By all accounts the 2016 presidential election is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s to lose.
It should be. After all, it is arguable whether there has ever been a more qualified candidate in terms of experience, since she has served in the Senate, the Cabinet and the White House – for two terms, no less – albeit in a slightly different capacity than commander in chief. (Disclosure: I once interned for Clinton’s Senate campaign.) While conservatives try desperately to stop her seemingly unstoppable momentum by making Benghazi, Libya, a permanent, tragic albatross around her neck, there is one more obstacle to her White House hopes emerging: her daughter.
Chelsea Clinton appears to have inherited the brains of both of her parents. But she inherited from them something even more valuable: her last name. Increasingly, she appears to be using it to open lucrative doors that would be unlikely to open were she not the daughter of a past president and a possible future one.
As reported by various outlets, the younger Clinton recently became co-chair of an institute at New York University, where she has already been serving as a vice provost. She also has a lucrative role on the board of directors for IAC/InterActiveCorp, along with being a special correspondent for NBC News – all of this by the ripe young age of 33. There has been extensive media coverage of Chelsea Clinton’s high-profile gigs, including tough criticism of her debut as a journalist, as well as her reported multimillion-dollar real estate purchases.
So why does Chelsea Clinton’s increasingly heightened public profile matter to her mother’s rumored campaign? More specifically, why could it prove damaging? Well, it’s hard to make a campaign issue out of class inequality or America being rigged to benefit the wealthy when your family is now benefiting so audaciously from said rigging and, worse, seems oblivious to how crass it looks.
While Democrats have spent much of the last three presidential election cycles ridiculing the Republican nominees as poster children for nepotism, it’s looking likely that the next Democratic nominee’s family will officially be able to give the Romneys and Bushes a run for their money. Despite Hillary Clinton’s qualifications, the image that she and her family present is increasingly a troubling one for anyone who believes that America truly is about equal opportunity for all. Though no one would question that Hillary Clinton’s and her husband’s early successes are the product of hard work, today it is impossible to look at their family and not see first and foremost a former president opening White House doors for his wife, and both of them opening doors to power for their daughter.
Listening to Hillary Clinton discuss the class divide, the struggles of millennials saddled by student-loan debt or the unemployment rates of young black Americans will barely pass the laugh test on a campaign trail when it is clear that she and the former president are operating from the George H.W. Bush school of parenting. The Clintons may not have helped their daughter buy a baseball team, but someone bought her a $10 million apartment, and someone’s connections have gotten her jobs that don’t seem to fall within her expertise or qualifications.
Does all of this make Hillary Clinton unfit for the presidency? No. But it may make it tough for her to pass herself off as a relatable progressive candidate if she runs, or for her to paint her Republican opponent as out of touch, as the Obama campaign did so effectively against Mitt Romney.
Furthermore, it is arguable that the issue of nepotism has already cost Clinton one presidential election. Then-candidate Obama was seen by many as what Hillary Clinton’s husband once was: a self-made man born without any perks who made it in politics on his own. This stood in contrast with someone who seemed to be campaigning on the strength of her spouse’s record and connections. Now, with Chelsea Clinton already hinting at a possible political career, the Clintons appear to be officially taking a page from the Romney-Bush playbook. That’s hard to package as progressive values.
To be clear, there are certainly well-known wealthy families who have succeeded as progressives despite their bank accounts. The Kennedys come to mind. But despite the Kennedys’ youthful foibles and missteps, one constant that has defined the family throughout generations – from Robert Kennedy to Caroline Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy III and many others – is a rigorous, lifetime commitment to progressive causes focused on lifting others not born into families like theirs, who don’t have a famous last name and all of the perks and privileges to go with it.
Perhaps Chelsea Clinton could take note. It might help her mother’s campaign.