Politics & Policy

No to Political Primogeniture

From left: Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Jason Carter (grandson of Jimmy Carter), and Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sam Nunn)
All else being equal, voters should favor political fresh faces over political heirs.

On one level, it’s not fair to say that children of successful politicians shouldn’t enter politics themselves. In a just world, the sins of the father really should not be visited upon the sons; so too should the successes of fathers not prohibit their sons and daughters from seeking similar success.

But . . . but . . . but, insists something from the core of my being. There’s something deeply unsettling, in a nation founded with a hearty disdain for hereditary emoluments, about a national political class that consists of the same names for generation after generation. Aside from the Adamses and perhaps the Livingstons, America’s Founders did not establish anything approaching political dynasties. There’s something innately healthy about public office as a meritorious call to service rather than as a birthright.

#ad#Now, though, the Republican donor class seems increasingly likely to lure yet a third Bush in three decades into the presidential arena, with a prior Bush serving as U.S. senator a generation before. Furthermore, reports CBS’s Bob Schieffer, Mitt Romney may be inclined to make a third run for the White House (a fourth Romney run in 50 years, after his father’s 1968 effort) if an increasingly arrogant Jeb Bush somehow decides not to run. And on the donkey side of the fence, of course, Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner to make hubby Bill the first former president to become First Gentl . . . , er, First Straying Husband.

Meanwhile, in 2014, Jimmy Carter’s grandson and Sam Nunn’s daughter are running statewide in Georgia, while a who’s-(father is)-who of second-generation politicos fight not just for election but for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Mark Udall, son of former presidential contender Mo, is in a tight race in Colorado; Mary Landrieu, daughter of former New Orleans mayor and HUD secretary Moon, is in one in Louisiana; Mark Begich, son of tragically killed former U.S. representative Nick, battles in Alaska; likewise in Arkansas with Mark Pryor, son of former senator and Arkansas governor David. Firmly ensconced in the Senate are, from Pennsylvania, gubernatorial son Bob Casey Jr., and, from Arizona, top admiral’s son John McCain.

Lisa Murkowski holds down her father’s seat in Alaska; Rand Paul rode his father’s name ID to a Senate perch from Kentucky; West Virginia’s retiring John Rockefeller is, well, a Rockefeller; and New Mexico’s Tom Udall is a cabinet secretary’s son and presidential candidate’s nephew. Back to Senate candidates: In Georgia, David Perdue is a gubernatorial cousin; in West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito is a governor’s daughter.

And this is leaving out major candidates who are children of local elected officials such as state legislators. And I didn’t even mention any Kennedys.

Enough already.

If there’s nothing innately unhealthy about any individual child’s following a parent into politics, we still should look askance when the practice becomes habitual, and when the habit grows so common. The always-commonsensical Barbara Bush, when famously recommending against a Jeb Bush candidacy a few months ago by saying “we’ve had enough Bushes,” was making a broader point.

“I think it’s a great country,” she said. “There are a lot of great families. It’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people out there that are very qualified.”

In a nation of more than 300 million people, that message should go without saying. But it needed saying, because that’s not how our system is working.

If politics seems sclerotic, if new thinking or fresh approaches seem to be in far too little evidence, and if millions of Americans resent what Angelo Codevilla described as “the ruling class,” perhaps this is one of the reasons why.

Of course, these scions of famous families don’t directly inherit their seats. The voters choose them. But that doesn’t mean the deck isn’t at least somewhat stacked. Anybody who denies that big-money players act as gatekeepers of the ballot box isn’t in touch with reality. Likewise, political organizations are passed down from one generation to the next. The political advantages that come with a “ruling class” pedigree are substantial, and they seem to be growing.

None of which is to say that voters, in reaction, should automatically oppose a second-generation (or third- or fourth-) politico. After all, a John Quincy Adams or a Robert Taft does sometimes emerge and prove to be a worthy statesman. But here’s a suggestion: When faced with the choice between a political heir and a newbie, perhaps voters should break any “ties” or near-ties (in terms of their own impressions and preferences) in favor of the novice.

Joe Schmoe might not be a better choice than the 1940s Robert Taft. But surely Joe the Plumber should get consideration over the next skirt-chasing Kennedy. Surely, likewise, the presidential big leagues can do just fine without being turned into the Bush leagues.

If, for just a few election cycles, voters can break this cycle of virtual primogeniture, there might be a restoration of faith in the basic fairness of the system. Right now, when it comes to such faith, too many people have Nunn.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.

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