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In This Great Meritocracy, Only One Thing Matters: Who Is Your Daddy?
To change the political sclerosis gripping their country, Americans need a president distinguished by his lack of pedigree
While running for Congress in West Texas in 1978, a young George W Bush attended a training school for Republican candidates. In a class on fundraising he was struck by inspiration. "I've got the greatest idea of how to raise money for the campaign," he told David Dreier, now a California congressman. "Have your mother send a letter to your family's Christmas card list! I just did, and I got $350,000."
The web of wealth and family connections that has levered Bush to power and has since characterised his administration is an indictment of America's political culture. "George W Bush was named [after] a father who excelled at everything," argued Bush Jr's former speechwriter David Frum. "He tried everything his father tried - and well into his 40s, succeeded at almost nothing."
Therapy could have dealt with this quite effectively. Instead we have been afflicted with one of the most ostentatious and wrong-headed affirmative action programmes known to the western world, in which a man unburdened by imagination inherited - almost literally - a cabinet unburdened by merit.
His father's secretary of state (James Baker) oversaw the Florida recount in 2000 as chief legal adviser and was instrumental in taking the case to the supreme court. Once installed, Bush took his father's joint chief of staff (Colin Powell) and made him secretary of state; his father's defence secretary (Dick Cheney) became vice-president; his father's special assistant on national security affairs (Condoleezza Rice) became national security adviser; and in a fit of oedipal petulance, he took one of his dad's enemies (Donald Rumsfeld) and made him defence secretary.
Not only did such appointments set new lows for cronyism, sleaze, dysfunction and incompetence. But by drawing leadership from such a tiny gene puddle they reflected an aberration of the very democratic impulses and meritocratic culture with which most Americans identify and apparently cherish.
"It is easy to see that the rich have a great distaste for their country's democratic institutions," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic 19th century treatise, Democracy in America. "The people are a power whom they fear and scorn." But recently the people and the rich seem to have come to an accommodation over the stewardship of their democracy. Having dispensed with the tyranny of kings more than two centuries ago, the populace now seems to have taken to electing its own monarchy. In all of this Bush is an easy, if apt, target. For the sclerosis in America's political class is pervasive and profound. Today Jimmy Hoffa (the Teamsters union leader), Richard Daley (the Chicago mayor) and Martin Luther King (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference head) all carry the names and job titles their fathers did; 5% of senators are doing the jobs their daddies did; and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is herself a congressman's daughter.
So it is that on the eve of the most crucial day in the Democratic primary, the frontrunner is the wife of a former president seeking to replace the son of a former president - a former president who was replaced by her husband. If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, nobody under the age of 50 will have had the opportunity to vote for a viable presidential ticket that did not have a Bush or a Clinton on the ticket; 40% of Americans have never lived without a Bush or a Clinton in the White House.
This growing rigidity is by no means limited to class. Upward mobility, like median wages, has stalled. Studies show parental income is now a better predictor of whether you will be rich or poor in the US than it is in Canada and much of Europe. These privileges are most transparent at the top universities, where children of alumni and wealthy contributors bag far more places than beneficiaries of affirmative action do. "The preferences of privilege are non-partisan," writes the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden in The Price of Admission. "They ensure each fresh generation of upper-class families - regardless of intelligence or academic qualifications - access to the premier college whose alumni hold disproportionate sway on Wall Street and in Fortune 500 companies, the media, Congress and the judiciary." At Notre Dame, the prestigious Indiana university, children of alumni amount to between 21% and 24% of freshmen. "The poor schmuck who has to get in on his own has to walk on water," Daniel Saracino, the assistant provost for admissions, told Golden.
"How can you be an agent of change when we have had the same two families in the White House for the last 30 years?" one voter, Karen Roper, asked Clinton during Thursday's debate. Clinton started by evoking the very mythology of which her candidacy is the most blatant repudiation. "What's great about our political system is that we are all judged on our own merits," she says. "We start from the same place. Nobody has an advantage no matter who you are or where you came from ... You have to make the case for yourself."
Really? So who is that bruiser with the generous Rolodex and secret service protection, race-baiting his way around the campaign trail making her case on her behalf? Why does he raise memories of his own legacy at least as often as he raises the promise of her candidacy, while slipping from "I" to "we"? "Median family income after inflation's about a thousand dollars lower today than it was the day I left office," he told a crowd in South Carolina. "In our eight years, we had 22.7 million jobs and almost 8 million people move from poverty into the middle class." Why are so many of his advisers now hers?
If the Clinton name really brings no advantage, why did she evoke it in the very next breath in her answer to Roper? "It did take a Clinton to clean after the first Bush," quipped Hillary. "And I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush."
Paradoxically, over the past week Barack Obama's greatest asset is the very thing once assumed to be his greatest vulnerability. His name. It may rhyme with Osama. But it is not Clinton. True, the Clinton name carries a lot of weight. But it carries a lot of baggage. Bill's outbursts in South Carolina gave many who were ambivalent - including me - a preview of the sense of entitlement that comes with an extension of the Clinton dynasty. Increasingly those who say Obama represents change are not referring primarily to his race, age or upbringing, but a rupture in a three-decade cycle of political leadership.
The fact that he has had the Kennedy clan making this case for him suggests that America's predilection for democratic royalty has not been checked, just rerouted. Indeed, the endorsement of Obama by Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter on Saturday only deepened the impression that the old houses are approving the coronation of an outsider while leaving the monarchic tendencies intact. With little substantive to separate them, the race between Obama and Clinton is essentially symbolic. But his election would have greater symbolic resonance for progressives.
Tomorrow, all over the country, "the schmucks" go to the polls. And they won't have to walk on water to get there.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 200