Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush – the US is overflowing with dynastic ambition. Why are Americans still getting the same names on the ballot?
George Bush Sr, George W and Jeb play golf at the Cape Arundel club in Maine in 2001. Photograph: Corbis/Reuters
Dan Roberts in Kennebunkport, Maine
A short stroll from Walker’s Point, where the ancestral estate of the Bush dynasty juts out commandingly into the Atlantic ocean, there is a political campaign slogan in urgent need of fresh clarification.
“Barbara’s husband for president,” joked the original badge from George HW Bush’s 1992 campaign – still proudly on display in the Bush family’s local lobster restaurant in Kennebunkport, Maine.
That is, at least, until someone helpfully scrawled over the word ‘husband’ and added ‘son’ instead; updating the joke when George W Bush ran for the White House eight years later.
Within days, it will be time to update it again, to “Barbara’sother son”. Jeb Bush is set to announce – against his mother’s initial advice – that he will be joining the family tradition and seeking the Republican party nomination for president.
The Bush predilection for power is nothing new. Jeb’s grandfather, Prescott, was a US senator. Great-grandfather George Herbert Walker, developer of the Kennebunkport promontory that still bears his name, also founded a Wall Street bank.
But New England is overflowing with enough dynastic ambition right now to make even scions of the gilded age blush.
In nearby New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton has been retracing the steps of her husband in the Democratic primary race.
Ahead in the polls by more than 50 points over a clutch of possible rivals who haven’t even confirmed yet if they will dare run against her, the former first lady is touring furniture factories in towns like Keene, where, she confides, she once celebrated her 44th birthday helping Bill in a campaign that ultimately kicked Barbara’s husband out of office.
“My husband was here 15 years ago,” Clinton was overheard telling kitchen workers at a Concord technical college as she tries to break the ice.
With Clinton’s experience as a secretary of state, senator and previous candidate, there is much more to her presidential résumé than the family name, but even Clinton’s biggest fans admit she lacks her husband’s common touch when it comes to retail politics.
Combine this with a tactical decision to withhold any major policy pronouncements until later in the campaign, and Clinton’s heavily manicured tour for now takes on more of the appearance of a royal visit than anything as grubby as appealing for votes.
“The press will have plenty of time to ask her questions,” her campaign chairman, John Podesta, told PBS recently, after complaints she was too aloof to even field enquiries from the media. “She wants to go directly to voters to listen to their stories, to understand what the challenges of their lives are, and that’s why she’s back in the van and on her way to New Hampshire.”
Driving to small-town venues – in a vehicle nicknamed the Scooby van by her campaign staff, but a good deal smarter in reality – is central to an effort to defuse the effects of family fame and associated reputation for snootiness.
It is hard to imagine many other politicians worrying about the optics of flying, but America’s new aristocrats appear more aware than most that privilege and fame is both their biggest asset and an awkward handicap.
“Everybody knows me as George’s boy. Barbara’s boy. W’s brother,” Bush complained to party activists in New Hampshire the previous Friday. “We’re not always like our brother or sister or mom and dad. We all have our own unique DNA and our own life experiences.”
But rather than run from the family name entirely, the former Florida governor is appealing instead to his party’s sense of noblesse oblige – crafting a new version of his brother’s somewhat faded brand of compassionate conservatism.
“I am blessed … It turns out I won the lottery, and I wish that everybody would have the kind of upbringing I had,” Jeb Bush explains at the event in Nashua. “My set of values believes that the most vulnerable in our society should be in the front of the line, not in the back of the line. And Republicans, I think, do better when we show our consciousness to do the exact same.”
Even those explicitly running as outsiders – crusaders against the “Washington machine”, as Kentucky senator Rand Paul puts it – have family connections to thank for their prominence.
Senator Paul’s father, Ron, may not have made it as far in his presidential campaigns as the two Bushes and Bill Clinton, but he bequeathed to his son a powerful legacy of goodwill among libertarian-leaning voters, without which it is hard to imagine him getting as far as he has done.
Rand Paul with his father Ron at a campaign event in 2011. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP
Ironically, all three of these dynastic candidates are seeking to distinguish themselves by stressing their credentials as cheerleaders for social mobility and change.
“Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,” says Clinton.
Bush argues that America will succeed only if “more and more and more people have a chance at earned success”.
“So often, we pick politicians who all look alike,” adds Paul, also in Nashua. “They all sound alike. They all dress alike. And guess what? Nothing ever changes!”
It is true that the clans of 2016 are hardly the first political families to repeatedly seek high office. John, Robert and Ted Kennedy also collected two Senate seats and a presidency between them.
Last November’s midterm election witnessed an extraordinary array of established political dynasties vying for seats in Congress: the Nunn and Purdue families of Georgia, the Begichs of Alaska, the Pryors of Arkansas, the Landrieus of Louisiana and the Lundergans in Kentucky – to name just the races in swing states.
