Faced with a tide of publicity pushing Caroline Kennedy’s candidacy for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, observers ranging from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans are already raising questions about the qualifications of a well-bred, notably underemployed socialite who’s never run for any public office.
If New York Gov. David Paterson appoints Kennedy to the seat, these critics point out that the real battle will be in 2010, when she faces her first election. That gives her little more than a year to make her mark in the Senate, which will be consumed with enacting the agenda of the candidate she backed for president, Barack Obama. That allegiance may serve her well, some supporters argue, but can it establish her with the voters that matter most – those who live well outside her small, liberal base in New York City?
Among the points being raised:
What’s her work experience? “The only line on her CV that truly recommends her for the post is the one at the top: her name,” pundit Mark Schone wrote for the liberal Salon Web site. Profiles note a journalistic resume, but aside from a piece on meeting Elvis for Rolling Stone magazine, and a short stint as a photographer’s assistant long ago, there aren’t many clips in the Kennedy file. Her 22-month work for an education philanthropy has been touted, but it amounted to showing up three days a week and raising funds from her glitzy friends. She’s not a policy wonk, one former colleague conceded to Politico.
Kennedy, a fixture in the Manhattan philanthropic world, has no discernible presence in conservative, rural upstate New York – an area that Hillary Clinton mastered with an encyclopedic knowledge of small town and agriculture issues.
The notoriously private daughter of President John F. Kennedy has never been subjected to intense public scrutiny, sustained questioning by the press, or a thorough vetting of her finances. Forget the campaign: The vetting begins now, and it’s bound to raise some of the Kennedy family skeletons. Paterson will have to think carefully about this, because a poor decision and a crippled candidate will affect his political aspirations, too.
How tough is she on what promises to be a grueling, tough campaign against whoever the Republican Party nominates in 2010? Could she handle a debate against Rudy Guiliani? So far, the only examples of her stamina have been gushing anecdotes in The New York Times and other media about her ability to choose the right shoes for a walk home from Tavern on the Green.
What does the Kennedy name mean in 2008? Since the death of her brother much better-known brother, a playboy and magazine impresario, no new-generation Kennedy has gained national attention for their achievements. Will iconic images of her father and mother be enough to carry her?
The best Senate candidate, like former Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida, should be able to suck enough air out of the room from other candidates that he or she won’t waste time and funds with a draining primary fight. Judging from the number of Democrats who’ve already voiced doubt about Kennedy, she won’t have that luxury.
The Blagojevich scandal – the alleged auctioning off of Barack Obama’s former Senate seat – is already appearing in articles about Caroline Kennedy. The not-so-subtle implication is that appointing a scion of a political aristocracy to a U.S. Senate seat doesn’t bode well for democracy. Of all the candidates vying for New York’s seat, Kennedy would carry with the most baggage because of her name. “The Blagojevich scandal and now the Kennedy play have turned the selection of senators into a skeevy travesty. The best way to change the story would be go in the exact opposite direction – go completely high-minded,” columnist Joe Klein wrote for Time magazine’s Swampland blog.
"I do think you have to not only be willing to be milking cows at the state fair, but you've got to like it or at least be very good at acting like you like it," Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, a possible mayoral candidate, told Politico in one of the first critical comments to greet news of her candidacy. "If she has the gift of milking cows, it's been utterly hidden from people of the state of New York."
Weiner and others point out that Kennedy backed President-elect Barack Obama over Clinton in the presidential primaries – a position that hasn’t been forgotten by Clinton loyalists throughout the state.
"This isn't a jihad or anything, but I'd be lying to you if I said that supporters of Hillary don't remember where she was in the primary," Weiner said.
Hank Sheinkopf, a leading Democratic consultant who appears on CNN, wondered aloud about the political value of the Kennedy name to those who only would know it from history books.
"So they decided to rename the [Triboro] Bridge [after Robert F. Kennedy]," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York Democratic consultant. "But if you went to the street and asked ten people under 50 who this guy was, they wouldn't know what you're talking about."
Queens Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, noting her lack of experience, likened Kennedy to pop star Jennifer “J.Lo” Lopez.
"I don't know what Caroline Kennedy's qualifications are, except that she has name recognition, but so does J.Lo," Ackerman said during a radio interview Monday. "I wouldn't make J.Lo the senator unless she proved she had great qualifications, but we haven't seen them yet."
Comments like that from fellow Democrats have already helped Kennedy’s potential opponents among Republicans.
"If anything, it makes me more determined to run," said Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican who has expressed his interest in the seat.
"As far as record of achievement, I strongly believe that I'm much more qualified, much more experienced, and have an independent record," King told the Associated Press. "Nothing against Caroline Kennedy, but I don't think anyone has a right to a seat."
Richard A. Viguerie, a leading conservative thinker and chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, suggested that the selection of Kennedy would reflect poorly on Paterson.
"It would show, once again, that many of our leaders simply don't take their responsibilities seriously," Viguerie said, pointing out that the senator from a state like New York should have ample business and financial experience, as well as a grounding in national security. "Once again, politicians are acting like politicians -- basing a decision this important on politics: Who can help get votes for Governor Paterson? Who will best hold the seat? Who can raise the most money?
"How about these questions: Who can help protect New York and the rest of the country from attack? Who can help people recover the value of their homes? Who can help people keep their jobs?” Viguerie said. "Isn't anybody in the political establishment connected to reality?"
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