Larry Sabato
Larry Sabato (UVA Center for Politics)
Larry Sabato
Political Analyst
Wednesday, December 17, 2008; 1:00 PM

Larry Sabato, political analyst and director of the UVA Center for Politics, was online Wednesday, Dec. 17, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss Caroline Kennedy's decision to seek the New York Senate seat of Hillary Clinton, the case of embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and government corruption, the Cabinet appointments of President-elect Barack Obama, new committee appointments on Capitol Hill and more.

A transcript follows.


Larry Sabato: Hello everyone. Looking forward to your questions today. I remember a time when politics slowed down or disappeared entirely over the holidays. That era is gone forever--along with extended vacations and time away from phone, Blackberry, pager, etc. Larry Sabato


Vienna, Va.: No question, just wanted to give a you a WAHOOWA from an intro to politics student from 2002. Thanks!

Larry Sabato: Wahoo-wa right back at ya. Good way to start. I didn't get this one wrong.


Fairfax, Va.: What do you make of Obama's willingness to tap senators (Biden, Clinton, Salazar) for key roles in his administration?

Larry Sabato: Notice they are all from states with Democratic Governors. Until the Blago mess, that guaranteed Democratic successors without many questions. Now the press and public are scrutinizing the appointments more closely, as they should have been doing all along. Between the selling of Senate seats and Americans' apparent obsession with dynasty--despite our anti-royalty origins--I'm not sure democracy is as healthy as we'd like it to be. P.S. There ought to be more attention given to the Delaware case. The Biden-Minner appointment of a Biden-loyalist seat-warmer was the most outrageous since JFK got Gov. Foster Furcolo of Mass. to appoint his anonymous Harvard roommate Ben Smith to the JFK seat in 1960, so that Smith could warm the seat for then-28-year-old Teddy. The Delaware deal is all designed to deliver the seat to son Beau Biden. Maybe we should just put Senate seats up for bid to those who are rich and famous, with all money going to retire the national debt?

One more postscript: Obama is a man of the Senate. Naturally, he would be inclined to choose people he knows.


Washington, D.C.: Rep.-elect Joseph Cao of New Orleans has a great personal story, but do you see any scenario in 2010 under which he beats any Democrat not under indictment?

Larry Sabato: Cao is a wunderkind, but most likely also a one-term wonder. It's always possible that local Democrats would split six ways to Sunday, giving Cao a second term, but I doubt it. IDEA: Cao has also done good duty on the corruption front, ridding the House of Dollar Bill Jefferson. Why not extend his corruption killing to the Senate? I'm amazed that Bobby Jindal--who had distanced himself from "Diaper David" Vitter--is now helping Vitter raise money, despite Vitter's prostitution scandal. The GOP ought to encourage Cao to take on Vitter in the new party primary for Senate in 2010. I'll bet if Cao takes Vitter out, Cao would win statewide. SLOGAN: "One corrupt pol down, one to go." Republicans would get rid of a family-values hypocrite, while electing another prominent minority officeholder from Louisiana, broadening their appeal to non-whites.


Sun Prairie, Wisc.: Mr. Sabato: Welcome and thanks for doing this chat. What do you know about musical chairmanships on the Senate Appropriations Committee? Who will get what?

Larry Sabato: As I understand it, the youthful Sen. Dan Inouye (D-HI), age 84, is replacing 91-year-old Robert Byrd (D-WV) as Approps Chairman. And Inouye, a Democrat, actually tried to reelect the corrupt Ted Stevens (R-AK). Isn't the Senate a wondrous institution? It's also become a taxpayer-supported nursing home. The last Senate was, on average, the oldest in American history. This new one isn't much better.


Anonymous: Interesting how many articles about Kennedy possibly being named senator discuss whether she is qualified to be senator, but not whether she is THE most qualified person to be senator. I have yet to see any comprehensive list of the other possibilities, and comparative experience and positions. I guess it's boring to write about them. Won't Gov. Paterson look like he's caving in to pressure if he appoints Kennedy?

Larry Sabato: This one is complicated. All of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s have a special place in our heart for Caroline Kennedy because of November 22, 1963, and later family tragedies. That memory, not just fame, is at work here. You are certainly right that she isn't anywhere near the MOST qualified person to serve in the Senate from New York. Of course, as Harry Truman once supposedly said, "Thousands of people would make a better President than me. But I'm here." Paterson needs to find someone who can fund two campaigns in quick succession (2010 and 2012), plus strengthen the D ticket in 2010 when he'll be running for his first elected term as Governor. Caroline certainly fits the bill. On the other hand, New York has become so Democratic it's hard to see any Republican being all that competitive statewide, even an able one like Congressman Peter King. Maybe we should just go ahead and change the name of the Senate to the House of Lords. That's the way they think of themselves anyway. :)


Falls Church, Va.: What happens to next year's governor's race should Gov. Kaine accept a nomination to be Secretary of Transportation and Lieutenant Gov. Bill Bolling becomes the governor? What will McDonnell do? Who does it help?

