American Talk

There is no Clinton dynasty

Hillary Rodham

Hillary Rodham: daughter of no one in particular

Donald Trump's meaningless rise in the polls notwithstanding, the prevailing wisdom regarding the 2016 presidential contest is that it's going to be 1992 all over again: Bush v Clinton. As a result, no shortage of commentators have pointed out the unseemly dynastic overtones such a contest would hold for a nation that birthed itself with a declaration of independence from the British monarchy. But not all dynasties are created equal, and in reality, only one of America's major parties is looking at nominating a dynastic candidate this election.

Over at Vox, Mark Schmitt argues America has just one true national political dynasty: the House Bush.

Republican donors and supporters of John Ellis Bush, the former governor of Florida known as Jeb!, might well have been betting on the dynastic tendencies of American politics. But while there are many local political dynasties that cross centuries (the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey, for example, or the Chafees of Rhode Island), and many dynasties of wealth, there is really only one true dynasty of national politics: the Bushes. The Clintons, with only one generation and one president so far, barely merit consideration. Measured by electoral success at the statewide or national level, even the names that come first to mind when you think of American political dynasties don't approach the reach of the Bushes, across four states and now grooming the fourth generation (which includes Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush) and seeking their third presidency. But all dynasties seem to fade by the third generation or so, and even the most successful and deliberate of them eventually lose either the ambition or the luck to get elected. Jeb's current single-digit standing in the polls could mark the end of this family's singular success.

It makes even less sense to consider the Clintons a dynasty when you consider that the one most prominent in public life today would, if she were a man, not even be a Clinton. Hillary Clinton was born Hillary Rodham and only began calling herself Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1982 after her husband was subject to political attacks over her name — Bill Clinton's 1980 gubernatorial opponent Frank White made a point of calling his wife "Mrs Frank White." When the Clintons first moved into the White House, Press Secretary Lisa Caputo emphasised that Hillary's name was still Rodham Clinton, despite polls showing Americans would have preferred her to drop her maiden name entirely.

Fun fact: There has never been a President Rodham. And though there have been two presidents called Bush, Harrison, Adams, Roosevelt, and — this pair is unrelated — Johnson, there have been none who have been women, whichever family they might have come from. A second President Clinton would be a break with privilege and tradition, not a continuation of it, and that there might be a second one at all derives only from the curious Western tradition of women taking their husband's name when they marry.

And, as Rebecca Traister writes, connections, whether by blood or marriage, have been one of the few way women have been able to break into political arenas out of which they've been previously excluded:

For generations, the primary path to power for women with any political ambitions (and even some without them) was through those who came to political power easily: men, usually husbands. This has been especially true of “first” women in American politics: The first woman governor, Wyoming’s Nellie Tayloe Ross, was elected in 1925 to replace her husband after his death. The first woman elected to the Senate was Hattie Wyatt Carraway, who filled the Arkansas seat of her dead husband in 1931. Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith, who took her late husband’s House seat in 1940, went on to become senator and the first woman ever to have her name placed into nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention.


That doesn’t make Hillary’s current political position dynastic in the way that, say, Jeb Bush’s is. There are big differences between being born into a position of political privilege and marrying someone who becomes politically powerful. Wives have historically provided the support to make presidents’ careers possible; no dynastic configuration has ever landed one in the Oval Office herself.


So while it is fair to feel critical of the advisors, strategies, and policies deployed by both Hillary and Bill Clinton during the years they have each wielded political power, it is not fair or accurate to suggest their familial circumstances are equivalent to those of the Bushes, the Roosevelts, the Adamses, the Kennedys, or the Cuomos. If you want to compare them to the Tayloe Rosses, the Wyatt Carraways, or the Chase Smiths, that’s cool. But it doesn’t pack quite the same punch. And that’s part of the point.

Her connection to Bill has indeed given Hillary invaluable access to political powerbrokers and party donors, but this is not comparable to the lifetime of access and privilege bestowed upon the scions of genuine political dynasties like the Bushes and Kennedys. And while the passage to political office is assured to no one, in their younger days, Hillary and Bill were both ambitious, talented, and highly educated: it is as likely that Hillary was held back by devoting herself to her husband's career as it is that her relationship with him opened doors to her.

It's right to be concerned about political dynasties. (The good news is that there are fewer of them than ever.) America is a nation that would like to believe it can resist the hereditary powers and privileges of the aristocratic Old World, and it should maintain its fealty to this commitment. There are hundreds of millions of American families, and it is silly to suppose that the people best placed to lead the nation belong to a mere handful of them. But the woman born Hillary Rodham was raised — like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter — in a family with no greater political influence than any other. Whatever reasons there are to vote against Hillary Clinton, her last name is not one of them.