Word spread yesterday that Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy, would like New York Gov. David Paterson to appoint her to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. I've spent several hours trying to figure out why Kennedy deserves the appointment any more than the next woman, and I've come up short. Kennedy has never held public office. She's not associated with any particular political issue. She has no discernible constituency. She's spent her entire life, as The New York Times put it, "avoiding the spotlight."
Nonetheless, Kennedy stands a good chance of going to the Senate, and that possibility reveals some unpleasant truths about American democracy.
What Kennedy has going for her is her name. This is the only reason she is a frontrunner for the appointment, and it is a cause for reflection. Americans like to think that theirs is a meritocratic society where your social standing, your birth, has no influence on your prospects. But this has not been the case in politics for a long time, and it increasingly is not the case in other arenas of American life, like sports, entertainment, journalism and business.
The Kennedys excel at American dynasticism, but they are not alone. To take just one example, the 109th Congress, which sat from 2005 to 2007, had more than two dozen members whose parents had also served in the national Legislature. George W. Bush's family connections launched his political career, and so did Hillary Clinton's. Jeb Bush's recent suggestion of interest in Mel Martinez's Senate seat cleared out all internal opposition. Names have power, and politically active families are adept at taking over a party's fundraising apparatus and passing it from husband to wife, or father to son (or daughter), like an heirloom Faberge egg.
We rationalize this growing political aristocracy by saying that while the folks we elect may all be related and may all be jerks, at least we elected them. The ballot box can legitimize a dynasty. But this is the second reason why Kennedy's appointment would be troubling. She would be seated based on the reasoning of one individual. Now, that individual's reasoning might be good or bad. But it is not democratic.
The process by which states replace U.S. senators is a relic from an earlier, less democratic America. The Constitution specifies that U.S. representatives are to be replaced by special election. In 1913, when the 17th Amendment allowed for the direct election of senators, it left the matter of senatorial replacement to the states. This left the state legislatures and governors vestigial control over the composition of the Senate. It favored the well-connected. And it created new opportunities for graft, as one easily sees in the controversy over Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged attempt to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. No wonder voters so often toss out appointed senators at the first opportunity
Of course, voters won't have the opportunity to validate Gov. Paterson's choice until 2010. If he does choose Kennedy, she will be in search of a cause to champion. No problem; I have a suggestion: She could urge the passage of a constitutional amendment establishing that all vacant Senate seats be filled by special election. And she could do so by reminding voters that the current system leaves America less equal and less democratic than it ought to be.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at The Weekly Standard and author of The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine (Doubleday).