The buzz about Caroline Kennedy being appointed to the New York Senate seat Hillary Clinton is vacating is everywhere: The front page of the papers, talk radio and, of course, Chris Matthews can scarcely contain himself (though, so far no reports of shivers up his leg). But, the coverage has so far failed to focus on the best reason Governor Paterson has for appointing her: She would be effective at getting things done for New York.
A Senator is one of one hundred and the traditions of the institution all encourage comity and collegiality. They also have work to do, and senators who get tagged as "show horses not work horses" usually do not flourish. But, it helps to have a Senator who is capable of being both a show and a work horse, someone with star power, someone like Hillary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy. Why?
It isn’t that these stars can shine their light on issues of particular concern to New Yorkers: Most senators adopt positions based on their ideological and party affiliations, not their geographic ones. A female Democratic Senator from New York is likely going to be pro-choice, in favor of greater environmental protections, and support universal health insurance but so is a Democratic Senator from Minnesota or Oregon. Demography has largely replaced geography, except for the GOP’s continued hold on the more conservative Southern states.
The items of unique concern to New Yorkers, like earmarks and special funding projects, are not things you want to shed a light on nationally. Hillary Clinton caught flak from the press during the primary fight for her support of funding for a museum in Woodstock, New York to commemorate the rock music festival there that became emblematic of the 1960s counter-culture. The only people she wanted to know about the funding were the good people in and near Woodstock and you don’t need television cameras for that. The local paper will do.
No, the value of star-power is that you can deploy it to further the concerns of your colleagues. If Senator Carl Levin from Michigan is very concerned about one aspect of the proposed automakers’ bailout, but is having trouble getting press attention, Sen. Caroline could call a news conference and the cameras would come running. If the newly elected Senator from North Carolina, Kay Hagan, campaigned on a given issue but thinks it has stalled for lack of attention, Sen. Caroline could fix that. She would then have two chits, so when something of unique concern to New York comes up, she can cash in.
Star-power, then, works best when it is once-removed. Caroline Kennedy brings something to the Senate that no other potential nominee for the position brings: the ability to convoke the press and shine a spotlight wherever she wants. But, the gift is best undertaken for others, as a way of building support within the chamber for the issues, not the earmarks, that your colleagues care about. Then, when the spotlights recede, you can get their votes for the earmarks and other funding that the constituents back home expect.
Back-lighting as baksheesh. For Governor Paterson, it is the best reason to put Caroline Kennedy in the Senate.