What's Wrong With Political Legacies?

If you were Jeb Bush, you'd probably think this is a golden opportunity to finally mount that presidential bid you've been thinking about your whole life. The current Democratic president isn't particularly popular and has been serving for two terms, making the "time for a change" argument a natural for Republicans. The party is desperate for someone who can "reach out" to Hispanic voters, and you've long been known as the guy who can do that — your own wife is Mexican, and you speak Spanish. Perhaps most importantly, although there are a couple of Republican governors who might end up running, the competition at the moment doesn't exactly look like a field of giants.

So over the weekend, we got new indications that Jeb '16 is on its way. Today's New York Times features an article about the Bush family's eagerness for Jeb to run, including sought-after endorsements by Jeb Jr., George W., and George H.W. Jeb's son George P. Bush appeared on ABC's This Week and said that his father is likely to run (if you're keeping score at home, the 38-year-old George P. is currently running for Texas land commissioner, a campaign that grew out of his longstanding love of land use policy, and which is in no way meant to set him up for future bids for higher office).

At the Washington Post this morning, I explained why Jeb will have some serious problems with the GOP base, particularly over immigration and Common Core education standards. But if he runs, we're also going to hear a lot of talk about how appropriate it would be to elect a third Bush to the White House. The chin-stroking about the troubling persistence of political dynasties will be particularly widespread if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, and we have another Bush-Clinton matchup (early pro-tip: if you're contemplating tweeting out the joke that just occurred to you about the George P. Bush v. Chelsea Clinton race in 2036, it's been done).

But before we all agree that legacies are bad, we should be explicit about why. Is it that it shows that at the highest level, our system is closed to all but those who come from dynastic families, and that violates some standard of fairness? Well that's not really true. Yes, being a Bush or a Clinton certainly makes it easier. Jeb Bush, for instance, will get much more press attention than if he were some other governor who left office eight years ago. But the American political system is more entrepreneurial than it ever has been. It was over two decades ago that Alan Ehrenhalt wrote The United States of Ambition, a book documenting the transformation by which candidates, instead of waiting to be chosen by the parties, choose themselves. It's even more true now than it was then, because there are more ways to build a following and get attention, whether you're running for school board or for president.

A hundred years ago, a U.S. senator in his first term could never have gotten the Democratic party nomination, but one did in 2008. We've talked for a long time about Republicans nominating whoever's "turn" it is (usually someone who ran before and came in second), but that will probably be less true in the future. Right now there are three first-term Republican senators—Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—considering runs.

Granted, Paul himself is a legacy; no one seriously thinks he would have been elected to the Senate in 2010 in his first run for any office had he not been the son of a nationally-known congressman and former presidential candidate. But in politics, people regularly get opportunities they may not fully deserve, through circumstance or timing or sheer luck. Fairness doesn't have anything to do with it.

Does the power of a family name sometimes propel a politician above the place they would have reached without the name? Sure. But other factors can have the same effect. There are plenty of incompetent officeholders who got where they are without politically influential parents. And whatever else you might say about Jeb Bush, he's no less qualified to run than the other people considering it. He was the governor of a large state for two terms, after all (on the other hand, I'm not so sure about George P.'s preparation for becoming land commissioner). His candidacy will rise or fall on the same standards as everyone else's: can he raise enough money, can he put together a competent organization, can he craft a compelling message, can he convince primary voters without alienating general election voters, can he weather whatever crises hit his campaign, and so on.

There are plenty of reasons you might not support Jeb Bush, just as there are plenty of reasons you might not support Hillary Clinton. But if your only reason is that legacy candidates don't deserve to win, you might want to come up with something more specific.

You may also like