But the very real chance of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush both winning their parties’ presidential nominations in the same year is another leap entirely, raising the prospect of voters having no choice but to choose from members of two families that have already clocked up two decades at the top of US government since 1988.
Such unprecedented elitism in a country that prides itself as the “exceptional” democracy has begun to provoke uncomfortable comparisons from unlikely quarters.
“If the presidency were to pass back and forth between two or three families in any Latin American nation, we would call it an oligarchy,” wrote Gary Hart – a Democrat who might well have beaten George Bush Sr were it not for a sex scandal.
It has not gone unnoticed abroad, either. Clinton’s campaign has already become a source of endless fascination for the foreign media – attracting 140 journalists from around the world so far and adding another public relations headache for aides who have been forced to dramatically ration reporting space inside her events.
Yet the response in Washington has been strangely muted.
Though some presidential rivals, such as Republican Marco Rubio, are deliberately selling themselves as fresh faces, the consensus among Beltway pundits is that it might even help Bush and Clinton if the other ran – since their dynastic handicaps would cancel each other out.
A more cynical explanation might be that the incestuous political media world is too full of its own privilege to be that shocked. Prominent examples of family connections certainly abound: NBC’s congressional reporter is the son of the influential Meet the Press host Tim Russert; MSNBC’s flagship morning show is co-hosted by the daughter of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; and CNN’s morning rival is co-hosted by the son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and the brother of current New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
But the cosiness of Washington’s political and media class may just as easily be regarded as a reflection of modern America.
One of the reasons Bush and Clinton have stressed the need to focus on “everyday Americans” is a growing consensus in both parties that the American dream is in trouble – that rising income inequality is choking off social mobility.
Could the current lack of mobility among presidential families simply be an extreme manifestation of the very thing they claim to want to tackle?
Academics who have studied the relationship closely say the reality is more complicated than the soundbites of this year’s presidential campaigns suggest. Widening income inequality in US is real enough – though more so among the very rich than the very poor – but evidence that this is leading to reduced chances of people climbing the social ladder, perhaps even all the way to the White House, is harder to come by.
“There are a bunch of papers now that show the United States isn’t all that different from Germany, France, Britain or even Sweden,” says Christopher Jencks, a leading social policy professor in the field at Harvard University.
“The revisionist line on this is going to end up being that there really isn’t that much evidence that we are much worse than these other countries.”
Which is not to say that politicians cannot or should not do anything about rising inequality for other reasons.
For Jencks and other liberal academics studying social mobility, the biggest area of potential concern is how soaring student debt is deterring poorer families from going to college and earning more in future: precisely the area that Hillary Clinton is being pushed hardest to address by those on the left of her party who want bold promises to subsidise tuition fees.
Hillary and Bill Clinton step across the South Lawn at the White House in September 1998. Photograph: Richard Ellis/Zuma Press/Corbis
It may also simply be the case that the peculiarities of choosing presidential candidates say more about America’s broken political system than they do about whether the American dream is broken, too.
One factor in the swift rise of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in 2016 has been their ability to draw on advisers and donors built over many years by their predecessors.
Though her campaign is officially only a few days old, Clinton’s team has already been able to assemble more staff on the ground in New Hampshire than almost all the Republicans combined. Some 19 of the 21 experts identified as helping Jeb Bush on foreign policy worked for his father and brother.
“Running for president now starts a lot earlier and it requires this enormous organisation,” argues Jencks. “If you have already got relatives who have done a lot of this stuff, your ability to put that organisation together is a lot greater. The existence of these primaries makes inheriting the machine more of an asset because the primaries are playing a bigger role since the 1970s.”
Above all, the family name is a shortcut to national recognition, something that the Marco Rubios of the race may need months and many millions of dollars to match – although the inherited advantage may evaporate as fast as Clinton’s did in 2008 if newcomers can gain enough momentum to turn voters against the dynasties. That is a factor Barack Obama used to great effect and Rubio and others will try to emulate this time.
“Brands have become more important,” adds Jencks. “It’s a huge advantage to have everyone know who you are. You don’t have to spend as much money to get there.”
Back in Kennebunkport, it’s certainly clear that the Bush dynasty has a brand. Much of the town’s thriving tourism industry trades off its proximity the family summer residence.
Yet the Bush ties to socially liberal Maine have also helped balance out the family’s more conservative roots in Texas.
In the Kennebunkport general store, HB Provisions, there is still a surprised delight that George HW Bush agreed to serve as a witness at the same-sex marriage of its two owners, Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalsen, in 2013 – a scenario that has flummoxed many candidates in the current crop of conservatives.
But the biggest shock is that a family dynasty that has proved so ruthlessly effective at capturing political power can otherwise prove so “surprisingly normal”.
“We were just chit-chatting away,” recalls local baker Ellen Hansbury. “Then someone came up to me and said: ‘Hey, do you know who that is? That’s Jeb Bush’s wife!’”
A clue, perhaps, to the next campaign badge being readied.