The Young and the Restless of 2016

by Stuart Rothenberg April 16, 2015 · 12:36 PM EDT

Once upon a time, presidential candidates were expected to have more than passing experience in government, as well as the maturity and wisdom that sometimes come with age. But that has changed, apparently.

Barack Obama was in the United States Senate for only two years before he began his bid for the presidency and had only four years of service in Congress when he was sworn in as president. He was just 47 years old at the time.

This year, the trend toward youth and/or inexperience has continued.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, 44 and with all of two years in the Senate under his belt (plus time in the Bush administration and as Texas’ solicitor general), has already jumped into the GOP presidential contest.

He was followed into the race by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, 52, who has been in the Senate for four years. And they were followed into the race by 43-year-old Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also in his first term in the Senate.

Of the three, Rubio is the only one with extensive legislative experience outside of Congress; having served more than four terms in the Florida House, including a time as speaker.

A fourth Republican hopeful, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, is only 47 years old but is in his second term as the state’s top officeholder. Like Rubio, he has extensive governmental experience, including eight years in the Wisconsin Assembly and two terms as a Milwaukee County executive.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is also expected to join the GOP race and is, like Rubio, just 43 years old. But he has more government experience than most in the race, including service as secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, assistant secretary for Health and Human Services for Planning and Evaluation under President George W. Bush, and two terms in Congress. He is in his second term as governor.

There have been a number of young presidents and some without much experience in government. But there have been very few over the past century who, like Cruz and Paul, were both young and relatively inexperienced.

Bill Clinton was 46 years old when he was sworn in as president, but he had already served as governor for a dozen years. John F. Kennedy was 43 at the time of his inauguration, but he was elected to his second Senate term in 1958, and he had also served three terms in the House.

Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated shortly before he turned 43, but he had already had an extensive career in government, serving in the New York Assembly, as governor of the Empire State and as vice president.

More recently, Jimmy Carter was 52 when he was sworn in as president, and he had served only a single term as governor. George W. Bush, 54 at the time of his inauguration, was in his second term as governor when he was elected president. Both men left office with low poll ratings.

Each of our nation’s first seven presidents, from George Washington through Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to Andrew Jackson, was in his late 50s or early 60s. When inaugurated, four of them were 57 years old, one was 58 and two were 61. And that was before modern medicine, when life expectancy was shorter.

Age certainly doesn’t guarantee wisdom, and experience doesn’t guarantee skill or success. Still, it’s interesting that as ideology has started to trump pragmatism in our politics, less experienced and/or younger hopefuls are seeking to have their say earlier.

Anyone can espouse an ideology, of course, and advocating it is merely a small step for true believers, whether they are 65 years old, 45 or 25. Lacking maturity, experience or wisdom isn’t a liability if you have an ideology to follow.

If you are a conservative or a liberal, you have a lens through which you can evaluate everything. You don’t need to know how to work with others or negotiate compromises. Experience in government is unimportant, maybe even a liability; credentials are unnecessary. Indeed, decades of experience in government and politics means that you are part of the problem, not the solution.

The general trend toward youth and inexperience isn’t limited to running for president, of course.

Thirty or 40 years ago, freshmen in Congress were expected to spend time listening to and learning from senior members. Knowledge needed to be acquired, facts and arguments had to be digested. Now, many freshmen figure they know as much as those with seniority — or at least they have equally strong opinions — alleviating any need to defer to veterans of Capitol Hill.

Of course, more than a few 2016 hopefuls have led full lives and can point to extensive experience in government and with public policy. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67, served in the Senate and as secretary of State. Jeb Bush, 62, served eight years as governor of Florida, and Rick Perry, 65, served three terms as governor of Texas.

Mike Huckabee, 59, served more than 10 years as governor of Arkansas, while Rick Santorum, 56, served two terms in the Senate and, before that, two terms in the House. Lindsey Graham, 59, is in his third term in the Senate after five terms in the House.

Given Obama’s less-than-sterling performance in office, you might expect voters to look for extensive experience and even the wisdom that comes from age when they evaluate the candidates for the presidency in 2016.  But times have changed, and we will need to wait to see whether they care about maturity and experience.