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Does America Want a Clinton Monarchy?

By Steven Stark

There's a strange debate dominating the Democratic campaign so far. Hillary Clinton's calling card seems to be the experience that she possesses and that Barack Obama lacks. " 'Change' is just a word if you don't have the strength and experience to make it happen," she told an audience this past week, before promptly making the line the centerpiece of a new ad in New Hampshire and Iowa. "Hillary is the best-prepared to be president of any non-incumbent I have ever had a chance to vote for," the clearly biased Bill Clinton has said repeatedly on the trail this summer.

The contrast with the "inexperienced" Obama is meant to be obvious. But is it true? Mrs. Clinton has only been in the Senate for one term, not much more than Obama has. And Obama served in the state legislature before that, which Hillary never did. The only experience she has that Obama lacks is that she married a guy who was elected president and, as a result, got to live and work in the White House.

And that's the difficulty.

The idea that spouses gain qualifications through their partners' jobs is a radically new idea in this country. And no one seems to be debating it -- at least not publicly. It's not really about Hillary per se. We don't name CEO spouses the next head of the company when their partner steps down, any more than we let the wives or husbands of doctors perform brain surgery because they happen to be married to someone who does.

Yet that's the Clinton argument: Bill's record is Hillary's record. In the press, it's being couched as a form of feminism meets 21st century new-age thinking: if husbands and wives are becoming their spouses' closest political advisers, why not make the unofficial official and let the spouses run on their own? That's why, in part, reporters have spent a good portion of this campaign analyzing the wives of all the contenders, on the theory that what we're now electing is a co-presidency.

There's only one problem: there's a word for a spousal co-presidency in the English language, or at least a system where one can ascend to higher office on the basis of marriage:

It's called a "monarchy."

So far, the press certainly has bought it. Part of that undoubtedly is because "the royals" sell magazines, whether they're from the House of Windsor or the House of Clinton. And government by elite, which sees its ultimate expression in royalty, has rarely been a problem for a press corps increasingly dominated by Washington journalistic elite that sees itself in the Clintons and their retinue. (Many of their children, for example, go to the same kind of ultra-select DC secondary schools as Chelsea Clinton did -- Sidwell Friends -- which recently featured an article in its alumni magazine bragging that, of Hillary's 11 top female staffers, five were current or former Sidwell parents.)

The larger question, of course, is whether the voters will buy it, too. The guess here is that, ultimately, they won't. Royalism has never had that many fans on this side of the Atlantic. To the extent we've tried a similar idea recently -- with the current president, a/k/a "Junior" -- things haven't exactly worked out in spectacular fashion.

Moreover, as we all know, if your spouse is your principal advisor, you can't fire that advisor. (Well, okay, if you're Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson, maybe you can.) With Hillary we get Bill, and, sooner or later, someone is going to start snapping voters out of their nostalgic reverie with constant reminders of all the scandals, all the women, and all the diversions that robbed Bill Clinton's presidency of its energy.

Democrats should hope that this process occurs sooner rather than later. If general-election voters residing in a republic are given the choice between a Queen and a Republican -- really any Republican -- it's pretty easy to guess which one they will pick.

Boston Phoenix


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