Earlier this week, Jeb Bush announced he was setting up a political committee to explore a presidential candidacy. Hillary Clinton has been exploring a presidential candidacy for months and perhaps years. Polls show Clinton with a wide lead for the Democratic nomination and Bush as a leading competitor for the Republican nomination.
All of which leaves many people, some of them admirers of one or both potential candidates, queasy. Out of 319 million people in America, will our 45th president be the son of the 41st and brother of the 43rd or the wife of the 42nd? The United States is a republic. Have we developed a dynastic, royal form of politics?
These two dynastic candidates have legitimate claims on the office. Bush was elected to two terms as governor of Florida, likely to be our third most populous state when the Census Bureau presents its population estimates for 2014. Clinton was elected to two terms in the U.S. Senate in New York, our third most populous state at the time, and served four years as secretary of state.
Both arguably performed competently, and both have shown resilience, a quality needed in a president. Bush rebounded from political defeat in 1994 and fierce attacks after the disputed Florida recounts in 2000. Clinton rebounded from humiliation after the Hillarycare debacle and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Lesser mortals would have sought obscurity to avoid public embarrassment. Both persevered and went on to significant achievements in public life.
Of course, they are not perfect candidates. Clinton is at odds with the left wing of her party on foreign policy and financial issues. Bush is under attack on education and immigration from many on the right wing of his. But either one of them could end up as president.
Such dynastic politics seems odd to many Americans. But when you look around the world at other large democracies, it is commonplace. Members of the Nehru-Gandhi family have been prime ministers of India (population 1.2 billion) in 37 of its 67 years as an independent republic. Daughters of presidents have been elected president of Indonesia (252 million), the Philippines (101 million) and South Korea (50 million). The current Philippine president’s mother was also president.
Aecio Neves, narrowly defeated this year for president of Brazil (204 million), is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, who was elected president in 1985. On the Internet you can see a photo of the 5-year-old Shinzo Abe, re-elected last weekend as prime minister of Japan (127 million), with his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister at the time.
What advantage do dynastic candidates have in very large democracies? It’s rooted, I think, in the fact that voters make their choices not only on the basis of policies but on character. They are aware that character can make a crucial difference in performance. Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain were members of the same party, but they performed differently in office.
And if you want to understand the character of a candidate, it helps if you know the family. In large democracies, citizens come to know a lot about the families of heads of government. They understand that all members of a family are not the same. But they know that they tend to share certain characteristics and values. You see the same thing at holiday gatherings of your own extended families.
In the early years of the United States, there was little interest in or publicity about the families of presidents. That changed when Theodore Roosevelt, with his brood of unruly children, became president in 1901. He presided at the White House wedding of his daughter Alice to a future speaker of the House and walked his niece Eleanor down the aisle as she married a future president. For almost 20 of the first 45 years of the 20th century, two very talented Roosevelt cousins were president of the United States.
The success of the Roosevelts and the long prominence of the Kennedy family have put a patina of legitimacy on dynastic politics in this country. That doesn’t mean dynastic candidates don’t have to prove themselves.
But it has left room for scions with records of their own — Edward Kennedy, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush — to run for president. It seems weird that two Yale Law School students who married or two brothers raised in an unprepossessing house in Midland, Texas, should both become presidents. But it could happen.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, where this article first appeared, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.