Friday, October 23, 2015

Linc, Jeb, Hillary, and the Limits of Dynastic Politics

The three top stories of the day so far in the political media:

1. Continuing morning-after analysis of Hillary Clinton's marathon appearance yesterday in front of the House committee investigating Benghazi.

2. Reports that Jeb Bush's presidential campaign is facing a cash flow shortage that has forced it to cut staff salaries by 40 percent or more.

3. Former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee's withdrawal from the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination race.

Is there a common thread here? Let's see!

Political dynasties have existed in America since the days of John Quincy Adams, but the issue of dynastic politics has come to the fore lately due to the strong likelihood that the Democratic Party will nominate the wife of the nation's 42nd president for the presidency next year, while one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination is the son of the 41st president and the brother of the 43rd. In general, pundits have greeted the prospect of either a Hillary Clinton or a Jeb Bush nomination with a palpable lack of enthusiasm, and the possibility that both candidates might advance to a face-off in the general election next fall often prompts the news media to wonder what such a choice "would say about America" (the implied answer: nothing good).

There's no doubt that it helps a candidate to be part of a popular political family, and this advantage can bolster the electoral fortunes of certain political heirs who do not exhibit the full range of qualities we might otherwise wish our leaders to display. (The travails of certain nth-generation Kennedys and Tafts serve as fodder for warnings about the risks of flocking to famous names.) As such, dynastic politics can be viewed as anti-meritocratic, and even anti-democratic, with the word itself implying hereditary rule by other means. Lincoln Chafee, to take one example, seems like a nice enough guy who probably would not have made it to the Senate without the fact that his father John Chafee was a distinguished and popular senator from a small, insular state. The younger Chafee was in fact appointed to fill his father's seat upon the incumbent's death, later winning election on his own for a full term.

Compared to running for Congress or governor, however, presidential politics is so complicated, difficult, and scrutinizing that family ties or reputation only go so far. Linc Chafee's somewhat unexpected presidential campaign quickly revealed his devastating limitations as a national political figure, from his strange announcement speech to his weak showing in last week's Democratic debate. He understandably received virtually no public or financial support, and the news today that he is dropping out of the race is hardly a surprise.

As for Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, although family relationships have significantly benefited their careers in the past, their ability to survive in the unforgiving climate of presidential politics requires not just the right name but substantial political talent as well. While the press has made much of her supposedly shaky campaign over most of the summer, Clinton's assured performance throughout a long day of often-hostile questioning on Thursday received positive reviews in the news media, with even Republicans acknowledging the capability of her performance—coming after a debate in which she similarly impressed commentators and Democratic voters alike. She is not without political weaknesses, some of them substantial, but neither is her status as the near-certain Democratic nominee simply a reflection of her husband's fame and popularity.

Jeb Bush, in contrast, has so far proven to be a less appealing presidential candidate than many expected—leading, in part, to the fundraising difficulties that are now forcing him to cut back on staff—which further underscores the fact that his older brother George W. Bush was not only the privileged son of a president but an extremely skilled politician in his own right whose success on the national stage was by no means accidental. Jeb may share bloodlines with two presidents, but he will need much more than that to win the support of Republican voters. That sounds less like hereditary succession and more like democracy in action.