Politico MagazineDynasty Isn't Just for Monarchies Anymore
A Bush-Clinton matchup in 2016 would hardly be unusual. American politics is more of a family affair than you think.
By LARRY J. SABATO
March 31, 2014
Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush may not agree on much, but they surely recognize they need each other in 2016. Only the nomination of both for president by their respective parties makes the dynasty issue go away.
While Clinton has long led her party’s 2016 presidential wish list, the ascension of Jeb Bush up the GOP board is more recent. But make no mistake: Many top Republicans would love him to run, as reported by the Washington Post and discussed on the Sunday shows over the weekend. I have heard the same thing for months from the highest levels of the GOP, which is part of the reason why Bush now occupies the top spot on our University of Virginia Center for Politics Crystal Ball rankings of the 2016 Republican contenders (Clinton obviously tops our Democratic rankings).
The very idea that just two alternating families would occupy the White House for 28 of the 36 years between 1989 and 2025 would have been abhorrent to America’s founding fathers. They weren’t enthusiastic supporters of participatory democracy, but they knew a monarchial line when they saw one, and started a revolution to end it on these shores. The presidency was never supposed to be a household inheritance.
Neither the Clintons nor the Bushes are exactly the House of Windsor, though there are similarities. You have the requisite number of sex scandals, hypocrisies and troublesome relatives. Of course, the Windsor family is the real “house of cards”—more of a continuing celebrity soap opera than any threat to democracy. The British royals have indirect influence but little real power even within the diminishing realm of a lesser empire. By contrast, America’s top families run the richest nation and mightiest military in the world.
The only person to make any sense recently on this subject is the matriarch of one ruling family, former first lady Barbara Bush, who astutely observed, “If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly,” referring specifically to the Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes. “There are other families. I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people.” (She later modified her preferences, saying “maybe it’s OK” if son Jeb made a White House bid.)
Mrs. Bush could have left out the Kennedys, who have collectively provided only one tragically shortened White House term. The Kennedys are dynastic pikers next to the Bushes, though the cognoscenti say Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts wants to get his family back in the game.
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?
Like it or not, it’s a tradition—if not as American as apple pie and the fourth of July, then frequent enough to be a constant in our politics. The White House has been home to two each of Adamses, Harrisons and Roosevelts, yet in each case, a generation or more separated these family presidencies (24, 48 and 24 years, respectively).
No family has been more dynastically prolific than the John Adams clan, supplying not just two presidents but three governors, nine House members and a senator. The du Ponts of Delaware never got to the White House (despite former Gov. Pete du Pont’s best effort in 1988), but they and their extended family—the Bayards and Claytons—have filled Senate seats a dozen times (for a total of 80 years of the state’s existence), plus three governorships and three House seats. The Breckinridges of Kentucky (and various intermarried kin) got a vice presidency, four senators and 12 U.S. representatives. And there are plenty of other examples: Most states have seen a family name appear over and over on the ballot, including Bayh in Indiana; Boren in Oklahoma; Brown in both California and Ohio; Byrd in Virginia; Carnahan in Missouri; Chafee in Rhode Island; Frelinghuysen in New Jersey; La Follette in Wisconsin; Long in Louisiana; Matheson in Utah; Murkowski in Alaska; Rockefeller in New York, Arkansas and West Virginia; Stevenson in Illinois; Taft in Ohio; Udall in several western states; Thurmond in South Carolina; Wallace in Alabama; —and on and on.
Larry J. Sabato is university professor of politics and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which publishes the online, free Crystal Ball politics newsletter every Thursday, and a regular columnist for Politico Magazine. His most recent book is The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy.
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