The end of the Clinton-Bush era?

Today's question: Is it over for the Clintons? What about the Bushes? Click here to read Monday's exchange.

Good news for America: Clinton-Bush is over

I positively cringed when someone told me that Bill Clinton was already talking about Chelsea Clinton 2016. It's like watching a formerly great soprano insist on singing "Norma" -- wouldn't you rather we remember you in your glory years than take one more sagging turn in the limelight?

The Clintons are not "done" in true sense of the word; Hillary Clinton will continue to have a successful career as a senator. And who knows? Chelsea Clinton may eventually enter the political arena. But the Clinton era is at an end. Chelsea Clinton does not have her father's charisma nor his burning need for an audience. Hillary Clinton may become a Ted Kennedy figure, but she will never be an RFK. And the endless saga of the primary has much eclipsed the warm glow of nostalgia that used to emit from the family name.

Moreover, the Democratic Party has moved beyond them. Bill Clinton was president during a remarkably placid era, when the end of the Cold War allowed a drawdown of military spending and the rising stock market made normally hard choices, like balancing the budget, practically painless. His signature achievements lay mostly in resigning his party to the rightward shift that American politics took in the 1980s. He was in many ways just the right man for the role: charming, wonkish and willing to be driven by polls.

But that is not what the party needs now. The party needs someone who can make hard and probably unpopular choices while unifying its warring factions. As the primary just proved, Bill Clinton is not a unifying figure even for Democrats.

The Bush name, meanwhile, will remain a name to conjure -- with all possible horrors, that is. For all the time I spent the early 1990s staging die-ins and blaming the man for the AIDS epidemic, George H.W. Bush was a pretty good president. His foreign policy was clever, the recession was none of his doing, and when the budget deficit gaped too wide, he swallowed his pride and raised taxes to close it. Even the current President Bush is not responsible for all the ills laid at his door: Iraq is his disaster, but the various economic problems we now face are not. Outside national security issues, his domestic policy has been uninspiring, but it has done neither much good nor harm -- which, unfortunately, is about the best a president can really do.

Nonetheless, the political disasters of the last seven-plus years have made it unlikely that anyone will soon attempt to build a future on his connections to the Bush family. It is not just that both Bushes were unpopular presidents; our adventures in Iraq have pretty much destroyed the powerful political network that Prescott Bush and George H.W. spent decades building.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I think this is good news for the country. Political dynasties are not good for any country, but they seem especially wrong for America, which is supposed to be a nation of citizen-legislators. Moreover, at the beginning of the new millennium, the standard back-and-forth between big government and low taxes seems pretty well exhausted. It's time for some new blood, new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Megan McArdle is an associate editor and blogger at the Atlantic.
Clinton clout was overestimated

Yes, the Clinton era is over. But it has been over for years now. Little noticed in this election was the fact that for all the talk of the Clintons' power, the Democratic Party's most powerful institutions were controlled by politicians with few connections to the Clinton clan. Neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean owe their careers to the favor of the Clintons, and Dean in particular came to prominence against the family's opposition and by overwhelming its favored candidates.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton herself ran a notably non-dynastic campaign. She did not run as a continuation of her husband's policies. Rather, she ran on her own experience, her long involvement in politics and her remarkable command of the issues. At times, she ran explicitly against her husband's legacy, as when she attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement in the Ohio primary. In any case, she lost.

So I wouldn't worry about Chelsea Clinton's involvement in politics. Maybe she will, maybe she won't. The Clinton name is not mud. Bill Clinton is still remembered as a broadly successful president who presided over eight years of largely unbroken peace and prosperity. Hillary Clinton will return to the Senate and be seen for what she is: a smart, determined, conscientious and effective legislator. What we saw in this primary, however, was that the Clintons do not control the Democratic Party. They ran a candidate, and she fell short. Their dynasty has not been broken -- rather, it's been proven not to exist.

The Bush family has no such record of clean competence to rely on. Megan, you kindly absolve President Bush of responsibility for all problems save Iraq. I don't. He ran government with all the enthusiasm and attention that a young child puts into pet care a year after he grows bored of his hamster. He did much to affirmatively hurt the country, and given that I only have 500 words, I'll simply point to that by saying Katrina, courts and civil liberties. But he also did so very little to help the country: global warming, crumbling infrastructure, the healthcare crisis and accelerating inequality. These issues required presidential leadership. When a CEO ignores problems, he hurts the company. When a president ignores crises, he hurts the country.

Indeed, if the Bush name is to ever be revived, it will be for the failed policy on which you blame the president, Megan: Iraq. If, after tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, Iraq is eventually judged relatively stable, Bush may well see his ambition rewarded and his reputation rehabilitated. Such are the wages of American history, where big presidencies are rewarded and small, technocratic administrations largely dismissed. But such a rehabilitation is a long way off. For now, Bush has posted disapproval ratings higher than 70% -- a record neither Richard Nixon nor Harry Truman ever matched. He has not seen majority approval in more than 40 months. He is a tremendously unpopular president, and the question is not what can be built by invoking his name, but what can be destroyed. Just ask McCain or, for that matter, any Republican running for reelection this year.

Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. He blogs at

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