We Could Do Much Worse Than Caroline Kennedy and Other Dynasty Senate Candidates

Political dynasties are here to stay, but they might not be all bad.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

There have been lots of complaints in blogs, liberal as well as conservative, about the (apparently) impending appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the Senate and the impending Senate appointments in other states—Illinois, Delaware, Colorado—to seats made vacant by the election of the Obama-Biden ticket or his cabinet appointments. There’s a dynastic element in all four states. Caroline Kennedy would not, after all, be a plausible nominee for the Senate but for the fact that she’s the daughter of John and Jacqueline Kennedy. The Delaware seat is going to a longtime Joe Biden aide, Ted Kaufman, apparently to keep it warm for Joe Biden’s son Beau Biden, who is currently the elected attorney general of Delaware and is also serving in the military in Iraq. A leading possibility to succeed Colorado’s Ken Salazar (on whose appointment I’ve written about in another blog post) is his brother, Rep. John Salazar. And in Illinois, we have the delicious Blagoscandal, with the appointment still the legal prerogative of the son-in-law of 33rd Ward Democratic Committeeman Dick Mell (that would be Gov. Rod Blagojevich) and with one of the hopefuls being Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

I’m not as outraged by this element of dynasty as the commentators linked above. Caroline Kennedy is, after all, probably more qualified to be a senator than Edward Kennedy was in 1962, and he has turned out to be a very competent senator indeed, whatever else you may want to say about him. Beau Biden has won a statewide election in his own right and, judging from his performance at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and from my memory of a telephone interview with Joe Biden in May 1972, at least as well qualified (and about 10 years older) than his father was in 1972, when he was first elected to the Senate. John Salazar has won four elections in his own right (one to the state House and three to the U.S. House) and has been elected in a congressional district that generally leans Republican. About Rod Blagojevich, a spectacular example of how the stupid can rise in American politics, I have already written. As for Jesse Jackson Jr., he won a special election to the House in 1995, over Illinois Senate President Emil Jones (Barack Obama’s great ally in Springfield) in the decisive Democratic primary and has won re-election seven times since. I’m inclined to agree with John Nichols of the Nation that he has been a competent left-wing congressman.

As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007, we have become “a nation that is less small-r republican and more royalist than it used to be. Viscerally, this strikes me as a bad thing. But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided that something can be said for the increasing royalism of our politics.” And that is that, in a large representative democracy, in which we must make judgments about the character of candidates with whom almost none of us will ever have personal contact, it helps to know the family. Delaware voters know a lot about the Bidens (in a small state many voters meet their senators and attorneys general), Colorado voters know a fair bit about the Salazars, Illinois voters know a lot about the Jacksons and the Blagojeviches (the governor’s job approval is now in single digits), and all of us know a lot about the Kennedys. The voters in the appropriate states have a pretty good idea of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the dynasts who will be or may be or (as it seems in Jesse Jackson Jr.’s case) might have been appointed to the Senate (or had the way greased for them). I think it’s not a coincidence that voters in some other very large representative democracies—India, Indonesia, the Philippines—have chosen daughters of previous heads of government for the positions their fathers have held. And in Brazil, one man mentioned as a possible next president is Aécio Neves, the governor of Minas Gerais and a grandson of Tancredo Neves, who was elected president in the 1985 but was struck ill and died before he could effectively take office.

Dynastic politics is of course unfair to nondynasts. There are probably dozens of matrons of a certain age living in Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue co-ops who have been engaged in civic good works and have maxed out to Democratic candidates and would be as good at being a U.S. senator as (or maybe better than) Caroline Kennedy. But none of them are going to get a call to come over and meet with Gov. David Paterson (whose father, Basil Paterson, was a longtime state senator and power broker in New York politics). As Caroline Kennedy’s father said in a different context, “Life is unfair.” There are probably less than a dozen Americans alive today, out of the 305 million people in this country, who ever have been or will be president of the United States; there are probably not many more than 1,000 who have ever been or ever will be U.S. senators. We hope our electoral system will produce good officeholders, and we have come some distance in extending the pool of plausible candidates, as Barack Obama’s election vividly demonstrates. But it seems that dynasts have and will probably continue to have an advantage over the rest of us in becoming one of those dozen or thousand or so who will reach the peaks of American electoral office. I think we have to make the best of it and help the voters to distinguish the bad dynasts from the good. 

  • Read more by Michael Barone.
  • Read more about Caroline Kennedy.