Saturday, October 06, 2007

The new dynastic politics

Following allegations of fraud during the last two national elections, deeper questions have been raised about whether the U.S. can still pretend to be a functioning "democracy." Some conservatives have long insisted that the U.S. is a "republic, not a democracy." Now there are reasons to question whether the U.S. can even claim to be a "republic."

If Hillary Clinton is elected president next year and serves two full terms, someone named Clinton or Bush will have held national office (as POTUS or VPOTUS) for 37 consecutive years. Conveniently enough, Chelsea Clinton will turn 35 and become eligible in 2015, two years before her mother would leave office.

This isn't unprecedented in U.S. history. Twice before, two members of the same family have assumed the presidency: John Adams (father) and John Quincy Adams (son), Teddy Roosevelt and (fifth cousin) Franklin Roosevelt.

Politics in the U.S. has been dominated by a de facto landed and propertied aristocracy that has been in place since its founding, though membership in that group has tended to be fluid and not necessarily fixed by ancestry. But the two competing dynasties of the last fifteen years are caught in an electoral dynamic that's unique in U.S. history.

After eight years of contrived "scandals" involving Bill Clinton, Dubya became the nostalgic choice of a significant percentage of voters who yearned for qualities that his father, at least in their fantasies, represented: the
integrity, stability and moral righteousness of the Reagan/Bush years. Dubya's appeal was undoubtedly enhanced by his fraudulent claim that he was a "compassionate conservative," implying that he would supply a needed corrective to the harsh economic and social policies of the 80's.

After the devastating rejection of the elder Bush in the 1992 election, it's hard to imagine that anyone would be "nostalgic" enough to vote for a proven mediocrity from the same family
the first president in U.S. history who has ever been convicted of a crime. Dubya's appeal based on his ancestry was more subliminal than overt, but it may have had an effect by keeping him close enough in the vote count that he could steal the election in Florida.

After six and a half disastrous years, are we now witnessing the opposite dynamic
a kind of "Clinton nostalgia" that could help to propel Hillary into the White House? After all, she seems to offer the best of the Clinton legacy without the personal, ah, foibles that Bill brought to the office.

To many voters, at least by contrast with the Bush debacle, the Clinton era was a time of peace, prosperity, optimism and stability. The U.S. had emerged from the Cold War triumphant, at least in the popular imagination, and unchallenged. For all his obvious personal failings, Clinton was perceived as brilliant, competent and in control of his administration. As an added bonus, he speaks in complete and coherent sentences, a quality that radically distinguishes him from both his predecessor and successor. Hillary may be a less compelling speaker and presence, but she shares most of Bill's strengths and few of his vulnerabilities. A few political weaknesses are unique to her, primarily the high negatives that come from years of vicious personal attacks by the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that she has accurately described.

So are voters, after a catastrophic attempt to return to the perceived golden years of the Reagan/Bush administration, yearning to somehow replicate the 90's? Clearly we could, and did, do a lot worse.

The Bush brand has become so devalued, of course, that no one with that name is ever likely to get elected again. If daughter Jenna Bush thinks she can promote a political career by simply rebranding herself with her new husband's last name, I suspect she's sadly mistaken. And she, like her sister, also shares her father's reputation as a party animal.

If Seymour Hirsh is correct about the Bush/Cheney plan to launch a limited war against Iran, Republicans could be faced with an electoral fiasco in 2008 that could rival 1964. The end of the Bush dynasty could be the beginning of another.


George Bush has as strong a claim to membership in the hereditary U.S. elite as any president.
The Bush family has been described as "the most successful political dynasty in American history" [a claim which, if true, suggests that dynasties haven't served us very well]. In fact, Dubya is a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth II. By contrast, Bill Clinton's background seems downright lumpen. Hillary's father worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania before he moved to Illinois and began a successful career in the textile supply industry. The Clintons' claims to membership in the national aristocracy are founded on their educations (Yale and Wellesley) and political success rather than an accident of birth.

Now isn't the time to attempt an analysis of whether the U.S. can best be described as a democracy, republic, oligarchy, plutocracy or kleptocracy.

PHOTO: Samuel Prescott Bush, patriarch of the family and great-grandfather of George W. Bush. (Wikimedia)

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