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Governors' senatorial privilege perils

The Blagojevich scandal and Kennedy rumors set an uncomfortable example for governors appointing senators.
/ Source: National Journal

It's been a tough few days for advocates of gubernatorial Senate appointments. Between the Rod Blagojevich arrest in Illinois and the Caroline Kennedy trial balloon in New York, you have to wonder if it's time to do away with the 95-year-old practice of letting governors choose senators.

Despite the wide range of federal corruption charges filed against him Tuesday, Blagojevich (D) retains the power to appoint Barack Obama's successor, at least until he leaves or is forced from office. Would anyone really want that tainted Senate seat now? Blago's appointment would run in 2010 as the ally of a disgraced governor who tried, among other things, to sell the seat to the highest bidder. The only option now is for Blagojevich, or someone, to name a caretaker to serve until voters can select their own senator in two years. (Then again, Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) hasn't exactly been spared criticism for her decision to name a caretaker for Joe Biden's Senate seat).

Meanwhile, in New York, Gov. David Paterson (D) is being lobbied to name Kennedy to succeed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) if she wins confirmation as secretary of State. Kennedy's backers include political bigs like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and, of course, her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D).

Caroline Kennedy seems like an intelligent, competent woman. Her family should be proud of how she has conducted her life: as a (relatively) private citizen who, unlike many of her more ambitious relatives, has never openly sought advantage, political or financial, from her famous family name. She's never shown any enthusiasm for a job that people work tirelessly to acquire. Which is why she would be a bizarre choice.

The choice is particularly curious in the wake of Obama's victory last month. I've always found it awkward to watch Obama embrace the Kennedy legacy as part of his mantra for "change." In some ways, they couldn't be more different. The story of Obama, who spent the past two years calming Americans' concerns about his untraditional family tree, centers on the claim that anyone can achieve anything, regardless of race or class. The story of the Kennedys, meanwhile, is America's most beloved bow to political dynasties and inherited prominence.

Democrats can, of course, honor both stories. They did so in Denver this summer, when convention-goers watched a heartwarming video tribute to Ted Kennedy and then heard an inspiring speech from the ailing senator himself. But that tribute focused on the Democratic ideals Obama and the Kennedys do share, not the culture of American power, which they don't. If Paterson appoints Caroline Kennedy to the Senate, he will blur those lines, contradicting one of the biggest reasons that Obama's election inspired so many people across the country and the world.

In the current and incoming Senates, at least 16 members are the children or spouses of prominent politicians. Do we really need another?

It doesn't get too much better even if Paterson chooses someone with no political progenitors at all. Under the current rules, voters in New York -- and, for that matter, Illinois -- will go two years with a junior senator they didn't vote for. That can be an eternity in politics.

Since governors started appointing senators in 1913, 116 appointed senators have subsequently run in the most immediate upcoming election. Only 60 have prevailed. Maybe voters have been trying to tell us something.