Clinton v. Bush: No this is not 1992

by Matthew Rae

A portrait of the Bush family at their residence in Houston Texas circa 1992 © David Valdez

A portrait of the Bush family at their residence in Houston Texas circa 1992 © David Valdez

In November 1786, in a letter-exchange between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and the first President of the U.S. George Washington, Mr. Jefferson argued that “a hereditary aristocracy…will change the form of our Governments from the best to the worst in the world.” Fast forward two centuries, with Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush both declaring their intention to run in the next year’s presidential election, it is likely that the U.S. will have to choose again, just as in 1992, between the two families. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Founding Fathers’ nightmare of a hereditary aristocracy may come to pass in the 21st century.

According to The Economist, “the political dynasties have a powerful mixture of brand names and personal connections.” There are pros and cons to such dynasties. Matthew Dallek, of The Washington Post, recently argued that political change comes incrementally in the U.S. “The family that devotes itself to an agenda across generations is likelier to realize it. Dynastic experience brings wisdom and governing sophistication to an unwieldy democracy,” he said. Having members of the same family occupy the presidency at different points would provide continuity, but it depends also on the policies it supports.

Proponents of political dynasties argue that these occurrences are not detrimental if the family history does not determine the policies. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of Education and History at the New York University (NYU), writes for The New York Times that the U.S. needs presidents who are not shadowed by the family member who preceded them. The latter might be an issue in the case of the current Bush and Clinton running for their respective party nomination.

Despite Jefferson’s concern about hereditary aristocracy, multiple families passed through the Oval Office and Senate. The most famous examples are the Kennedys and the Roosevelts. In his article for Time Magazine, the former Democrat Senator Gary Hart recently described the current situation in the U.S. as an oligarchy. He highlighted that, “if the presidency were to pass back and forth between two or three families in any Latin American nation, we would call it an oligarchy.”

Hillary Clinton has faced increasing criticism over previous foreign donations, such as Algeria and Qatar, to her and her husband’s Clinton Foundation, a non-for-profit charity. In their article for The Washington Post, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger, highlight that there has probably never been a potential Commander in Chief so closely associated with any charity organization that has received millions in donations from foreign governments. They provided an example of how a donation by Algeria in 2010 led to 12 official State Department visits took place. A record number when compared to the years before and after. In 2008 Saudi Arabia had given between $10 million and $25 million to the foundation over a five year period, according to State Department documents. This is a serious amount of money for disaster relief and HIV/AID drugs, and raises the issue of what type of influence could foreign governments have over a potential presidential candidate, argued Helderman and Hamburger.

Clinton to left. On procession in public. The President, First Lady, and Chelsea on parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration day, January 20, 1997

Clinton to left. On procession in public. The President, First Lady, and Chelsea on parade down Pennsylvania
Avenue on Inauguration day, January 20, 1997

Jeb Bush’s biggest liability is his older brother, George W. Bush. He has constantly stated that “we’re not always like our brother or sister or mom and dad. We all have our own unique DNA and our own life experiences.” The biggest task Jeb Bush of is to convince the U.S. public that he is not his brother incarnate.

To understand how the current situation has emerged, one should examine the way one becomes a presidential nominee for either the Democrats or the Republicans. Increasingly candidates must rely on their family connections to have a fighting chance to win a nomination. Dan Roberts, The Guardian’s Washington Bureau chief, explained that the swift rise of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush was related to their ability to draw on advisers and donors built over many years by their predecessors. Clinton and Bush both have a spring board to launch their 2016 bids that many other potential candidates do not have.

Running for president has become an ever more difficult task. Candidates must begin campaigning months, and even a year in advance. Christopher Jencks, a social policy professor at Harvard University argues that “if you have already got relatives who have done a lot of this stuff, your ability to put that organisation together is a lot greater. The existence of these primaries makes inheriting the machine more an asset.”

Political families have an advantage because of the networks they have formed over the decades, and also due to their ability to raise large sums of money in short periods of time. According to the Federal Election Commission of the U.S., President Obama spent $1.123 billion on his re-election campaign in 2012. Hillary Clinton plans to follow the President’s lead. In Amy Chozick’s article “Hillary Clinton Announces 2016 Presidential Bid,” in The New York Times it was reported that Mrs. Clinton’s supporters and independent expenditure-only committees, also known commonly as super PACS, want to raise as much as $2.5 billion. Philip Bump, of The Wire, writes that the more an opponent outraised and outspent their opponent, the more likely they will win an election. The goal of $2.5 billion is an extremely ambitious goal, but with her State Department and former President Clinton’s connections it is entirely possible.

Defenders of political dynasties argue that they do not pose a systematic risk to the legitimacy of U.S. democracy. Matthew Dallek, of The Washington Post, claims that political dynasties have historically flourished when a stronger middle class existed, and Americans felt that they had more of political voice. A strong middle-class was a check and balance on the emergence of political dynasties in the 20th century.

The question remains though whether the American middle class is still strong enough to combat the potential danger political dynasties pose to the U.S. democracy. In 2014 it was declared that middle-class incomes in Canada are now higher than in the U.S., the first time ever the US never held the top position, according to the Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg. The same study highlighted how many Western European countries are not far behind the U.S., especially in Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands. The cost of living, as measured through the Consumer Price Index (CPI), in Canada is at 81, while the U.S. has a CPI of 76. This is a 5 point difference, but nothing compared to Switzerland’s CPI, the highest in the world at 112.

The power of political dynasties has been increasing in strength, while the American middle-class has lost much of its past clout. The occurrence of these phenomena could raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the Oval Office.

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