In sports, Americans are familiar with many dynasties. The New York Yankees, winners of 29 pennants from 1921 through 1964. The Montreal Canadiens, who took 20 Stanley Cups between 1930 and 1979. The UCLA Bruins, who won 10 NCAA basketball titles from 1964 to 1975.
In presidential politics, it’s been a different story. We are, after all, the country that split from England and its dynastic tradition. But now, in the space of roughly one generation, a third Bush (Jeb) and a second Clinton (Hillary) are running for president. Should one of them win and hold office for the customary two terms, it would mean those two families had controlled the White House for 28 of 36 years.
“I call it the dynastic dilemma,” Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Ethics, said at the 2015 SVIA Spring Seminar in April. “We have two dynasties going head to head.” While some people are saying “not them again,” Suskind noted, “in some ways it actually might work out, depending on how clear-thinking they are.”
In the tendentious and highly partisan political environment we’re in right now, Suskind said, “clear thinking” will require that the candidates be careful with what he called their “Nixon in China” moments. It was a reference to President Richard Nixon’s decision to visit China in 1972, a shocking move by the staunch anti-Communist that paved the way for normalized relations between the U.S. and China. Nixon’s authority to act, and the impact of his actions, were grounded in his long opposition to Communism.
“He was moving against type,” Suskind said. “Watch for that. Because the key to this election, if it’s Bush and Clinton, is who manages their ‘Nixons in China’ better? You only get a couple of them.”
Suskind observed that former President Bill Clinton, who nurtured a reputation for helping the working class, found his “Nixon in China” moment when he undertook reform of the federal welfare program. The question now, he said, is what those Nixon-in-China moments will be for the latest Bush and Clinton candidates. “Think about the array of policies that each of them might attempt,” he said. “That’s why I’m a little hopeful about this election. Plus, they have ownership of almost all the issues that have unfolded over the past 30 years.”
If pressed to make an early prediction on how a Bush versus Clinton race might shake out, Suskind guessed that Bush would win after Republican strategists dredged up some “friends of Bill Clinton … ticking bombs” that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign late in the race. But he acknowledged that he could be wrong, and that there are other candidates with compelling stories who may yet capture their party’s favor. He mentioned Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida among the Republicans, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts among the Democrats, although Warren has repeatedly said she is not running for president in 2016.
He also noted that most presidential elections wind up being determined by economic conditions. If the economy is strong leading up to the election, the incumbent party tends to win. If it is weak, the challengers tend to prevail.
“Fall 2016,” he concluded, “could be fireworks.”