Palin Sexism Redux: The Caroline Kennedy Qualifications Debate

Don't be fooled by cheap attacks, writes GOP strategist Peter Roff.

Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, speaks at the Wilkes University student center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, speaks at the Wilkes University student center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet selections have kicked off an interesting game of musical chairs here in the nation's capital. Drawing from the ranks of the U.S. Congress, he has, thus far, named two sitting U.S. senators and one member of the House to senior positions in his administration. How those Senate seats and his own will be filled and who will take them is very much a subject of discussion, here and elsewhere.

Although Senate seats rarely come open in this way, they set off a storm of political activity when they do.

In most states, the governor has an absolute power of appointment to fill an empty Senate seat. Interest groups and individual donors, party solons and the press all take a vacancy as their cue to weigh in on what (or whom) a particular state needs. But as almost anyone who has ever seen the film classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" knows, it's usually the governor's decision—and only the governor's. A governor is free to ignore everyone and everything when making an appointment, save the counsel his or her conscience provides. That, governors ignore at their own peril.

Nonetheless, the chattering classes do what they can to influence the selection.

And chattering they are, over the seemingly pending appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the seat in the Senate now held by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton, a seat that, coincidentally, was occupied by her uncle, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, when an assassin struck him down during his 1968 campaign for president.

Coming from outside the political class but not—unusually for this particular Senate seat—from outside the state, Caroline Kennedy is a link to both a glorious time in our nation's past and to a postpartisan hope for the future that began with the Obama campaign. Very much her mother's daughter (recall that Jackie Kennedy tried very hard to stay out of the public spotlight after leaving Washington and did much to shield her children from it), Caroline Kennedy is both a familiar face and a new political commodity.

She has entered the arena and is traveling around New York to introduce herself to the electorate and to "listen." Her detractors, and their number seems to increase daily, are attempting to derail her bid to win the appointment from Gov. David Patterson—who is himself both an unelected chief executive and a "legacy" in New York Democratic political circles. In an effort to stop her appointment, they have focused on the idea that she lacks the qualifications to be a U.S. senator.

Having just been through this over the question of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's candidacy for vice president, we are again faced with the prospect of career partisans attacking a woman who has just entered the arena from outside it—way, way, outside it.

In much the same way that black politicians, at least prior to Obama's election, were damned with faint praise when cited for their "eloquence," the overarching focus on "qualifications"—especially as they apply to women seeking elective office—is little more than an attempt to score a few quick, easy points and push them out of the way. It is unseemly, and it is wrong.

The real objection seems to be that Kennedy is part of a political dynasty but has somehow not earned her stripes. History tells us the nation is of a mixed mind on that idea.

On the one hand, the populist streak at our political core rejects dynasties as un-American. It is certainly true the Founding Fathers eschewed the idea of a hereditary monarchy or an aristocracy, going so far as to forbid in the Constitution itself the awarding of titles of nobility. This nation is a meritocracy where hard work, intelligence, and luck can enable the least among us to achieve fabulous success in a single generation. Or fall just as far in the other direction in the same period of time.

On the other hand, consider John Adams, the principal mover in the drive for independence inside the Second Continental Congress. Adams, the nation's second president, was father to the sixth and founder of a political and cultural dynasty that continued in importance almost to the 20th century. And of the first 10 presidents of the United States, six sprang from the landed Virginia gentry that produced George Washington.