In an interview that aired on C-SPAN last night, Barbara Bush announced her opposition to a presidential bid by her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "If we can't find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that's silly," she said. "Because there are great governors and great eligible people to run."
The former first lady (and mother of a former president) is right. And not just about Jeb. Hillary Clinton shouldn't run for president, either.
Democrats have shied away from talking dynasty when it comes to Clinton. The chance to hold on to the White House while electing the first woman president is too enticing to allow for the sort of soul-searching a Clinton run should inspire. But with another year before the 2016 campaign begins in earnest, Democrats should consider the consequences of putting a Clinton back in the Oval Office.
This is a not a question of Clinton's politics or her experience. As a former senator and secretary of state she is clearly qualified. But her place in the Clinton family should remove her from consideration, just as Jeb Bush's relationships to the 41st and 43rd presidents should disqualify him. Unfair? Maybe. But it's necessary in order for the country to demonstrate its continued commitment to a non-aristocratic democracy.
When it comes to the nation's highest office, candidate pools and gene pools have started to merge in unprecedented ways. Yes, Americans experimented with a father-son presidency in the early republic, but they abandoned the all-in-the-family approach thereafter. And while Democrats continuously eyed a second Kennedy administration in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no contemporaneous hereditary urge in the GOP.
The bipartisan embrace of the familial presidency has real drawbacks. First, it has a whiff of late-stage democracy, of an inevitable slouching toward hereditary rule. That Americans are contemplating a second Clinton so soon after a second Bush shows they have few anxieties about dynastic politics. That rumors persisted throughout 2013 of a possible Michelle Obama run shows they have an almost pathological preference for it.
But Clinton's potential move from first lady to President has implications beyond such end-of-the-republic concerns. Recently, the Democrats have renewed their populist focus on inequality and social mobility. In a speech on economic mobility last month, President Obama said that the American story began with "the idea that success doesn't depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit." The past two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have embodied that idea: born into families with little wealth and few connections, they provided studied contrasts to the patrician Bushes.
Hillary Clinton, who has dedicated herself to public service for much of her life, also has a compelling biography. But her road to the presidency, like George and Jeb Bush's, winds through the White House itself. And when it comes to the symbolic power of the presidency, that circuitousness matters. No matter how qualified the candidate, it diminishes the ideas of democracy and meritocracy to contain the presidency to just a few families.
These dynastic concerns didn't bother the Republicans in 2000, and they don't seem to trouble Democrats, who see Clinton as their best shot at the White House in 2016. But if they are determined to nominate her, they should at least pause to consider the cost. As should Clinton herself. After all, Barbara Bush's advice to Jeb applies equally to her: "There are a lot of ways to serve, and being president is not the only one."