What Hillary Clinton Gets Wrong About Political Dynasties

Power begets power — not necessarily ambition.

Bill and Hillary Clinton take a break in between campaign stops on February 16, 1992.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
July 8, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is an am­bi­val­ent mem­ber of a polit­ic­al dyn­asty — at least when she’s talk­ing to re­port­ers.

In an in­ter­view with the Ger­man news­pa­per Der Spiegel, Clin­ton in­sisted for the ump­teenth time that she hasn’t made up her mind about run­ning for pres­id­ent. But more in­ter­est­ing was this ques­tion posed to Clin­ton, which framed her po­ten­tial run as evid­ence of the quasi-ar­is­to­crat­ic nature of the pres­id­ency [em­phas­is mine]:

SPIEGEL: For the past 25 years, there were two fam­il­ies that were very prom­in­ent in polit­ics, your fam­ily and the Bush fam­ily. First George Bush was pres­id­ent for four years, then your hus­band led the coun­try for eight years, and then George W. Bush was pres­id­ent for eight years. If either you or Jeb Bush were to win the elec­tion in 2016, once again a mem­ber of these two fam­il­ies would be­come pres­id­ent. Will the Amer­ic­an demo­cracy turn in­to a mon­archy?

Clin­ton: We had two Roosevelts. We had two Adams. It may be that cer­tain fam­il­ies just have a sense of com­mit­ment or even a pre­dis­pos­i­tion to want to be in polit­ics. I ran for pres­id­ent, as you re­mem­ber. I lost to some­body named Barack Obama, so I don’t think there is any guar­an­tee in Amer­ic­an polit­ics. My last name did not help me in the end. Our sys­tem is open to every­one. It is not a mon­archy in which I wake up in the morn­ing and ab­dic­ate in fa­vor of my son.

Clin­ton’s right — we do not live in a mon­archy. But it might seem like it, sur­vey­ing the field of pop­u­lar Demo­crats who want to run in 2016 whose ini­tials are not HRC (cue crick­ets).

Which raises the ques­tion: Do dyn­ast­ic fam­il­ies have more of a ge­net­ic com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice, as Clin­ton sug­gests, or is it just the fam­ily busi­ness? Blake Car­ring­ton would nev­er claim to “just have a sense of com­mit­ment or even a pre­dis­pos­i­tion to be­ing an oil ty­coon.”

Still, one re­cent study found that in­her­ited polit­ic­al power is more about nur­ture than nature.

Re­search­ers at Brown Uni­versity found that polit­ic­al power in Con­gress is self-per­petu­at­ing, and that the longer a politi­cian holds of­fice, the more likely he or she is to see re­l­at­ives be­come politi­cians. They found that, from 1789 to 1996, 8.7 per­cent of mem­bers had re­l­at­ives who pre­vi­ously served in Con­gress.

The au­thors of the study con­cede that “un­ob­served fam­ily char­ac­ter­ist­ics” could con­trib­ute to politi­cians’ dyn­ast­ic powers. They also found that chil­dren of politi­cians aren’t ne­ces­sar­ily more likely to be­come mini­ature ver­sions of their par­ents — nor does hav­ing polit­ic­al par­ents give them a pre­dis­pos­i­tion for pub­lic ser­vice. But if these polit­ic­al off­spring do de­cide to go in­to polit­ics, they’ll have a leg up on the com­pet­i­tion:

We find that dyn­ast­ic politi­cians are less likely to start their ca­reer in the House, sug­gest­ing they have the abil­ity or means to enter dir­ectly through the Sen­ate, a much smal­ler and more pres­ti­gi­ous body. This dif­fer­ence can­not be at­trib­uted to a later entry in­to Con­gress: dyn­ast­ic le­gis­lat­ors enter Con­gress at about 44 years of age, just like non-dyn­ast­ic le­gis­lat­ors. Dyn­ast­ic le­gis­lat­ors are not more likely to come from a state dif­fer­ent than the one they rep­res­ent and are sig­ni­fic­antly less likely to have pre­vi­ous pub­lic ex­per­i­ence, al­though they are more likely to have a col­lege de­gree.

Amer­ic­ans gen­er­ally have a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with polit­ic­al dyn­asties — we say we don’t want the same fam­il­ies to con­tin­ue hold­ing of­fice, but as soon as names are named, we flock to their corner. In a re­cent sur­vey on dyn­asties, a ma­jor­ity of re­spond­ents said they hope the Bushes and the Clin­tons of the world don’t dom­in­ate the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race. Iron­ic­ally, most re­spond­ents also re­por­ted fa­vor­able views of the Clin­ton and Bush fam­il­ies.

Lik­ing a polit­ic­al fam­ily is, of course, dif­fer­ent from vot­ing one’s mem­bers in­to of­fice cycle after cycle. But data presents a start­ling dis­con­nect between how voters want demo­cracy to work in the­ory and in prac­tice.

Wheth­er or not hav­ing a house­hold name helps your elec­tion chances, be­long­ing to a polit­ic­al dyn­asty cer­tainly con­veys some priv­ileges that no-name can­did­ates don’t have. Prac­tic­ally, it’s easi­er to raise money and or­gan­ize sup­port­ers as a can­did­ate when you are (or your fam­ily is) a known com­mod­ity, po­ten­tially with a ready-made sup­port net­work already at your ser­vice. And psy­cho­lo­gic­ally, the power of in­cum­bency can­not be un­der­es­tim­ated, as polit­ic­al repu­ta­tions trickle down from pat­ri­arch or mat­ri­arch to fam­ily mem­bers.

Of course, this ef­fect could also back­fire for politi­cians whose names bear neg­at­ive as­so­ci­ations. Jeb Bush pub­licly ac­know­ledged earli­er this year that his name was “an is­sue.” Then again, it ap­pears that time can heal many wounds — George W. Bush is more pop­u­lar today than he was dur­ing his last three years in of­fice.

Are polit­ic­al dyn­asties dif­fer­ent from oth­er types of dyn­asties? In U.S. cul­ture, the first fam­ily takes on de facto roy­alty status in a way that oth­er fam­ily em­pires rarely do — un­less your last name hap­pens to be Kar­dashi­an. But un­like in a mon­archy, what Amer­ica’s roy­alty does with the power con­ferred upon them is com­pletely up to them.

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