Why Political Dynasties Are Part of America

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 17 2014 9:13 PM

Will Chelsea Clinton’s Baby Be President One Day?

So what? Political dynasties are part of America.

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Just because Chelsea Clinton is pregnant doesn't mean the Clintons are a dynasty. And even if they do become one someday, it will be par for the American course.

Photo by MEHDI TAAMALLAH/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday afternoon Chelsea Clinton announced she was pregnant, and immediately political reporters began to complain about the “Clinton dynasty.” “Can you say dynasty?” wrote the staff of the Week magazine. Those words were echoed quickly by the Wire, which answered the question of when the gestating child would be eligible for the White House. (2053, if you’re wondering.)

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

More broadly, the prospect of another Bush/Clinton presidential race—between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush—has spawned a cottage industry of handwringing over American “aristocrats.” “Could it be Clinton vs. Bush all over again?” wondered Bloomberg. “Forward into the past: another Bush or Clinton in the White House?” asked CNN. “Clinton vs. Bush again, really?” complained conservative website Breitbart. Likewise, there have been similar grumblings about the high profile of political children in this year’s Senate and gubernatorial races, from Jason “grandson of Jimmy” Carter and Michelle “daughter of Sam” Nunn in Georgia, to Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, whose father—Jerry Lundergan—was a former state representative and party chairman.

I get the frustration. As former first lady Barbara Bush said in a recent interview on C-SPAN, “If we can't find more than two or three families to run for office, that's silly, because there are great governors and great eligible people to run.”

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Setting aside the fact that the Clintons aren’t a dynasty—they are a smart and ambitious married couple who’ve given us one generation of officeholders—we should remember that powerful families and political dynasties are a long-standing part of American politics. In fact, they’ve been with us since the beginning.

Just look at the signers of the Constitution. Of the 40 delegates who signed the document, just a handful came from humble origins. Most were comfortable men from prosperous families, and a few came from prominent backgrounds. From Virginia there was John Blair, the son of a royal governor. From South Carolina there was Charles Cotesworth “C.C.” Pinckney and his cousin, Charles Pinckney, who came from a powerful family of planters and slave owners. Along with Thomas Pinckney, brother to C.C. and cousin to Charles, they would go on to serve as presidential candidates (C.C.), governors of South Carolina (Charles and Thomas), House members (Thomas), and senators (Charles). And James Madison—the most influential of the constitutional architects—was son to one of the wealthiest landowners and tobacco growers in Virginia.

Indeed, prominent families were a mainstay of the early American republic. Beyond John Adams and John Quincy Adams (the second and sixth presidents of the United States, respectively), there was Bushrod Washington (nephew of George Washington and associate justice on the Supreme Court), Chief Justice John Marshall (cousin to Thomas Jefferson), Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. (son-in-law to Jefferson and 21st governor of Virginia), and John Van Buren (son to Martin Van Buren and attorney general of New York). There was also the Harrison clan, which included Benjamin Harrison V—signatory on the Declaration of Independence—his sons William Henry Harrison (ninth president) and Carter Harrison (both of whom served in the House of Representatives), grandson John Scott Harrison (who served in the House of Representatives), and great-grandson Benjamin Harrison (23rd president).

You can play this game for almost every president and vice president in the early-to-mid-19th century. President John Tyler’s father was a governor of Virginia, and President Franklin Pierce’s, a governor of New Hampshire. The Breckinridges dominated Kentucky politics, with senators, House members, and eventually a vice president (John Cabell Breckinridge). Jump forward to the first half of the 20th century, and you have the Roosevelts, the Tafts—who gave us a president (William Howard), a senator and famously unsuccessful presidential candidate (Robert Taft Sr.), another senator (Robert Taft Jr.), and a governor (Robert Taft III), among others—and the beginnings of the Bush clan. And from there, we have the Rockefellers, the Romneys, and of course, the Kennedys.

All of this is to say there’s nothing remarkable about the prominence of the Bush and Clinton families, nor is there anything unusual about their national reach. As with the Bushes—who have held office in Connecticut, Texas, and Florida—the major families of the 1800s populated the politics of large and influential states. Insofar that there’s anything strange about the current period, it’s the number of consecutive years two families held the highest office. If either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush runs and wins in 2016, one member from two families will have held the White House for 24 of the 32 years between 1988 and 2020.*

I’m not worried about this for the same reason I’m not worried about long-serving elected officials. Yes, there’s a lot of power that comes with being a known quantity and having the automatic support of donors and elites in your party. But victory is rarely guaranteed, and if voters don’t want to support a dynastic candidate (or 30-year congressman), they won’t. It’s one reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2008, and if Jeb Bush decides to run for the Republican nomination, he’ll have to contend with it as well.

Still, depending on how it goes, 2016 will be the last year for a while we’ll have a Bush or Clinton running for national office. And by the time Chelsea Clinton or George P. Bush decides to make a splash, there’s a chance their names won’t matter as much, or—more likely—they’ll be overshadowed by a new group of prominent families.

*Correction, April 18, 2014: This article originally misstated that the Bush and Clinton families have dominated the presidency since 1992. They have dominated the presidency since 1988.

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

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