Monday, January 20, 2003

In the Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell complains that nepotism in government is increasing because "public life has been depoliticized" (his emphasis). "It used to be that 'the issues'--as they're nostalgically called--were so important that a familiar-sounding name was insufficient to win a voter's trust," he writes. Now, though, "[p]eople no longer care enough to look beyond a surname."

Of course, he doesn't mention the unexpected flameouts of political scions Andrew Cuomo and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. These two were among the most promising-looking of the current second-generation crop, but they ran ineffective campaigns and failed to win office. For that matter, he also neglected Jean Carnahan, who, even with the advantage of incumbency, could not convert her late husband's memory into a second election victory. What do these three lack that Caldwell's numerous examples--Bush, Clinton, Chafee, Dole, Sununu, Bentsen, Udall--don't?

The obvious answer is "competence". Politics is not becoming "depoliticized", as Caldwell asserts, but rather professionalized, with a host of management and communications skills necessary where a backroom endorsement once sufficed. Party "machines" once looked for respectable frontmen, but modern parties, shorn of their financial and political resources, now look for candidates who know the trade--raising money, hiring and managing a campaign staff, raising more money, handling the media, raising still more money, and occasionally helping formulate policy. As in all professions, family members of superstars in the field get the huge advantage of learning the ropes from within, at the highest level, and can carry that inside knowledge and experience with them when they make their own runs. (They also have the advantage of being inured by familiarity to the absurdities and unpleasantnesses of the political life, and hence of being more likely willing to embark upon it.)

Of course, in the grueling competition of modern politics, even major-league experience can't compensate for innate talentlessness of the kind displayed by the aforementioned political losers. But their failures demonstrate that voters aren't simply voting the name; they expect, first and foremost, professional-level political skill. Why should they care if it happens to have been learned at a family member's knee?

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