As I wrote earlier, we have had political families in America for as long as we’ve had America. Two of our first six presidents were father and son (the Adamses), the Lodges had a seat in the Senate until the Kennedys arrived, and so on. Voters have always liked brand names, and wealthy families in the US have a tradition of public service that has at least some quality of sacrifice to it, in a noblesse oblige manner.
However, we seem to have fallen into a rut lately, as Politico’s Charles Mahtesian reports:
Barack Obama’s path to the presidency included beating what had been one of the nation’s most powerful families. But, in an unusual twist, his election last month is helping accelerate the trend toward dynasty politics.
His 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.
Republicans won’t have much standing to complain. While they have fewer dynasties and none that match the reach of the Kennedys, the Bushes will retire their second President in January and have begun talk of getting Jeb into the Senate. Prescott would be proud of his lineage.
The better question is why so many dynastic and quasi-dynastic candidates have begun appearing in Congressional races of late. Caroline Kennedy’s pursuit of an appointment explains the issue, I believe. Democrats nationwide aren’t haranguing David Paterson to appoint Caroline Kennedy to the seat because of extensive qualifications — indeed, she has a remarkable lack of qualifications. It isn’t her name so much as it is her money. She’s loaded. Democrats want to appoint someone who can fund a campaign rather than govern rationally.
Why is that important? Why are both parties increasingly desperate to find extraordinarily wealthy individuals to run for the Senate and to a lesser extent the House? They need to find ways around campaign-finance restrictions, and the best way is to find a wealthy person who won’t mind spending a few million dollars to buy a seat in Congress. That way, the burden of financing elections will fall more on the opponent, who has to deal with hard money/soft money restrictions, bans on coordination with the national parties, and individual limits that force candidates to conduct fundraisers as an almost exclusive activity during campaigns.
The wealthiest people come from hereditary wealth. Those candidates will begin holding family seats once ensconced, as political parties will want to ensure that the seats remain secure. That will transform the Senate into an American House of Lords, as Mahtesian puts it, probably within a couple more generations.
Somehow, the idea of people spending their own money to buy seats has been seen as less egregious than spending other people’s money to do it. The best solution to the dynasty issue is to eliminate the artificial obstacles in campaign fundraising in favor of complete and immediate disclosure of all contributions — no matter how small — on the Internet for maximum transparency. That will bring a more even field to political campaigns, and rid us of the impulse to sell Senate sinecures to hereditary successions, regardless of their motivation for public service. (hat tip: HA reader Roger B)
Update: Prescott, not Preston. My apologies for the error.