Caroline Kennedy might make a great senator. Those who know her report she has excellent qualifications: She's smart, likable, compassionate, and knowledgeable about government and politics. That alone makes her more qualified than a number of folks already serving on Capitol Hill, but it doesn't make her any more qualified than say, my high school English teacher, my doctor, my father, or the guy who sells me The New York Times every morning.
We all know the only thing that makes Caroline supposedly more qualified than any of these folks is her last name. But appointing a Kennedy to this seat would send a disappointing message. It's a message the Obama generation thought we had left behind: That the most important job qualification isn't who you are, but who your parents were.
I understand my parents' generation has an affinity for the Kennedy name that is at least as strong as my generation's love for Obama. And to be honest, if Mahlia or Sasha Obama decides in 40 years that she wants to be a senator, I might very well be inclined to support her. But I'd still expect her to have to run for it, not just waltz in with an appointment when she decides she's interested in politics.
Of course, no one's running for this seat just yet; someone is going to be appointed. But it's disturbing that when presented with this fantastic opportunity, the knee-jerk reaction of establishment politicians is to turn to someone whose primary qualifications are her famous name, her wealth, and her insider connections.
Aside from her family name, the main argument for appointing Kennedy is that she is one of the few people with the connections and ability to raise the tens of millions of dollars it will take to defend the Senate seat in two years. This argument is an insult to the many ordinary people who have served this country honorably in the Senate, and have also had extraordinary success at the polls. Teachers like Paul Wellstone, doctors like Tom Coburn, and yes, community organizers like Barack Obama.
Why not use this appointment as a chance to bring in someone who wouldn't ordinarily have high odds of making it in politics? Someone who doesn't have the money, connections, and name recognition, but given the chance could serve the public well and give the terribly insulated Senate a fresh perspective.
Governor Paterson represented Harlem in the state Senate for two decades--surely he still knows someone there who would make an outstanding Senator --a teacher or a doctor perhaps, maybe even a community organizer--heck, maybe it's the guy who sells him his morning paper. He just might find the next Obama. Or even the next Kennedy.
Paterson has a chance to do something extraordinary--or he could do something safe. The electorate sent a message this year that we thought was loud and clear: The same old politicians just won't do. Clearly, this message did not make it to everyone (the governor of Illinois comes to mind.) Has it made it to the governor of New York?