Commentary Magazine


Topic: political dynasties

America’s Royals and the 2016 Race

Like most of the rest of the world, a great many Americans spent much of the first half of 2013 obsessing about the birth of a great grandson to the queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The spectacle of the American media going bonkers over Prince George of Cambridge’s arrival illustrated once again the way our celebrity-mad popular culture has embraced Britain’s monarchy as a somewhat classier version of homegrown reality television stars like the Kardashians. The disconnect between American republican traditions and the way we worship royals or other varieties of famous persons is a form of cognitive dissonance that may be mocked but can’t be denied. But while the inordinate attention given the Windsors is merely silly, the willingness of the same media to give American political celebrities the same kind of attention is slightly more troubling. It is in that context that we need to treat the hubbub over the announcement of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy.

The willingness of political commentators to opine on whether becoming a grandmother will help or hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency in 2016 is in one sense merely a testament to the obsessive nature of contemporary political journalism in which everything, no matter how trivial, becomes fodder for analysis. But it also illustrates the way the Clintons have transitioned from a political brand to the sort of celebrity status that not even the Bushes—their putative dynastic rivals—have attained. Chelsea and her husband Marc Mezvinsky may not be quite the U.S. version of William and Kate. But the willingness of the press to hype the pregnancy as an event that dwarfs any attention given any Bush babies, let alone those connected to any other presidential contender, shows that the Clintons are now on a par with the Kennedys as personalities rather than merely political figures.

The notion that the arrival of a grandchild should influence voter opinions about a woman who has been a first lady, a U.S. senator, and a secretary of state with a long record that may not be as defensible as some Democrats had thought is risible. But it is pointless to pretend that the media embrace of the Clintons—as opposed to the abuse it generally lobs at most of the Bushes—will not be a factor in 2016. America’s political traditions are rooted in myths about log cabins and self-made men who rose from humble circumstances to power. But dynasties have also been a part of our political narrative since the inception of the American republic. If the Kennedys and the Clintons are a far cry from the dour and duty-obsessed Adams clan, it cannot be denied that famous names have always been an asset at the polls.

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Like most of the rest of the world, a great many Americans spent much of the first half of 2013 obsessing about the birth of a great grandson to the queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The spectacle of the American media going bonkers over Prince George of Cambridge’s arrival illustrated once again the way our celebrity-mad popular culture has embraced Britain’s monarchy as a somewhat classier version of homegrown reality television stars like the Kardashians. The disconnect between American republican traditions and the way we worship royals or other varieties of famous persons is a form of cognitive dissonance that may be mocked but can’t be denied. But while the inordinate attention given the Windsors is merely silly, the willingness of the same media to give American political celebrities the same kind of attention is slightly more troubling. It is in that context that we need to treat the hubbub over the announcement of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy.

The willingness of political commentators to opine on whether becoming a grandmother will help or hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency in 2016 is in one sense merely a testament to the obsessive nature of contemporary political journalism in which everything, no matter how trivial, becomes fodder for analysis. But it also illustrates the way the Clintons have transitioned from a political brand to the sort of celebrity status that not even the Bushes—their putative dynastic rivals—have attained. Chelsea and her husband Marc Mezvinsky may not be quite the U.S. version of William and Kate. But the willingness of the press to hype the pregnancy as an event that dwarfs any attention given any Bush babies, let alone those connected to any other presidential contender, shows that the Clintons are now on a par with the Kennedys as personalities rather than merely political figures.

The notion that the arrival of a grandchild should influence voter opinions about a woman who has been a first lady, a U.S. senator, and a secretary of state with a long record that may not be as defensible as some Democrats had thought is risible. But it is pointless to pretend that the media embrace of the Clintons—as opposed to the abuse it generally lobs at most of the Bushes—will not be a factor in 2016. America’s political traditions are rooted in myths about log cabins and self-made men who rose from humble circumstances to power. But dynasties have also been a part of our political narrative since the inception of the American republic. If the Kennedys and the Clintons are a far cry from the dour and duty-obsessed Adams clan, it cannot be denied that famous names have always been an asset at the polls.

Yet the merger of politics with popular entertainment celebrity represents something slightly different than the usual drill in which those with greater name recognition obtained an edge in the polls. Those who think Hillary’s image will soften once she becomes a grandmother are probably ignoring the fact that most Americans have already made up their minds about her. Yet as we will see in the coming year, Chelsea’s transition from White House daughter to the new Princess Kate will allow the already ubiquitous Clinton brand to become even more pervasive. The Clintons are no more intrinsically glamorous then the generally unintelligent and not particularly attractive Windsor family. But the mainstream media’s investment in the notion of both Bill and Hillary is more than enough to compensate for any of their rather obvious shortcomings in terms of character. Like it or not, they are in the process of becoming American royals, with more than enough sleaze in their political baggage to match the Kardashians though without the pizzazz of the Kennedys.

But the problem with this public-relations coup is that being elected president is not quite the same thing as becoming ubiquitous. Celebrity status can make a person famous for being famous and get your picture on the covers of the magazines at the checkout line at the supermarket. But being a royal doesn’t necessarily bring with it a majority of electoral votes. Indeed, the arrival of the next generation of the Clinton family—a prospect that has caused many to joke about the baby facing off against a Bush grandchild in a mid-century presidential election—will not win over those who dislike the idea of another Clinton presidency or who want the nation to move on from a dependence on dynasties. Hillary already has all the name recognition anyone could desire. American voters are not stupid. They may like to gape at celebrities for entertainment but to the extent that Hillary tries to cash in on the baby hype, those not already in her camp may only be further alienated.

