Stop The Heirs!

Caroline Kennedy is a fine lady, but Nick Kristof has it right on his blog re the aristocraticization of American politics. My own entry on this demoralizing phenomenon was a column back in March 2001, reprinted below. Nothing's changed.


I know we’re all supposed to moan about “soft money” this week, but to my mind there’s a bigger campaign scourge that John McCain has missed altogther: the plague of heirs running amok on the political landscape. Surely the Heir Factor does more to undermine the morale of our democracy than a thousand Clinton coffees or Republican Eagle fundraisers ever could.

You can hardly turn on the tube these days without stumbling over some smiling scion primping himself for high office. Like most rot this starts at the top, as last year’s emblematic showdown between George Walker Bush and Albert Gore Junior proved. But the specter of inherited political power is so commonplace nowadays that it’s getting hard to keep track.

There’s Andrew Cuomo, the former housing secretary under Bill Clinton, now readying himself to run for governor of New York, like his father. Presidential wannabe Evan Bayh holds the Indiana senate seat held by his father. So too with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg’s daddy was governor. Lousianna Senator Mary Landrieu’s father was mayor of New Orleans. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller has two uncles who were governors. And, as Ron Brownstein quipped in a 1998 look at this trend in The American Prospect, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s father was emperor.

Jesse Jackson Jr. waltzed into the House as Jesse Johnson never could have -- as did Rep. John Sununu (son of the former New Hampshire governor and White house chief of staff) and Charlie Gonzales (who inherited papa Henry’s Texas seat). Three generations later there are so many Kennedys in power that no one actually knows the number anymore. Does anyone think Colin Powell’s son Michael would be chairman of the Federal Communications Commission today if his last name were Powers?

This weird inventory could go on (and on). James Hahn, son of legendary Los Angeles county executive Kenneth, has a lock on this year’s mayoral race in LA. Before long we’ll doubtless see Karenna Gore, Chelsea Clinton and Jeb Bush’s son George P. join the parade.

Many of these folks are fine people. And going into the family business is a proud American tradition. But at some point the sheer volume of political heirs gets a little ridiculous for any self-respecting democracy.

It’s bad enough to have these constant reminders that the system is rigged. Yet governance by heir may also be dangerous. The men and women who inherit their power tend to be far more bland and cautious than their dashing forbears -- who had to make their name, after all, and not simply avoid squandering it.

It’s not unlike the ethos of those who inherit great wealth, who are more concerned with preserving their pile than with taking risks to build a fresh one. This means we’re increasingly led by a species of timid tacticians, groomed from birth to censor any impulse that might make them more interesting as human beings but less viable as politicians.

No wonder politics seem so dull and unimaginative, except when enlivened by political Gatsbys like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton [update: or obviously Obama today].

What to do? Any reform has to address the enormous built-in advantage heirs have when it comes to name recognition, the family fundraising rolodex, and opportunities for political apprenticeship.

One option would be to offer huge amounts of compensating public financing to any average Joe who finds himself in a race against an heir. Lawyers will naturally quibble over what relationship should trigger this provision, but you get the idea.

But more radical steps may be needed. Taking a page from trust and estate law, Congress could adopt a “generation skipping” rule, under which the children of high officeholders would simply be barred by law from seeking office themselves -- only the grandchildren could.

This would nip the whole Chelsea and Karenna thing in the bud.

Of course, it might also present a few little First Amendment problems -- but then that makes it a perfect fit with every other campaign finance reform being debated.

Come on, John McCain, do something before we morph entirely into an aristocracy. Flabby heirs are as big a threat as soft money!


Blogger Sumisu said...

But Matt what about your reliance on 'Elites'? Doesn't Kennedy fit this bill?

Otherwise I am 100% with you, even though we're really fooling ourselves: this has happened since this country was founded and Americans need to create a 'royal' class... something the press whole-heartedly encourages (like we're missing something somehow).

Our democracy in the 21st century needs to really move past this.

December 17, 2008 at 5:14 PM  
Blogger Sumisu said...

hey, what about John Adams and his son John Quincy? Hasn't this always been the way in the US?

George and Uncurious George? And so on and so on...

I think the real problem is with 'the Elites' and their sense of entitlement.

December 19, 2008 at 3:00 PM  

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