Caroline Kennedy Turning Tide Of Skeptics

01/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

When Caroline Kennedy first let it be known that she was interested in being New York's junior Senator, she received a chilly reception from Hillary Clinton backers and some members of the progressive community. Now, it seems, the tide of popular opinion is turning towards the former first daughter and Barack Obama confidante.

Several prominent voices have lent their support to her political aspirations, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Meanwhile, Clinton herself has let it be known that her supporters should do nothing to impede Kennedy. Already, members of the Clinton rank-and-file are sounding that very tune.

"[Hillary] has been a mensch about the message of reconciliation to the hardcore friends and supporters of her," said Lanny Davis, one of Clinton's most ardent supporters. "I think what she did today is a big, big signal to everyone ... [Caroline] is certainly capable of being a great Senator. And, having said that, she wasn't the only one who disappointed me by endorsing Barack Obama, I had to deal with my own son."

Davis' remarks typify the type of emotional and political hurdles that Kennedy has had to face in her efforts to secure the seat once held by her uncle Bobby. In the past few days, prominent Clinton supporters, including Rep. Anthony Weiner and fundraiser Robert Zimmerman, have criticized her candidacy. Moreover, a growing number of progressives have wondered aloud what type of qualifications she would bring to the post. Surely, they say, there are other New York Democrats with sharper political ids and fatter resumes.

Cognizant of such skepticism, Kennedy's staff in New York has launched what is being dubbed the "whispering campaign" (contrasted to the listening variety), strategically reaching out to key constituencies.

"For the last 24 to 36 hours, she has been calling a lot of the folks," said a source close to Kennedy, "labor people, elected officials, political leaders, explaining who she is and listening to them about the concerns of New Yorkers. As far as the last couple days, that is what it has been."

One of those calls was to Clinton herself, though neither Kennedy's people nor Clinton's staff would confirm if the two actually found time to speak.

As a subtext to the debate over Kennedy's worthiness for the Senate is a distinct but equally heated discussion over whether or not she would be a good Senator once in office. Largely an apolitical figure in New York, the basis for Kennedy's candidacy lies in her work on education and Obama's campaign as well as superficial aspects like her "charisma" and "aura." On this front, even her supporters admit that Kennedy faces deficits compared to her prospective competition.

But others draw from this critique a rather interesting historical parallel. In 1962, a 30-year-old Massachusetts politician named Ted Kennedy was also dismissed as a name-only candidate for the Senate. At the time, only one or two members of the Harvard University faculty offered their support for the president's brother. Everyone else -- scoffing at the presumptuousness of the bid -- backed Edward McCormack or held their powder dry during the Democratic primary.

"There are some things that are in common between that race and this contest," said Adam Clymer, a Kennedy biographer and former New York Times scribe. "Certainly there is the sense from the other people who want the job that, you know, [Caroline] doesn't have the credentials, the experience, that they do. And that certainly is comparable to the support for Eddie McCormack in 1962."

The parallel, as Clymer notes, only goes so far. For all his family privilege, Ted Kennedy was a well-known figure in the state: he basically ran his brother's Senate campaign in '58. Ted was the minimum age of 30, while Caroline is 51. And he was clearly a political workhorse, taking to menial but essential political tasks like shaking strangers' hands. He once slapped bumper stickers on cars when John Kennedy's campaign bus got stuck in traffic. There is no indication as to how Caroline would take to these tasks. Moreover, Ted had to get elected. Caroline would be appointed by New York's governor.

And so, other followers of history aren't ready to anoint Caroline this generation's liberal lion. After all, other Kennedys have failed to show a deft political touch once on the public stage -- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost a run at Maryland's governor's chair in 2002. One observer used the same line that dragged on Ted Kennedy in '62 against his niece: "If her name were Caroline Bouvier [her middle name] would she be a candidate?"

Ultimately, however, Kennedy's hopes to serve as Senator of New York will come down to one man: David Paterson. Any campaign for the seat won't be aimed at persuading the masses, but rather the governor and those individuals who have his ear. So the whispering campaign goes on, winning over some skeptics in the process.

"She is highly intelligent, personally gifted and has great interpersonal skills," said Davis. "What more do you need to be an effective U.S. Senator? I value experience. But experience is not always a determinant for success," he said. "And I should note the last time I argued experience over change, my own son disagreed with me."