The coalition against dynasticism

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In his widely read blog "Talking Points Memo," liberal Josh Marshall opposes Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential candidacy because it would be a form of "dynasticism."

"George H. W. Bush left office to be followed by two terms of Bill Clinton. He, in turn, was followed by two terms of Bush's son. If those two terms of the son are followed by the election of Clinton's wife, I don't see where that's a good thing for the country. It ceases to be a fluke and grows into a pattern. It's dynasticism."

I think Marshall's got a good point. So good that I share his feeling. The Republican that I think would be the next best president is Jeb Bush. But he isn't running, and I don't think he should run. It's just not fitting that three of our 43 presidents† should have lived together in one unimpressive ranch house (I've driven by; it's no great shakes) in Midland, Texas, in the 1950s. This is a republic, after all, not a monarchy, and I'm glad to enlist Marshall in the ranks as a fellow "small r" republican.

Marshall is right also in saying that this is a new development. As he notes, John Quincy Adams was elected president 24 years after his father had been defeated and as a candidate of a different party. I'm not aware that anyone thinks that Benjamin Harrison was nominated and elected (again, with a minority of the vote, like Adams in 1824 and Bush in 2000) because of the posthumous fame of his grandfather, who had served one month as president 47 years before. Harrison was most likely nominated because he was from Indiana, and in the post-Civil War era, the most marginal states were New York, Ohio, and Indiana; both major parties tended to pick their presidential and vice presidential nominees from these states. Robert Taft, son of a president, and Robert and Edward Kennedy, brothers of a president, also ran for the office, but none won his party's nomination < >. Marshall also says he has heard that there are more dynastic members of Congress than there used to be. He's not sure that's true, and neither am I. But one can't help but notice that the wives of the two major party presidential nominees in 1996 are now both serving in the U.S. Senate and that both were elected from states where they weren't living when they decided to run.

But having said all that, I think there's a counterargument. Or at least a countertrend. It is this: Voters in very populous democracies have often chosen heads of government who are the sons or daughters of previous heads of government. For most of the time since independence in 1947, Indians have chosen as heads of government members of one family—Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi. The only reason Rajiv's wife, Sonia Gandhi, is not head of government now is that she turned the job down; she was the head of the Congress Party, which won the last election, but she declined the office, evidently because many Indians have qualms about her because she was born an Italian and has a less-than-perfect command of Hindi. Indonesia has chosen Sukarno's daughter as president; the current president of the Philippines is a daughter of the former president. And, of course, here in the United States we have George W. Bush, and we may elect Hillary Rodham Clinton.

What accounts for this? Here's my theory. Voters understand that a leader's personal character is very important. Yet in a very large democracy, it's very hard for them to evaluate a candidate's character. It's much easier if that candidate is the son or daughter or wife of a former head of government. Then they know the family. On the campaign trail in 2000, George W. Bush made frequent references to his mother. Voters knew what he was saying—I'm tough like her. Al Gore could have made frequent references to his mother—by all accounts, I've seen an extraordinarily able woman with a strong personality. But voters, except perhaps in middle Tennessee, wouldn't have known what he was talking about.

So perhaps there's a tendency toward what Marshall calls dynasticism—and what could be called royalism—in very large democracies. This can be unfair to nondynastic candidates. Would George W. Bush have been nominated and elected if his father had not been president and his mother first lady? Would Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoy as large a lead in the polls for the 2008 Democratic nomination if her husband had not been president? I think most people would answer both questions with a "probably not." But it's more important that the system be fair to the people than to the candidates. The more information voters have, the better their decisions are likely to be. Dynasticism provides information about some candidates' character. Still, I have to admit that dynasticism is troubling. It seems to narrow down the list of possible candidates too much. But the list is bound to be narrowed down one way or the other.

If we don't want dynasticism, we have to vote against dynastic candidates. Here Marshall is a more principled opponent of dynasticism than I am. He apparently is ready to vote against Hillary Rodham Clinton, at least in the Democratic primary. I voted for George W. Bush in both primary and general elections. The best case I can make for myself as a principled antidynasticist is that I am against a Jeb Bush candidacy—but Jeb Bush has clearly decided that he isn't running, and he did so without any prompting from me.

† George W. Bush is our 43rd president, but only 42 men have been president; Grover Cleveland served nonconsecutive terms and by tradition has been known as both the 22nd and 24th president.