Nothing generates more broad-based critical ire in the film industry than a major launch of a film with a number at the end of it. Francis Ford Coppola may have won a Best Picture Oscar for The Godfather: Part II in 1975, but ever since, films like Rocky V and Smokey and the Bandit 3 better represent the quality level of most film franchises. Sequels and reboots have produced more diatribes about the dearth of imagination in Hollywood than awards, while the endless regurgitation of the same old story lines attracts more attention and investment than original thinking and innovation.
The same might be said about American politics, especially when it comes to speculation about the 2016 presidential race. Instead of innovative thinking and fresh perspectives, the media and the electorate seem fixated on sequels and franchises – although we would do better to call them dynasties in politics.
America, for all of its disdain for nobility, has long been enamored of dynasties. We had John Quincy Adams follow his father John into the White House, with both being the only one-term Presidents from the first six elected. Benjamin Harrison eventually became a White House successor to his grandfather William, albeit forty-eight years apart.
The Roosevelt clan produced two Presidents as well, as did the Bushes (whose patriarch was Senator Prescott Bush), and the Kennedys would have almost certainly had at least two brothers in the White House had Bobby Kennedy not been tragically cut down in 1968 – and perhaps three if Ted Kennedy had avoided Chappaquiddick.
In 2016, we may have the prospect of two dynasties – one established, the other provisional – competing for the top job. Most expect Hillary Clinton to run for the Democratic presidential nomination again, eight years after losing what appeared to be a slam-dunk bid to Barack Obama, a freshman Senate backbencher at the time. For the GOP, the name Jeb Bush keeps cropping up as a potential opponent to Clinton.
The Associated Press reported on Bush’s increasing public profile earlier this week, calling his potential candidacy “one of the most significant factors looming over the 2016 Republican presidential contest.” Reuters reports the inner circle to the former Florida governor finds themselves “at the beginning of a very serious conversation."
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin noted the objections to another iteration of the Bush dynasty, but also argued that a weak field leaves him a good opening, especially after the return of Russian expansionism. “As foreign events take center stage, the prospect of either an isolationist candidate, an inexperienced one or a blowhard becomes more problematic,” Rubin wrote after dismissing the potential for Gov. Chris Christie and Senator Marco Rubio. “Jeb Bush may have the shortest and smoothest learning curve on national security of any of the candidates.”
Perhaps, but that says more about us than it does about the candidates. Dynasties appeal for the same reason Hollywood makes almost endless sequels about familiar storylines and characters. It’s about marketing. It takes less effort to push a known brand than it does to market a new product. People will buy tickets even if they know the film’s quality will almost always decline. Even though one can expect a lower return on the investment, studios and distributors know that a franchise has a built-in appeal to a large enough segment from which to squeeze a little more profit.
That resignation to mediocrity is apropos in this context, too, as the foreign policy arguments for Bush and for Clinton demonstrate. Democrats won the 2006 and 2008 election cycles largely because of anger over the George W. Bush foreign policy, as well as Katrina and the economic collapse just before the election.
Bush fatigue nearly killed the GOP, in part because its 2008 nominee John McCain essentially pledged to stay the course. Besides, while Jeb comes from a family with a long (and unpopular) track record on foreign policy, the governor himself has no particular experience in that field, which makes the foreign-policy argument even less sensible for a Bush run.
It doesn’t make much sense for Hillary either. In the 2008 campaign, she tried to use her time at the White House to claim experience in foreign policy and diplomacy and accused Obama of being unready to answer the proverbial 3 AM phone call. Instead of winning the nomination, she ended up as Secretary of State.
Her tenure began with the embarrassingly naïve “reset button” for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, included a disastrous and arguably illegal military campaign against Moammar Qaddafi that left Libya a failed state in which terrorists operate openly, and culminated in the Benghazi attack where no one was ready to answer that “3 AM phone call.” Yet, her time at the State Department and eight unremarkable years in the US Senate are the only items on her resumé for the 2016 nomination – other than her name and her husband’s presidential record.
Republicans ought not to fight dynastic fire with fire. First, the field is very uneven; while those American voters who remember Bill Clinton’s personal peccadilloes might be wary of his return to the White House as First Gentleman, the memory of the Clinton economy and relative (and short-lived) peace caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union will offer them an opportunity for gauzy nostalgia. Voters thinking about the Bush era are more likely to think of economic collapses and unpopular nation-building, the consequences of both still get blamed on George Bush as much as Barack Obama to this day.
More to the point, though, we should use these election cycles to look for fresh voices and fresh approaches, not demand reruns of old dynastic franchises. Republicans have a better opportunity to offer that kind of nominee, thanks to the lack of any dominant figure in their party at the moment.
Governors like Susana Martinez in New Mexico could bring a fresh look to conservative principles or Mike Pence in Indiana who can claim both executive and Congressional success. Scott Walker has fought and won critical reform battles that allow taxpayers to control government costs. Walker just won a big battle in Wisconsin to return those savings to citizens through a tax cut that ended up drawing bipartisan support.
Republicans, at least, have better options than just sticking a number after an old, well-known brand name. Instead of looking backward, as Democrats seem intent on doing, the GOP can offer a fresh perspective and solutions for the future. That may mean that the branding will take more work, but if they focus on the product, the GOP might end up with a bona-fide original that can capture the imagination of voters rather than a retread that only energizes the true believers. Consider that the recipe for a real Republican reboot.
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