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Glenn Greenwald is Still Wrong about Nepotism UPDATED

You know, we all make mistakes, and blogging is, alas, a perfect breeding ground for errors. Me too: I had a whopper just yesterday. Not just factual errors, either; we guess wrong about what will happen next, we interpret something in ways that turn out to be undermined by new information...that’s just the way things are, even for the most cautious bloggers who are commenting on current political events. 

Of course, the real difference is what happens when we err. Some bloggers can be counted on to ‘fess up, toss a correction up if warranted (many mistakes, such as poor predictions, don’t need corrections), and move on. Others...well, here’s the first two paragraphs of a Glenn Greenwald post from way back in December 2008 that Glenn Greenwald again linked to approvingly today:

Bill Clinton yesterday was forced to deny speculation that he would be appointed to replace his wife in the U.S. Senate. Leading candidates for that seat still include John F. Kennedy’s daughter (Caroline)Robert Kennedy’s son (RFK, Jr.), and Mario Cuomo’s son (Andrew). In Illinois, a leading contender to replace Barack Obama in the Senate is Jesse Jackson’s son (Jesse, Jr.). In Delaware, it was widely speculated that Joe Biden would be replaced by his son, Beau, and after Beau took his name out of the running because he’s now serving in Iraq, the naming of the actual replacement -- lone-time (Joe) Biden aide Ted Kaufmann -- “upset local Democrats who believe the move was a ham-handed attempt to engineer the election of Biden’s son, Beau, to the Senate in 2010.”
Meanwhile, in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by her father to take his seat in the U.S. Senate when he became Governor, yesterday warned Sarah Palin not to challenge her in a 2010 primary, a by-product of tension between those two as a result of Palin’s defeat of Lisa’s dad for Governor. In Florida, Mel Martinez’s announcement that he won’t seek re-election in 2010 immediately led to reports that the current President’s brother, Jeb, might run for that seat. And all of that’s just from the last couple of weeks.

Got that: Bill Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, RFK, Jr., Andrew Cuomo, Jesse Jackson Jr., Beau Biden, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeb Bush, all headed to the Senate by 2011. Except that...well, none of them, of course, will be there.

So, you say, give him a break; it’s just a framing devise, and Cuomo will likely be Governor of New York, after all.  What about the meat of the post? Nope, it doesn’t get better. The next sentence claims that there were at the time 15 “current” nepotism Senators. Now, he didn’t specify whether he was talking about the 111th Senate (a month away from being seated) or the outgoing 110th, but what he did do was count Senators from both groups -- so his 15 included outgoing Senators Dole, Sununu, and Clinton and the incoming Udall cousins. In other words there were only 13 in the 111th (and 14 in the 110th). Beyond the specific numbers, Greenwald’s general point is that dynastic succession is at historic high levels and increasing, when it fact it is at historic low levels and dropping. He is absolutely correct that reporters tend to speculate about famous people when thinking about open seats, but that’s not the same thing at all as an electoral system dominated by nepotism.

Meanwhile, I did promise an update. Of the 13 who served in the 111th Senate proper (i.e. not counting Hillary Clinton), six -- Kennedy, Dodd, Bennett, Bayh, Murkowski, and Gregg -- will be gone in the 112th Senate. Seven (the Udalls, Rockefeller, Kyl, Casey, Snowe, and Pryor) remain. As near as I can tell, only one new case has emerged since I last wrote about this in the spring. Joe Manchin, likely to be the next Senator from West Virginia, is the nephew of a pol who held statewide office twice in West Virginia, although he was never governor or in Congress. Still, it counts. The other nepotism candidates I know of remaining include Rand Paul, who is a marginal favorite in Kentucky; Robin Carnahan, who has a real uphill climb in Missouri; and heavy favorite but marginal nepotism case John Boozman in Arkansas (his late older brother was briefly a state senator who ran for US Senate in 1998). It seems fairly unlikely to me that both Paul and Carnahan will win, so even counting Boozman, the 112th Senate will likely have only ten dynastic Senators. Now, I’m not going to go back and check, but my guess is that 10% of the Senate could be an all-time low.*

Back to Greenwald -- he’s been corrected on this before, by Tom Schaller, who actually has done the historical research (and, for that matter by me, on the specific factual points, such as the number of nepotism cases in the 111th Senate). Nothing in any of this speaks to whether the current levels of dynasty in elective office are too high, too low, or just right, but on the facts Greenwald’s original post was just dead wrong, and each time he links to his false claim that “what was once quite rare has now become pervasive” he’s undermining at least this reader’s confidence in everything else he says. Moreover, it’s not as if Tea Partiers shy away from dynasties, given their support for Rand Paul. I most definitely think that Greenwald has (whether one agrees or not) important things to say about critical areas of public policy, but...well, I’ll just leave it there.

*Schaller’s numbers are a bit lower; he only looked at family members who were in Congress, not all pols. I understand that research choice (it allowed him to use an existing data set and make easy comparisons across time), but I think everyone would agree that we’re interested in everyone with a family background in politics, whether or not the specific office was Congressional.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist. He blogs at A plain blog about politics.

UPDATE: see Greenwald's response here