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Scionism

The question of Democratic dynasties.

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B eau Biden added a new chapter to the annals of political excuse-making last Monday when he announced he would not be running for the U.S. Senate seat from Delaware—and blamed the decision on pedophilia. Granted, the pedophilia accusations weren’t against him. As the state’s attorney general, Biden is in charge of prosecuting a horrific molestation case against a pediatrician, which is why, he explained, he “cannot and will not” seek his father’s old job.

But even that worthy (yet sensational) excuse didn’t quite cut it, at least not when you consider how hard Joe Biden worked to bequeath his Senate seat to his son. In 2006, at the tender age of 37, just five years after he passed the bar (on his fourth try), Beau was elected attorney general, largely on the basis of his dad’s good name. Indeed, Beau’s name as it appeared on the ballot—Joseph R. Biden III—probably led some Delawareans to think they were voting for his father. And when Joe moved on to the vice-presidency, he made sure that his replacement was his longtime aide Ted Kaufman, who would keep the seat warm until Beau ran for it in 2010. “It is no secret that I believe my son, Attorney General Beau Biden, would make a great United States senator,” Biden said in November 2008. But flash-forward fourteen months, with Democrats reeling after Massachusetts, and suddenly Beau’s election to the Senate was no longer a sure thing. And those new odds were evidently enough to persuade Beau to forgo the race, thereby blowing up Delaware Democrats’ carefully laid plans and probably giving the seat to the Republicans in November.

Admittedly, after the Bush debacle, the concept of American political dynasties has lost a bit of its allure (sorry, Hillary!). Nonetheless, once upon a time, the Democrats actually benefited from their political aristocrats’ treating elected office as a birthright. If Jack is moving to the White House, then his Senate seat just has to go to Teddy—never mind that he’s barely out of his twenties and his greatest accomplishment to date is getting kicked out of Harvard for cheating. Yes, this dynastic approach wasn’t democratic—“the closest thing to a regency appointment the Senate had ever seen,” Joe Klein has written of Ted Kennedy’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1962—but it had the advantage, to Democrats, of being Democratic.

But that’s no longer the case. Indeed, one of the reasons Democrats are in such bad shape at the moment is because their leading families have suddenly lost their sense of entitlement. After Ted Kennedy died in August, Martha Coakley’s campaign didn’t pick up steam until Teddy’s widow, Vicki, and his nephew Joe made clear that they weren’t interested in occupying his old Senate seat themselves. And while right-thinking liberals everywhere applauded their magnanimity at the time—“The Kennedy family has served the state with passion, commitment, and distinction for the better part of the twentieth century,” one Massachusetts paper editorialized, “[and] it’s time for someone else to take up the challenges that Ted Kennedy took head-on”—their decision now doesn’t look so hot. After all, Scott Brown’s winning line that he wasn’t running for “the Kennedy seat” but “the people’s seat” would have seemed a lot less winning, and even offensive, if there’d been an actual Kennedy in the race.

The ultimately destructive hesitance of the Bidens and the Kennedys is enough even to inspire warm thoughts about Andrew Cuomo. Yes, his ceaseless ambition can be off-putting and presumptuous, and his efforts to kick David Paterson to the curb have lacked a certain grace; but with the Democratic aristocracy suddenly getting a case of cold feet, Cuomo’s willingness to save New York Democrats from certain defeat this November now looks downright beneficent. If only more of Cuomo’s fellow scions realized that in politics, a name is a terrible thing to waste.

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