The presidency, it’s often said, is a job for which everyone arrives unprepared. But just how unprepared is unprepared enough?
Political handicappers weigh presidential candidates’ partisanship, ideology, money, endorsements, consultants, and, of course, experience. Yet they too rarely consider an element of growing importance to voters: freshness. Increasingly, American voters view being qualified for the presidency as a disqualification.
In 2003, I announced in National Journal the 14-Year Rule. The rule was actually discovered by a presidential speechwriter named John McConnell, but because his job required him to keep his name out of print, I graciously stepped up to take credit. It is well known that to be elected president, you pretty much have to have been a governor or a U.S. senator. 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.
Where the keys to the Oval Office are concerned, not all political experience is created equal. While voters are generally happy to promote a governor or a U.S. senator, they don’t seem to view the House of Representatives as a launchpad for the presidency. For all the worthy experience that a career in the House affords, no one has been elected directly from that body to the presidency or vice presidency since 1880 and 1932, respectively. But if House service doesn’t qualify you for the presidency, it doesn’t seem to count against you, either. Lyndon Johnson’s long tenure in the House didn’t knock him out of contention. And George H. W. Bush, who was exceptional in having never been a governor or a senator, made it from the House to the vice presidency in 14 years, after an intervening career as United Nations ambassador, envoy to China, and CIA director. As for mayors, state legislators, and other political leaders, the story is simple: Able though they may be, they might as well forget it. Even New York City Mayors John Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani, whose national profiles rivaled those of any governor, couldn’t make the jump.