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Sam Stein Headshot

Critics Cry 'Dynasty!' Over Clintons, But Not Bushes

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On the campaign trail, one criticism frequently lobbed at Hillary Clinton is that her presidency would be the extension of dynastic politics. The political sequence of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton has left many critics, mostly conservatives, rolling their eyes and salivating with ire.

On NBC's Meet the Press, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said that such a run of political lineage is a "sickness" that "is giving so many people pause."

But is the critique fair? And, if so, where were these voices when George W. Bush ran for office in 2000?

Among Clinton supporters, the answer to those two questions are universally: "no" and "nonexistent." Clinton, they argue, is the victim of poor political timing - trying to follow one family's occupation of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave with her own. And George W. Bush was never regarded with the same dynastic skepticism.

"I think voters were willing to swallow one family dynasty," a former Clinton aide told the Huffington Post. " But buying into two dynasties in a row gives people real pause. And this is not about Clinton fatigue."

Indeed, some of the same people who decry "dynasticism" today were hailing a Bush "restoration" eight years earlier. In a July 2000 column in the Wall Street Journal, Noonan wrote about George W. Bush's candidacy not in cynical terms about his lineage, but rather in the frame of redeeming his father.

"Mr. Bush's eyes filled with tears as he took the oath of office -- quite possibly a historical first -- and people have discussed why. Family redemption, old losses now avenged. Maybe. But I suspect they were the tears of a 54-year-old man who hadn't amounted to much in his first 40 years -- poor student, average athlete, indifferent businessman, all of this in contrast to his father's early and easy excellence. He had struggled to find himself and his purpose; amazing and fantastic things had happened, and he had gone on to make himself a president - 'Called to do great things.'"

When asked why Clinton is held to a different standard than Bush, those who have harped on dynasticism argue that the two cases are fundamentally different. The distinction, they say, is the hyper-energetic presence of Bill Clinton in his wife's political orbit.

"Bill Clinton is still active on public life," says Michael Barone, a senior writer for US News & World Report who, in January 2007, wrote that the royalist turn of American politics had "viscerally" struck him as a bad thing.

"It is clear that George Bush retired from public life in 1993 and he wasn't really involved in the presidential campaign," Barone argues. George W. Bush "was rather conspicuously running as something different from his father on policy issues. There was a distinctive effort to keep the Bush 41 people out of the campaign. Jim Baker was not brought on board until the recount effort... There is more continuity between the Clinton 42 campaign operatives and the current campaign."

Indeed, Clinton critics and more neutral political observers say that there is a direct relationship between the ex-president's campaign activity and the average voter's concern about political dynasties.

"The question is the role of the former president in the campaign," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. "To the extent that George HW Bush got engaged it was to speak well of his son, He didn't speak ill of his son's primary opponents. What has caught the attention of many people is that President Bill Clinton has seemed to taken on the role of undermining Obama's candidacy. That is what is catching the election of mainly disgruntled Democrats."

Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who is pursuing a constitutional amendment that would ban family members from succeeding one another to elected office (Hillary Clinton would not be effected), offered a very similar assessment.

"[George W. Bush] didn't run as son of," he said. "And dad wasn't there on the campaign. And you do see Bill out there, giving speeches, settling scores. Hillary talks about decisions made by her husband in a 'we' form. She is running as if her experience was not just the Senate, but her White House years. She is playing to that more. Now, mind you, she was a real participant in her husband's presidency and George W. Bush was not a real participant with his father."

For the most part, however, it seems that takes like these are confined to conservative circles. A September 2007, Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 60 percent of respondents "personally feel comfortable ... with the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House."

Matt McKenna, a spokesperson for the ex-president, deflected the critique that Bill Clinton was causing concerns over his wife's potential presidency.

"President Clinton has said repeatedly that no one is entitled to be President and Hillary will work to earn every vote and takes no vote for granted," he told the Huffington Post. "Knowing what he knows about the job, he believes she is the best qualified person to be President on day one and that's why he is supporting her."

And the Clinton campaign, at least publicly, trumpets the former President, with his high approval ratings, as a political asset. As Hillary Clinton often remarks on the campaign trail, "It takes a Clinton to clean up after a Bush."