective posts that, unlike offices such as lieutenant governor or
state attorney general, can position their holder as national contender.
Bill Clinton became Arkansas attorney general in 1976, but his clock began
ticking when he won the governorship two years later. Had he not won the
presidency in 1992, his national career would have been over.
Among today's leading Democratic contenders, Lieberman, who in 2004
will be 16 years past his first election to the Senate, is just over the
line. Several of the others are way over. Next year, Kerry will be 20 years
from winning his Senate seat; Gephardt, 28 years from winning his House
seat. Kucinich has been in the House only since 1996, but next year will be
the 27th since his national debut as mayor of Cleveland. Graham was a superb
candidate on paper, but he has been on the national stage for 25 years,
first as governor and then as senator. Yawn.
In contrast, Edwards's clock will have only six years on it in 2004,
and Clark's zero. Both candidates could lose next year and have time left
for a comeback. Not so for Dean. He was first elected Vermont governor in
1992; if he fails to win national office next year, it's Good night,
Dean, by the way, succeeded to the governorship in 1991. Note that it
is the first election, not the first year in office, that starts the clock,
because election demonstrates political viability. Gerald Ford succeeded to
the presidency in 1974 without having been elected either president or vice
president. When he finally faced the nation's voters in 1976, he was a full
13 years beyond his expiration date. He lost.
I know what you're thinking: The 14-year rule is a fluke. You could
always go through a century's worth of presidents and draw some sort of line
retrospectively, but that would tell you nothing about the future. Besides,
why the tricky-looking allowance for election to the vice presidency?
Actually, finding any political rule that works so well for a whole
century is quite hard. And if you worry about the stipulation that 14 years
must get a politician to the presidency or the vice presidency, look instead
at the presidency on its own. In all but three cases (Johnson, Nixon, and
the first Bush), all of the elected presidents since the first Roosevelt
made it all the way to the Oval Office in 14 years or less. The clear
implication is that Americans like fresh presidents: people with some
experience, but not too much.
For some reason, the clock seems to stop during, but not after, vice
presidential service. Minus his eight years as Eisenhower's VP, Nixon
clocked 14 years to his 1968 presidential run, and he won; minus his four
years with Carter, Walter Mondale clocked 16 years to his 1984 presidential
run, and he lost.
My guess is that the stature conferred by vice presidential incumbency
tends to offset staleness. Incumbent vice presidents get a head start when
they run for president. Former vice presidents, however, need to
re-establish their viability. Once they leave office, their clock resumes
ticking. Had Nixon not won in 1968, we would not have had him to kick around
By way of indirect confirmation, consider that unsuccessful
major-party nominees also tend to be fresh faces, though not as reliably as
successful nominees. Of 18 failed major-party nominees since 1904 (excluding
incumbent presidents), only six were past their 14-year sell date. Fresh
candidates are more likely to be nominated, and fresh nominees are more
likely to win.
Is it artificial to begin counting with Theodore Roosevelt? I don't
think so. Roosevelt was the first modern president, in the sense of winning
a national following in his own right rather than being a vehicle chosen by
his party. Before him, presidents tended to be either party loyalists with
long elective experience, or generals with little or none. Party hacks liked
time-servers and white knights. Voters, when they took charge, preferred
something in between.
One other objection remains. What if the reason stale candidates don't
win is that stale candidates don't run? If the current campaign's expired
aspirers are breaking precedent by running, then the past might have little
No dice. I couldn't check for the whole century (perhaps some
ambitious reader can do the spadework), but from 1984 through 2000, nearly
half of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were stale.
For instance, in 2000 I counted 11 Republican presidential aspirants,
including several who dropped out early or bolted the party. Five of them
had passed their sell-by dates. So had both of the Democratic contenders,
namely former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Vice President Gore.
In the 1996 race to challenge Bill Clinton, six of the Republican
contenders were stale—and the other three had never been elected to
anything. The choice was between too much experience and too little. Bad
move, Republicans. In 1992, four of seven serious Democratic contenders were
stale. Luckily for the Democrats, the nod went to Clinton, who was in his
In 1988 and 1984, the Democratic crops were fresher, but the point
holds. Lots of stale people run for the presidency. They just don't
Reader, I crunched a lot of numbers for this article. Probably a few
are wrong. If you find some, please write. The Law of 14, having been only
recently discovered by an unnamed political genius and even more recently
appropriated by me, is in its earliest, least-tested stage. However, the
bottom line won't change: Presidential hopefuls have only about 14 years to
make it to the White House.
In fact, I can think of only one case besides Johnson's that
challenges the rule: that of George W. Bush. True, his clock had only six
years on it when he ran for president in 2000. But he did not win the
popular vote. The people's choice, albeit by the narrowest of margins, was
Gore, who was past his expiration (though only by two years, having taken 16
to reach the vice presidency from Congress). The 14-year rule held, but
thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College and the Supreme
Democrats, do not take comfort. Next year, Bush will still be only 10
years from his first election as governor of Texas. He'll still be
What do you
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More on politics
and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Jonathan Rauch is an opinion columnist for National
Journal. His most recent book is Government's End: Why Washington Stopped
Working. This column appears every other week in National
Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published
in Washington, D.C.
For information on National Journal Group
publications, see NationalJournal.com.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All