Wrong Job for Caroline

I've been trying to figure out what I think about the prospect of Caroline Kennedy being named to replace Hillary Clinton as New York's junior senator and having a tough time deciding.

column in The Washington Post (opens in new tab)

Anybody who was old enough to remember John Kennedy's assassination and isn't a complete Kennedy hater is bound to feel a sentimental pull to the prospect of another Senator Kennedy (in a seat once held by her fallen uncle, Robert F. Kennedy) -- especially since her other uncle, Ted Kennedy, is fighting off brain cancer and is undoubtedly in the final stages of a long and distinguished career. Without arguing the merits of his accomplishments and causes, which range from a career-long push for expanding health care to crucial support for President Bush's education initiative to a pro-business immigration bill, it's hard to imagine a Senate without a Kennedy in it. He is truly a lion in a chamber of wimps.

But there's something upsetting about Caroline coming out of the blue to try to lay claim to this seat. I've no doubt she's smart and savvy enought for the job and has politics in her bloodlines. Everyone who knows her praises her intellect and her knowledge of the issues. And we can use more senators who aren't lifelong politicians, although given her background she may not strictly qualify on those grounds.

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But the dynasty thing and sense of entitlement that goes with it disturbs me. The notion that she'll have a leg up on a re-election bid because she'd be an incumbent and have a machine and plenty of money behind her seems a bit unfair. Of course, anyone who is appointed would get an advantage and there is a long tradition in the country of spouses, siblings and children following in the footsteps of more famous relatives -- often with solid results. But having been elected to something at some point would make it a bit more legitimate. Caroline Kennedy hasn't been.

I should hasten to add that there are similar concerns about Delaware, where Joe Biden has engineered a situation that allows his son to run for his old slot in two years. A seat-warmer has been named (opens in new tab) because Beau Biden is on duty in Iraq, but he's assured the Democratic nomination in a very Democratic state in the 2010 election. At least Beau won't be an incumbent, has served as state attorney general and will have to prove himself on the campaign trail again. Caroline stayed out of public service and, save for some moving speeches at Democratic conventions, out of politics until her endorsement (opens in new tab) of Barack Obama at a key moment in his battle with Clinton.

It also bothers me that some women's groups are claiming the seat as belonging to a woman. That really bothers me. I'm all for equal opportunity, but not for gender quotas on Senate seats or any sense of entitlement.

In making his decision, New York Gov. David Patterson should choose the best available candidate. Politics will surely enter into it -- he'll want a Democrat with a good chance of being re-elected -- but there are plenty of those to choose from, including Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (opens in new tab) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (opens in new tab). Several women's groups have endorsed Maloney, though some are reconsidering in light of Kennedy's emergence. If Patterson wants to take another tack given the problems we're likely to face in the next two years, he might give some thought to picking someone who understands the financial mess and has shown some vision and insight in how to clean it up.

I won't lose sleep if Caroline Kennedy gets the nod, but if she's interested in public service, I'd rather see Obama find a place for her in his administration. Let her show us what she can do, and if she wants she can fight for the nomination in 2010 or later and let the voters of New York decide.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter