Opinion

Opinion: The Quatorze Quotient — The Importance of 14 Years in Big-Time Politics

If would-be presidents haven’t made their mark by then, they could be seen as shopworn

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is among the politicians for whom the “14-Year Rule” for presidential prospects may apply , Walter Shapiro writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For those trying to get a jump on handicapping the 2032 presidential race (and, frankly, who isn’t?), a smart move would be to take a close look at the candidates who will be elected for the first time to Congress (or as governor) this November.

It all comes down to political numerology and the lasting importance of a 14-year gap.

Ever since John Kennedy and Richard Nixon both ran in 1960 for president 14 years after they were first elected to the House in the post-war wave of veterans in 1946, that interval of two Senate terms plus two years has had a magic hold on presidential politics.

Former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, shown here during a 1960 televised debate,
Former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, shown here during a 1960 televised debate, both ran for the nation’s highest office 14 years after they were first elected to the House.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, precisely 14 years after he became governor of California. Bill Clinton’s big break came with his elevation to Arkansas governor in 1978, which is why he was so anxious to run for president 14 years later in 1992.

Journalist Jonathan Rauch, who popularized the 14-Year Rule in a 2003 article, credits John McConnell (a George W. Bush speechwriter) with the concept. But, in reality, the Quatorze Quotient has been bouncing around politics at least since Reagan.

Leaving a mark

The essence of the 14-Year Rule is simple: A would-be president has little more than a decade to make his or her mark in politics before seeming shopworn and old hat.

Political scientist Samuel Popkin in his 2012 book, “The Candidate,” described the ideal presidential contender as an “experienced virgin.

As Popkin explained, “That oxymoron reflects the contradictions between the two responsibilities of a president: the candidate should be unsullied ... and also be ready to end messy politics as we know it and solve previously intractable problems — from day one.”

The best vindication of the Quatorze Quotient is that, at minimum, seven Democratic senators who won a big race in 2006 stand before the mirror every morning probably humming, “Hail to the Chief.”

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Most of them are running for re-election to the Senate this year, so overt presidential moves, in most cases, would come across as an affront to home-state voters. But they all presumably sense that the clock is ticking toward that golden mean (between experienced and exhausted) of the 14-Year Rule.

New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Chris Murphy from Connecticut fit the Kennedy-Nixon mold of coming out of nowhere to win House seats in the 2006 Democratic sweep before moving on to the Senate. Amy Klobuchar represents an even purer case, going directly from running a county prosecutor’s office in Minnesota (Hennepin County) to the Senate in ... of course ... 2006.

Bernie Sanders — elected to the Senate in 2006 after 16 years in the House — looks like he is out to follow the Reagan model by trying to hit it big with the 14-Year Rule after a failed run for the White House. (This may be the only time when the Vermont socialist and the Hollywood conservative are linked in the same paragraph).

For Sherrod Brown, the step up in visibility also came in 2006 when he won his Ohio Senate seat after seven terms in the House.

By now, you may have noticed that the Fourteen Factor can be a bit squishy at the edges. It is a subjective judgment what constitutes a major race that launches a candidate on the trajectory for a serious White House bid. But Sanders during the 2016 campaign was treated with a certain sense of gravity because of his senatorial status in contrast to, say, Dennis Kucinich, who ran two near-asterisk presidential races as a House member from Ohio.

Adding to the mix of White House dreamers in the Senate who are on a 14-year cycle is Cory Booker. He became a constant presence in the New York media market after he was elected mayor of troubled Newark, New Jersey, in 2006.

Technically, Tim Kaine might not qualify, since he was elected governor of Virginia in November 2005. But under a loophole to be treasured, Kaine did not formally take office until 2006, which as we know is precisely 14 years before a certain upcoming presidential election.

Pick another number

Not all Democrats mulling buying a lottery ticket in the wide-open 2020 presidential field believe that there is talismanic significance to the number “14.” Barack Obama (who almost immediately began plotting a presidential bid after his arrival in the Senate in 2005) represents a tantalizing model for everyone from Elizabeth Warren (elected in 2012) to Kamala Harris (elected in 2016).

There is, of course, a common worldview that Donald Trump erased all prior political history with the campaign equivalent of the sacking of Rome by the Vandals. Under this theory, the ranks of future presidential candidates will be filled by titans of the adult entertainment industry, former major shortstops and actresses who suffered from a major wardrobe malfunction.

But the Trump example carries with it its own countermodel. Whatever you think of the president’s temperament, character and tweets (and I hope my views on the matter are clear), it is hard for any Trumpian apologist to argue that the 45th president has displayed his mastery of the mechanisms of government.

Which is why the strongest political contrast to Trump is not an inexperienced business figure with liberal values, let alone Oprah Winfrey. Rather what is needed in 2020 and beyond are candidates — in both parties — who know how Washington works and understand pesky details like the Constitution and due process under the law.

That is why, as we begin to head into another presidential season, the Quatorze Quotient is more important than ever.  

Correction, Friday, March 2, 1:40 p.m. | An earlier version of this column misspelled Sen. Kamala Harris’ name.

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