5 Lessons From Caroline Kennedy’s Failed Senate Bid


As soon as major media outlets reported that Caroline Kennedy would soon be named the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, naysayers began questioning her credentials. Will this quest for public office be more successful than her aborted bid for the New York Senator position in 2009?

When Hillary Clinton announced she would step down from the position of junior senator from New York to take the Secretary of State position in late 2008, the New York political media ran rampant with speculation about who might take her place. The buzz soon favored the daughter of the deceased President John F. Kennedy, Jr., Caroline Kennedy, who had no previous experience in public office. However, over the next month, as the narrative of the "inevitable" nominee sparked a public and political backlash, she withdrew her name from consideration. The nomination ultimately went to Kristen Gillibrand. 

Has Caroline Kennedy learned the key lessons of her failure in 2009, or is she doomed to repeat them? 

1. Have a good relationship with the person nominating you

In 2008, Kennedy didn’t necessarily have a bad relationship with then-New York Governor David Patterson before the nomination process for Clinton’s replacement began, but by the end, whatever camaraderie they may have had definitely went sour.

Patterson’s camp leaked negative rumors about Kennedy and Patterson even snapped to the press at one point, "The notion that I have to take Caroline is not coming from me. Why do you all pay so much attention to her? She’s just another person. So what?"

There’s no question that Kennedy has a better relationship with President Barack Obama, who heads the ambassador appointment process. As an early and influential supporter of his campaign, the White House knows that they still owe her one. In addition, Kennedy reportedly has a good relationship with new Secretary of State John Kerry (former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had beef with Kennedy for her endorsement of Obama during the primaries), who surely also has a say in who will represent the Department of State.

2. Make sure you want the job before people know you want the job

Kennedy made a surprise call to David Patterson on January 21, 2009 withdrawing her name from consideration for the Senate spot, citing family reasons. The move was said to come as a surprise even to those in her inner circle.

Campaign post-mortems revealed that Kennedy had serious reservations about seeking the Senate position from the outset. 

It appears that Kennedy’s family has already discussed issues that might arise if she were to be appointed to the U.S. Ambassadorship to Japan. Reports on her nomination included the tidbit that her husband would stay in New York for his job should she relocate to Japan, indicating that her family has already made decisions about how it would handle her appointment.

3. Get it right, keep it tight

No leaks. Really. During Kennedy’s Senate bid, her camp was plagued by rumors of problems in her marriage and concerns about her household employees. In addition, both her and Patterson’s camps were constantly leaking details of the nominating process, ultimately making everybody involved look bad. 

Luckily for Kennedy, the Obama White House is known for running a tight ship. Kennedy’s camp has also been a pro throughout the vetting process (if it is actually happening) for the U.S. Ambassadorship to Japan. No details about the process or Kennedy’s thoughts on it have been leaked, other than its existence, showing that her camp has learned the lesson from her failed Senate bid.

4. Public opinion matters

While early on Kennedy polled well, her numbers quickly dropped as the narrative of the "inevitable" nominee pervaded the media along with the ensuing backlash. The politicians and citizens of New York didn't care for the whiff of elitism in the "inevitable" Kennedy appointment.

By contrast, the Japanese public and politicians seem to see it as an honor that their incoming ambassador has a celebrity legacy. Kennedy already has high approval ratings in Japan and various Japanese government officials have already expressed excitement at her arrival.

According to Tokyo government spokesperson Yoshihide Suga, "It would be big news, and would deepen [the Japanese] people's feeling of friendliness [to the United States]." Various news reports have claimed that the Japanese like having a "celebrity" ambassador. 

5. Make sure you’ll be good at the job

After a few rough campaigning attempts back in the winter 2008-2009, it became clear that Kennedy might not be ready to handle the demands of political campaigning. The restrained Kennedy didn't appear to be a good fit for New York's hands-on, no-holds-barred political style.

However, Kennedy’s intellectualism and composure might be better suited for diplomacy in Japan. She would have the right celebrity credentials and her restraint would be viewed as an asset.

Now, I’m not going to make the case that Kennedy knows all that much about Japan, or even foreign relations for that matter. But historically, that isn’t much of qualification for being Ambassador to Japan (or a variety of our close allies) anyway.

All things considered, it looks like Caroline Kennedy has learned the lessons of her failed Senate bid in 2008 and has a good shot at being named the U.S. Ambassador to Japan.