Dynasty or democracy? [Commentary]

Twenty-eight out of 36 — no, that was not my batting average this past softball season. Rather, these are numbers that everyone in America should be concerned about.

As we lurch inexorably toward the 2016 Presidential election, we are waiting for decisions from Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush as to whether they will run for President — which brings me to the numbers above. Why?


If Jeb or Hillary is elected president, and serves two terms, there will have been a Bush or Clinton commander in chief for 28 out of 36 years (1988-2024), with the sole exception being the Obama years. If Mr. Bush wins, the Bush family will have controlled the White House for 20 out of 36 years, compared with 16 of 36 for the Clintons if Ms. Clinton wins. This doesn't even count George H.W. Bush's tenure as vice president.

That is more in line with an autocracy than a vibrant, diverse democracy. Take for example, one of our primary nemeses at present, Vladimir Putin. He was president of Russia from 1999-2008, took a few years off as prime minister while Dmitry Medvedev served as president (in name only) for four years, then Mr. Putin regained the post in 2012. And, of course, there are myriad other current examples, including Bashar Assad in Syria and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina.


Are these models we should emulate? Surely in a country of 310 million there are more than two people or two families who are qualified to be president.

This is not to discount or deny dynastic families in American politics. There was even another father-son pair of presidents: John Adams (second president, 1797 to 1801) and John Quincy Adams (sixth president, 1825-1829). And William Henry Harrison (our ninth president who died shortly after taking office in 1841) was followed by his grandson Benjamin Harrison, who served from 1889-1893 as the 23rd president. (There were also second cousins James Madison and Zachary Taylor and fifth cousins Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt).

But there was an interval of 25 years between the Adamses and 48 years between the Harrisons. The Clinton/Bush spread is considerably smaller and, in combination, simply appalling.

Clearly the indicia are there for Ms. Clinton's run. She has published a book, done the obligatory book tour and talk shows and is distancing herself from foreign policy decisions taken by the Obama administration (even those taken while she was secretary of state — such as not arming the Syrian opposition during the early days of the uprising against Mr. Assad) and coming out in strong support of Israel against Hamas.

It would appear that Ms. Clinton's march to the democratic nomination is a given. There is support for her all over social media, big money donors are loath to say no (especially to Bill Clinton), and any direct challenge to Ms. Clinton would be much more difficult than Mr. Obama's challenge in 2008. Mr. Obama was young, influential and black — it was an easy justification for a self-respecting liberal to support a person of color over a woman.

Jeb Bush's path to the Republican nomination is a bit less assured but far from a long shot. There are several candidates who can draw support away from him, including Sen. Rand Paul, Floridian Marco Rubio, Texans Ted Cruz and Rick Perry and New Jersey traffic controller (er, Gov.) Chris Christie. It also appears that the tea party will play an even larger role in the Republican 2016 presidential primaries than in 2012 — and they are suspect of Jeb Bush's conservative credentials, not the least of which is his support for immigration reform.

That said, Jeb Bush has name recognition and access to big funders. He speaks Spanish fluently and would be more attractive to Hispanic voters in key states (such as Florida) than almost any other Republican candidate.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Jeb Bush are objectionable per se as candidates in their own right. But given the state of our democracy, we should not seek to create a political caste system where, thanks to name recognition and the Citizen's United ruling on campaign contributions, only those families whom we already know can be candidates. This is not a precedent we should be encouraging. In fact, we should be actively discouraging it.


Jonathan D. Strum is a former professor of International Law at Georgetown University Law Center and is a practicing international lawyer. His email is

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