The family that runs together ...

Toxic Politics Leave Only Dynasties Standing

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
Read More.
a | A

Families are what's left when normal people don’t want to be politicians anymore. Few among us want to put their dignity in a blind trust, give themselves up to unceasing fundraising, put a career on hold, say goodbye to kids and make (mostly negative) ads, and for what?

So much has been spent on the midterms -- $4 billion and counting -- and there's so little to show for it. No Soaring Dream; not a whisper of a New Deal or a Bargain, grand or small. What’s out there is negative: end Obamacare; stop an increase in the minimum wage, any new taxes or gay marriage. The only thing you can favor more of is guns -- in your holster or slung over your shoulder, in bars, airports, public parks, churches and your local Starbucks.

Our politics have become so toxic that even those with a dynastic tradition of public service -- and have the thick skin that goes with it -- are now suspect.

Take the Colorado Senate race: The Republican challenger, Representative Cory Gardner, spent lots of money on ads slamming Democratic Senator Mark Udall for being not just an incumbent but also a member of the Udall family.

In the old days, the senator's father, Representative Mo Udall of Arizona, reached across the aisle to Senator John McCain to do important work on protecting American Indians and conserving Western land and water. McCain visited Udall every week for years as he lay dying from Parkinson's disease. That loyalty still counts for something: McCain has traveled to every other close race in the country this year to help Republicans, and he won’t step into Colorado.

Apparently some of those who grew up watching their parents serve still seem to perceive some good amid the muck and remain willing to wade in. The names on the ballot this year include Pryor, Landrieu, Carter, Nunn, Laxalt, Graham, Perdue, two Udalls (Mark's brother Tom is running for re-election to the Senate in New Mexico) and, as always, a Kennedy (Teddy, who is seeking a state Senate seat in Connecticut). The Democratic spawn may be all that's standing in the way of Republican control of the Senate.

In Georgia, the Democratic Senate candidate, Michelle Nunn, has a good chance of turning the state blue. Her father, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, was a centrist from a bygone era of collaboration. He sought out allies such as Republican Richard Lugar to get critical bills passed, including a seminal measure to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union.

Michelle Nunn is a collaborator herself, having served as chief executive of Points of Light, the foundation inspired by President George H.W. Bush. Nunn's Republican opponent, David Perdue (himself the cousin of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue), is losing ground because of a previous career spent outsourcing jobs. In a state with one of the worst economies in the country, he has resorted to tarring Nunn with being a daughter-of, using a leaked internal strategy memo in which consultants called her father a “treasure trove.” In regular times, he would be. The race is close and likely to go to a runoff.

It’s not as if Nunn or the rest couldn't more profitably pursue different careers -- being from a political family still gives a leg up in life. For many, it’s not enough to do well; they want to do good.

In Arkansas, former Governor and Senator David Pryor is one of the state’s most beloved officials. He appeared in an ad with his son, Mark Pryor, who is seeking re-election to the Senate and is running behind Republican Representative Tom Cotton. The emotion is visible in a spot in which the two sit at the kitchen counter and discuss health care. The elder Pryor leans in to the camera as he tells of his son’s fight for his life after a cancer diagnosis and his subsequent fight to get insurance to cover it. You can see that the acorn fell close to the tree.

Despite attempts to discredit political families in congressional and other down-ballot races this year, the days of dynasties are far from over. Watch as the presidential race begins in earnest Wednesday morning, and we may be looking at another face-off between a Clinton and a Bush.

Last week, George P. Bush -- great-grandson of Senator Prescott Bush, the grandson of President George H.W. Bush and nephew of President George W. Bush -- said that his father, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, was more than likely to run, too. Former First Lady Barbara Bush was famously against Jeb being president (there are other families to do it, she huffed). But now, like the rest of the clan now, including Columba, Jeb’s wife, she's all for it.

We may groan at the thought of another Bush or Clinton (or Mitt Romney, the son of a governor and presidential candidate) in the White House.

We shouldn't complain. This wouldn't be happening if our politics were healthier or the establishment wasn’t so fearful of renegade candidates: for Democrats, the anti-Wall Street Senator Elizabeth Warren; for Republicans, any member of this year's bumper crop of lone rangers. Senator Ted Cruz would split the Republican Party, as would the crypto-libertarian Senator Rand Paul, who would do better than his father but not well enough. Representative Paul Ryan has faded. Senator Marco Rubio is flummoxed by immigration. Governor Chris Christie is the establishment, all right, but damaged, a bully ever on the prowl for hapless citizens to humiliate.

With Hillary Clintonand Jeb Bush, at least there is a history of service. They are known quantities, able to unite their parties. They know how things are done because they saw governing firsthand. We may be tired of dynasties, but when everybody else is either tired of politics or tired of governing, there may be no one else to call.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

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