Larry Sabato: Kaine has insisted that he will not leave the Governorship for the Cabinet. No VA Governor has failed to complete his term since the four-year term was established in 1852. At this point, despite his willingness to leave to become VP, I think we have to take Kaine at his word.


Americans' apparent obsession with dynasty: Why is this suddenly a problem with Carolyn Kennedy after all the years of the Bush Dynasty? No double standards, please.

Larry Sabato: I can't speak for others but I've written about the problems of dynastic politics for years--Bushes, Clintons, you name it.


Fairfax Station, Va.: Will Virginia likely benefit in more government largess from its support of President-elect Barack Obama (and Gov. Tim Kaine's early and active support), the addition of three new Democratic congressmen and the election of Mark Warner to join Jim Webb as the Commonwealth's second Democratic senator?

Larry Sabato: You'd think so. Too bad the nation is bankrupt.

All those Virginians ought to convince Pres-elect Obama to appoint some Southerners to high posts. So far, not a one in the Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies. Obama cracked the Solid GOP South. I'm surprised he's not putting people from VA, NC, and FL front and center. Those three Southern mega-states are part of his base, and potentially part of the new Democratic base.


Oak Park, Mich.: Looking at Obama's cabinet I couldn't help noticing that there are no Jewish people running any department. This may be an irrelevant point, but with all the attention that is paid to filling certain quotas (Hispanics, women, southerners) I wonder when the last time there was such a goyish cabinet. (Rahm Emmanuel aside)

Larry Sabato: Rahm = six normal Cabinet officers. It's a published scientific formula.


Kettering, Ohio: Step into the WayBack Machine (pat pending) for a moment. About when did we surrender the government to the permanent political class? I suspect we have had politicians since Washington had to lobby to keep his job as general in charge of the war. Is there a way to take it back when such a large percentage of voters think its everyone else's rep that is corrupt, not their own?

Larry Sabato: Elites always play a disproportionate role in any society, no matter how egalitarian it tries to be. Most people don't have the time or financial freedom to devote to running for high political office. The Founding Era was worse in this regard. But because of the enormous cost of modern campaigns, and the overweening influence of celebrity/Hollywood/etc., it may be getting worse.


New York, N.Y.: The recent GOP attempts to link Blagojevich and Obama are looking more and more like a bust given the lack of evidence -- and the fact that according to polls the public doesn't see any real connection between the two men. So why do you think the media is still harping?

Larry Sabato: I agree with you that there's probably little there, beyond the normal interest that an administration would have in getting a Senate seat filled with an ally. But I have to defend the media here. For a team with nothing to hide, the Obama folks have been acting suspiciously. One of the oldest rules in politics is that you get out all the relevant information just as quickly as you reasonably can. The Obama team hasn't done that. Now they're saying it's at the request of Fitzgerald. Perhaps. It does seem suspicious that the prosecutor has given them permission to release the information just before Christmas, when no one will be paying attention. And remember Obama's very weak denunciation of Blago's outrageous actions? All of this adds up to...well, we don't know. Maybe nothing. But I'd rather have a watchdog press than a lapdog press.


Reston, Va.: When I went to UVA, I was told as a Northern Virginian that I wasn't from the "real Virginia." I felt they were right. But now that the state has gone the way of NoVa is that now the "real Virginia?"

Larry Sabato: Well, then, you have the last laugh! The first shall be last and the last shall be first. When I was growing up, NoVa was under 10% of the population, now it has a third of the population. You can't elect people statewide on your own, but if you make common cause with Hampton Roads, the central cities, and the college towns, you've got a majority, as Obama (and Warner and Webb and Kaine) showed. Wahoo-wa.


North Manchester, Ind.: I think it is way too early to include NC, VA and FL in a "new Democrat base." This election was more about an unpopular president than a shift in politics. That is the only way to account for a woefully inexperienced candidate being elected. Even Palin had more executive experience than Obama.

Larry Sabato: POTENTIAL new Democratic base. Oh, and your Indiana too. I'm looking at real votes from Nov. 4, 2008. It's all we have to go on until future elections produce more real votes.


NYC: If Kennedy takes Clinton's seat, how long will it be that there has been a Kennedy in the Senate or in Congress? It's gotta be like 50 years.

Larry Sabato: I assume you mean in New York State. Obviously, RFK was the first and last Kennedy representing the Empire State, 1965-1968.


Washington, D.C.: "about when did we surrender the government to the permanent political class"

I think it's moving to the acting class: Arnold, Ventura, Thompson, Franken, etc.

Larry Sabato: Good point, though they are a small minority of elected officials. Oh well, politics is entertainment in part. Might as well get the professionals in on the act.


