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Voters Give Royalism A Bronx Cheer

2016 was supposed to be the year the Bushes and the Clintons again fought for the White House. It hasn’t worked out that way.

February 19, 2016

In the musical Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim created a song (“Bobbie and Jackie and Jack”) designed to sound like it was performed in a Manhattan cabaret in the early 1960s. The light-hearted topic was the Kennedys—all 14 of them from Joe and Rose to Ethel and Ted.

Harking back to the innocent days before Dallas, the lyrics portrayed a dynasty continuing long after the first President Kennedy served two terms: “Eight years is the limit but eight will do/By then they’ll be Bobby—and Teddy too.”

The logical culmination of this long toothy line of good-looking, young and rich Kennedys? As the song explained, “And some day elections will be unknown/'Cause each of our kids will ascend the throne.”

Four members of the Kennedy family did eventually seek the White House, including JFK’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver. But in 1962, no one imagined that a more lasting dynasty was being forged in Houston as George Herbert Walker Bush (the son of a patrician senator from Connecticut) took over the Harris County Republican Party—the first step in a long political career.  

Royalism has been embedded in the fabric of American democracy since the days of the Adams family. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, was first put on the Democratic ticket in 1920 as the vice presidential nominee, in part because he shared a last name with a fabled Republican president.

In modern times, the closest thing to an all-legacy election came in 2000 when George W. Bush (the son of a president and the grandson of a senator) was opposed by Al Gore (the son of a senator who had dreamed of the White House). Adding a whiff of hereditary privilege to the dispute over the hanging chads was the pesky detail that another Bush (Jeb) was governor of Florida.

Given this dynastic history (not to mention that Mitt Romney was also a second generation presidential candidate), it was not surprising that the leaders of both parties went into 2016 expecting a return to royalism.

A year ago, the widespread assumption was that 2016 was going to end up as a contest between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton—two candidates personally familiar with the family quarters at the White House. While Hillary Clinton, of course, did not represent an inter-generational dynasty linked by blood, she embodied the 1992 Clinton offer, “Buy one, get one free.”

Everything looked like a rigged game. Jeb and his obedient Super PACs quickly raked in a staggering $100 million for the primaries. Hillary’s presence in the Democratic race meant that no other serious candidate (not Joe Biden, not Elizabeth Warren) dared to challenge her.

These days royalism is on the rocks.

The Bush clan—featuring an ex-president (George W.) and a former first lady (Barbara)—has been campaigning in South Carolina this week trying to salvage Jeb’s candidacy. But this injection of family is probably too little too late. On the campaign trail, you repeatedly hear variants of the sentiment, “We’ve had too many Bushes.” In fact, a new national poll gives Jeb just 4-percent support among Republicans, a jaw-dropping rejection of a candidate with near-universal name recognition.

Hillary Clinton’s situation is more ambiguous. She lost the New Hampshire primary by a stunning 22-point margin. But according to the exit polls, 62 percent of Democrats said that they would be satisfied if Clinton won the nomination. This is not to deny that Hillary has problems of her own making: Only 45 percent of Democrats in the exit polls called her “honest and trustworthy.”  

By any conventional analysis, it is stunning that the former first lady, former senator and former secretary of state is in the fight of her life against the most leftwing major candidate to seek the White House since at least the 1970s. When consultants concoct the ideal presidential candidate, they rarely opt for a 74-year-old Jewish democratic socialist from Vermont.

At least, Bush and Clinton are still in the presidential race. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul—once thought to be the heir to the libertarian supporters of his father Ron Paul—pulled out of the GOP fray after winning less than five-percent support in the Iowa caucuses. That was a dramatic come-down for a candidate whom Time magazine in late 2014 called, "The Most Interesting Man in Politics.”

The 2016 campaign—in case you have not noticed—has humbled the handicappers and tormented the touts. While there are many theories struggling to explain the populist upheaval in both parties, a rejection of family privilege and pre-selected candidates has to be part of the equation.

This Bronx cheer aimed at royalism may turn out to be a blip in an America where the fortunes of the super-elite are fast diverging from the rest of the citizenry. Still the odds are not looking propitious for a 2036 presidential election pitting Jeb’s son, George P. Bush—elected statewide in 2014 as the Texas land commissioner—against Chelsea Clinton. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist for Roll Call who is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He has also worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and The Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He has also been a columnist for Yahoo! News. He is the author of “One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In,” a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in 2003. Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler. He can be reached and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.