HAVING REFUSED a third term as president, George Washington offered the nation a farewell address in 1796, urging Americans to cherish the Union and to avoid the “baneful effects” of political partisanship. Successors such as Thomas Jefferson warned against the formation of an “unnatural” aristocracy of men who inherited great fortunes and political office.
Both of these warnings have been overlooked in the debate over Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential run. But if she secures the Democratic nomination, wins and serves two terms, by 2017 the United States will have been governed by either a Bush or a Clinton for 28 years. That’s three decades governed not just by the same two families but much of the same supporting staff. As Dick Cheney is a name familiar to both Bush presidencies (as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Defense and his son’s vice president), so too may a Hillary Clinton presidency resuscitate familiar names such as Harold Ickes, Paul Begala and James Carville.
And it might not end there. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, encouraged by Republican leaders and the current president (who said, “I would like to see Jeb run at some point”), has not ruled out a White House bid or a vice presidential slot on the ticket in 2012 or 2016.
If Washington’s caustic, partisan atmosphere is to change, the era of Bushes and Clintons needs to end in 2008.
Three times in American history have close relatives of former presidents won the office. John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson in 1824 but won in the electoral college amid charges of a “corrupt bargain.” Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland in 1888 and also suffered as a “minority president” and mere figurehead. George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000.
Recent polls suggest that a significant body of Americans, perhaps 40%, will not vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstances -- so it is unlikely that she could enter the Oval Office with a strong electoral mandate. The ironic upshot is that such a Hillary Clinton presidency -- weakened by low approval and beset by partisan sniping -- would mirror George W. Bush’s presidency.
That the Bush’s administration has been consumed by political partisanship comes as no surprise to students of history. From the time of John Quincy Adams -- whose term in office marked the end of the Era of Good Feelings -- the children, grandchildren and spouses of presidents engender exceptional hostility when they seek office themselves. For all their personal capacities, the latter Adams, Harrison and Bush -- like Hillary Clinton -- inherited their claims to the presidency. George W. Bush would not be president today were his name not George Bush, nor Hillary a senator from New York absent the Clinton name. This nation’s traditional commitment to meritocracy inclines many to reject these “unnatural” aristocrats, who never garner widespread popularity.
Minority and bare-majority presidents are weak leaders because nothing undergirds presidential power like an election mandate. The strongest post-World War II presidents -- Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan -- were also its most popular. (Eisenhower and Johnson won at least 55% of the vote; Reagan polled just over 50% in 1980 with independent John Anderson in the race, then 59% in 1984.) Presidencies enveloped by partisanship -- Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- were made of men who won office on the barest of majorities or pluralities (Truman won 49.6% of the popular vote in 1948; Carter won 50.1% in 1976; Clinton won 43% and 50% in 1992 and 1996).
Pundits compare 2006 to the late Nixon years, with a country disillusioned by war and a deep distrust of its political leadership. In one of his last interviews, former President Ford lamented the “extreme partisanship that exists in the nation’s capital today,” suggesting that partisanship is even worse than in the post-Watergate era he inherited.
The nation needs today, as it got in Ford then, a president respected by both Republicans and Democrats who can restore trust in politics. It needs new faces and new ideas if it is to confront advancing crises of war, debt and entitlement reform. And it needs a president who can assume office in 2009 swimming in the political capital that only a mandate can bring. The nation needs a candidate who can win 55% or more.
And that will not happen with a Bush or Clinton on the ballot.