On September 4th, Niki Tsongas (the widow of presidential candidate Paul Tsongas) won a special election to Congress in Massachusetts. Voter turnout was a dismal 14%, but it also signified the triumph of dynasty in our democratic process. And what happened was not an isolated incident.
Voters cheapen the spirit of democracy when they routinely elect political dynasties. If Hillary Clinton gets elected President and serves two terms, we will have an uninterrupted cycle in the White House of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton for 28 years. On the Republican side, presidential candidate Mitt Romney is the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney (who ran for President in 1968, and served in Nixon’s Cabinet.) At least 11 current U.S. Senators are the child or spouse of a prominent politician, and in California, Jerry Brown – who served as Governor as did his father – is now considering another bid for the state’s top office.
The concept of America as a land of “self-made” success stories is something that I take seriously. I grew up here, but was born in London and my parents are from Europe. When it comes to who will run this country – i.e., who gets elected to public office – it should include the most hard-working, passionate and ambitious people, not those who happen to come from a political family. While some do get elected without a pedigree, the number of American dynasties is disturbing.
And there’s no better example than our current President, who would have been nothing without his father – the 41st President. But the elder George Bush was also a political legacy; his father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. As Dubya goes down in history as the worst President ever, his brother – Florida Governor Jeb Bush – says he won’t run for the White House. But it’s an open secret that the family is grooming his telegenic son, George P. Bush, to carry on the family business of exploiting the world.
Bill Clinton was a self-made man, and there’s no question that his rise from a broken home in Arkansas to the White House was an inspiring tale. But after serving as President for eight years, the Clintons are now trying to build their own political dynasty. And the first step is to put Hillary in the Oval Office, foreclosing the chances of other fresh faces from making it to the top.
I cringed in 2000 when Hillary Clinton moved to New York to run for the U.S. Senate. If the goal was to build progressive change and the Democratic Party rather than continue a dynasty, why not give the opportunity to run for an open Senate seat to a local Democrat? Instead, party leaders in New York were all too eager to go with the star quality – and now we see the dynasty marching on to reclaim the White House.
But before Republicans start railing about a “Clinton Dynasty,” they should take a hard look at their own presidential candidates. Mitt Romney – who I think will get the nomination by default – is the son of former Michigan Governor Romney. The elder Romney ran for President in 1968, and would have won the Republican nomination if he had not said he was “brainwashed” to support the Vietnam War. He later used his political connections to help his son, Mitt, get elected Governor of Massachusetts.
Today, at least eleven U.S. Senators are either the child or the spouse of politicians. Besides Clinton, they are Lisa Murkowski (whose father appointed her after he was elected Alaska Governor), Mark Pryor (son of Senator David Pryor), Chris Dodd (son of Senator Thomas Dodd), Evan Bayh (son of Senator Birch Bayh), Mary Landrieu (her father was Mayor of New Orleans and HUD Secretary, and her brother is Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana), John Sununu (son of the former White House Chief of Staff), Elizabeth Dole (wife of Bob Dole), Bob Casey Jr. (son of Governor Bob Casey Sr.), Ted Kennedy of the Kennedy clan, and John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV.
This phenomenon is not co-incidental. Political parties are always strapped for cash, and when it comes to recruiting a candidate to run for office, it’s a lot easier to find the heir of a political family who can make fundraising a lot easier. In the 2008 election cycle, Democrats have recruited Mark Udall – the son of former presidential candidate Mo Udall and cousin of Congressman Tom Udall – to run for Colorado’s open Senate seat. Expect more political names to resurface soon as well, while potential candidates without illustrious pedigrees are not given careful thought.
I don’t mean to denigrate candidates just because they come from political families. Some, like Ted Kennedy, have made their mark with accomplishments that far surpass their pedigree. But it’s highly disturbing that some candidates have access to donors because of where they came from – and that name recognition alone can account for a win at the polls. Some self-made candidates can still make it, but the focus on dynasty shrinks the pool of “viable” contenders who are given consideration. For the progressive movement, it hurts the process of recruiting future leaders.
I grew up in Chicago, where the joke is that your last name has to be Daley in order to run for Mayor. Which is why politicians like Harold Washington and Barack Obama were so special. They were elected despite the fact that they were not political bluebloods. When Obama first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he was not the favorite of the local Democratic machine. Their candidate was Dan Hynes (the son of former Illinois State Senate President Tom Hynes), but the voters had a better idea.
But what about California, where so many people come from other parts of the world to escape their families and develop their own individual character? Unfortunately, now there is talk that Attorney General Jerry Brown – who has been in elected office since 1969 – will run again for Governor in 2010. Jerry would never have been elected without his father’s connections, and he’s had access to all the goodwill for nearly four decades thanks to a famous last name.
I say it’s about time to give other people a chance. After all, we live in a democracy – not a monarchy – and we had a Revolution more than 200 years ago to keep it that way. I just hope enough voters can agree to look beyond name recognition when they go to the polls.
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