Amateurs in the Oval Office

Why Americans tend more and more to want inexperienced presidential candidates

Edmon de Haro

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.

What about people with zero political experience? History shows that you can attain the presidency if you are a general who has won an epochal war (Washington, Grant, Eisenhower). And you can win without elective experience if your name is William Howard Taft or Herbert Hoover. (Taft held prominent judicial and Cabinet positions before emerging as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor. I have no explanation for Hoover. Does anyone?) Since Eisenhower, no one without congressional or gubernatorial experience has come even close to the Oval Office. Pizza moguls, magazine publishers, surgeons, CEOs, and even supreme NATO commanders do not make viable candidates.

At the time of this year’s second Republican debate, five Democrats and 16 Republicans were running for president. But if you ruled out people who had zero elective experience and therefore were too fresh (goodbye, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump), and if you ruled out people who were more than 14 years from their first election as governor or senator and therefore were stale (goodbye, Jeb Bush, Lincoln Chafee, Hillary Clinton, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum), the field diminished to three Democrats and eight Republicans.

Yes, both Bush (elected governor of Florida in 1998) and Clinton (elected to the Senate in 2000) have passed their sell-by dates, a fact reflected in the palpable boredom that has greeted their campaigns. Nonetheless, conventional wisdom regards them as the most likely nominees. If that wisdom turns out to be right, we will have an election pitting two stale political dynasts against each other—something we have reason to hope will be rare in American political life. In this scenario, one of the stale political dynasts will win the general election, and the 14-Year Rule will fail at last.

Well, there is nothing magical about the number 14. What matters about the rule is not the exact number—14 versus (say) 12 or 16—but its reflection of an underlying public preference for presidents who are battle-tested but not battle-weary, experienced enough to know their way around but fresh enough to bring new energy to the job.

That is a perfectly sensible preference—but one that appears to be declining, at least on the Republican side. A real break with the rule’s inner logic would be the election not of someone with two or four too many years of political experience, but of someone with no political experience at all.

That day seems to be drawing closer. The chart below shows the experience level of presidential winners and losers from 1960 to 2012. (For the purposes of this graph, experience equals years between first election to a governorship, a Senate seat, or the vice presidency and election to the presidency; the trend lines do not change much if House experience is included.)

Starting in 1996, the candidate with more experience begins consistently losing. Moreover, as the trend lines show, the inexperience premium has increased over time. That makes some sense: As voters have grown angrier with government, they have become more receptive to outsiders. Republicans, in general, are especially angry with government, so no one will be surprised to learn that since 1980 their presidential candidates have had, on average, three to four years’ less experience than the Democrats’ candidates.

In the past two open presidential elections (that is, elections in which no incumbent was running), freshness has ruled the day. The voters, not satisfied with a merely moderate level of inexperience, chose the least experienced governor or senator in the field: George W. Bush (only six years of experience) in 2000, and Barack Obama (a shockingly skimpy four) in 2008. If voters were to stay true to form in 2016, the next president would bedrum rollSenator Ted Cruz. Elected to the Senate in 2012, having previously attained the speed-bump-high office of Texas solicitor general, Cruz is the only politician in the race who can match Obama’s exalted standard of unpreparedness.

I don’t actually think the Republicans will nominate Cruz. At least, I hope they won’t, because I am of the old-fashioned belief that it’s helpful for the world’s most powerful leader to know the ropes a bit. The GOP’s usual pattern, with the important exception of Jeb’s impressively green older brother, has been to flirt with a filly but settle on a mare. Republican purists may thrill to outsiders and demagogues, but typically, the amateur candidates self-destruct, the extremists split their votes, and experience prevails. In the end, the whole bizarre GOP primary season turns out to have been a kind of tantrum, something the conservative base needed to get out of its system.

That said, there has never been a tantrum quite like the one that ensued when a pompadoured, potty-mouthed billionaire shot to the top of Republican polls without being a Republican in any meaningful sense, and without possessing political experience in any sense at all, and without saying anything coherent or even intelligible, and without having any chance of winning the presidency.

Mindful that the Donald is not, in fact, going to be president of the United States, I have tried to make sense of his meteoric rise by channeling H. L. Mencken, who called democracy the only really amusing form of government. Besides, it’s healthy for the political system to be permeable to newcomers and disrupters. Right?

Up to a point. By now, however, even antigovernment Republicans ought to be realizing that their infatuation with inexperience is descending into self-parody. And it is self-defeating. Not only do amateur-dominated primaries drive Republican candidates way to the right of the general electorate, complicating the task of winning general elections, but they also force experienced and impressive Republican candidates to campaign against their own strengths. In 2012, Mitt Romney, a moderate technocrat by disposition, felt he had to posture as a conservative ideologue, which was not who he really was and wasn’t what the general electorate wanted that year and didn’t work, because no one believed him. Jeb Bush may meet the same fate.

Two generations ago, in 1962, the great political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a prescient book, The Amateur Democrat, in which he pointed out that political amateurs who were unyielding in their righteousness had begun supplanting the political professionals who were willing to make deals and compromise. The ascendency of amateurism, he predicted, would cause social friction and governmental gridlock: “Political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.”

That is a disagreeably accurate description of where we find ourselves today. It suggests why amateurism is a much better qualification for The Apprentice than for high political office. Being fresh is one thing. Half-baked is another.

* Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that the 14-Year Rule applies to both presidential and vice-presidential elections. In fact, it applies to presidential elections only.