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Opinion

Op-Ed: Hillary Clinton and the new royals

Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigning in Daytona Beach, Fla. on Oct. 29.
(Joe Burbank/TNS)

When I vote for Hillary Clinton in a week, I will be voting for a smart, competent woman and the only candidate this year who has not bragged about sexual assault, blanked on where Aleppo is, or endorsed pseudoscience about the dangers of wireless Internet. In a field that includes Donald Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, my choice is as clear as a glass of Trump Natural Spring Water (available at his golf clubs worldwide).

Nevertheless I will cast that vote with a mutter of discontent, or maybe a Trump-like sniff. In a hemisphere where having the right relatives seems to be getting more, rather than less, important, Clinton makes the United States look like a monarchy.

If she wins, four of the last five American presidents will have belonged to either the Clinton or Bush families. And that’s not unusual on this continent. Look up or look down: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the son of a former prime minister, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is the nephew of former governors on both sides of his family.

How many qualified, brilliant, or simply decent men and women languish in obscurity, excluded from the upper echelons of public life?
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Put another way, if Clinton wins, all three heads of state of the NAFTA countries, parties to a treaty that many believe has benefited the wealthy at the expense of the common people, are members of an undemocratic elite, one that depends on blood ties rather than brains.

We can keep going: Sen. Tim Kaine, who would be next in line for the presidency, won his first elective office with the help of his father-in-law, a former Virginia governor. The last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, was the son of a former governor of Michigan. Evan Bayh, who may well win back his old Senate seat in Indiana, is the son of a former senator. The governor of California is the son of a governor of California. The governor of New York is the son of a governor of New York.

Of course, some people with the right relations are exceptionally qualified in their own right. Clinton, as a former senator and secretary of State, has unmatched qualifications for the presidency. Prime Minister Trudeau seems to be a decent person and a deft politician.

Still, it’s troubling that a woman of Clinton’s gifts needed the right husband to ascend the political ranks. Her trajectory is reminiscent of female leaders from less developed countries, where women’s rights are still contested, like India’s Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, both daughters of prime ministers. In more advanced economies, women have led governments without being related to famous men: England’s Margaret Thatcher, for example, or Germany’s Angela Merkel, daughters of a grocer and a pastor, respectively.

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How many qualified, brilliant, or simply decent men and women languish in obscurity, excluded from the upper echelons of public life, because the well-related suck up all the oxygen?

If Clinton had never run for Senate, maybe her job would have gone to Rep. Nita Lowey, a gifted graduate of Bronx Science and Mount Holyoke College, rival women’s college to Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley. Or maybe another effective long-time New York legislator, like Rep. Carolyn Maloney, would have won the seat.

We’ll never know, because nobody ran against Clinton in the Democratic primary. All possible opponents knew that Clinton’s advantages of fame — and fortune, in the form of fundraising dollars — were nearly insurmountable.

Throughout American history, voters have had conflicting impulses. We cherish the story of the self-made man, the Andrew Jackson or the Abe Lincoln, the Harry Truman or the Barack Obama. But we also have a romance with aristocracy, with famous names like Adams and Roosevelt and Kennedy. In recent years, our notion of aristocracy has expanded to include movie actors, like Ronald Reagan, self-funded billionaires, like Ross Perot, and now actor/billionaire chimera, Donald Trump.

This pseudo-monarchical tendency is thoroughly bipartisan. There is a photograph going around on social media (I saw it shared from a Facebook page called Occupy Democrats), with the title “Republicans’ Worst Nightmare,” that shows a banner reading, “Hillary 2016 — Michelle 2024 — Chelsea 2032 — Malia 2040 — Sasha 2048.”

I get why my fellow Democrats relish the thought of all those women, black and white, like mothers like daughters, ruling our country. I am sure we could do worse (“Melania 2024 — Ivanka 2032 …”). But didn’t we fight a war to be free of hereditary leadership?

Today, it’s the British who can teach us that, for the daily work of government, bloodlines are no way to go. Their current prime minister, Theresa May, is the daughter of a hospital chaplain. Her family was useless in winning votes, and unlike the Bushes and Clintons, they didn’t raise money. They just raised her.

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Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing writer to Opinion, is the author of three books, most recently “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate.” He is the host of the podcast Unorthodox.

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