Dingell Deserves Gratitude, Not a Dynasty

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Representative John Dingell of Michigan, the dean of the House, announced today that he will not seek re-election. He'll fall just short of 60 years in the House, a record.

Philip Klein uses the occasion to argue against dynastic politics -- Dingell took his father's seat, and rumor has it that his wife could run to succeed him -- and long careers. I'm on board for the former, but strongly disagree on the latter.

The good news about dynastic politics is that the practice appears to be decreasing over time, despite the current Republican string of nominating dynastic candidates for president (depending on whether one wants to count John McCain , the only non-dynastic nominee the party has had since 1984 was Bob Dole in 1996, and Dole's wife wound up serving in the cabinet and the Senate). But yes, I think a polity set up so that families perpetuate themselves in political office is less of a democracy than one in which dynastic politics is rare.

A word of caution: We tend to be far more aware of dynastic candidates than of typical candidacies. Klein notes that a (Hillary) Clinton /(Jeb) Bush presidential election in 2016 is possible, and it certainly is, and there's also a Cuomo and a Paul on the list of early candidates, but there are also plenty of non-legacy candidates.

However, long careers of public service, including in elective office, are certainly something to celebrate. Especially, as was the case with Dingell, active, productive, consequential careers. It's true that there are no shortage of mere time-servers in the House, but no one (political ally or opponent) thinks Dingell was one of them.

Klein writes that Dingell's longevity was "due to the way congressional districts are drawn up and because incumbents have such a huge money and influence advantage that it creates a barrier to entry for any potential challengers." Actually, the biggest reason incumbents are re-elected is because they work hard to represent their constituents. It's a mistake to imagine that elections should be 50/50 propositions; instead, it's perfectly natural that a winning candidate would continue winning, given that the same voters are making more-or-less the same choice over and over again, and assuming that politicians who win are pretty good politicians and work hard at their jobs.

That Dingell happens to have the record for longevity is basically luck and circumstance, and I certainly wouldn't want to see a House in which everyone sticks around for 25 terms and more. Robert Byrd wasn't a greater senator than Bob Dole or Ted Kennedy or Pete Domenici or Ed Muskie, even though he outlasted them in office. But Dingell has had a highly productive career. That has to do with the fact that he dedicated basically his entire working life to it. That's public service to the nation, and it absolutely is worth celebrating.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. Heis co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net