T. Boone Pickens is upset about a presidential nominating process he says “emphasizes accusation and innuendo” and wants to form “a bipartisan screening committee” to recommend “the best candidates possible.”
That’s unlikely to happen. But the billionaire oilman and longtime Republican donor is onto something when he questions whether the American political system produces the best possible presidents — even the best of those seeking the job.
Indeed, as one veteran analyst wrote, recent elections show that “increasingly, American voters view being qualified for the presidency as a disqualification.” Jonathan Rauch wrote in the November issue of The Atlantic that starting in 1996, “the candidate with more experience begins consistently losing,” something that could bode well for several Republicans and poorly for Hillary Clinton.
Rauch based his conclusion on the number of years between a candidate’s first election as governor or senator and his election as president. It’s an issue he first addressed a dozen years ago when he wrote in National Journal that, for well over a century, winning candidates took no longer than 14 years to advance from their first victory as senator or governor to either the presidency or vice presidency. (He doesn’t count service in the House or lesser offices.)
Indeed, one could make a good case that the last president who was fully prepared to handle the office was George H. W. Bush and that his three successors — Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican George W. Bush — all were hampered, at least at the outset, by their limited experience.
Rauch’s 14-year rule fits the younger Bush’s election over Al Gore, a veteran of 16 years in the Senate and the vice presidency, and Obama’s over John McCain, at the time a senator for 22 years. It produces some interesting comparisons for the current presidential field.
On the Democratic side, it has been 16 years since Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate, compared with just 10 for Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
But the more interesting application of the Rauch rule occurs on the GOP side, which includes three candidates with no elective experience, Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. The last person elected president without prior political experience was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a national hero of World War II.
The difficulties encountered by Carson and Fiorina mirror those of prior non-politicians seeking the presidency. On the other hand, Trump has already done better than any non-politician candidate since Ike, in part because his years in public life have enabled him to understand the intense, media-driven environment which characterizes modern presidential races and which Pickens decried.
Several GOP candidates have too much experience: Jeb Bush, first elected 18 years ago; Jim Gilmore, 19 years; and Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, elected initially as senator and governor 22 years ago.
Just four fit Rauch’s rule: Sen. Ted Cruz, 4 years; Sen. Marco Rubio, 6 years; Gov. Chris Christie, 7 years; and Gov. John Kasich, 6 years (though that excludes his prior 18 years in the House). Cruz and Rubio, running currently most strongly of this quartet, are about as inexperienced as the past three presidents.
Polls confirm why the non-politicians are doing so well this year in the GOP. While a recent Quinnipiac survey showed Democrats and Independents believed experience is more important than lack of it, Republicans were evenly divided.
Interestingly, the last successful candidate who sought to make a virtue of his limited Washington experience was Obama. As many Republicans have pointed out for the past seven years, that inexperience proved to be a problem.
In reaction to that, a case can be made for at least four current candidates, based on their experience: Clinton, with her eight years as first lady, eight in the Senate and four as secretary of state; Bush and Christie, with two terms as governors of large, diverse states; and Kasich, holding prominent posts during 18 years in the House plus his two terms as governor.
But if Rauch’s rule proves correct, only Christie and Kasich have a chance of being elected.