Dem 51
image description
GOP 49
image description

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Given Rope by House Republicans, Hanged by House Democrats

Normally, we'd put the "news" part of a news item first, but in this case we're going to need to do a fair bit of background before that. In polls of the Democratic presidential race, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. consistently polls in second place, with around 15% support. This has caused much commentary across the political spectrum.

A fair bit of the commentary comes from Republicans, who are very excited by the notion that there might just be a giant-slayer out there, one who is more a Republican than a Democrat. The Junior Kennedy's praises have been sung by the likes of Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Laura Ingraham, and Jordan Peterson, among others. In addition, a very sizable chunk of RFK Jr.'s donations are from people who previously donated to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and/or to Donald Trump.

This is hardly the first time Republicans have tried to prop up the presidential campaign of a pseudo-Democrat (see Gabbard, Tulsi and Lieberman, Joe, among others). However, RFK Jr. is also being taken seriously by a meaningful segment of the non-right-wing punditry. For example, writing for The Guardian, Naomi Klein declares: "Given the undeniable strengths that Kennedy possesses as a candidate, we should expect him to continue to build momentum, and continue to find new audiences. Ignoring him is not an option." CNN's Julian Zelizer agrees; his op-ed raises concern in particular about the first Democratic primary:

The biggest problem, however, has to do with the primary calendar. At the end of last year, Biden switched the Democratic primary schedule to put South Carolina first. But New Hampshire is refusing to cede its historic spot, pointing to a state law that stipulates the Granite State must hold its primary one week before all the others.

As a result, Biden might not even appear on the New Hampshire ballot, effectively ceding the state to Kennedy and author and speaker Marianne Williamson.

With a straight face, Zelizer goes so far as to suggest that it might just turn into a Lyndon B. Johnson '68 situation, where a strong showing by a challenger in New Hampshire presaged the collapse of LBJ's reelection bid. To Zelizer's credit, he concedes this is unlikely, but he does think that if Biden doesn't address the RFK Jr. situation, it could erode the President's support.

For our part, we don't for one minute buy the notion that RFK Jr. represents a substantive threat to Biden. We'll start by noting the results of a poll from Gallup. According to their numbers, just 52% said they wanted to see the President run for reelection, whereas 37% said they would strongly favor a different candidate. Given those very grim results, you might be surprised you haven't seen any coverage of that poll. That is because it was from 2010, and the president was Barack Obama. You know, the fellow who is now the most popular Democrat in the country.

We doubt that Joe Biden will ever be as popular as Obama. However, the poll illustrates something that is true in every single election with an incumbent on the ticket: There is always, always, always a sizable number of "the grass is greener" voters. It doesn't just happen with candidates who are "too old" (Biden and Ronald Reagan), it also happens with candidates who "failed to live up to their promises" (Obama), and to candidates who "have too many scandals" (George W. Bush and Bill Clinton), and to candidates who "never won a presidential election on their own" (LBJ, Harry S. Truman). There's always a reason to worry and/or be skeptical. We have no doubt that most of Kennedy's appeal is that he's this cycle's leading "grass is greener" candidate. He's also surely getting some support because he's got a magic name, and because he's anti-vaxx (remember, there's a left-wing anti-vaxx movement, too), and because he's an environmentalist.

Nature, as we have written many times, abhors a vacuum. There was no way that Biden was going to get the Democratic nomination without an opponent of some sort. That the only two "name" challengers, RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson, are so weak is actually great news for the President. Williamson is not only whackadoodle in numerous ways, but her campaign is a train wreck that is out of money. And as more people get to know RFK Jr., they're going to learn that he's not only a crank on science-related matters, he's also a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. Oh, and he sometimes even manages to combine the two, along with more than a dash of antisemitism. Such was the case this weekend, when he shared his opinion that COVID-19 was genetically engineered so that it did not infect Chinese people or Jews.

It is possible that RFK Jr. will indeed win New Hampshire, if Joe Biden stays off the ballot. But it will mean nothing. In 1968, LBJ's problem was not that Eugene McCarthy won the Granite State. In fact, LBJ won (as a write-in candidate). The real problem was that LBJ only won by 7 points over an unknown, which in turn caused RFK Sr. to jump into the race. Unlike the son, the father was a heavyweight and a legitimate contender.

