Nepotism Nation?

The “trend toward dynasty politics” is getting out of hand, Charles Mahtesian argues in Politico.

[Obama’s] secretary of state will be Hillary Clinton, the wife of the former president. The Senate seat she’ll vacate is being pursued by Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of a president and the niece of two senators. Joe Biden’s Senate seat may go to his son Beau. Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, Obama’s pick for interior secretary, could end up being replaced by his brother, Rep. John Salazar.

And Obama’s own seat could go to the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. — less likely now in light of developments in the Rod Blagojevich scandal — or to the daughter of Illinois’ current House speaker.

The U.S. Senate could end up looking like an American version of the House of Lords — and Republicans have begun to take notice.

Jesse Taylor takes an odd path on this one, snarking, “The solution, obviously, is to appoint orphans to everything” and clarifying that “To be clear, the issue isn’t that nepotism and dynastic tendencies are actually good things.  It’s that any administration is going to choose people who have family members, many of whom will have political aspirations.”

Now, while I agree with Steve Benen that Mahtesian’s piece is a bit over-the-top, not least of which because it “relies on the mere possibility of Kennedy, Salazar, and Jackson appointments to bolster its argument, not to mention the notion that Beau Biden may or may not run in 2010.”   Still, it’s not unreasonable to wonder about the propriety of appointing family members to posts when there are usually more qualified people available.

And even Mathesian admits that this is hardly a new phenomenon:

There is a rich bipartisan history of dynasty in American politics that dates all the way back to the Founding Fathers; Obama-Biden actually represents the first winning ticket since 1976 without a son or a grandson of a U.S. senator on it.

In 2008, the storied Udall clan, sometimes referred to as the Western Kennedys, saw two members elected to the Senate— Mark from Colorado and Tom from New Mexico. In 2010, they could be joined in the Senate by Florida’s Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents and the grandson of a senator.

All told, it’s entirely possible that the Senate will be comprised of nearly a dozen congressional offspring by the end of Obama’s first term as president.

We should, however, separate two phenomena:  politicians with famous names getting elected partly on the basis of the advantages so conferred and relatives of politicians being appointed to vacant offices.   The latter strikes me as infinitely more troubling than the former.

In the first instance, it’s simply a fact that sons, daughters, and even wives of politicians have an unusual interest in politics and often develop political ambitions.  They shouldn’t be precluded from seeking political office any more than the sons of generals and admirals should be dissauded from following in their fathers’ footsteps.

It’s unfortunately true that they have unfair advantages.  Hillary Clinton would have had zero chance of getting elected to the Senate in 2000 — let alone been a plausible candidate for the presidency and now secretary of state — had she not been First Lady for eight years.  She simply lacked the resume typically needed to aspire to those jobs or the charisma that Obama used to compensate for his lack of same.   Even Clinton, though, didn’t win simply because she was “Mrs. Bill Clinton.”   Rather, being First Lady gave her extraordinary name recognition, a huge Rolodex and campaign infrastructure, and she’d demonstrated her talents in a giant international spotlight.

Certainly, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush benefited from being the sons of the first President Bush.   It’s possible that either of them would have been elected to governorships, anyway, owing to being independently wealthy and having built networks in their home states.  But, certainly, they benefitted from the Bush name and access.

Far more troubling are the <strike>Mary Bonos,</strike>* Lisa Murkowskis, Jean Carnahans, and (potentially) Caroline Kennedys.  These people catapulted over dozens (if not tens or hundreds of thousands) of more qualified people to get appointed to high office.  Their sole qualification for the job, really, was being related to politicians.

There’s not much that can be done about the first phenomenon, either. If the public wants to elect people with familiar names, it’s hard to come up with a compelling reason to preclude them from doing so. It would, however, be easy to preclude governors from appointing relatives of current or recent officeholders to key posts; better yet, we could take away the appointment power altogether for elective offices, requiring special elections be held.

____________
*Commenter RW Rogers correctly points out that House members are never appointed.  Bono won a special election for her late husband’s seat.  She was a 36-year-old neophyte when she took the seat but has, presumably, done an able job given that she has subsequently been reelected five times.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    You don’t have to persuade me, James. As I’ve said before my alderman is the daughter of the previous alderman, my Illinois state representative is her nephew, my mayor is the son of a previous mayor, the president of the county board is the son of the previous head of the board, and the governor is the son-in-law of a powerful alderman.

    It’s also been suggested that the same alderman’s daughter may become my next Congressional representative.

  2. odograph says:

    I think it matters how much someone was a silent partner, and active participant, in their family’s success.

    And how much they were just watching Oprah and waiting for the phone call.

  3. Hillary Clinton would have had zero chance of getting elected to the Senate in 2000 — let alone been a plausible candidate for the presidency and now secretary of state — had she not been First Lady for eight years.

    This doesn’t go far enough. Laura Bush has been First Lady for almost eight years, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking she’d now be a plausible candidate for any major elected office. In fact, perhaps nothing illustrates better just how much cheerleading goes on in Big Media for folks who share their policy preferences and persuasions.

  4. James Joyner says:

    aura Bush has been First Lady for almost eight years, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking she’d now be a plausible candidate for any major elected office. In fact, perhaps nothing illustrates better just how much cheerleading goes on in Big Media for folks who share their policy preferences and persuasions.

    I think that’s right. Still, Mrs. Bush was a much more traditional First Lady whiles HRC was very much in the partner/activist role. Clinton’s a Yale lawyer and has had a decades-long career in the public policy arena, while Bush was a schoolteacher who makes the rounds doing goodwill tours. Clinton was the first First Lady since perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt who gave any inclination of WANTING an independent political career.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Chris Kennedy, the son of Robert, is being discussed as Obama’s replacement in the Senate.

