Don't fear the dynasty: Clinton vs. Bush would not doom democracy
The meritocracy is alive and well in America
Over the weekend, Jeb Bush cracked open the door to a possible 2016 run, which has already sparked a round of moaning that American democracy is being bigfooted by political dynasties. A contest against Hillary Clinton would mean that either a Bush or a Clinton has been on nearly every presidential ticket since 1980, and even Barbara Bush has lamented that we can't seem to find anyone from any other family to run for president. In Politico, Larry Sabato argued that eight more years under a Clinton or Bush would make America "monarchial," and undercut our ability to promote democracy abroad.
Please, let's give the hyperbole a rest.
America has repeatedly lived up to its ideal as the place where anyone from any background can become president. One race between two impeccably qualified people with familiar last names is not going to suddenly shut out all the community organizers, peanut farmers, and haberdashers who dream of being president some day.
Of the 17 presidents we've had in the last 100 years, only four came from wealthy, aristocratic, politically connected families, and two of those were Bushes. Another was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was not exactly handpicked by his distant relative Teddy to become the next president in the family — Teddy's Republican children were fiercely opposed to the New Deal Democrat for usurping the family's political legacy.
The other 13 came from earthier stock. None had parents in national politics, though Lyndon Johnson's legislator father was connected with some big-name Texas politicians, and Calvin Coolidge's legislator father with some small-town Vermont ones. The other fathers of future presidents were mostly a mix of farmers, grocery store owners, and salesmen. Our current president was raised by an anthropologist. The patriarch of the supposedly insidious Clinton monarchy is the stepson of an Arkansas car dealer.
If anything, Americans prefer the upstart over the political scion, going as far back as 1828, when frontiersman Andrew Jackson knocked off John Quincy Adams, the first son of a president to follow in his father's footsteps. (And Adams was not the popular choice even when he won the presidency in 1824, earning only 31 percent of popular votes cast.)
Mitt Romney, Elizabeth Dole, Ted Kennedy, Robert Taft, and Adlai Stevenson have all learned the hard way that their political lineages were not enough to catapult them to the White House. Not to mention Hillary Clinton, who came up short in 2008 against the community organizer.
The 2008 race is a reminder that political family ties can cut both ways. Yes, a brand name helps with fundraising, staffing, and media attention. But it can also come with unpredictable, uncontrollable baggage. One of the reasons Hillary Clinton is commanding so much more support now is that her tenure at the State Department allowed her to more strongly define a political persona that is distinct from her husband's.
And if Jeb Bush runs in 2016, his surname will provide him with no free passes; he will have to show how he is different from his brother in as many areas as he can, as often as he can.
Furthermore, it's not as if Clinton and Bush are unfairly eclipsing other potential candidates. Few other Democrats are being mentioned because few other Democrats are seriously interested in running. Don't blame Hillary because people like her!
Conversely, many Republicans are supposedly in the mix, but speculation keeps returning to Jeb among serious GOP donors because — let's be honest — Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are punch lines, not presidents.
If Americans had a chronic problem giving the common folk a fair shot at the White House, then there would be good reason to fret. But we don't. The American electorate has been meritocratic, and not aristocratic, for a very long time. One race isn't going to change that.