Show-Me Sympathy: The U.S. Senate is not an entry-level job

Editorial written by Christopher Morrill on Monday, October 30, 2000

from the one-election-to-remember dept.

I have been handling the whole Carnahan tragedy with kid gloves, out of respect for the dead. Everyone has.

But today, Governor Carnahan's widow announced that she would accept appointment to the U.S. Senate if her late husband wins next week.

So: gloves off.

I say: Jean Carnahan should not be appointed to the United States Senate should the late Mel Carnahan outpoll incumbent John Ashcroft in next Tuesday's election. Not for two years, even. Not ever.

It is an insult to this high office that the Governor Wilson would even consider this option. Furthermore, it speaks volumes about the overall stupidity of Missouri's population if the voters go along with it. Period.

Imagine, if you will, that you are going to hire a person to be a United States Senator. There are only two of these people given this honor from the entire state population of roughly 5.4 million, so you need to be just a little picky. Here's the resumes:

John Ashcroft. Qualifications: Former Missouri state auditor, attorney general, governor, and current U.S. Senator.

Jean Carnahan. Qualification: Was married to Mel.

Gee. Something there just doesn't look right.

The U.S. Senate is often referred to as a place where you have one hundred people who all want to be president. It's the highest office, besides President, that a person can attain. (Vice President doesn't count, shame on you for thinking it.) Most politicians bust their asses for years before even trying for the Senate.

For the honor of a Senate seat, you are usually obligated to put in your time on the local school board. Then the city council. Then the state house, the state senate, some useless statewide office (like lieutenant governor), the U.S. Congress, the governorship, and then just maybe you can get to the Senate. Maybe. (I know, it looks eerily like Jason Crowell's "to-do list", doesn't it?) And even then, your chances depend a lot on whether an incumbent is running that year and general good political timing.

Apparently the governor's widow will be given the opportunity to skip all that and skyrocket straight to the top, solely on the basis of a fortunate last name and a well-meant (if misguided) sympathy vote.

Governor Roger Wilson had the opportunity here to make a more sensible choice within the Democratic party. Jay Nixon, for example. The attorney general wanted Kit Bond's Senate seat two years ago and put up a good fight for it. He's certainly qualified. He would even be somewhat palatable to many conservatives, thanks to his stance on the death penalty and stance against school desegregation.

Or, for God's sake, go find Alan Wheat, if he's still around. He was the opponent Ashcroft destroyed in his first Senate race in 1994. I'm sure we'd all love a rematch of that thriller.

The children of the late governor actually carry some political credentials: Russ Carnahan actually ran for Congress several years back against our own late Bill Emerson. Daughter Robin Carnahan was politically active in the defeat of "conceal and carry" in 1998. So she might even have made some sense, maybe.

But... Jean Carnahan?

Make no doubt: Ashcroft is not perfect. No politician is. He's not terribly liked by everyone, especially in minority circles.

Since Carnahan's untimely death, the initial reaction was that Ashcroft would have an easy ride. Not so. Instead, he is forced to fight off a wave of sympathy towards a grieving widow. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from this last Sunday, the polls show him actually trailing the late Mel Carnahan by a few points.

As a sign of Ashcroft's vulnerability, he's even had to begin running ads again. And, thanks to the tragedy, good taste prohibits the use of any negative commercials.

It's a truly weird situation.

It's almost enough to make one wonder how many of our amateur brain surgeons in Missouri even know Carnahan passed away. We don't have an uninformed voting public, do we?

Nah. Surely not. Not in Missouri.

Before you all start sending me nasty e-mails about JoAnn Emerson's election and any double standard, hear this: I didn't think she deserved to be elected based on her last name, either. I don't think George W. Bush would be where he's at if not for his last name. Al Gore's dad was Senator from Tennessee before he was. Hillary Clinton is trying to parlay her marriage into her very first elected office: also the U.S. Senate. There are countless other examples. I am never comfortable with political offices being "passed on" to family members, regardless of your party affiliation. There's something vaguely smacking of monarchy about it.

Admittedly, by my own logic, my party (the Libertarians) can never get elected to high office since they rarely win elections for even the lower ones. But among third parties, simply running and losing counts as your experience. Repeat as necessary. At least we try, which counts for something.

Jean Carnahan has never even tried, to my knowledge.

And speaking of "third parties", there are four other candidates for Senate on the ballot besides Ashcroft and Carnahan. If someone just wants to vote against John Ashcroft, there's plenty of other ways to do it. None of them need require the end result of allowing Jean Carnahan to be addressed as "Senator".

My guess is that Governor Roger Wilson (a.k.a. "Missouri's First Useful Lieutenant Governor") and the Missouri Democratic Party know full well that Jean Carnahan isn't qualified. I'd also guess that Mrs. Carnahan herself has reluctantly agreed to it only as one last political favor.

But the move holds some very wily political savvy: she may be the best candidate right at this moment because of the sympathy vote. Despite it's awkward appearance, this was a calculated decision. Expediency and Machiavellian political strategy overrule logic. Jean Carnahan can win right now, forget whether it's right or wrong. She could hold the seat warm for two years, obediently vote whichever way her party whips tell her to, then quietly step down following a special election in 2002.

It's almost brilliant in a cold, crafty sort of way.

As much attention as Missouri has received already in this very tight presidential race, we now have to deal with this circus. We may actually be on the verge of electing a dead man to the highest legislative body in the land, by default sending his totally green and inexperienced wife to hobnob with the top of the Washington food chain. It would be a media curiosity, a national political oddity, and dare I say an embarrassment for our fair state.

I have enough problems justifying my votes for hopeless, third-party "protest" candidates sometimes. But at least I've never voted for a dead man's wife. That would be a new one.

Don't "Show-Me Sympathy". Show me some common sense.