Will she stop at a Senate seat?
After speculation that Caroline Kennedy would be rewarded for picking Joe Biden for VP by being made Ambassador to St. James, it now seems that Governor David Patterson of New York will instead appoint her to fill the vacancy left by Hillary Clinton if she is confirmed as Secretary of State. Instead of taking the job held by her grandfather in London in the 1930s, might this be just a first step towards the office her father won in 1960?
Vacancies in the US Senate are filled until the next round of elections by whatever mechanism the state in question chooses. Most allow the Governor to appoint freely (as in Illinois), some restrict that choice to being a member of the incumbant party (Massachusetts did so in 2004 to prevent Mitt Romney picking a Republican if John Kerry won the White House). David Patterson had no shortage of candidates eager to fill this safe seat, but it now seems likely that he will choose a woman who has never faced an election, has rarely practiced law since getting her JD, and whose principle accomplishments have been raising money for schools, sitting on boards (such as that at the Kennedy Centre), and co-authoring books on Constitutional Rights.
Plenty of Americans, including both Democrats and New Yorkers, are uncomfortable that she will be appointed with such a sparse political record, especially given that she has never before expressed an interest in holding office. Whilst the ‘familial history of public service’ is not in question, there are some misgivings that she is being elevated ahead of better-qualified candidates. The second favourite in the polls is Anthony Cuomo, the NY Attorney General, and son of Mario Cuomo (former NY Governor). By sheer co-incidence, he is the ex-husband of Kerry Kennedy (daughter of RFK and Caroline’s first cousin).
When you consider that the first names mentioned for the vacant Senate seats in Illinois and Delaware (courtesy of the victories of Obama and Biden) were Jesse Jackson Jr (son of Shadow DC Senator) and Beau Biden (son of Joe the Senator), one might begin to conclude that lineage is the principal characteristic required for public office in a land that almost saw two other dynasties (Clinton and Bush) occupy the West Wing for six-straight-terms. I decided to do some research on the US Senate, and found that the proportion of members who in my view owed their seats in some way to direct descent from high political office-holders was higher than the proportion of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. There is irony somewhere in that. See my recent diary on Daily Kos for details.
For all of the meritocratic sentiment, and the anti-monarchical feeling of its inception, America still reveres certain families ad bestows upon a surname an inordinate degree of trust at the ballot box. Not all are successful (FDR’s son comes to mind), but once a name is familiar to the voters, it takes on new importance. In spite of being younger than is ordinarily allowed (because ultimately the Senate itself decides on qualification), even Chelsea Clinton’s name was mooted to fill her mother’s seat.
And so the question should perhaps be asked? If Caroline Kennedy proves a popular and effective Senator, and proves that she can raise money, might she succeed where Hillary Clinton failed? Even with the groundwork prepared by Senator Clinton, it will be difficult for a female candidate to rise to the highest office in a country that has not done especially well at electing women to senior political positions. Under such circumstances, might the bonus of a Presidential name be precisely the added edge in 12-or-so years’ time?
I don’t know for certain that Caroline Kennedy will be appointed to the Senate by Governor Patterson, nor that she will win re-election in both 2010 and 2012 (when the term expires). I don’t know if she will appeal to upstate New York, let alone downtown Atlanta. I don’t know if she has any aspirations beyond the Senate, though she had never shown an appetite for that until a fortnight ago. There is much upon which we can only speculate, but at some point this question will be asked. I think we should have an answer ready.