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May 2, 2023

RFK Jr.’s Threat to Biden

An octogenarian Joe Biden knows history bears a warning for him.

Joe Biden is a nostalgia president. He’s a link to the Obama era, of course. But he’s also a living reminder of the days when Democrats were automatically the party of white ethnics, especially Irish Catholics.

For senior white voters in the Democratic coalition, the professed Catholic and Irish-ish Biden is an older, lesser Kennedy — but an heir to JFK nonetheless.

Only now Biden has to contend with a real Kennedy for next year’s Democratic presidential nomination.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced his bid not even two weeks ago and already polls at 20% in the Democratic race. That’s partly a function of his famous name, of course.

It’s also a symptom of the party’s unease about Biden. A majority of Democrats NBC News recently polled said he shouldn’t seek reelection. Overall, the survey found some 70% of Americans think Biden shouldn’t run.

An octogenarian Joe Biden knows history bears a warning for him. The last Democratic president to be challenged for re-nomination was Jimmy Carter.

The challenger then, too, was a Kennedy. Carter beat Ted Kennedy in the primaries only to lose the 1980 general election to Ronald Reagan.

Republican precedents are equally alarming. Pat Buchanan’s success marshaling GOP discontent against President George H.W. Bush in 1992 wasn’t sufficient to deny Bush the nomination. But it did portend his defeat by Bill Clinton that November.

Above all there’s the example of RFK Sr. His insurgent challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries forced the president to withdraw from the race. Only an assassin’s bullets stopped Bobby Kennedy from becoming the Democratic nominee that year.

RFK Jr. doesn’t credit the official story of his father’s murder. He’s convinced Sirhan Sirhan did not fire the fatal shots. He also holds the CIA culpable for the murder of his uncle in Dealey Plaza 60 years ago.

Robert Kennedy Jr.‘s penchant for “conspiracy theories” leads Biden-friendly commentators and political strategists to dismiss him.

He threatens to spoil their myth that Republicans are the crazy party, whether or not he poses any risk to Biden.

But in fact conspiracy theories have as much of a home in the Democratic Party as in the GOP, if not more of one.

The difference is that Democratic conspiracy theories, such as those alleging Russian responsibility for the election of Donald Trump in 2016, often come with the imprimatur of prestigious media outlets.

RFK Jr., on the other hand, is a Democrat whose conspiratorial beliefs don’t dependably align with the elite media’s prejudices. He’s long believed that vaccines contribute to autism. And he’s a fiery critic of Anthony Fauci and the response by government and the medical establishment to COVID-19.

Views like those are supposed to be the province of QAnon, not Democratic primary voters, according to the commentators who routinely burnish the party’s image — and tarnish the GOP’s.

But the guardians of the Democratic Party’s respectability are in for a rude awakening. The Kennedy name, Biden’s weakness and the profound distrust millions of Americans feel toward institutions such as the CIA, the media and the pharmaceutical companies will make RFK Jr. formidable.

The fact that Marianne Williamson, a longshot who shares many of Kennedy’s views but not his family fame, is polling at 8% to 9% in the Democratic race is further evidence that a reckoning is at hand.

Whatever the sordid realities of Camelot, for millions of baby boomers the Kennedys still represent a dream deferred. JFK personally showed how an Irish Catholic could assimilate all the way to the top of America’s institutions, and if he could, then so could a kid of any background.

Irish Americans like the Kennedys could be proud of their heritage while also being proud Americans. Raising up a John F. