Hillary Clinton made an interesting statement in the debate last night. She was asked how, as a member of one of the two families who have led the country the last 20 years, she could call herself an "agent of change".
[Side note for word watchers: "agent of change" brings up 25,000 google hits with "Clinton" and "Obama" together; 17,000 with "Clinton" alone; and only 9,000 with "Obama" alone. On the other hand, it brings up 22,000 with "Bush" and without the other two, a warning not to read google's tea leaves too quickly.]
I've been thinking a bit about the dynastic objections that are often raised around Clinton's candidacy. They come wrapped in some interesting packaging.
One wrapper, as noted above, is the idea that Clinton is a Washington insider and cannot embody the change that Americans deeply desire. This objection makes very little sense, because the change we're seeking is change from eight years of tax-cut-and-spend deficits, treating the military as a doormat, and a failure to use public money for the public good. The fact that she's part of a family who has a record of fixing exactly those problems is not really a drawback.
Another wrapper, most vocally espoused by Chris Matthews, is that she didn't make it here on her own. This attack is sometimes bundled with a critique of her experience, such as Blitzer made last night when he asked why she considers herself more experienced than Obama considering she has been a senator for about the same period and was not in an elected position as First Lady. This critique is also garbage, because obviously nobody makes it on their own -- we have all enjoyed the help of family, mentors, and colleagues to get where we are. Even Bush, as much as it pains me to say it, did not get to be president by being born into it. If that were the case, then surely first in line to the throne would not have been the children of a one-term wonder like Bush Sr (and even among his spawn Junior is not the sharpest tack). If nepotism were that powerful, the Clinton currently in office would as likely be Roger as Hillary. Surely, all these people have had advantages (though 90% of opportunity is recognizing it when it arrives) -- but even the most-privileged 1% of the country are still 3 million strong. And there are only two people left in the race.
But this attack comes closest to the real reason I think people are rubbed the wrong way by American political dynasty. It hews close to what it means to be an American -- the rejection of royalty or aristocracy or any privilege by birthright, of being born into one's class. That is the root of the great national fairy tale called the American Dream, that anyone can grow up to be president. And its fairy-tale nature is struck at quite directly by the cold reality that someone who's a Bush or a Clinton has got better odds at the big time than someone who's just a Schmoe, or a Suarez, or a Saad.
Obama obviously embodies the American Dream in a fairly straightforward way (as does Edwards, who reminded audiences he was the son of a millworker so often as to diminish its power). He plays on it often and successfully when he refers to the younger version of himself as just "a skinny kid with a funny name." Clinton embodies it no less. Her father was a conservative Republican curtain-maker. Born a Rodham, and having become a Clinton before Clintons were cool, her story is no less an affirmation of the national fairy tale than her husband's was, or Obama's is. (In fact, with so many fairy princes and princesses on the stage, one has to wonder if I'm right to disparage it as a fairy tale!) Yet she is cast effectively as an heir to power, not as someone who pulled herself up by the bootstraps.
Is this a sexism thing? Is it just a Hillary thing? Certainly we hear much more about her husband, about his parents, and about Obama's parents, (and about Edwards's parents) than we have heard about Hillary's. Could she have pre-empted some of the dynastic criticisms by talking more often about her childhood? Or would this have been seen as simply exploitative, a hollow cry of "I'm just one of you" from someone who has been elevated well above most of us for the last two decades, and who we've grown accustomed to seeing as American royalty and not as the daughter of a Chicago curtain-maker?