Splitting Heirs in Political Dynasties

Political family comparisons add little to the conversation

As soon as a child is born, what is the first thing that the gathering relatives have to say?

Usually we clutch the baby in our arms and gush about how beautiful the warm bundle is. Next thing we know everyone in the room is comparing the little darling to the rest of the clan. Before you could even see your aunts and uncles or even your parents, they had already decided which of your ancestors you resembled. “He has Uncle Peter’s nose!” “Her eyes look just like her grandma’s.” “Look at those long toes: She’ll be just like Aunt Marjorie.”

Human beings like to think in comparisons. We compare today’s weather to yesterday’s or last year’s; we compare the ribs at one barbecue place to the next. Sunsets, first dates, chicken wings, white wine, quarterbacks, new cars, third-grade reading scores, pumpkin spice doughnuts, presidential candidates — when we talk about almost anything, we don’t usually take it for what it is, but for what it stacks up against. (See the Best of Syracuse.)

Comparison is not always our friend when it comes to decision making; it’s actually a pretty lazy way of interpreting the world. But it saves us a lot of time and gets us through the day.

In the ridiculously long lead up to next year’s presidential election, the chattering class, without much real content to report on, fills news holes and blogs with what they perceive as insightful comparisons to candidates of years past. This produces some ridiculous comparisons. Across the spectrum from NPR to Fox, commentators who have no way of knowing the future respond to our pleas to predict it anyway, by resorting to the only thing they know: the past. So John Kasich becomes Al Gore, Mike Huckabee is Pat Robertson, Ben Carson becomes Herman Cain, Donald Trump is a rerun of Ross Perot, and on and on.

Here’s where comparison thinking fails us. Talking heads like to lump Hillary Clinton in with Jeb Bush. Both of them have been around too long, the story goes, Americans don’t want another Bush or Clinton, and America doesn’t like dynasties.

The comparison doesn’t stand up to minimal scrutiny. Jeb Bush is a member of a political dynasty that goes back to old Connecticut money in the early 20th century. Hillary Clinton married the son of a single mom from a tiny town in Arkansas. Bush’s grandfather Prescott passed on the family fortune and political connections to his son George H.W. who passed it on to Jeb and George W., who are grooming the next generation of Bushies. Bill and Hillary Clinton are as ambitious a couple as our species has ever produced, but they are not heirs to a dynasty.

Are Bill and Hillary prepping Chelsea to take over the family business? Possibly, but if there is a Clinton dynasty it will trace itself back to an Arkansas neighborhood two steps up from a trailer park, not to Yale legacies and Skull and Bones. If Hillary gets to be the one with her hand on the Bible this time instead of the one holding it, it will be due to many things, including her husband’s popularity, but one generation does not a dynasty make. Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Landrieus: Give these dynasties their due. But to call the Clinton campaign a claim to dynasty is silly.

Speaking of silly, foolishness never sounds as smart as when it’s dressed in a clever New Yorker cover. “The Populists,” a Sept. 7 commentary by George Packer, trotted out the facile comparisons being made between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders, the Democratic Socialist former mayor of Burlington, Vt., has as much in common with Trump, the developer who breathed life into Atlantic City and then left that town to die, as Hillary Clinton does with Jeb Bush.

Both Sanders’ and Trump’s campaigns thrive on the anger of voters, and thus they can be called populists, but Sanders’ ideas, whether you agree with them or not, constitute an attempt to channel anger into policy. Trump’s ideas (really, it’s just one idea: Trump himself) boils down to this: Let’s continue to be mad together.

You don’t have to be a Sanders supporter to stop buying into fallacious comparisons like this. But if you would like to compare the two, take a ride to the sea and view the skeleton of Atlantic City. That New Jersey town, a joy ride for Trump’s rapacious brand of capitalism, is a cautionary tale for any area willing to stake its future on gambling ventures, especially those run by outsiders. Then take a day trip to Burlington, a lovely city perched on the other side of Lake Champlain, living on latte, graduate programs and IBM pensioners.

What’s that you say? True, the comparison is not fair. Still, it makes for a lovely fall weekend.

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