Michael Barone, writing in today’s WSJ, on the “16-year itch,” that tendency of American voters (at that interval) to reject the status quo, and elect presidential candidates lacking Washington experience.
As Mr. Barone observes, the “16-year theory” works, but only to a point. In 1976, Americans sent a former Georgia governor to the White House, despite his wholesale lack of experience in foreign policy and national security matters. Sixteen years later, they elected another southern governor (Bill Clinton) who was another Washington outsider. However, the rule doesn’t seem to apply to earlier elections; in 1960, voters elected John F. Kennedy, who had served in the House and Senate for more than a decade, and in 1944, they re-elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his fourth and final term in the White House.
So, if the 16-year itch is a relatively new phenomenon, how does Barone explain it? It’s relatively simple; voters make essentially the same decisions over and over for 14 years. Then, in the next election cycle, they are disgusted with the results. He also observes that turnover within the electorate may stimulate an itch for change:
Over time, the median-age voter in American elections has been about 45 years old. This means that the median-age voter in 1976 was born around 1931–old enough to have experienced post-World War II prosperity and foreign policy success, and then to have been disgusted by Vietnam and Watergate.
The median-age voter in 1992 was born around 1947 (the same year as Dan Quayle and Hillary Clinton, one year after Messrs. Clinton and Bush, one year before Mr. Gore). These voters came of age in the culture wars of the 1960s. They experienced stagflation and gas lines of the 1970s, and the prosperity and foreign policy successes of the 1980s. Mr. Clinton persuaded these voters to take a chance on change by promising not to radically alter policy. They rebuked him when he tried to break that promise, then for 14 years remained closely divided along culture lines as if the ’60s never ended.
The median-age voter in 2008 was born around 1963, so he or she missed out on the culture wars of the ’60s, and on the economic disasters and foreign policy reverses of the 1970s. These voters have experienced low-inflation economic growth something like 95% of their adult lives–something true of no other generation in history. They are weary of the cultural polarization of our politics, relatively unconcerned about the downside risks of big government programs, and largely unaware of America’s historic foreign policy successes. They are ready, it seems, to take a chance on an outside-the-system candidate.
By his own admission, Barone’s theory can’t completely explain yesterday’s results in Iowa, nor is it an accurate predictor of who will win this year’s Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. But voters seem clearly interested in outside-the-system candidates, which suggests that the Huckabee and Obama boomlets are far from finished.
It’s also worth noting that the most recent “16-year-itch” presidents–Carter and Clinton–presided over disastrous chapters in military and foreign policy. Carter’s failures can be summed up in three phrases synonymous with a weak military and horrendous choices abroad: The Hollow Force; The Iran Hostage Crisis and Desert One. By abandoning the Shah of Iran and gutting the U.S. military, Mr. Carter helped usher in Islamic fascism, and its effects still reverberate today.
As for Mr. Clinton, supporters tout his efforts in bringing peace to the Balkans–and getting rid of Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic. But Clinton caught a break; the Serbs had the capacity to fight on for years when Belgrade capitulated in the summer of 1999, giving him a victory without a costly ground campaign. Other Clinton foreign policy moves were far less successful. The “Agreed To” Framework with North Korea allowed Pyongyang to continue clandestine nuclear developments, and of course, the Clinton team ignored the rising threat of Islamic terror throughout the 1990s, setting the stage for 9-11.
Given the challenges likely to face the next president, voters should think long and hard about the “changes” they want, the ability of untested candidates to deliver reform–and the real possibility that an inexperienced commander in chief may produce a foreign policy or military blunder rivaling those of the 1970s and the 1990s. If that happens–and Barone’s theory is accurate–then the electorate will be clamoring for “experience” and a return to the old status quo in 2012.