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Caroline Kennedy’s Senate Bid Raises Debate

December 17, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Caroline Kennedy may have a long record in the political spotlight, but some are questioning whether she has the public service experience to fill the Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. Columnists weigh what she might bring to the job.
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GWEN IFILL: Well, Caroline Kennedy’s decision to seek appointment to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat has sparked a debate that stretches well beyond the borders of New York state.

Here to assess the pros and the cons are Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Albany Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun.

Welcome to you both.

Ruth, you wrote about this today. All things measured, you kind of think that maybe Caroline Kennedy ought to have the Senate seat.

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: Well, for me, it’s a head-versus-heart debate. My head says, “Nah.” And my heart says, “Oh, boy, let’s go for it.”

GWEN IFILL: Why?

RUTH MARCUS: I think especially for people of our age and for women of our age, Gwen — and I’m going to include both of us in that — Caroline Kennedy is an icon. We remember her as this little girl, you know, riding her pony at the White House, standing with her mother at her father’s funeral.

So it’s a very powerful, evocative image to think of her now grown up, the daughter of a slain president, taking the Senate seat, held by her slain uncle, joining her gravely ill remaining uncle in the Senate. It is an emotional reaction, but I find it a quite powerful one.

GWEN IFILL: Fred LeBrun up in Albany, is the emotional reaction enough?

FRED LEBRUN, Albany Times Union: No, it’s not enough, although I completely agree with Ruth. We were all overwhelmed by the Kennedy name, the mystique, Camelot, and so on, and we are certainly not at all immune from that up here in upstate.

But there are so many issues about jobs and about the depressed economy of upstate New York that actually was in the fore well before the Wall Street meltdown that we need the kind of person in Washington who transcends just the image issue.

This is not about vanity plates or an ambassadorship to Barbados. This is a U.S. Senate seat. So, no, it’s not enough to have just this great mythology at work.

The question of experience

GWEN IFILL: So let's talk about her experience, Ruth. Does she have the requisite experience people keep talking about to qualify for this?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think we have to ask, what's the requisite experience? And let me say I am not a big fan of political dynasties. I am a believer in paying dues. You've paid yours; I've paid mine.

But let's not fool ourselves that we are operating a perfect, marvelous meritocracy in American politics and Caroline Kennedy, if she became Senator Kennedy, would be a terrible deviation from this.

Names matter. She would not be the first person who by virtue of a famous last name would catapult into a position of prominence.

We've had wrestler governors. We've had movie star governors. We've had people who've been able essentially by virtue of their large personal wealth to purchase Senate seats, to purchase mayoral seats. And so let's put that aside...

GWEN IFILL: But does it make a difference that they're elected rather than whether they're appointed?

RUTH MARCUS: Actually, I really agree that it does. The problem here is that Caroline Kennedy, unfortunately, from my point of view, because I believe in special elections, doesn't have the opportunity, at least right now, to get herself elected.

And she's no -- she's, as Kennedys go, she's a very smart and serious person, and I don't mean that to diminish her in any way. She's a lawyer. She's written books on the Constitution. She has worked very hard on issues of education reform.

She hasn't -- to quote her predecessor -- just stayed home -- or the woman who might be her predecessor -- stayed home and baked cookies.

New York needs a 'tough' senator

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the woman who may be her predecessor, Fred LeBrun. When Hillary Clinton first started talking about running for Senate in New York, people said, "She doesn't even live here. Why does she qualify?" Were you among those?

FRED LEBRUN: No, I was not. But you have to remember that, here in New York, we have those who -- upstate, particularly, have kind of a Republican cast, whereas downstate tends to be more Democratic, although that is shifting.

When Hillary came to us, there were those who accused her of being a carpetbagger, of course, but we are a carpetbagger state. We're not just the Empire State. We're the immigrant state. People come here from everywhere, and we embrace them.

So that's not really an issue. The issue is not about whether she's come from Illinois or Massachusetts -- Massachusetts is a sister state for us, and so we're very compatible with the political views there -- it's about experience, and it's about the kind of gravitas that I'm sure she will -- "she," being Caroline -- exhibit at some point.

But for us, it's a pig in a poke. It's a terrible image, of course, because she's a very attractive candidate in a lot of ways. But that's the thing that we're facing here in New York at this point: Can we afford to take this kind of a gamble?

GWEN IFILL: Is her celebrity what makes her a gamble? Or is it the fact that you don't think she knows enough about upstate New York?

FRED LEBRUN: Oh, she knows very little about upstate New York. She toured today, but it's one thing finding your way up here, and it's another learning the intense and varied problems of the 62 counties of New York. There's all sorts of things.

And Hillary, yes, Hillary didn't have any experience in New York, but she had tremendous experience with the political process in Washington and she certainly had a very tuned-in ear to the temperament of New York.

I really don't know if Caroline Kennedy has the temperament to be a United States senator from New York. We need a tough person.

GWEN IFILL: Ruth Marcus, it has been reported that Hillary Clinton has basically told the people who criticized -- her supporters who criticized Caroline Kennedy's ambition to lay off. Does that help or does it hurt?

RUTH MARCUS: I think it helps, and I think it's a smart approach for Senator Clinton. This can't be especially pleasant for her.

Here, it was a very big deal during the hard-fought campaign with Senator Obama when Caroline Kennedy and Ted Kennedy supported then-Senator Obama. Now -- and that was something of a -- not treason, but that was a big blow.

Senator Clinton had been close to, gotten advice from Mrs. Onassis, Caroline Kennedy's mother, when she was in the White House. They talked about being first lady together.

Now, all of a sudden, not only was there that sort of slap in the face, but now the face-slapper, if you will, is going to get her seat. And that can't be very pleasant.

GWEN IFILL: Fred LeBrun, does it make...

RUTH MARCUS: Or might be able -- might be getting her seat. I got ahead of us. Sorry about that.

GWEN IFILL: Might be getting her seat. Let's do the hedging.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes.

Benefits of the Kennedy name

GWEN IFILL: Fred LeBrun, let's talk a little bit about what difference it makes that she's going to have to run for the seat in 2010 and then again in 2012 to hold the seat. Does it make a difference to you whether she wins this appointment if that is the next test?

FRED LEBRUN: Well, of course, that is the test. And it's also one of the biggest reasons the governor, Gov. David Paterson, may very well appoint her, is because one of the great assets she brings is the enormous fundraising capacity and the political juggernaut that the Kennedy name brings with it.

And they've already -- "they," the Kennedy camp -- have already made it known they could handle 2010, 2012, without involving public -- or campaign funds that the Democrats sorely need in other ways. So this is very appealing to the governor on a political side.

Also, I'm sure she will win over lots of people in upstate New York the way Hillary did. But is that enough still? I don't know.

And to go back to what Ruth was just talking about, it really still galls many of us who were supporters of Hillary's -- and I'm a columnist, so I wasn't particularly a supporter, although I certainly wrote favorably about her -- but many upstaters and downstaters felt violated, felt cheated by Ted Kennedy and by Caroline.

And to come back now and to turn around and say, "Oh, but I want to represent you," it's not quite -- it's a little too soon. I think that the feelings are still a little bit tender about that.

GWEN IFILL: Feelings still a little bit tender, obviously. Fred LeBrun of the Albany Times Union and Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, thank you both very much.

RUTH MARCUS: Thank you.

FRED LEBRUN: Thank you, Gwen.