The Dynasties of 2016

Bush. Clinton. Romney. Why are so many names from the past floating to the top of presidential lists?

Perhaps George Santayana was wrong: Today’s Americans know their history well enough—and if they aren’t exactly eager to repeat it, they seem to at least be resigned to repetition. How else to explain a situation that looks ever more possible by the day: a Bush vs. Clinton presidential election in 2016? (Again.)

Jeb Bush, son and brother of former presidents, made that scenario a bit more likely when he announced Tuesday on Facebook that he was “actively exploring” a bid for the White House (whatever that means). That won’t quiet the will-he-won’t-he game already afoot. Many candidates have dipped their toes in the water at this stage, decided it was a bit too cool for a swim, and retreated back onto the sand. There are also reasons to believe—both political and not—that Bush might back out, but his gesture can't be ignored. Meanwhile, despite a flurry of excitement about a Massachusetts senator who insists she isn’t running, Hillary Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination still looks clear.

This might feel like a rerun of recent history, but it actually has much longer roots. As Matt O’Brien points out, the Republican Party has not won a presidential election without either a Bush or a Nixon on the ticket since 1928. Clintons have been running for president on and off since 1992, and Bill Clinton reportedly nearly ran in 1988. The prospect of a sequence of presidents that runs Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton/Bush has already created oodles of angst over the prospect of a hereditary duopoly in American politics—interrupted only briefly by Barack Obama, who might easily appear in retrospect as something of a novelty candidate. It's not quite royalty, one might conclude, but it's close enough: Isn’t this why colonists fought a revolution to escape the British monarch? It’s no surprise that the prospect would be upsetting, particularly in an age of yawning inequality and calcified social mobility.

Dynasties are nothing new in American politics—just ask the Roosevelts, the Adamses, the Harrisons, the Kennedys, the Tafts, the Udalls, the ... you get the idea. But this sort of presidential pattern would be a new degree. Setting aside the worrying effects such a duopoly might have on the republic, what does the nascent duopoly say about where the United States stands as a nation?

More than anything else, it seems to reflect a deep unease about where the United States is, and an even greater fear about where it might be going. Americans see the economy improving, but only slowly and after a lengthy interval. They see that the impact of that recovery is not evenly distributed but in fact accrues disproportionately to the top, dulling its pleasant effects. They see race relations getting steadily worse. On the international stage, they expect China to eclipse the United States as a power, and Russia to draw close. Democrats and Republicans remain hopelessly, infuriatingly divided on a range of issues, but one thing they can agree on is that they’d like to go back in time—if only they could agree on what decade is better: the 1950s or 1990s.

Some of these are phenomena of the Obama era; others date back to the George W. Bush era, and start shortly after 9/11. As this chart shows, citizens have felt that the United States is on the wrong track for a long time—and while the numbers have stabilized recently, they’re deep underwater:

Is the Country on the Right Track? (%)
Pew Research Center

Given their attitude about the present, the affection among primary voters in both parties for candidates of the past is understandable. Names like Clinton and Bush recall a past that may not have actually been rosier but sure looks that way from 2014. (Warning: Objects in rearview mirror may be worse than they appear.) Other candidates might offer a prospect of improvement, but why take a chance on an unknown quantity, whether Rand Paul or Martin O’Malley?

In Huffpost Pollster’s average of 2016 GOP primary polls, Jeb Bush doesn’t lead, but he’s a comfortable second, trailing only Mitt Romney—another name from the recent (and distant) Republican past. The party has been fighting an at-times vicious civil war since 2009, with some candidates calling on the party to change its tone and act more open to other viewpoints. It’s hard to think of a stronger signal that the party is content to stick with the old formula—perhaps encouraged by the midterm-election results—than nominating either Bush or Romney. (Bush hasn’t even run for election since 2002.)

Bush’s boosters worry he might be too moderate to make it through a Republican primary, but should he win, whether he’d stand any chance in a general election is a different question. Taking the polls with the shakerful of salt they deserve at this stage, he trails Clinton in head-to-head matchups by decent margins. In a reproach to the national nostalgia, most analysts believe that Bush’s greatest liability with the general electorate is his name. His brother George W. Bush left the White House with an atrocious approval rating. More recently, his standing has improved (as those of most former presidents do). Even Jeb's mother Barbara said in 2013, "There are other people out there that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes," though she has reportedly come around. But the release of the Senate torture report and strife in Iraq would hardly help Jeb, and it’s hard to imagine he’d be eager to relitigate his brother’s presidency.

That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma that the leading 2016 candidates on both sides—Clinton, Romney, and Bush—face: How can a politician appeal to Americans' sense of nostalgia without reminding them too much of the painful details of that history?