In the US it’s campaigning season and this can only mean one thing: America’s political big-guns are posturing and jostling for position as they put their names forward as candidates for their party’s presidential nomination. Although confrontation isn’t yet explicit, Republicans and Democrats are already eyeing each other up over the political divide and, in particular, there are two figures whose family legacies make this skirmish just a little more meaningful. If you follow US current affairs, even only casually, you’ll probably have noticed that two surnames, both ubiquitous in American politics, have once again cropped up. Once again we have a Clinton and a Bush in the running for president.
But before looking at the significance of this game in itself, lets first introduce the players. In the blue corner, we have Hilary Clinton running for the Democrat nomination. Clinton is a former First Lady (1993 to 2001) and a former Secretary of State (2009 to 2013) with a formidable public record. She runs the Clinton Foundation, a charity that attracts massive donations from high profile celebrities and political figures, and is Yale Law graduate with years of experience as a Senator. Whilst maybe the biggest Democrat candidate, she faces tough internal opposition from the likes of Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders.
Though maybe not as tough as the challenge mounted by her main Republican opponents. Because, in the red corner, we have Jeb Bush. He’s a Florida property magnate with a strong interest in Latino-American relations and, as 43rd Governor of Florida, has done much to improve racial relations in his constituency. Ted Cruz, a Texas Senator, might be his biggest challenge.
But this article isn’t going to look at these figures in detail. What is important here is where they have come from. Both Jeb and Hilary come from influential and enduring governmental families, so much so that their surnames have become almost synonymous with political office. Hilary is married to husband Bill Clinton, president between 1993 and 2001. Bill was incredibly popular (so much so that he was the first president in six decades to be elected twice) with the US electorate and still possesses very high approval ratings, despite the scandals that pockmarked his time in office. He’s still very much active in the public sphere through his humanitarian work and position as guest speaker at various NGO and business conferences, both roles that have endeared him to the American public.
Bush perhaps has even greater political heritage. Whilst Clinton might be the first former First Lady to become President, Jeb is also unique in the sense that he is the first man in history to be both the son and brother of a former president, both with the first name ‘George’. ‘Bush mk. 1’ (George H. W.) served his term in office between 1989 and 1993 (only to get replaced by Bill Clinton) and ‘Bush mk. 2’ (just George W.) saw office between 2001 and 2009. Jeb, with two former presidents as immediate family members, might have more to live up to: he hasn’t had the same Whitehouse experience that Hilary has (she allegedly ran the Whitehouse whilst Bill was off fraternizing with interns) and thus far, the closest he’s got to a candidate nomination is helping his father out on the campaign trail.
Older voters might be feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu: if both Bush and Clinton make their party’s nomination, we’ve got a replay of the 1992 election, in which Bill Clinton defeated the incumbent George Bush Senior with 43% of the vote. Indeed, Bush’s backing of a tax increase at a time of economic slowdown alienated conservative Republic voters plus the break-up of the Soviet Union neutralized what was arguably George H. W. Bush’s greatest strength: his foreign policies.
Furthermore, those cynical members of America’s political community might be wondering how another Clinton or another Bush could potentially become president. This is the land of the free, right? Anyone should be able to run for president. So why is it that American politics is dominated by such a small nucleus of political families? Clearly, you need a lot of money to run for president, and the Bush’s oil and property fortune puts them in a good position to launch a multi-million dollar campaign. But equally, the American two-party system, much more pronounced than the Labour/Tory dichotomy in the UK, means that strong family-political ties may quite easily translate into leadership opportunities.
In the UK, people often lament that too many politicians come from private secondary education, namely Eton, and studied Political Economy at Oxford and Cambridge. Even if UK politicians might seem to come from a fairly narrow and privileged demographic, the scale of this problem seems to pale in comparison with the fact that Bush could be the second member of one families’ single generation to run the USA. And don’t even get me started on the Kennedy’s, whose family are equally pervasive in American politics. Even in Britain, it is hard to imagine members of the same family being allowed to run for Prime Minister. Take Dave Miliband, for example: Ed’s success at becoming Labour Leader didn’t only put Dave out of future contention, it completely sidelined his political career, to the extent that he left the country. Admittedly, we do now how two Johnsons (Boris and Jo) in the UK cabinet, but we all know that only one of them has ever got a shot at party leadership.
Maybe I’m being a bit harsh though, having judged both Hilary and Jeb primarily on their surnames for the majority of this article. They are not, however, carbon copies of their relatives. Jeb Bush, firstly, is a very different type of Bush to George H. W. and George W. Whilst the latter are known for their aggressive foreign policy, Jeb is more likely to build diplomatic bridges than tear them down: as governor of Florida, he has hugely improved Latino-American relations, has a good record of improving education for racial minorities, is fluent in Spanish and has married a Latina. He certainly isn’t the man who once said that ‘I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully’.
Hilary also has differences to Bill. Whilst Bill was known for being a charismatic public figure, Hilary is a calculated, pro-active and often aloof stateswoman who gets things done. Interestingly enough, her campaign video is attempting to make her more personable, but don’t expect a repeat of Bill’s presidency, scandals and all. Arguably then, though the surname has stayed the same, we have very different players. How or why they got them might not necessarily matter.
Story by Matthew Rusk
This story does not represent the views of Fresh Start UK, purely the view of the author. What are your thoughts on the American political elite – is it harder to get into than here in the UK? Let us know what you think.
Photography: Andrew Cline