Political Dynasties Return

Never mind the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on American political royalty. Family dynasties still rule

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Illustration by Lincoln Agnew for TIME

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In 2008, when Barack Obama came from nowhere to defeat the Clinton family, there was reason to believe that dynasties were moving out of favor. But Obama proved to be the exception, not the rule. In the past six presidential elections, four candidates for President--Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, Al Gore and George H.W. Bush--were children of prominent political figures. A fifth, John McCain, was the son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals. And 2016 could well turn out to be a battle between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 24 years after her husband became President, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush--the son and brother of Presidents. Senator Rand Paul, son of three-time presidential candidate and former Representative Ron Paul, is a likely contender on the Republican side, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, son of former governor Mario Cuomo, could seek the Democratic nomination if Clinton decides against running. On July 24, Obama announced his intent to nominate Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan. "After a good dose of fresh faces for hope and change, I think the pendulum may be swinging back to a greater voter appetite for continuity and experience," said Mark McKinnon, a strategist for the 2000 and 2004 Bush presidential campaigns.

But voters won't have to wait until 2016 to face a new crop of familiar surnames in the voting booth. In Illinois, attorney general Lisa Madigan, daughter of speaker of the house Michael Madigan, considered a 2014 run at the governor's mansion. But she stepped aside in favor of another political clan. "I feel strongly that the state would not be well served by having a governor and speaker of the house from the same family," she said, ironically making way for Bill Daley, the brother and son of former Chicago mayors, who is exploring a campaign for the job. In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, announced on July 23 that she will run for her father's old seat.

In Texas, George P. Bush, Jeb's son, is running for land commissioner--a stepping-stone to higher state office. And Democrats believe the Clintons are grooming their daughter Chelsea for a run for office, giving her a more visible role in their foundation. She has repeatedly said she would be open to becoming a candidate in the future, and in July, Senate majority leader Harry Reid found himself talking about the next possible President. "Maybe Jeb or maybe a new Clinton, maybe Hillary or maybe even the daughter," he said.

The success of these dynasties would seem to cut against the nation's meritocratic ideal, suggesting a system more akin to Britain's House of Lords than what the framers envisioned. "To a lot of people, they seem undemocratic or unrepresentative," says Stephen Hess, an adviser to four Presidents and a senior Brookings Institution fellow. In recent months, dissent has even risen from within the most successful of the clans. Asked this spring about the possibility of Jeb's running in 2016, former First Lady Barbara Bush didn't hold back. "There are other people out there that are very qualified, and we've had enough Bushes," she said. But those words have not yet slowed her son's national speaking schedule.

"The People's Dukes"

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