The envelope was in my mailbox, the return address: “Ready for Hillary 2016”. My immediate response: not so much — certainly not yet. Beyond all else, I am so not ready for two and a half protracted years of presidential politics. More important, we’re facing a critical Congressional election this November. So I see this solicitation as a distraction at the very moment when we can ill afford to avert our attention from the immediate task at hand. Do her supporters not realize how important it is to hold the Senate; are they intentionally trying to undermine our sitting Democratic president? The promised “photo enclosed” pictured the presumptive first family: Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton, another reason I’m feeling, not so much. Let me explain.
Don’t get me wrong; if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016 I will certainly vote for her. At the moment, the odds are in her favor and she may well land in the Oval Office this time around. Like others back In 2008 I faced a very hard choice. I had long been deeply committed to both civil and women’s rights. The prospect of finally having either an African American or a woman in the White House was nothing less than exciting. I opted for Barack Obama, a choice actually made on the night he spoke at Kerry’s 2004 convention. I didn’t regret it in the many months that followed and still don’t. Hillary Clinton was a credentialed and compelling candidate. My problem was that her campaign had an air of entitlement, an assumption that she would rightfully sail to victory. That was a turnoff, but there was something more. Having lived through the two Bush presidencies I was troubled by the idea of dynasty. Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton didn’t sit well with me then, nor does it today.
While we’ve not had husband and wife presidents, we have had father and son — John and John Quincy Adams. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were cousins; Benjamin Harrison was William Henry Harrison’s grandson. The Roosevelt’s were two of our greatest chief executives. Regardless, these dynasties went against the intent of the Founders who were averse to anything that smacked of monarchy. His distaste for royalty, led George Washington to shun a third term. After Franklin Roosevelt took four and died in office, term limits were imposed. I have always been a proponent of them and wish they would, in some fashion, apply across the board including the Supreme Court.
I admit that my own aversion to dynasties is especially acute these days. With each passing year, and contrary to what one might hope in an age of hyper communication, America is becoming much more stratified, sharply divided by class. We like to talk about the oligarchs of Russia and China, but we have as many, even more, of them right here. Perhaps they didn’t derive their position from the same corrupt transfer of wealth, but some would argue that our stunning income inequality stems from its own kind of corruption. Think obscene CEO pay. Parallel to the concentration of wealth — the 1% — we have an entrenched political class and the two have developed a symbiotic relationship grounded in mutual interest. Political dynasties, of which there are many, fit neatly into that picture.
Our Oligarchs generally stand in the shadows as political funders, though one of their own, Michael Blumberg served as a three-term mayor of New York. Note he circumvented an enacted two-term limit. The political class takes on the role of governing and they are remarkably inbred, even if not always by blood. For many, politics is a family business; the Kennedy’s being the best known in our time. It’s not accidental that we often refer to these families as “royalty”. Altogether, it’s a system that belies the romantic notion of a people’s democracy with a level playing field much as it does the myth that anyone in America can make it. Wealth and politics are incestuous and the dynasties are manifestations of that relationship. And speaking of Hillary, the wealthy and the political often merge so that at times it’s hard to tell them apart. The Clintons came to Washington as a family of modest means — they weren’t even homeowners. Bill left office a little better off thanks to his wife’s best selling book, but in the intervening years he has pursued wealth big time. He has also courted and befriended the oligarchs, or at least the relatively progressive ones.
Does wealth disqualify Ms. Clinton from the presidency? Certainly not. Will it make her more independent, less dependent on the funding rich? Don’t count on that. In fact she may be less likely to pitch in her own funds than in 2008. And I say her own funds (vs. family funds) because it is reported that she is commanding hefty — $200 K plus expenses a pop — lecture fees. If that isn’t an outlier relative to the average American (even the well compensated ones) on whose votes she depends, I don’t know what is. Again, wealth — in this case earned wealth — shouldn’t be held against her, but these fees for a few hours work are no less unseemly than the executive pay about which I wrote earlier this year. Do they spell quid pro quo? Who knows, but on the other side you can be sure the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson (before whom GOP contenders recently genuflected) are surely expecting something in return.
I said earlier that the Hillary mailing was distracting. Worse is that the assumption of her unannounced candidacy is so preemptive that no other Democrats dare even voice an interest in the office. With a second term incumbent in the White House, parties always find themselves with a relatively thin and certainly untested bench. That’s why they often defer to the Vice President — GHW Bush and Al Gore. It accounts for some Biden talk this time around. To be sure, the Democrats have a good number of talented office holders, but virtually all of them are boxed in. Perhaps the best example is Governor Andrew Cuomo (scion of another dynasty), who must hold back because New York is now Hillary’s home state and she is his political senior. Until the former Senator and State Secretary announces her intention everything and everyone on hold. Long term, that can’t be good for the party or the country.
While we all wait — possible candidates, party activists and citizens — the press is obsessed with Hillary. They eagarly await her forthcoming book, which will be heavily promoted. Frank Rich has written a NY Magazine story that presupposes her nomination and the expected Republican response. Earlier this month the New York Times’ Mark Landler and Amy Chozick’s offered an assessment of her State Department legacy and how it might play in an expected run. As important as the dynasty issues, there are probably much more important questions about what kind of president Ms. Clinton might be? In that context, along with considering her own record, people speculate about how she might have addressed the issues faced by Obama. She was widely respected in the Senate, and certainly was an energetic State Secretary. She traveled widely, but it’s hard to pinpoint what she accomplished other than as part of the administration. Her record will inevitably be compared to that of John Kerry. His successes could put her at a disadvantage, but it’s too early to judge. All indications are that she came down on the side of hawkishness during internal policy debates, often ending up in the minority. Indeed her original support of the Iraq war probably reflects and overall ideology that differs from what has come to be Obama policy. That concerns me.
In recent weeks there has been more talk, along with the expected articles, about a Jeb Bush run for the presidency. Wow, a real head-to-head Clinton-Bush. Jeb’s mother has famously spoken out against his candidacy, but political families do change their minds. Conservatives who now control the Republican grassroots don’t trust the Bushes nor do they see Jeb as one of them. Given their acquiescing to two perceived “moderates” — McCain and Romney — both of whom lost badly in the general election don’t be surprised if they insist on nominating a “real conservative”, say Rand Paul. With much of the electorate, though you wouldn’t know it, moving in the other direction that could be suicidal. At this point, as concerned as I am about 2014, I don’t feel projecting a Democratic victory in 2016 is just wishful thinking. So thinking seriously about Hillary, albeit being forced to do it prematurely, makes sense. And the bottom line is that at this moment she gives me pause.