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Bush-Clinton Forever?

If Hillary Clinton is elected President, the White House will have been occupied by a Bush or a Clinton for 24 (or 28) years. Does it matter?

By Nicholas D. Kristof

In a presidential campaign that has involved battles over everything from Iraq to driver's licenses, one sweeping topic has gone curiously unexamined: Does it diminish American democracy if we keep the presidency in the same two families that have held it since 1989?

If Senator Hillary Clinton is elected President and serves two terms, then the presidency will have been held by a Bush or a Clinton for 28 years. By that point, about 40 percent of Americans would have lived their entire lives under a President from one of these two families. Wouldn't that make our democracy seem a little, er, Pakistani?

Naturally, views on this are influenced by politics. Clintonians who dismissed George W. Bush as a dynastic puppet see nothing wrong with another Clinton in the Oval Office. But fans of Senator Barack Obama who shiver at the prospect of a Clinton dynasty bask in endorsements of Obama from an even greater dynasty—the Kennedys. (John F. Kennedy was President from 1961–63; two of his brothers—Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York—made their own runs for the presidency.)

Granted, nobody should be barred from the White House because of family connections. Franklin D. Roosevelt was an excellent President (1933–45), even though he certainly enjoyed a leg up because of his association with his distant cousin, President Teddy Roosevelt (1901–09).

Yet, shouldn't it raise a red flag when family members of former Presidents seek the White House?

We Americans snicker patronizingly as "democratic" India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, and Argentina hand over power to a wife or child of a former leader. But I can't find any example of even the most rinky-dink "democracy" confining power continuously for seven terms over 28 years to four people from two families. (And that's not counting George H. W. Bush's term as Ronald Reagan's Vice President from 1981–89.)

The counterargument goes like this: As voters, we should always choose the best person for the job. We should evaluate candidates on their own merits and not drag in their families. We punish ourselves if we spurn the best person because of his or her family background.

Washington's Precedent

We have faced this trade-off frequently over the last 215 years and regularly come down on the side of fresh blood. In 1796, George Washington's skill and popular mandate seemed invaluable at a perilous time in our nation's infancy. Yet we overwhelmingly believe that it was good for American democracy that he stepped down after two terms. That precedent remained unbroken until Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1940.

As Thomas Jefferson put it: "In no office can rotation be more expedient" than in the presidency. The sixth President, John Quincy Adams (1825–29), was considered to be intelligent and diligent. But his presidency is diminished by the hint of dynastic succession: His father, John Adams, had served as the second President (1797–1801).

The 22nd Amendment

In 1947—after Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected to four terms—we added the 22nd Amendment, limiting Presidents to two terms, on the rationale that levers of power should turn over to keep our democracy healthy.

Many Democrats today would consider Bill Clinton the best person to serve as President for the next eight years. But even if there weren't a 22nd Amendment, we would shy away from that. We prefer the risk of an unproven President to the risk of stasis and aristocracy.

A tongue-in-cheek Web site called Bush-Clinton Forever is already proposing Jeb Bush—George W. Bush's brother and the former Governor of Florida—in 2017, Chelsea Clinton in 2025, Jeb Bush's son George P. Bush in 2033, Chelsea Clinton's husband in 2041, and George W. Bush's daughter Jenna in 2049.

For those of us who admire Hillary Clinton and believe she would make a terrific President, there are hard trade-offs involved. She has an utter mastery of domestic and foreign policy, and among the Democrats she knows military and security issues in particular better than anyone else.

And if the concern is to bring fresh currents into the political system, what better way than electing a woman President?

Maybe we want another political dynasty, but we shouldn't back into one without discussion—again.

When she is asked about the propriety of keeping the White House so long in the hands of two families, Hillary Clinton's standard response is that she agrees ... that it was a mistake to elect President George W. Bush in 2000.

Clinton has proved herself an excellent Senator, and presumably she would make a superior President. Yet ... 28 years ... two families! That needn't be decisive, but it's too important to be ignored.