  6. ap says:

    this is tremendous. i am anxious to see the approval ratings for congress after all the nepotism appointments are made.

    when do we get to strip congress of anything but ceremonial powers?

  7. anjin-san says:

    when do we get to strip congress of anything but ceremonial powers?

    Did you miss the last eight years?

  8. Bithead says:

    Try this one:

    Do you know what finally tripped Jesse Jackson Jr’s trigger to work with the feds to bring down Blaggo? He wouldn’t arrage a high paying job for Jackson’s wife, without money being involved.

    Chew on that for a while. Nepotism? I’d say that’s part of our problem, sure. But it runs deeper.

  9. raoul says:

    In Illinois, a statewide campaign costs 36 million dollars. If one is to have a scheduled election in three months- what’s the point of spending that sum. On the other hand, does one state want to sacrifice its vote for short time without placing a representative? I do not think so. So- like it or not, one will have appointments. The question is then for how long- the answer speaks for itself- until the next scheduled electoral cycle. Either that or pay more taxes (I am putting in a way so conservatives can understand).

  10. […] course, as James Joyner notes, this dynastic politics is really only a problem when you’re talking about someone, like Kennedy, who walks into high office rather than actual… Far more troubling are the Mary Bonos, Lisa Murkowskis, Jean Carnahans, and (potentially) Caroline […]

  11. Jim says:

    I live outside of Crook County, I mean Cook county IL. All I can say is I hope that we the people can vote on a senator. I personally think that would shake up the Democratic party in IL.
    I also wonder why the Fed’s acted so soon… Why not wait until a bag full of money exchanged hands and then hit Gov. Go-blygovitch? Something will shake out and I can’t wait to hear.
    Jim

  12. ap says:

    Did you miss the last eight years?

    i was being ironic. its been going on much longer than the last 8 years (you only use the number 8 bc you have an irrational hatred towards bush)

  13. tom p says:

    Do you know what finally tripped Jesse Jackson Jr’s trigger to work with the feds to bring down Blaggo? He wouldn’t arrage a high paying job for Jackson’s wife, without money being involved.

    Bit, according to what I read here, there was a 3 yr delay between the solicitation of the $25,000 campaign donation, and JJJr’s reporting of the attempted “shakedown”. In ’03 after Blago had been elected and JJJr’s wife had been turned down for the job, Blago said something to the effect of, “You see what $25,000 would have done?”

    Now the 3 yr delay in reporting it does raise some uncomfortable questions for JJJr, but revenge does not leap first to mind as a motivation.

  14. […] course, as James Joyner notes, this dynastic politics is really only a problem when you’re talking about someone, like Kennedy, who walks into high office rather than actual… Far more troubling are the Mary Bonos, Lisa Murkowskis, Jean Carnahans, and (potentially) Caroline […]

  15. just me says:

    I don’t mind so much nepotism appointments if the family member was already in an elected office or some type of office that was more than ceremonial. I may not like the candidate, but at least they have experience.

    I am not keen on the “Hey so and so retired, resigned, passed away etc let’s appoint their wife, sister, son, brother” appointments.

    As for congress I am not really keen at all on the concept of appointments. I think all empty seats should be filled by special elections. I know they are costly, but I am not keen on the idea of a governor picking my senator based on reasons other than actual competence.

  16. Joe R. says:

    As for congress I am not really keen at all on the concept of appointments. I think all empty seats should be filled by special elections. I know they are costly, but I am not keen on the idea of a governor picking my senator based on reasons other than actual competence.

    I fail to see much of a practical difference. In this case, the appointment will be a Democrat, as will the winner of the special election. Either one will vote with the caucus a vast majority of the time. No need to spend a large sum of the peoples’ money for an insignificant difference.

  17. RW Rogers says:

    Mary Bono was not appointed to office. She won a special election to fill her late husband’s seat. Vacancies in the House of Representatives are never filled by appointment. I’m surprised that you think otherwise.

  18. James Joyner says:

    She won a special election to fill her late husband’s seat. Vacancies in the House of Representatives are never filled by appointment.

    That’s right, of course. I’d forgotten. It’s hard to beat a widow, though, and she has been re-elected in her own right numerous times.

  19. Bithead says:

    Now the 3 yr delay in reporting it does raise some uncomfortable questions for JJJr, but revenge does not leap first to mind as a motivation.

    Certainly there is some other motivation in addition to what I mention, but after a three year delay, simply being a ‘good citizen’ doesn’t strike me as plausable as a sole reason, either. My take is the feds had some kind of leverage on JJJr, too, or perhaps his father, and he traded information on Blago to keep his own butt outta jail.

    What that leverage is or was, of course, we may never know. But that whole thing goes directly to my point about anyone coming up in that environment is not clean, but any stretech, and that includes Obama.

  20. Bithead says:

    James,

    I’m unconvinced that Caroline Kennedy, as just outright wrong as that whole scene is, can be propery considered ‘nepotism.’

    It’s my take, first of all, that it’s partially a payback for her rather public endorsement of Obama, and her willingly tying him on to the Camelot myth.

    Then, too, there’s the issue of star power. As has been pointed out elsewhere… remove the Kennedy name and you have someone who would be laughed off any list of appointees, and certainly off any lists of people to be elected to the position. If the election of Obama reminded the Democrats anything it’s the electoral draw of star power, which the Camelot myth feeds into. Which, frankly, is the only way Uncle Teddy has managed to stay in office all these years.

    This who thing does rather cast a question mark over the Democrats constant whining about Sarah Palin and her supposed lack of experience, though.

  21. […] so much crazy shit going on right now that it’s hard to do more than wonder about it. like caroline kennedy wanting to be NY senator, but only if it’s handed to her on a silver platter (she’s […]