Selling Senate seats: You said: "Maybe we should just put Senate seats up for bid to those who are rich and famous, with all money going to retire the national debt?" as a joke, but all Senate seats are available only to those who can bankroll it.

It's funny to watch people disparage the notion of pay-to-play in one breath, while earnestly talking about Kennedy's ability to fund two campaigns as her main strength in the next.

Larry Sabato: It's a legitimate comment, and I'll just let it stand as is. However, the attacks on Caroline Kennedy go too far if they suggest she is not an intelligent, able, public-spirited woman. She obviously is. And please do take a look at the roster of the current U.S. Senate. There are many members of whom it could be said, "They are not exactly worldbeaters." On the other hand, an appointment by one person is in a separate category than an actual election decided by the people. The whole process of gubernatorial appointment of interim senators is so undemocratic that it truly offends many Americans.


Re: Cao: Couldn't he switch parties and hold on to his seat that way? He doesn't seem to be an especially hard-line partisan and it's not an entirely unprecedented move. It would also be quite amusing since the Republicans have been hailing him as the savior of the party on the basis of his ability to beat a man with $90000 in his freezer.

Larry Sabato: True enough, Cao isn't an especially conservative Republican, but he seems loyal enough and I've seen no indication he would be willing to change parties. Of course, this IS Louisiana...[Side note: If you have even a few spare hours over the holidays, then read or re-read Robert Penn Warren's ALL THE KING'S MEN. Its universal lessons apply to so many current events.]


Political dynasties: But in Caroline Kennedy's case, she's not RUNNING for the Senate seat, as other children of famous politicians have done, she is asking to be appointed to it. That's a huge difference. And can you imagine the howling from the liberal press if Doro Bush asked Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint her to an empty Florida Senate seat? Kennedy is getting a pass because most reporters and editorial writers are Democrats.

Larry Sabato: Another legitimate comment and I'll just let it stand, while reserving the right to disagree with some of it.


Kennedy tenure: Credit to dawn-patrol NPR, so don't hold me to this exactly, but think that with the exception of a 2-year period in the 50s, there's been a Kennedy in the House or Senate since 1952.

Larry Sabato: JFK was elected in 1952. Except for 1961-1962, when Ben Smith substituted for JFK and Edward Kennedy, there has been a Kennedy in the Senate. Other Kennedys have served or are serving in the House.


Fairfax, Va.: Why would Salazar give up a Senate seat in a key swing state (ensuring that everybody will want to be his friend for his vote or endorsement) to take over Interior?

Larry Sabato: Salazar and Obama were Senate seatmates and friends. Also, the Senate isn't for everyone. If you have an executive bent, the snail's pace of the Senate under most circumstances can send you seeking a more action-oriented job. Salazar was a state AG before the Senate. Maybe that explains it.


The whole process of gubernatorial appointment of interim senators is so undemocratic : 22 percent of the American voters can elect a majority in the Senate. And you complain about the appointment of interim senators. Yawn.

Larry Sabato: Actually, it's 17%. And because of this, I proposed a more representative Senate in my book, A More Perfect Constitution.


Gramercy Park: There was some talk of Caroline needing to learn how to milk a cow if she wanted to be New York's junior senator. Do you think cow milking is as important as the pork she'll bring home for New Yorkers?

Larry Sabato: I'm a vegetarian so I wouldn't want to comment.


Bethesdak Md.: "But I'd rather have a watchdog press than a lapdog press." Sure, but what a coincidence that we seem to get the former during Democratic administrations, and the latter during Republican ones...

By the way, is there anything new about our dynastic tendencies? I mean, it goes back at least as far as the two Presidents Adams. And the Roosevelts. And George H.W. Bush probably wouldn't have gotten far without Senator Prescott Bush before him. Etc., etc.

Larry Sabato: You are correct that the dynasty controversy isn't new. But it is a discussion we ought to have, and need to have. It raises basic questions about how our system functions, or doesn't.


Re: Senators in the Administration: I just think it's interesting because since Bentsen in 1993, a sitting senator hasn't been chosen. That's most of the Clinton presidency and all of Bush's. Now Obama has taken at least three. Given the usual mid-term struggles of the party occupying the White House, putting three Senate seats potentially in play if the GOP nominates the right candidate seems like it could backfire. It will at least divert resources to protect those seats from expanding the field.

Larry Sabato: Good point. Of course, the Senate seats in NY and DE are very likely to be held by just about any Democrat. I would have said the same thing about Illinois, until a funny thing happened recently. The Colorado seat could be interesting and competitive. It all depends upon who is appointed and who runs.


New York, N.Y.: It's interesting that we mock celebrities who run for office. I used to as well, but then I thought: Why should elected officials ALL be lawyers and career politicos?