This sequence of events is not going to replicate itself in 2024. Whereas LBJ made clear he was interested in write-in votes, Biden is sure to choose an all-or-none approach. If the President sticks with the "punish New Hampshire" plan, and says he doesn't want any votes in the Granite State, then everyone will know the results are meaningless. Alternatively, he could have an outside group encourage write-in votes, which are still allowed in New Hampshire primaries. More likely, Biden will announce that New Hampshire is now on notice, but that he doesn't want to deny the state's residents the chance to weigh in just because the state's leadership is being intransigent, and so he will join the ballot. And if Biden is a candidate in New Hampshire, either officially or as a write-in candidate, he will crush Kennedy. The latest poll from the University of New Hampshire has the President up 60 points (70% to 10%).

If Kennedy was a reasonable person with a normal political program—like, say, a Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—then his shouting from the cheap seats might just do Biden some harm, as (some) Democrats would say "Wait. Why isn't Biden pursuing [policy X]?" But nearly everything that comes out of RFK Jr.'s mouth is lunacy. Very few Democrats are going to say "Why isn't Biden looking into the chemtrails? How come Biden isn't asking about the connections between COVID-19 and the Trilateral Commission?" Indeed, RFK Jr. could end up having an impact not unlike that of Strom Thurmond in 1948, showing the country what whackadoodlery looks like, and making the sitting president appear to be moderate and statesmanlike.

So, we disagree with the Naomi Kleins and Julian Zelizers of the world, and we think that RFK Jr. is not worth engaging with. As it turns out, the people who actually make tactical decisions for the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party are having this same argument. Some party strategists say that everyone should ignore Kennedy, to avoid giving him more visibility and traction. They are afraid that arguing with him only legitimizes him as a genuine candidate. Another faction is afraid that he could hurt Biden and has to be squashed like a bug. Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic state representative in South Carolina, said: "You can't let cancers metastasize."

If the Democrats decide to go after him, there is plenty of ammunition available. Not only is he a fervent anti-vaxxer and an antisemite, but he has claimed that chemicals in the water are feminizing boys and causing sexual dysphoria. In addition, he has also appeared on right-wing podcasts and is in a widely-shared photo of him with Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, suggesting that he is either an ally or a tool of right wingers. He's also one of these guys who feel the need to show off how fit they are, and so he recently appeared in a rather creepy video in which he is shirtless and showing off his abs while he performs push-ups.

Some Democrats want outside groups—not Joe Biden or the DNC—to go after RFK Jr. and take him down. One approach that has been suggested is ads that show who his friends are, rather than what his views are, since there are more than enough left-wing conspiracy theorists who will willingly buy into his ideas, just not his being buddy-buddy with Donald Trump's close allies.

If we were advising the Democrats' commercial makers—we aren't—we'd suggest another possibility. There is some question as to why Kennedy is running, since he's not going to win the presidency. And, given his career to this point, the answer is obvious: It's all about the grift. He's made millions from hawking his anti-vaxx books and videos and his natural cures, and he's going to make millions more. A few commercials that speak to RFK's profit motive would surely turn off mainstream Democratic voters, and might even reach the conspiratorial crowd.

And now, with nearly 1,900 words of background, we get to the actual news from yesterday. Again, the primary supporters of RFK Jr.'s candidacy are Republicans. After all, you can't spell ratf**king without "R-F-K," now can you? So, the Republicans who run the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government invited the candidate to speak about censorship on social media. The purpose here was to complain about how the social media (the same segment of the tech world that includes the Elon Musk-owned Twitter) is unfairly biased against conservatives, to talk about how vaccines and vaccine mandates are B.S., and to give Kennedy some exposure.

Again, Democrats are not so sure whether they should pay any attention to Kennedy. However, when he shows up to talk to Congress, they have no real choice but to engage with him. And so, they previewed what the Democrats' anti-RFK campaign might look like, should they choose to wage one. Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) highlighted the buddy-buddy relationship between the candidate and prominent Republicans. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) had pointed questions about Kennedy's antisemitic comments. Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) wondered about his sinophobia. Note that there is nothing on this list of questions/complaints that might alienate the anti-vaxx liberals.

We don't write about RFK Jr. too often, given our view that he's an unserious candidate. But the occasion of his House testimony seemed a good time to give our assessment of him, and of the response to him. And now you have that. (V & Z)

This item appeared on Read it Monday through Friday for political and election news, Saturday for answers to reader's questions, and Sunday for letters from readers.                     State polls                     All Senate candidates