Dy­nas­ties are harm­less

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer for Slate.

Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton is the fron­trun­ner in the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, and Jeb Bush is a front- run­ner in the Repub­li­can one. And although there is a life­time of pol­i­tics be­tween now and the next elec­tion, there’s a good chance that, on Nov. 8, 2016, Amer­i­cans will choose be­tween a Bush and a Clin­ton for the sec­ond time in 25 years. We could have our third Bush pres­i­dency or another turn for the Clin­tons.

To many Amer­i­cans, this is trou­bling. Last year, for­mer First Lady Bar­bara Bush said that “there are more than two or three fam­i­lies that should run for high of­fice in Amer­ica.” Six­ty­nine per­cent of Amer­i­cans agree with that state­ment, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Jour­nal.

This March, in another NBC News/ WSJ sur­vey, 39% of vot­ers said they would think more or some­what more fa­vor­ably of a can­di­date whose last name was not Bush or Clin­ton. Sim­i­larly, a ma­jor­ity said that elect­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton or Jeb Bush would rep­re­sent a re­turn to the poli­cies of the past.

There’s no deny­ing that the sta­tus quo — of a White House claimed by one or the other fam­ily — is un­usual, and I won’t crit­i­cize any­one dis­turbed by a pat­tern of “Bush, Clin­ton, Bush, Obama, Bush” or “Bush, Clin­ton, Bush, Obama, Clin­ton.”

But I also don’t think it’s as bad as it looks.

Observers have called this a “dy­nas­tic” elec­tion. This head­line from a Jan­uary edi­tion of the New York Times, is typ­i­cal: “Are Two Dy­nas­ties Our Des­tiny?”

“Dy­nasty” might ap­ply to the Bush fam­ily. In­deed, Jeb Bush, in his an­nounce­ment speech last Mon­day, de­scribed him­self as “a guy who met his first pres­i­dent on the day he was born and his sec­ond on the day he was brought home from the hos­pi­tal,” be­fore declar­ing that “not a one of us [ pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates] de­serves the job by right of re­sume, party, se­nior­ity, fam­ily or fam­ily nar­ra­tive. It’s no­body’s turn.”

But that term doesn’t ap­ply to the Clin­tons. Hil­lary Clin­ton nei­ther came from a po­lit­i­cal fam­ily nor joined one. In­stead, she en­tered pol­i­tics as a part­ner to Bill, and af­ter two decades as a po­lit­i­cal spouse, set out on her own ca­reer, first as a sen­a­tor, then as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, then as a top diplo­mat, and now — again — as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

Given the de­gree to which she’s built her ca­reer in tan­dem with her hus­band’s, Clin­ton isn’t a dy­nas­tic can­di­date as much as she’s a tightly con­nected one.

For some, of course, this is a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence, which is why it’s im­por­tant to note that na­tional po­lit­i­cal dy­nas­ties are a re­cur­ring part of Amer­i­can life.

The first fa­ther- son pres­i­den­tial duo, in the 19th cen­tury, was John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, the sec­ond and sixth pres­i­dents of the United States. The Har­ri­son fam­ily also pro­duced two pres­i­dents, Wil­liam Henry and Ben­jamin. The Breck­in­ridges domi- nated Ken­tucky pol­i­tics and sent sen­a­tors, House mem­bers, and a vice pres­i­dent to Washington. Two other an­te­bel­lum pres­i­dents — John Tyler and Franklin Pierce — came from dis­tinctly po­lit­i­cal fam­i­lies.

The 20th cen­tury brings more fa­mil­iar names: Theodore Roo­sevelt and his cousin Franklin Roo­sevelt; Wil­liam Howard Taft, his son Sen. Robert A. Taft, his grand­son Sen. Robert Taft Jr., and his great- grand­son, for­mer Ohio Gov. Robert Taft III. Most fa­mously, there’s the Kennedy clan.

The fact that dy­nas­ties are nor­mal — that Se­nate seats and gov­er­nor­ships and pres­i­den­cies have moved be­tween and within fam­i­lies with ease — may be alarm­ing ( Amer­ica isn’t es­pe­cially mer­i­to­cratic) but it’s also mostly harm­less.

Amer­i­can democ­racy wasn’t stronger af­ter two Adams pres­i­den­cies in quick suc­ces­sion, but it wasn’t weaker, ei­ther. Be­sides, de­spite the fre­quency of dy­nas­ties, the vast ma­jor­ity of pow­er­ful po­si­tions in na­tional pol­i­tics go to peo­ple who aren’t con­nected to po­lit­i­cal fam­i­lies.

One last point. Ge­orge W. Bush was a very dif­fer­ent pres­i­dent than his fa­ther, and if elected, Hil­lary Clin­ton will be a dif­fer­ent pres­i­dent than her hus­band. Hil­lary faces a dif­fer­ent Demo­cratic Party than Bill did, and has to make dif­fer­ent choices for dif­fer­ent ends. The same is true for Jeb and the Repub­li­can Party. Their sur­names aside, nei­ther is “more of the same.”

When you vote for pres­i­dent, you’re vot­ing for an ad­min­is­tra­tion of bu­reau­crats and as­sis­tants and a whole host of ap­pointees. What mat­ters most is the party and its net­work of op­er­a­tives, ac­tivists, and pol­i­cy­mak­ers, not the in­di­vid­ual at the head of that party.

If Clin­ton had won in 2008, her ad­min­is­tra­tion would have looked a lot like the one Obama put to­gether. And on the same score, a Jeb Bush White House prob­a­bly wouldn’t look too dif­fer­ent than a Scott Walker White House or a Marco Ru­bio White House.

The aes­thet­ics of another Clin­ton or Bush pres­i­dency don’t look great. But op­tics have lit­tle bear­ing on what ei­ther can­di­date would do in of­fice.

Ge­orge W. Bush was a very dif­fer­ent pres­i­dent than his fa­ther; Hil­lary Clin­ton would be a dif­fer­ent pres­i­dent than her hus­band.

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