WASHINGTON, December 17, 2014 – Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are not yet running for president. They are exploring their options, considering how they can best serve the country that they love, waiting for a sign that they can do their small part to make America great again.
Political dynasties are nothing new to America. George H.W. and George W. Bush weren’t our first father-son presidents. That distinction goes to our second president, John Adams, and his son John Quincy Adams, our sixth. William Harrison was our ninth president; his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was number 23.
We’ve been blessed with Daleys, Kennedys, Cuomos, Roosevelts, Rockefellers and Gores. Mary Landrieu and Nancy Pelosi both come from political dynasties. Daughters follow fathers, wives follow husbands into Congress.
It seems we’ve found no better way to discover political talent than to examine the children and spouses of people who have it for signs that it’s been passed down in the DNA or shared on the conjugal couch. The best way to get into politics is to share a house with successful politicians.
That’s not unique to politics. Hollywood is full of acting families; the best way to break into show business is to be born into it. Successful parents smooth the road for their offspring to join them in their professions, from politics to acting to dentistry.
So why shouldn’t the talented, intelligent child of a politician have the same opportunity to serve the country that you and I do? Why shouldn’t an ex-president’s wife have the same chance that you and I do to become president?
They should. The problem is that they don’t. They have a much greater opportunity than the rest of us.
Jeb and Hillary are the ultimate insiders. They may be very bright and civic-minded, but they are insiders. And there’s nothing like an insider’s advantage to bleed our system of meritocracy and turn the country into a family business.
The German magazine Der Spiegel asked Hillary Clinton two years ago about the negative impact of dynastic politics on American democracy. Clinton replied:
We had two Roosevelts. We had two Adams. It may be that certain families just have a sense of commitment or even a predisposition to want to be in politics. I ran for president, as you remember. I lost to somebody named Barack Obama, so I don’t think there is any guarantee in American politics. My last name did not help me in the end. Our system is open to everyone. It is not a monarchy in which I wake up in the morning and abdicate in favor of my son.
Clinton’s reply has been echoed by others who dispute the importance of political connections to a career in politics: Obama defeated her in 2008. Her connections didn’t help her in the end.
They didn’t get her into the White House, but they certainly did help. Hillary’s election to the Senate was unquestionably helped by her connection to Bill Clinton. Her run for the presidency was almost a given. Her last name got her in the race and gave her a serious chance to win.
What dynasties have done in America is not eliminate competition for office, but to restrict it to a relatively small group of political elites. They don’t keep non-elites out of politics, but they raise the barriers to entry. They help concentrate political power in small groups, while elections provide the veneer of legitimacy that the new oligarchs crave. Americans claim not to like political dynasties, but they are relatively well-disposed to famous families and campaign funds flow to them more quickly than elsewhere.
There have always been political dynasties in America, but the situation now seems worse. From 1980 to 2004, every presidential election included a Bush or a Clinton somewhere on the ticket. Every campaign season from 1980 to 2016 will have seen a Bush or a Clinton trying, with a good chance of succeeding, to get his or her party’s nomination. If a Bush or a Clinton wins in 2016, we’ll see that run extended at least to 2020, a span of 40 years.
As Barbara Bush observed, “The Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes — there are just more families than that.”