Posted by Tod Lindberg on March 19th, 2002
The Washington Times
The news last week that Tipper Gore contemplated a run for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee is yet another illustration of the dynastic character of American politics nowadays. Whether this situation is all that new is an open question. But it does seem safe to say that one of the most common ways people get into politics is by being born into it or marrying into it.
We’ll start at the top, with the president who is the son of a president and the brother of the governor of Florida. And, of course ,George H.W. Bush was the son of Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, who served from 1952 to 1963.
The Gore dynasty is just as noteworthy. The former vice president previously served as senator from Tennessee, the position his wife was contemplating a bid for and the position his father held from 1953 to 1971 (following 14 years in the House). And I, for one, won’t be surprised if we hear news in the not too distant future about the ambitions of Korenna Gore Schiff, who was a key adviser to her father’s presidential campaign.
The Kennedy dynasty is an epic unto itself, and it remains very much a work in progress, especially for the hopes vested in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, currently lieutenant governor from Maryland but thought to have the potential to run on a national ticket one day.
At the 2000 Democratic convention, two of the showcased speakers were Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who in 1996 at the age of 26 succeeded to the House seat his father held for 22 years, and Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who came to the House in 1995.
From Mario Cuomo to Andrew Cuomo, from Bill Clinton to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, from Bob Dole to would-be North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole: One could go on for some time climbing the family trees in this old-growth forest.
This phenomenon is worth remarking for a number of reasons. First of all, it demonstrates the power of branding: the easiest way to overcome the biggest barrier to entry to a career in politics, namely, that no one knows who you are, and therefore no one will give you the time of day, let alone a $1,000 campaign contribution.
But a brand name is no guarantee of political success. If George H.W. Bush were Coca-Cola, George W. Bush might have turned out to be Diet Coke (a huge success) or New Coke (a corporate fiasco). There’s no guarantee. And anybody who thinks Hillary Rodham Clinton won her Senate race in New York on the strength of her husband is mistaken. His position opened the door for her, of course, but she worked hard for that seat, running a highly effective campaign designed precisely not to try to capitalize on her superstar status.
The branding element doesn’t quite explain enough, however. If the issue is name recognition as such, why, we have to ask, don’t we see more crossover into politics from other fields in which people have made substantial reputations for themselves? Now, to be sure, this phenomenon is hardly unheard of, from Ronald Reagan to the late Rep. Sonny Bono. But it hardly seems as common as it could be. When Gen. Wesley Clark retired after serving as supreme allied commander in Europe, in which capacity he won the Kosovo war, he settled in Arkansas, where many people expected him to make a bid for the U.S. Senate. It doesn’t look like it’s going to materialize.
And here, I think, we run into a richer explanation for dynastic politics. Simply put, electoral politics isn’t a particularly attractive occupation. Now, of course, we are never going to run short of candidates for office, including many good ones and also including many people starting out as nobodies. Political ambition of the sort that propelled Bill Clinton from Hot Springs to the White House will never disappear. But it’s distinctly unsurprising that for many accomplished people, the notion of the waking-hours workday, the ceaseless fund raising, the rubber chicken, the difficulty of getting things done, the pay cut and above all, life in a bubble – this is a combination of little appeal.
What I think being born into politics does is inure people to the negative qualities of political life partially listed above. It is not a typical phenomenon of American life for one’s competitors to spend millions of dollars on commercials attacking one’s character in the most angry, partisan terms. Nor for reporters to hover waiting to publish or broadcast any miscue to the public, at least a portion of which is always ready to delight in your misfortune.
But these are things you can get used to. And once you are, you’re probably a better politician. Dynastic politics has its unsavory elements, but experience as the son or daughter or wife or husband of a politician may be the best training for the job you can get.