Shouldn't we be a nation where everyone tries to get involved, rather than just leave it to a narrow group of people? Our representatives should also be teachers, doctors, farmers, so why not actors, writers, and broadcasters, too?

Maybe there's a lot of ego here, but I think it's a noteworthy sacrifice to give up a lucrative cushy lifestyle for a run at public office. I know I'd never do that.

Larry Sabato: Good comment and counter-thrust. It's just that celebrity has become the alpha and omega of our politics. Where are all those teachers and farmers and doctors? I see very few of them running for high office.


Edenburg, N.Y. : In 2000 we got all this media-amplified whining about how we needed to know immediately who won Florida, and to heck with making an accurate count. We have something similar going on in Minnesota now, where the voters came out in numbers which should only be envied by the rest of the country, and where an orderly procedure is being followed to determine the result of an election, that for all practical purposes, is a dead-heat election. What do we have in this country, a bunch of three-year-olds who require immediate gratification? To listen to some of these people, many of them reporters, this is such an emergency and catastrophe that we don't know who won yet. How embarrassing.

Larry Sabato: Damned if you do, damned if you don't. My problem with races like Minnesota Senate is that, assuming the final difference is just a handful of votes, decisions are made in counting some votes and not others that are inherently controversial and truly in the grey area. Therefore, I've always supported the concept of runoff election between the top two contenders if no one gets, say, 45%. Both Coleman and Franken received a mere 42%, because of independent Dean Barkley's 15%. The 1974 New Hampshire Senate race runoff was a good precedent in cases like this.


Farmers: Jimmy Carter!

Larry Sabato: Apologies to the most famous peanut farmer ever.


Redistricting: How do you see the state legislatures and governorships shaking out for redistricting after the census? With Richardson in charge of Commerce I am guessing Hispanics will be counted at a far more accurate ratio.

Larry Sabato: Democrats are off to a good start given their gains in both governorships and state legislative seats in 2006 and 2008. Since the post-Census redistricting doesn't occur until 2011, though, the Republicans have a chance to come back in the 2010 midterms, when 36 governorships and thousands of state legislative posts are on the ballot. So we'll see.


Rochester, N.Y.: In the 1930s and early 1960s, Democrats had enormous majorities in the House and Senate. Not coincidentally, that was when Civil Rights, Social Security, etc., were enacted. How large a majority (say in the Senate) would Dems need to get immigration and health care reform through now?

Larry Sabato: The Democrats already have large enough majorities, even in the Senate where several Republicans can probably be counted upon to support most of Obama's initiatives in the first year. But will the awful economy and the crushing debt give Obama and Congress the running room to do much on many of their campaign proposals?


Tuckahoe, N.Y. : By a guick count, the last Senate (with the departing Stevens and Dominici) had 13 members who were 75 or older, and the average age was 62. The youngest member was Sununu, and he lost. There's also a ton of these folks who are past the retirement age of 70. You would think the demands of the TV age would have checked this trend of super-annuated senators, but the trend seems to be going the other way.

Larry Sabato: If you had a couple dozen staffers and loads of perks to support your career 24/7, plus millions of taxpayer dollars and millions more contributed by 'friends', you might well skip retirement, too. Without assistance, the golden years are overrated. :)


Jesse Jackson Jr.?: Is Jesse Jackson Jr. a hero for blowing the whistle on Blagojevich, or a fink for ratting him out? In the short run will this hurt Jackson? What about in the long run?

Larry Sabato: Jackson probably has a long, productive career ahead of him--in the House. Maybe it's fair, maybe it's unfair, although as I always say, life isn't fair and politics is the least fair part of life.


UVA alum, Richmond: Larry,

My theory on the Virginia gov's race: The Democrats were so effective in registering new voters, and so long as Obama doesn't crash and burn in his first year, McDonnell is going to have a very tough time. The Democrats will be better off with Deeds because he'll carry NoVA and hold his own in the rural areas. Bonus question: How many times will Obama visit Virginia and stump for the Democrat?

Larry Sabato: There were a good dozen questions and comments about the VA Governor's race. We're all grateful to VA and NJ for having these off-off-year elections to keep the political community busy, but I'm determined to push them all into the actual election year, 2009. I apologize to all of you who asked about the topic, but don't you want to save something for 2009? :)


RE: Louisiana Politics: "Republicans would get rid of a family-values hypocrite, while electing another prominent minority officeholder from Louisiana, broadening their appeal to non-whites. "

Wow, you always think of everything, Prof. Sabato. What should I get my Aunt Trudee for Christmas?

Larry Sabato: Don't get her anything political. It only generates arguments. And a Merry Christmas to her from me.


Larry Sabato: Many thanks to all who participated. I am sorry I could not get to even half the submitted questions, but the chat has already extended almost twice as long as scheduled. We'll continue next time. And happy holidays to all, and may you have a new year filled with politics. Larry Sabato


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