- - Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Leadership should be rooted in merit, not name

In countries such as North Korea and Syria, families take control of the reins of power and pass them from one generation to the next. The consequences are obvious, and their systems are exceptions to the natural laws embraced by free people everywhere.

Our government is a republican system, where voters in a democratic process choose the most qualified among us to confront a dangerous world and preserve the values and liberties we cherish. For that reason, the prospect of choosing yet another Clinton or another Bush to lead us makes one wonder whether there is something terribly wrong here. It is certainly not what the Founders of our great experiment had in mind.

Among the principles dear to the Founders of our republic in the late 18th century was their desire to avoid the creation of an oligarchy and its abuses, like the tyranny of King George III. Even the natural reverence accorded our first president, George Washington, by the general public generated criticism that he might assume the trappings of a monarch. England and the rest of pre-revolutionary Europe were regarded as being ruled by arrogant, incompetent aristocracies, whose principal qualification was their lineage. America’s new constitutional charter, while not purely democratic, certainly was intended to be meritocratic in both substance and appearance.

Times have changed. The first-born son of former President George H.W. Bush was chosen with the support of his father’s friends. What followed was that the nation was committed — rightly or wrongly — in pursuit of a foreign adventure that was the direct successor to his father’s. The second George even sought and relied upon the advice of the advisers of the first George. At the end of his second term, the second George suggested publicly that his brother should succeed him as president. Good thing his name isn’t George the Third.

On the other side of the partisan divide, the leading candidate to replace the second George as president in 2008 was none other than the spouse of President Clinton, who ran against and defeated the first George. That did not happen when Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama. Nonetheless, there always seems to be second chances when it comes to the entitlements of the elite, and the return of the Clintons, like the return of the Bushes, remains a possibility. A thirty-something future candidate, Chelsea Clinton, makes news by expounding on the “ethos” and “competencies” of elected officials. Once upon a time, it actually was understood that the ethos and competencies of the electorate determined the behavior of politicians in our system, not the other way around.

In 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified to prevent a president — no matter how successful or well qualified — from serving more than two terms. Family succession, whether father to son, brother to brother, or even husband to wife, compromises both the spirit and the intent of that amendment. It makes little sense to prevent a president from serving more than two terms if immediate family members can serve two, of even four, additional terms. Presidential dynasties, whatever form they may take, all pose the same threat to our political system, the values on which it stands, and its place in the world.

The people of the rest of the world might well be forgiven if they do not think dynasties to be reflective of a healthy democratic system. The greatest power of the United States, as President Reagan understood, was the example it sets and the principles it stands for. Those are tarnished by a game of musical chairs played by a political aristocracy, no matter how competent they may think themselves to be.

Few Americans understand how poorly citizens of other countries understand our unique experiment in self-governance. A political process that is dominated by family succession is unlikely to be regarded abroad as fundamentally different, at least in result, from that of governments in their own regions that are democratic in name only. There should be no question, or even the appearance of a question, that this nation’s policies — both domestic and foreign — are governed by the principles that bind us as a nation, and not by personal agendas or family legacies. Safeguarding the reputation of our form of government may be the single most important measure available to our nation to ensure its security in this new and already difficult century.

The country needs a fresh start, with fresh candidates that are recognized and elected solely on the basis of merit, and not on the basis of lineage or relations. One can only hope that the families already blessed with such national recognition agree.

Warren L. Dean Jr. is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.

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