Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hillary, Jeb, (Barack!) and why I'm not worrying about dynasties

Long before Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton officially announced their campaigns, my friends were cringing at the possibility of having yet another presidential election with a Bush or a Clinton or both on the ticket. I understand the distaste -- we hope that political power doesn't just track family connections, but instead goes to people with good ideas who are skilled at public administration. But distaste for dynasties isn't going to affect my vote. Much bigger things are at stake.

The bigger things include: whether the domestic policy initiatives coming out of the White House look like universal health care or Social Security privatization, whether Republican foreign policy advisors push America into another conflict as large and destructive as the Iraq War, whether our new Supreme Court justices respect individual rights, and whether America plays a constructive role to mitigate global threats like nuclear weapons and climate change. The substantive issues at stake in picking the most powerful person on earth are tremendous, and that's what we should think about when we vote. In general, I'm not interested in hearing much about candidates' family backgrounds except if they tell us something about what they'll do on these and other issues.

It would be bad news if Hillary was stuck to mid-1990s Clinton positions, but things aren't looking that way. We're seeing good signs on mass incarceration issues and expanding voting rights, and I hope there's more where that came from. You could see this as simple opportunism -- she has a Democratic primary to win, and while she's very likely to defeat Bernie Sanders, her most certain way of doing so involves moving left at this time. But her current positions invite those who agree to permeate her political organization, and implement them in her White House if she wins. If Mark Penn were among them, I'd probably be a committed Sanders supporter already, but thankfully it doesn't look like he'll be there to mess up her campaign and her administration. So I'm just waiting for the time being to see how things play out before declaring support for anybody. If Bernie Sanders is beating Scott Walker (my guess for likely Republican nominee) in head-to-head polls when January rolls around, he'll probably have my vote! Or if Hillary comes out in favor of universal basic income, she'll probably have mine. We'll see what happens.

In any event, Jeb's success is based on family connections much more so than Hillary's. He's a president's son, born shortly after his grandfather was elected to the Senate. Hillary, meanwhile, is as close to an equal partner in her husband's rise from humble origins to the presidency as any First Lady has ever been. While the post-2000 phase of her career involves dynasty-like family connections, everything before that for her and Bill involved succeeding without them.

If the possibility of having no choices outside of the Clinton and Bush families remains galling, I hope you'll appreciate our current president. He's as far from being the scion of a political dynasty as any President in American history, with a father born in Kenya and a mother who spent her later years writing a 1,043 page anthropology dissertation titled Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia. They were incredibly smart and capable people who produced a son like them, but they didn't hand him any significant wealth or Bush-like family connections. He rose to the presidency on his own abilities, defeating opponents whose names opened more doors than "Barack Hussein Obama".