WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a political landscape populated by Bushes, Kennedys and Clintons, the children and kinfolk of longtime U.S. politicians do indeed have a better shot at winning elective office, but not necessarily at holding on or moving up, experts say.
A study last year on political dynasties in the U.S. Congress found that politicians who held office for more than one term were 40 percent more likely to have a relative in Congress in the future than other members.
“Being in power for longer has a causal impact on the chances that someone from the family would access a position of political authority,” said Ernesto Dal Bo, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the authors of the study.
The reason were not determined. It could be that children of political parents gained name recognition, learned valuable skills or got access to political machinery, Dal Bo said.
Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor who wrote a book on U.S. political dynasties, said there was no question the children of lawmakers gained an early education in public discourse.
“That’s what you’re brought up with,” Hess said. “That’s part of your legacy, your heritage ... that’s the conversation around the dinner table.”
Dynastic politics has a rich heritage in the United States.
John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, both served as president. So did William Henry Harrison and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, as well as George H.W. Bush and his son, the current president, George W. Bush.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey belongs to one of the oldest political dynasties in Congress. His great-great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Frelinghuysen, was a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779 and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1793 to 1796.
“One or both of your parents is very involved in the political system so you often would be a tag-along,” Frelinghuysen told the Washington Post in a 2005 interview. “You sort of get it in your blood.”
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro, who served as mayor of Baltimore and later as a congressman. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Edward Kennedy both belong to large political clans, and former Vice President Al Gore, who lost the presidential race to Bush in 2000, is the son of a U.S. senator.
Among the current crop of candidates seeking the presidency in 2008, Mitt Romney is the son of a Michigan governor and Cabinet secretary who lost a bid for the presidency. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the wife of a former president, Bill Clinton.
The prominence of many dynastic politicians may make it seem like American politics is largely a family affair. But Dal Bo and his colleagues found that, since the mid-1960s, only about 6 percent of lawmakers in Congress have been related to other members — about half the level of the early 1800s.
The study found such links tended to be stronger in the House than in the Senate, and more prevalent in the South than other regions. Dynastic politics also appeared to thrive in places and times with less political competition.
But while being heir to a dynasty may give a candidate an edge when seeking election, it did not appear to guarantee continued success. Dal Bo said dynastic politicians in general did not serve in office any longer than other lawmakers.
That is a trend Hess noted in his 1966 work. Two of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons, for example, were elected to the House of Representatives but were later defeated when they tried for higher office.
“A political name was worth one step up on the ladder,” Hess said. “Your father got you started, if you will, but then ... you were on your own.”
The study drew no conclusion on whether dynasties are good or bad for U.S. governance. Some people view them as a sign the United States is not a meritocracy, Dal Bo said, but others think the influence passed from generation to generation can be put to the public good.
Hess concluded that “by and large, Americans got good government from these people.”
“The nation didn’t do badly by continuing to freely choose them,” he said.