2016 Candidates Are Cursed with Too Much Experience

The New York Times ran two articles on possible/likely/obvious 2016 contenders on Thursday — Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry — making one clear point: having a solid political background is not always a huge asset.

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The New York Times published two articles on possible/likely/obvious 2016 presidential contenders on Thursday — Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry — making one clear point: having a solid political background is not always a huge asset. Recent history backs that up.

How both of those candidates is faring is revealed in the placement each was given in the paper. The story about Clinton ran on A1; the Perry report, A12. But there was a consistent theme to each. Before Clinton or Perry can run for (and win) the presidency, they will need to figure out how to deal with their political pasts.

The theory in politics is that political experience is a good thing. It means voters know who you are. It allows you to build relationships that can help with fundraising. It gives you the sort of intangible experience that voters like, even if they're not sure what it gets them. And for a lot of races, this theory pans out. But in presidential politics? It's a whole different ballgame.

Consider recent presidents. I made this graph showing the time between a president rising to public attention and being elected. It's fudge-y; Obama's rise to public attention came in 2004, obviously, but I put Bill Clinton's at the beginning of his gubernatorial career, which is probably early. And this is also a very small sample size, necessarily, but you work with what you've got.

A president doesn't need decades of experience to win election. When making the case in 2005 for Barack Obama to run three years later, The New Republic made precisely that argument. Ryan Lizza pointed to a 2003 National Journal article by Jonathan Rauch who developed the "14-year rule." (Emphasis Rauch's.)

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 president. ...

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 ticking.

In part, that's because an inexperienced presidential candidate is an undefined candidate, a slate onto whom a voter can write whatever he wants. In a message- and advertising-heavy era, it's helpful to be able to start from scratch.

That's the problem Clinton and Perry are running into. Experience as secretary of state would seem like a good thing, but Clinton needs to figure out how to deal with the negatives of that job. She has adopted a new metaphor for it: a relay race. As the Times' Mark Landler and Amy Chozick put it, the idea that she was merely carrying a baton is useful: "She did her part, it suggests, but the outcome was out of her hands." The Wire has noted Clinton's tricky position on that period previously. For example: She helped foster the Iran deal, but Kerry gets the credit. Part of being on a relay team.

Perry, meanwhile, has become bogged down in a criminal investigation over his decision to cut funding for a state corruption panel. Perry's got other problems, too — his dismal 2012 race, his ostentatious embrace of far-right issues. The new investigation serves largely to push him further back in the Republican pack.

And who's at the front of that pack? In many polls, it's Rand Paul, who enjoys the benefits that George Bush had in 2000: a recognizable name and a more limited track record to judge, having only been in the Senate since 2011. Of course, in a poll from Fox News released Thursday, he's joined at the top by two other candidates with more experience. Jeb Bush — whose career mirrors his brother's — and Chris Christie. And if you want to know whether or not political experience can harm your chances of being president, you don't need to go much further than mentioning Chris Christie.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.