Dynasty Fatigue

The news that Mitt Romney is considering a third run at the presidency has evoked groans and grumblings from some pundits. They are tired of having the same candidate, and want fresh meat.

It’s not just Romney fatigue; it’s also Clinton fatigue and Bush fatigue. Hillary Clinton is very likely to run again. Jeb Bush is also making presidential noises. It would be only his first time, but we’ve already had three terms of Bushes in the White House.

As one political columnist pointed out, “If a Clinton or a Bush wins in 2016 and is reelected in 2020, a member of those two families will have been president for 28 of 36 years since 1988. Republicans have not won the presidency since 1928 without Richard Nixon or a member of the Bush family on the ticket, and if Jeb Bush is the Republican nominee, the streak will approach the century mark. By that time, George P. Bush, Jeb’s son and the newly elected Texas land commissioner, will be ready to take over the family business.”

How can it be, they ask, that America is so bereft of political talent that we must turn over and over again to the same old people? Hasn’t the genetic material so thinned out by now that there’s nothing left but a family resemblance, a faint attenuation of the original twang, a drawl that might be just a tad affected? Isn’t it time for a change? (Was eight years of Obama too much change, or is it just that Mrs. Obama isn’t inclined, and the daughters are still too young? Would Valerie Jarrett count as extended family?)

Name recognition has been nominated as a culprit. How to reach the millions of voters from Kennebunkport to Key West and from Waco to Walla Walla? In 1960, Richard Nixon nearly killed himself fulfilling his vow to campaign in every one of the 50 states, and while he was shaking hands with a few cowhands in Wyoming, John Kennedy was haranguing industrial-strength crowds in New York and Chicago.

But if they don’t know or can’t remember the name attached to the hand they’re shaking or that’s waving at them from the speaker’s platform, it’s a waste of time. Kennedy, Nixon, Bush, Clinton — you don’t even have to remember which member of the dynasty it is; it’s the brand name that counts.

Maybe that’s the answer. In a world of rapid, ceaseless and often frightening change, the political dynasties represent stability. Even if we are tired of the same names and faces, and the underwhelming record of achievement in recent years leaves the brand looking somewhat tarnished, compare it to what’s going on in other parts of the world and you feel thankful. At least, here we’ve managed (so far) to stave off revolution, anarchy and economic collapse.

In the time of the American Revolution, when the future form of government was hotly debated, British and European models were carefully examined. As much as the Founders rebelled against the tyrannical ways of the Crown and Parliament, they saw much of value in the social and political structures of the Old World.

Without royalty and a class of nobility they sought some way to counterbalance the dangers of tyranny of the majority inherent in democracy. Some patriots did indeed favor the creation of a monarchy in America, but with that “Royal Brute” King George in mind — as Thomas Paine had called him — monarchist became a dirty word.

Others suggested a new nobility. Francis Bernard, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1760s, was realistic enough to acknowledge that America was not yet “(and probably will not be for many years to come) ripe enough for an hereditary nobility,” but he advocated a compromise “nobility for life,” to be established immediately.

This, too, proved unsuitable to the raw volatility of the American situation. John Adams claimed that such proposals were part of a British conspiracy to strangle American liberty in the cradle. (Ironically, Adams in later years suffered acutely from accusations of being a secret monarchist.) Such conspiracy theories gained wide support in the colonies, fueling revolutionary anger.

Yet, no less a revolutionary than Thomas Jefferson wrote a draft constitution for Virginia that envisioned senators holding office for a “renewable” nine years, though he said he could even go along with a life appointment; “anything rather than a mere creation by and dependence on the people.” Eventually, the U.S. Constitution would create a Senate and Supreme Court, whose six-year term and appointment for life, respectively, protected them from the winds and whims of electoral politics.

However, the appetite for nobility could not be entirely stifled. Informal elites have grown up, indeed existed from the country’s inception in the aristocratic persons of the Founders themselves. Nor are the Kennedys, the Bushes and Clintons the first dynasty builders. They were preceded by the Adamses (John and John Quincy), the Roosevelts and the Tafts.

Despite it all, they do not inherit public office. If these are dynasties, they are elected dynasties, and every four years the heirs to the throne must ask for our votes no less than any low-born wannabe. If the people choose to recognize their names and vote for them, well, that’s their right.