Keeping it in the family: Political dynasty or political legacy?

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is seen at the Montana State Capitol in Helena

Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in an interview with RealClearPolitics discussed the prospect of Hillary Clinton running for the presidency, and said that it is “time for a woman president.” Schweitzer, who is rumored to be considering a run for the presidency, then backtracked and added, “Isn’t there somebody other than a Bush or a Clinton who can be president in these modern times? Isn’t there hope for somebody who’s running a business or who has served overseas or comes from a different occupation to become president? Are we now in the era of royalty again?”

Royalty suggests that candidates are winning because of blood ties — because they are the heir apparent to the throne — not because of merit. In Clinton’s case, it isn’t quite family lineage as much as it is her last name.

Family ties are, of course, abundant in politics.

Only 44 men in the U.S. have ever held the presidential office, yet even among this small group we still have to ask: Which Adams? Which Roosevelt? Which Bush? And as you travel down the electoral ladder, the number of connections grows.

Sometimes these family connections spark a sentimental note of tradition. Sometimes they make you feel like you are Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and it seems like the loop never ends. Sometimes it suggests what might have been — think JFK, RFK, and JFK Jr. Perhaps your reading of the situation depends on whether you like the family, or, perhaps, whether you may be running against one like Schweitzer.

Whichever way you read them, these connections have been an important factor for women in politics.

Internationally, political families have played a strong role in women achieving the highest levels of office. Beyond the royal path to the throne, a few examples include Indira Gandhi of India and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. And other women have been part of highly powerful political couples, like Corazón Aquino of the Philippines, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka.

In the United States, many of the first women in office gained their position via political widowhood — meaning their husbands held an office, and when they died in office, their wives took on this position. While this practice is less common now than in the early 1900s, it does still occur. Some of these women only serve out their husband’s term and then leave, often earning them less respect from their colleagues and the label of “benchwarmer.” Others, however, run after their husband’s term has ended, either immediately or after a few elections cycles. Many of these women are elected to office, and are often called “careerists.”

Research by Farida Jalalzai and Chad A. Hankinson has shown that political widows do not just take up the charge of their husbands. Rather, benchwarmers and careerists both differ in their roll call votes from their husbands, and this trend is especially strong regarding careerists. Thus keeping it in the family doesn’t necessarily mean women completely share their husband’s political identities.

Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton isn’t a political widow, but it is nonetheless important to keep this difference in mind given all of the speculation around her potential run for the presidency in 2016, and the idea that it may not be quite the 2-for-1 deal some have suggested.

Hillary Clinton has, of course, seen benefits and damages due to her last name, her husband, and the powerful couple they have become over the last few decades in the political spotlight. She had incredible access as First Lady of Arkansas and the United States, took on several projects of her own, and championed these experiences in her bid for the Senate. This access, of course, came at a cost and resulted in public humiliation due to her husband’s very public infidelity.

Some pushed back when she ran for Senate, claiming that her political experience didn’t warrant an office. Chris Matthews took a different approach to her path to success. Matthews had made several comments about Clinton’s viability for office when she ran for Senate, and in her bid for the presidency, he didn’t pull any punches. Commenting on the New Hampshire primary, Matthews said:

The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around.

According to Matthews, it wasn’t bloodlines or necessarily the Clinton name that got Hillary into office, it was perhaps more so the name “Monica Lewinsky.”

The Clintons

Chelsea, Hillary, and Bill Clinton

The Clinton line doesn’t stop there, of course. The 2016 elections are still 3 years off, yet people are already looking long down the line as to whether Chelsea Clinton will run for office one day. The autocompleted search string “chelsea clinton to run for office” produced over 6 million results.

If Chelsea runs, will her bid be seen as the continuation of a much too dominate political dynasty, a la  Brian Schweitzer, or as another chapter in their family legacy? Will we position her as someone running on name recognition and the family coattails? Or will we frame her as someone who has lived in the political world literally since the day she was born, and has thus seen the ins and outs of politics as a child and adult? Ultimately, does her name — what she has made of it and what has been ascribed to her — represent experience or entitlement?

Again, it probably all goes back to your view of the family. Hillary hasn’t even decided yet, and Chelsea is seemingly a world away from deciding, yet her last name, and all of its associations, have already created both a boon and a bane to her potential candidacy. For many of us, names define us whether we want them to or not.

As the saying goes, families are complicated, and political families are no exception.

Recent Ph.D. grad of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. I am currently an adjunct in the Communication Department at Seattle University, and in the fall of 2014 I start as an Asst. Prof. at the University of Oklahoma. My main focus is political communication, gender, and news media. My dissertation examined how women and men political candidates communicate different presentations of self via their Twitter feeds depending on the sex of their opponent, and what the effects are of gendered communication on candidate evaluation.

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Posted in gender, politics

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