Hillary as Surrogate Candidate and the Perils of Dynastic Politics

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Jerome Karabel Professor of sociology, University of California at Berkeley

Lost amidst the shock of Hillary Clinton's upset of Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary and the ensuing debate about why the polls were so very wrong was a remarkable statistic. By a margin of more than two to one (58 to 27 percent), those who voted for Hillary Clinton would have preferred to vote for Bill Clinton had they had the chance. For those who suspected that a vote for Hillary was really a surrogate vote for Bill -- a vote for the restoration of the Clinton presidency -- this was proof positive.

Hillary Clinton may well ride to the nomination on a wave of nostalgia for the 1990s among a sizeable group of Democrats. But a vote for the past could well mean trouble in the general election. Many Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike -- want a clean break from the past; that is why the word "change" has become a mantra among candidates in both parties. But Hillary is inexorably tied to the past, and she has an unrivaled capacity to mobilize Republican opposition.

Maureen Dowd's much-repeated remark that "Hillary would be running for the presidency of Vassar" had she not married Bill is overdrawn, but the results of the New Hampshire exit poll confirm that she is in an entirely different league politically from her preternaturally gifted husband. She suffers as well from the unease that many Americans feel about the increasingly nepotistic character of American elections; a Bush or Clinton has occupied the White House for 20 years, and a Hillary presidency could bring it to 28.

As Rosa Brooks pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, the notion that political power is something that can be passed along from spouse to spouse or parent to child violates the basic principle of democratic politics. In this regard, the last two decades are unprecedented in American history; even the presidencies of John Adams and John Quincy Adams were separated by 24 years, and the Roosevelts (distant cousins, in any case) by 20.

Nevertheless, many Americans feel a warm glow when they think of another Clinton administration. Hillary may yet triumph. And for those who find that the thought of the end of the Clinton era a depressing prospect, there may be grounds for hope. After all, in 2016 Chelsea will be 36 and eligible to mount her own run for the White House.