Before I get to the “but”, let me say that Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a terrific president.
She has spent decades wrestling with public-policy questions about poverty and health care. She is smart and pragmatic on foreign-policy issues.
And while it would be tough for a liberal or centrist woman to be elected (it’s much easier for a conservative like Margaret Thatcher), the rising Democratic tide increasingly makes her look electable.
But there is another issue at stake, one that goes to the heart of what kind of a nation we are.
If Clinton were elected and served two terms, then for seven consecutive presidential terms the White House would have been in the hands of just two families. That’s just not the kind of equal-opportunity democracy we aspire to. Maybe we can’t make America as egalitarian and fluid as we would like, but we can at least push back against the concentration of power. We can do that in our tax policy, in our education policy—and in our voting decisions.
In South Asia—Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka—it has been common for a spouse or child to inherit a political office. But that always has the feel of a politically-immature democracy. It would feel very Sri Lankan if we had a father-son series and a husband-wife series of presidents.
The political aristocracy in this country is more fluid than past nobility, and that is how the Clinton family entered it. But the benefit of membership in that aristocracy has probably increased over time, as larger congressional districts and the rising cost of campaigns make it harder for an unfinanced unknown to rise in politics.
Particularly after George W. Bush rose to the White House partly because he inherited a name and Rolodexes of donors from a previous president, we should take a deep breath before replacing one dynasty with another.
America’s history is based on a rejection of aristocracy. It’s true that in our early years, most of our leaders were wealthy elites—and, frankly, they did a superior job. But one of our most fateful elections came in 1828, “the revolution of 1828”, with the rise of Andrew Jackson.
Jackson, the rough-hewn fighter, a former child soldier, defeated John Quincy Adams, who symbolized all the daintiness, education and sophistication of the aristocracy that had ruled until that time.
Adams was the better man (if Jackson were reading this, he would challenge me to a duel, which proves my point). But Jackson’s election was a healthy milestone for our democracy in that it truly opened up American politics.
It would be unhealthy to vote for, or against a person solely because of his or her family. But where there is a pool of similar candidates, it seems reasonable to count inherited (and wedded) advantage as one factor—and to put a thumb on the scales of those who rose on their own.
Granted, Mitt Romney and Al Gore are also children of the American political aristocracy. And I wouldn’t argue that Clinton should be excluded from consideration—just that it’s reasonable to count as a factor that her family has already lived in the White House.
There is one important counter-argument—raised, perhaps not surprisingly, by my wife. It is that if our aim is to open up the political system and broaden opportunity, then what better way than to elect a woman?
It’s true that the election of a first woman (or black or Hispanic) might well nourish the American political system, just as the election of John Kennedy as the first Catholic did in 1960. But, as in Argentina or Bangladesh, the election of a first woman loses much of its significance if she has enjoyed a political short cut as a predecessor’s wife.
If we really want a presidential dynasty, then that’s fine. But we shouldn’t back into it without discussion—for the second time in eight years.
American democracy was diminished in its infancy by the way power was largely held by a narrow nobility, however talented. Do we really want to embrace a similar concentration of power in the 21st century?
And if Jeb Bush succeeds Hillary Clinton in the White House, I’ll flee to Sri Lanka.