Political dynasties flourish in America

[27 June 2007]

By Steve Kraske

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Get this: If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, is re-elected in 2012 and finishes her term, the country will have experienced 28 consecutive years of a Bush or Clinton as president.

Twenty-eight years. Nearly 12 percent of American history to that point. And that doesn’t even count George H.W. Bush’s eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

Bush-Clinton, Bush-Clinton. Talk about your political dynasties.

“A national disgrace,” groaned University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in his “Crystal Ball” e-mail. “What has happened to the American Republic? How does it differ from a banana republic where a couple of dominant families often run everything for generations?”

But political dynasties are hardly a new idea for America. They’ve been around for generations, said Stephen Hess, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who wrote the book “America’s Political Dynasties.”

Hess determined that as of the mid-1990s, about 700 American families had sent two or more members to Congress. And that, he determined, accounted for about 1,700 of the approximately 10,000 people who have been elected to our federal legislative bodies.

Political dynasties “are all over the place,” Hess said.

Rockefellers, Udalls, Gores ...

Several generations of Tafts have included a president (who also was a Supreme Court chief justice), three U.S. senators, representatives and governors. They top the Kennedys - one president, three senators, two representatives and a lieutenant governor.

... Roosevelts, Adamses, Bushes ... two presidents from each clan; the first two have died out. Folks were watching Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, but the struggles of No. 43 could “help to sour the impulse to have any kind of dynasty,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek.

... LaFollettes of Wisconsin; Browns of California; Longs of Louisiana ...

Some Senate seats seem passed along with the family silver. In Indiana, Evan Bayh is a U.S. senator holding the same seat his father, Birch Bayh, first won in 1962.

When John Chafee died in 1999, his son Lincoln took over his Senate office, but was washed away by last year’s Democratic tide. Beau Biden last year was elected attorney general in Delaware, a major grooming step in a state where his father, Joe, has been a U.S. senator since 1973.

Some small states can squeeze in more than one dynasty. The Keans of New Jersey (Tom Jr., son of the former governor, tried to follow in the steps of his father and two other Keans but failed to get into the Senate last year). And the Frelinghuysens.

The Frelinghuysens, you ask? The New Jersey dynasty just goes on: six generations in the U.S. Senate or House - so far.

“It clearly hasn’t slowed down,” Hess said.

Not in Missouri, at least, where the Blunts and the Carnahans reign.

The value of family ties has been felt outside the U.S. In Canada, Justin Trudeau recently followed in the footsteps of his late father, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he became the Liberal Party candidate in the Montreal riding of Papineau.

A brand name is an extremely desirable commodity in politics (assuming the parent hasn’t tarnished it). Many believe that was a major advantage for the current president’s first run. Similarly, who believes Robert Kennedy or Hillary Clinton could have ended up senators from New York without a presidency in the family?

Would Nancy Kassebaum have been the first female senator from Kansas without her governor father, Alf Landon, running against Franklin Roosevelt?

“Somebody like Robin Carnahan has an advantage because her father was well-known statewide,” said Missouri State University political scientist George Connor. It didn’t hurt her brother, either. He’s a congressman from St. Louis.

Gov. Matt Blunt’s fast rise, too, is pegged in part on the reputation of his father, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt.

But there are limits to how far a well-known family can take you. It doesn’t guarantee anyone the presidency, Hess said. A familiar name often will, however, boost a candidate by at least one step up the political ladder, he said. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, had two sons who entered politics. Both became congressmen, but both eventually lost bids for statewide election.

Whether this phenomenon is good for the country is a matter of conjecture. Voters may view it as a shortcut to making difficult election choices.

“People like information shortcuts, and familiar names allow them to avoid a lot of study, or they think they can avoid a lot of study,” said University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan.

But taking shortcuts might not be a good idea when it comes to voting for presidents.

Sabato wonders whether voters have become “too lazy to go beyond the simplistic attractions of familiarity and high name identification.”

He also questions whether voters are “too fearful of change to seek out the most outstanding leaders among us for the toughest job in the world.”

Another factor that draws Americans toward dynasties is our obsession with celebrity. Politicians and members of their families now provide regular fodder for gossip programs and magazines. Many Americans follow the comings and goings of the Bush twins just as they followed Princess Diana and the royal family.

“The personal has become the political,” Michael Barone, co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics,” wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal. “We have columnists writing that the current president’s policies are a sort of Oedipal rebellion against his father. And we have endless speculations on the dynamics of the Clintons’ relationship.”

In a perverse way, Americans “like having royal families,” Dallek said. Celebrity, he said, “has become so important in our politics.”

Europeans look upon America’s predilection for familiar political names with some amusement.

“Wasn’t it dynastic power and inherited privilege that drove Americans from old Europe?” The Sunday Times of London sniffed last year.

“Brits,” the newspaper said, “are now the meritocrats.” The country, for example, would never consider electing Mark Thatcher, son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to high office.

The Economist, based in London, concluded last month that the U.S. is taking on a decidedly British air. The magazine said the French social commentator Montesquieu described 18th-century Britain as a republic in the guise of a monarchy because the elite were happy to swap one royal family for another whenever it suited them.

“It is tempting to argue that America is becoming a monarchy in the guise of a republic,” the magazine opined.

Or perhaps just a “nepocracy.”

Just think. George P. Bush, the current president’s nephew, is eligible to run for the presidency in 2012. Chelsea Clinton is eligible in 2016. And brother Jeb Bush is still out there.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/political-dynasties-flourish-in-america/