Voters Seek Familiar Names for Uncertain Times

Friday, 30 May 2014 10:32 AM

By Susan Estrich

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You've got a Nunn running in Georgia, a Pryor in Arkansas, and a Landrieu in Louisiana.
 
And waiting in the wings for the big show, of course, you have a Clinton and a Bush.
 
Does politics run in the blood, or is it just that connections — especially to money and influence — are the lifeblood of politics?
 
Surely there's some of both. You grow up in a certain world, and it's familiar. Doctors' kids (used to) become doctors, and lawyers' kids lawyers, so why not politics? Plus, in a contest where name recognition is always the first hurdle, having a name people know is a major advantage.
 
Every year there are stories of dead candidates winning elections and unqualified (and unrelated) famous-named nobodies ("John Kennedy") winning races. We voters may not always know who we're voting for, but we can be pretty transparent about what we're looking for.
 
And sometimes what we're looking for is a safe choice.
 
Why is Jeb Bush a leading candidate for the Republican nomination? Is it because his tenure as governor of Florida is somehow viewed as the golden age in that state?
 
Let me suggest an answer. The answer is no. The reason Bush is a leading candidate for president is because his last name is Bush, and that's a name you know. It may not be a name you like, but somebody named Bush or Clinton starts out with a presumption that they know something about the business of politics, in the way that a Nunn or a Pryor or a Landrieu does.
 
Of course that's not fair (particularly if you have a name no one knows). It's also not insurmountable. Indeed, it is easier than ever before to become "famous" if only for 15 minutes. If you aren't already famous and don't know how to get there yourself, the world is now home to endless numbers of consultants who will help you build your brand, buy you followers and friends, and make it "look" like you're somebody — somebody you're not.
 
That's the irony. If identity is a commodity to be created and shifted, who can you trust?
 
Familiar names. Familiar brands. Familiar families.
 
The more so-called "famous" people out there the greater the value of true fame.
 
I was joking with a friend who supported Barack Obama (I supported Hillary) in 2008 that we got it backward: Hillary should have been president for the past six years, and Obama should be running now, and we could all get excited about the passing of the mantle to a new generation — as opposed to passing the mantle back to the last generation.
 
Whether Jeb Bush is a "better" choice for Republicans than Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or Chris Christie depends on what you're looking for. He's not more interesting, more stimulating, more charismatic, more engaging. None of the above. If he's "better," it is because he is, plain and simple, safer. And he's safer — or at least appears to be — because people named Bush have run this country twice before and we're still here, and because if there were something truly terrible to be known about a Bush, you figure we'd know it by now.
 
Judged by those standards, Jeb Bush is safe, and so is Hillary Clinton. She's even safer, because most people have fonder memories of the Clinton years than they do of the administration of the second George Bush, and because you'd be hard-pressed to find anything about Hillary that hasn't been dug up and held under a microscope a hundred times.
 
So maybe this is a year for name brands. Maybe a Clinton-Bush contest would suit a country seeking safety in an insecure world. But as any Jewish mother will tell you, it's just when you think you're safe that the Earth starts rattling.
 
Kinehora: It's Yiddish and means to keep the evil eye away. I'm not sure it works that way in politics.
 
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.
 
 

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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