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Jeb Bush? The Dynasty Problem Is Real

I don’t entirely disagree with our Pete Wehner who wrote earlier today to second George Will’s suggestion in the Washington Post that Jeb Bush “deserves a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate” in 2016. As Will notes, Bush brings many sterling qualities to the table for the GOP in terms of a potential president. He had a great record as reform-minded governor of Florida, can appeal to Hispanic voters and has serious positions on issues like education and immigration that deserve support. The only flaw in Bush’s makeup the veteran columnist can see is that he has become too closely associated with the “Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers” who “have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft” the son and brother of two of our past presidents, in no small measure because of the perceived collapse of the Chris Christie boomlet after Bridgegate.

Pete wants all the big names thinking about the presidency to run. That would create a GOP nominating process that will not only foster a clarifying and healthy debate on all the issues but also help sort out the candidates in a way that will test and weed out those who haven’t got what it takes to successfully challenge Hillary Clinton or whomever it is the Democrats nominate in 2016. That should make sense to everybody, whether or not they are Republicans, since the person who takes the oath of office in January 2017 needs to be up to the daunting task of leading our nation.

But the greatest obstacle to Jeb Bush becoming our 45th president isn’t a backlash from the Tea Party against the Republican establishment. It’s his last name, a factor that Pete omits from an otherwise convincing summary of the discussion on this topic. Though Jeb’s manifest talents ought to earn him consideration in his own right, the dismaying prospect of the next presidential election featuring representatives of the same families that faced off in 1992 is something that must be taken into consideration.

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I don’t entirely disagree with our Pete Wehner who wrote earlier today to second George Will’s suggestion in the Washington Post that Jeb Bush “deserves a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate” in 2016. As Will notes, Bush brings many sterling qualities to the table for the GOP in terms of a potential president. He had a great record as reform-minded governor of Florida, can appeal to Hispanic voters and has serious positions on issues like education and immigration that deserve support. The only flaw in Bush’s makeup the veteran columnist can see is that he has become too closely associated with the “Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers” who “have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft” the son and brother of two of our past presidents, in no small measure because of the perceived collapse of the Chris Christie boomlet after Bridgegate.

Pete wants all the big names thinking about the presidency to run. That would create a GOP nominating process that will not only foster a clarifying and healthy debate on all the issues but also help sort out the candidates in a way that will test and weed out those who haven’t got what it takes to successfully challenge Hillary Clinton or whomever it is the Democrats nominate in 2016. That should make sense to everybody, whether or not they are Republicans, since the person who takes the oath of office in January 2017 needs to be up to the daunting task of leading our nation.

But the greatest obstacle to Jeb Bush becoming our 45th president isn’t a backlash from the Tea Party against the Republican establishment. It’s his last name, a factor that Pete omits from an otherwise convincing summary of the discussion on this topic. Though Jeb’s manifest talents ought to earn him consideration in his own right, the dismaying prospect of the next presidential election featuring representatives of the same families that faced off in 1992 is something that must be taken into consideration.

A few years ago, any talk about Jeb Bush running might have been dismissed because of the beating his brother took in the last years of his presidency as a hurricane, two wars and finally a financial collapse seemed to brand him as a failure in the eyes of most of the press if not all of the public. But the reputation of both of the Bushes has rightly gone up in the last year or two, partly as a result of a healthy reevaluation of both presidencies and the realization that Bush 43’s successor didn’t quite turn out to be the messiah of hope and change that his supporters and press cheerleaders thought he was.

But that doesn’t mean that the Republicans need to throw away a key advantage heading into the 2016 race that Democrats are handing them by nominating Hillary Clinton. Assuming that she runs, her main rationale will be the prospect of electing our first female president. But her campaign will also mean bringing the Clintons, and their baggage (as well as the obvious strengths of the 42nd president, her husband Bill) back into the center ring of our political circus. With so many fresh, able faces on their very deep bench, nominating another Bush presents the dispiriting prospect of two parties that are stuck recycling members of the same families as if America were a Central American banana republic. It also means the GOP will be just as handicapped by this as the Democrats.

Last year, I chimed in to support Jeb’s mother when she aptly pointed out that we’ve “had enough Bushes.” An even more thoughtful take on the same question came this week from political scientist Larry Sabato who, while acknowledging that political dynasties are not anything new in American politics, still pointed out in Politico their shortcomings:

What kind of signal does it send to the world when the United States, which recommends its democratic system to other nations, looks increasingly like an oligarchy, where a handful of presumptive, dominant families pass power back and forth like a baton in a relay race? The growing concentration of wealth and celebrity in a tiny slice of the population may make dynasty even more of a fixture in our future politics than our past.

If Republicans wind up nominating Jeb, they will, as both George Will and Pete Wehner argue, get a man ready to be president. But, like Sabato, I’m still wondering how it is that “with approximately 152 million American citizens over 35 and eligible to serve as president, why do we keep coming down to the same old names?” I suspect we’re not the only ones who are asking that question.

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