Maybe as the midterm elections grow closer this fall, we'll see the signs of another electoral wave. Such waves, which sweep one party into power while washing the other one out to sea, have become almost routine over the past decade, and the swamis who obsess over such things have long predicted that another one would deliver the Senate solidly into Republican hands this November.
And yet, to this point anyway, the anti-Obama wave looks more like a gently rolling surf. In states where the president's standing has plummeted, a bunch of Democratic senators have managed to at least stay close into this pivotal phase of the campaign, raising hopes among party leaders that somehow they may yet be able to ride this one out.
The question is what's keeping these Democrats afloat. And a big part of the answer is that in a lot of states, as in presidential politics these days, it turns out there's still plenty of power in a family name.
Family politics is nothing new in America, of course; virtually every state has its version of royal bloodlines, from the Cuomos of New York to the Browns of California. But the sheer predominance of family connections among this year's candidates, and especially among Democrats vying to keep or gain Senate seats, makes the British House of Lords look like a model meritocracy.
The senior senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, is the daughter of a former New Orleans mayor and the sister of the current one. Arkansas' Mark Pryor is the son of the state's towering former senator David Pryor. In bright red Alaska, Mark Begich, the son of an ascendant congressman who died tragically in an infamous plane crash, is fighting fiercely for a second term. And then you have Colorado, which could well end up being the decisive state for control of the Senate, and where the Democrat up for re-election is Mark Udall, son of an iconic Western congressman and nephew of another.
Those are just the incumbents. In Georgia, where Saxby Chambliss is retiring, Democrats have at least made a race of it with Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. (She's running against David Perdue, cousin of the state's former governor Sonny Perdue; meanwhile, Jason Carter, Jimmy's grandson, is the Democratic nominee for governor.) In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is holding on to a solid but unimpressive lead over Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose father, a former state party chairman, has long been a major force in Kentucky politics.
This phenomenon isn't limited to off-year races, of course. It's also reflected in the conversation around 2016. If the establishments of both parties had their way, we'd be looking at another Bush-Clinton matchup in 2016, this time between Hillary and Jeb. And now there's speculation that if Jeb or some other compelling Republican doesn't run, it could open the door for another campaign by Mitt Romney, yet another son of a famous politician. (Though if we're going to be real about it, I'd say Romney has about as much chance of winning the Republican nomination again as I do of running NASA. And I failed physics.)
It's easy enough to discern why party leaders gravitate toward legacy candidates, even leaving aside the fact that they bring with them built-in fundraising networks and name recognition. The fact is that over the past 20 years or so, the brands of both parties, as ad guys like to put it, have been devalued as Americans have increasingly come to distrust the governing establishment in Washington and big institutions generally. But candidates with names like Clinton and Bush – or, in certain parts of the country, Landrieu and Nunn – come with much sturdier and more personal brands. They're seen more as bending the party to their wills than the other way around.
What's harder to figure out is why voters persist in seeing them this way. What makes us think the son or spouse of a famous politician is so much more thoughtful or independent than the congressman we'd like to beat over the head with a yard sign? Why are we so much more apt to give them the benefit of the doubt?
No doubt part of the answer has to do with the transformative power of celebrity in the modern culture – this strange notion we have that fame itself makes you better qualified to do whatever you might feel like doing, whether it's writing children's books or starring in a reality show. There's also the genuine, residual affection that people have for some bygone politicians who earned their trust with hard work and humility, and who they hope have somehow passed those qualities down to their children. (Once, many years ago, David Pryor insisted on giving me the tie off his neck, simply because I'd complimented it. No wonder his name still means something in Arkansas.)
And probably we hope that in an era when no one seems able to accomplish much of anything, the sons and daughters of politicians just know how to play the game better. Just as the coach's kid is always the one who intuitively knows how to turn the double play, or the plumber's kid can unclog a drain in his sleep, maybe we assume that if you've been around politics for most of your life, you know a thing or two about working the machinery. Maybe we think you can restore some semblance of order on a governing process that now seems as aimless as an asteroid.
The reality, though, is that, as often as not, famous names disappoint us. It turns out that being George H.W. Bush's son doesn't actually make you deft in world affairs. That being Al Gore Sr.'s kid or Bill Clinton's wife doesn't make you a great or folksy campaigner by osmosis. A lot of legacy candidates have real attributes and experience that can't be discounted, but in some ways the notoriety can actually hold them back; the easier it is for them to trade on a family brand, the less they actually need to spend time developing the worldviews and skill sets they require to live up to expectations.
Which is why, if I were betting today, I'd probably agree with most analysts that Democratic Senate candidates are at their apex right now, and that the party's hopes of holding the Senate are likely to fade in the weeks ahead. Legacies may be counteracting some partisan leanings at the moment, but all signs point to another powerful anti-incumbent current, if not exactly a wave. And whatever else a family brand might be, it's rarely unsinkable.