No, O'Malley, the Clintons Are Not a Dynasty -- and It's Sexist To Keep Saying So
In his presidential announcement Saturday, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley raised many reasonable objections to Hillary Clinton's candidacy, targeting her institutional status and cozy relationship with Wall Street. But one popular objection he raised, that Clinton is somehow comparable to Jeb Bush in that she represents a rising American aristocracy isn't just false - it's manifestly sexist. It's a common refrain but one that, when carefully considered, is fraught with messy gender politics and wholly unfair demagoguery.
The Washington Post would sum up the former governor's sentiment:
In Baltimore, O’Malley called for boosting the minimum a wage, comprehensive immigration reform, combating climate change and breaking up big banks, noting that the chief executive of Goldman Sachs recently “let his employees know that he’d be fine with either Bush or Clinton” in the White House.
“I bet he would,” O’Malley said, drawing some laughter. “Well, I’ve got news for the bullies of Wall Street. The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth between two royal families.”
Say what one will about the Clintons friendliness with Goldman Sachs but royalty Hillary Clinton is not. George and Jeb, in the words of the venerable Jim Hightower, were “born on third base and thought they hit a triple”. Their father was a long-serving Congressman, head of the CIA, a two-term Vice President and eventual President. Their grandfather, a wealthy Wall Street banker and longtime Republican insider. Both Bill and Hillary - setting aside the inherent privileges of being white - were born on home plate and have always claimed as much. They met as law students at Yale and have been side-by-side ever since. Bill was born into poverty in Arkansas, Hillary a middle-class family in suburban Illinois. Sure they influence peddled, jettisoned liberal principles, and sold out their base to get where they were - and these are all entirely fair criticisms - but to say Hillary is where she is because someone “passed the crown” to her is a deliberate misunderstanding of what makes aristocratic rule so troubling -- and a tacitly sexist notion.
They’ve always presented themselves as political equals and there’s historically no reason to assume otherwise. Indeed, before she decided to marry Bill, she was an up-and-coming lawyer and political operative in her own right. To act as if her political gains were somehow a product of nepotism is to both misunderstand their relationship, and to discount the torrent of sexism that compelled Hillary to step aside and put her husband’s ambition ahead of hers. Of course, in the 80s, it was more logical for the Clinton brand to put Bill first - he’s both a more natural politician and a far easier sell to a country that, at the time, was broadly uneasy with female leadership. That they did so isn’t ipso facto evidence that Bill could have achieved what he did without Hillary - the logical assumption one must indulge to consider Hillary’s subsequent rise “aristocratic” in nature. And herein lies the contradiction at the heart of this criticism: one cannot at once accuse Hillary of being ambitious then turn around and say she’s comparable to a George W. Bush. If one believes she’s been angling for the White house since the beginning - as she no doubt was - they cannot then turn around and say she owes her success to the very Clinton name she helped build. If we indeed end up having two Clinton presidencies in 20 years it will be the product of political partnership, not political dynasty.
This critique can and should be leveled against, say, Chelsea Clinton, who soaked up a manifestly undeserved cushy job at NBC making $600,000 a year to write thinly-veiled commercials for her rich friends. This type of nepotism - along with Luke Russert, Meghan McCain, and a whole host of royal hanger-ons is a real threat to democracy. But again, this ethos, by all accounts, is not what has animated Hillary’s rise to prominence. Her and her husband’s hard work, cunning, and raw ambition did.
The irony is that as a D.C. child growing up the son of an assistant district attorney, Martin O’Malley inherited far more political connections and privilege than Clinton, the daughter of an otherwise obscure textile business owner in suburban Illinois. In this sense, it’s a rather cheesy and superficial populist talking point. We have a problem with two Clinton presidencies so close together because it feels like aristocracy. But just because it feels like aristocracy doesn’t make it so. Indeed, from their embrace of SuperPACs to their speaking fee racket to a love affair with Wall Street, there are several things anti-democratic about the Clintons. The "passing of a crown" canard, however, just isn’t one of them.