WASHINGTON – “Romney Recycled” was the headline atop a Wall Street Journal editorial last week lamenting Mitt Romney’s intimations that he will make a third run at the presidency in 2016.
The conservative editorialists were right to dread another election about Romneycare and the 47 percent. But why pick on Romney? Overall, 2016 is shaping up to be the year of the retreads: the reduce, reuse and recycle election.
This will be the seventh presidential campaign I’ve covered in some form, starting with a bit role in 1992. If the field develops the way it appears to be, this will be my fourth Clinton campaign, fourth Bush campaign, third Romney campaign, third Paul campaign, second Huckabee campaign and second Santorum campaign. This isn’t an election – it’s a rerun.
The likely slate of candidates will include the son of a governor and presidential candidate, the son of a congressman and presidential candidate, the wife of a president, and the brother of a president, son of a president and grandson of a senator. Nearly two and a half centuries after rebelling against the monarchy, our presidential contest has all the freshness of the House of Lords. Even the British royals have done a better job at bringing in new blood: Kate, the future queen, was a commoner.
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The hereditary nature of the presidential race isn’t the disease but a symptom of our empty politics. In the absence of ideas and popular passion – the sort of spirit that briefly captured the nation’s imagination in 2008 – winning becomes about name recognition and celebrity. Known brands rate highly in early polls, which brings in money, which leads to victory.
That is why, if a Clinton or a Bush wins in 2016 and is re-elected in 2020, a member of one of those two families will have been president for 28 of 36 years since 1989. Incredibly, Republicans have not won the presidency since 1928 without Richard Nixon or a member of the Bush family on the ticket, and if Jeb Bush is the Republican nominee, the streak will approach the century mark. By that time, George P. Bush, Jeb’s son and the newly elected Texas land commissioner, will be ready to take over the family business.
Dynastic politics is nothing new in this ostensibly meritocratic land, going back to John Quincy Adams and continuing through the Roosevelts and Tafts and Kennedys. A 2009 academic study found that, since the beginning of the republic, 8.7 percent of members of Congress had a relative who previously served in the body. The percentage has declined over time, but a 2010 article in Legislative Studies Quarterly found that kin of officeholders continue to have large “brand name advantages” allowing them to raise more money and achieve more success with less experience.
Next-generation Democratic candidates Nunn and Carter lost campaigns in Republican Georgia in November, but new Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., succeeded her husband John, dean of the House, who succeeded his father in 1955. Think the tea party stopped such entitlement? Firebrand Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is the son of Rex Lee, solicitor general in the Reagan administration. And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., owes his rise almost entirely to his father, Ron.
The problem isn’t DNA but the dominance of name recognition over everything else in politics. This is why incumbents usually win, why Al Franken is in the Senate and why reality TV star Sean Duffy is in the House. This is also what threatens to make the 2016 presidential election so tedious.
The big names are big because we know them from their previous runs, or because of their relatives’ runs, for the same office. Their presence in the race virtually guarantees we’ll be revisiting Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky, the Iraq War and torture, Rafalca the dancing dressage horse and poor Seamus strapped to a car roof, Huckabee’s guitar and waistline, and Santorum’s sweaters. It’s almost enough to make Ted Cruz look appealing.
Barack Obama, offering a fresh face and a (hitherto unfulfilled) change in direction, gave temporary relief to the tedium in 2008, when voter turnout reached 61.6 percent, the highest since 1968, according to the United States Election Project. Turnout in November’s midterms, by contrast, was 35.9 percent, the lowest since 1942, continuing a long decline. A 2016 campaign of reruns isn’t going to reverse the pattern.
Bush family matriarch Barbara Bush said last year, before her son Jeb began to make noises about a run: “If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly. … I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people.”
It is. But they’re being crowded out by the tyranny of celebrity.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.