Former President Bill Clinton and his wife former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attend the 37th Harkin Steak Fry, Sept. 14, 2014 in Indianola, Iowa.
Steve Pope/Getty

Defining ‘dynasties’ down

Frank Bruni asked over the weekend whether “two dynasties” compromise our political “destiny,” and given the way next year’s presidential race may shape up, the New York Times columnist is hardly the only one asking.
Jeb and Hillary. Hillary and Jeb. It’s getting to the point where a mention of one yields a reference to the other, where they’re semantically inseparable, presidentially conjoined. […]
We’re a country of self-invention (that’s the myth, at least) in thrall to legacies and in the grip of dynasties, riveted by the mightiest surname in modern Democratic politics and its Republican analogue, imagining not just a clash of the titans but a scrum of the successors.
The premise is a little shaky. For example, I’m not sure if the former Florida governor and former Secretary of State are so inextricably linked – the former left public office nearly a decade ago, and during that time, the latter has served as a respected U.S. senator and the nation’s top diplomat, with a very competitive national candidacy in between.
They don’t enjoy similar status in their respective parties, either. In 2016 polling, Hillary Clinton enjoys overwhelming Democratic support, while Jeb Bush, who hasn’t run a successful campaign in over 12 years, has underwhelming GOP backing, trailing Mitt Romney in every national poll that includes both of their names.
But more important is this notion of “dynasties.” Obviously, the prospect of a Bush and/or a Clinton seeking the presidency is going to lead to chatter about their familiar last names, but I’m not sure the parallels line up as neatly as many pundits want to believe.
Jeb Bush is the grandson of a senator, the son of a president, and the brother of another president.
Hillary Clinton is the wife of a president.
Sure, one can argue that Clinton benefits from the association, but the whole point of a political “dynasty” is the inheritance – some are born into powerful families, and they parlay that status to advance their public-service ambitions.
That’s not a criticism – I’m not making a value judgment about dynasties – but neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton inherited much of anything in the way of political power and influence from their families. Jeb, on the other hand, has a very different background.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and there have been some important familial political dynasties in American history, which have contributed a great deal to the country. But there’s a qualitative difference between Bush and Clinton in this area and it’s probably best not to lump them together too quickly.
Postscript: George P. Bush, Jeb’s son, recently became Texas’ land commissioner. He’s the beneficiary of a legacy in ways with no modern parallel.