Is America really ready for Bush vs. Clinton round II? It is an interesting question and one I suspect few would honestly answer if asked today. But even the possibility of a rematch between two of the most dominant political families in America says much about what America thinks of political dynasties. It is the nation’s dirtiest political secret. Voters profess to hate political dynasties. Until they vote for them.
The history of political dynasties in America is long. From America’s earliest political debates, certain names and families have held incredible sway. Today, most Americans would easily recognize the Kennedy, Clinton and Bush name. Of course these are not the only political dynasties in America. They just have the largest national name identification.
Jay Cost over at the National Review has an excellent rundown of political dynasties dating to the nation’s founding. From the 19th to early 20th century three state based dynasties were established by Virginia (Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809, James Madison 1809-1817, James Monroe 1817-1825), New York, and Ohio. Between the Civil War era and Great Depression the GOP nominated seven Ohio politicians for President and Democrats New Yorkers seven times.
These dynasties are lone gone but modern dynasties had to start somewhere. The Bush dynasty has been cultivated through business success in Massachusetts and electoral success in Florida and Texas. The Clinton brand is newer and was cultivated in the largely defunct Southern Democratic brand. The Kennedy’s, well they come from all over the map but also started in Massachusetts.
To find out how Americans truly feel about dynasties and one must look at the state dynasties. Examples are plentiful. Several stand out. Particularly in the South. Just defeated Senator Mary Landrieu (D) won many of her races on her family’s political dominance. Her father was the first white mayor of New Orleans and her brother, Mitch Landrieu, is the city’s current mayor. Another just defeated Senator, Mark Pryor (D-AR), built his brand on his father’s, David Pryor, success tenures as Governor and Senator. Gwen Grahman, (D-FL), recently elected to represent a conservative leaning Florida panhandle district, played on her dad’s tenure as Governor. These men and women were continuously reelected though the changing partisan allegiance of the South finally outran the strength of their last names.
Indeed, short of Graham, the dynasty politics of America, at least at the state level, seemed to be increasingly tied to ideology and partisanship more than anything else. Two cases out of Georgia illustrate just such a trend. Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter’s nephew, Jason Carter, to run for Governor and Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, for the state’s open Senate seat. Despite playing up their conservative Democratic heritage at the end of the day they lost. And they lost in a way that suggests voters acted more on partisanship than anything else. If one were to compare the 2012 Presidential map of the state to its 2014 results they would be virtual mirrors of each other by county winner.
Still, while partisanship and ideology might be trumping state dynastic politics the same cannot be said at the national level. Hillary Clinton is to the right of the her party yet she leads in every 2016 Democratic nomination poll by 30-50 points. Democrats sure seem comfortable with the idea of another Clinton in the White House. Republicans seem far more squishy with Jeb Bush holding a narrow lead to trailing in many polls.
So why is this the case? After all, many Americans would profess to hate political dynasties. Part of it lies in the murky world of campaign finance and political parties inclination to opt for candidates that appear able to handle a national campaign.. The other half goes to the very mindsets of American voters (particularly partisan ones).
Jeb Bush and Clinton have one advantage no other candidate can match. A ready-made donor base waiting to write them million dollar checks. They did not build these bases themselves. Their families did. Political dynasties help fuel their heirs campaigns and you can’t win something without something. This is true of every American dynasty down the line. Thus, political parties are inclined to back these candidates even as the public sours on the rich, Wall-Street, etc.
The other part is that voters will put aside their concerns about political dynasties and ultimately vote on their partisan and ideological allegiances. Yes, some voters do vote on the economy and the candidate but they are the few.
Let me illustrate this in a simple way. Do you truly believe a conservative Republican who comes out to vote on election day will not support Bush and instead throw his/her to a Clinton that presided over Benghazi, believes in higher taxes, supports abortion and gay marriage, etc.? If you do I think we have a problem. Far more likely they support Bush. The same goes for a Democrat who comes out to vote. This is made ever more likely with the increased use of micro targeting allowing political campaigns to tailor messages to different groups of voters.
Add it all up and you come to the conclusion Americans will say they dislike dynastic politics but if the dynastic candidate agrees with them on the issues they get the votes. Thus, America does have strong political dynasties. However, current dynasties appear to have been cultivated in specific circles such as partisanship and ideology. Those that have not have gone the way of the Pryors. Nunns and Carters.The Bush’s, Clinton’s and Kennedy’s of the world understand this new dynamic. It largely explains why their brands are still so strong (especially notable for the Bush’s) and why a Clinton and Bush could again square off for the White House despite America’s vocal distaste for dynastic politics.