Who Can Win in 2004?

Just use This freshness test


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 president.

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 ticking.

"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, Howard.

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 any more.

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 relevance.

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 14th year.

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 win.

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 Court.

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 fresh.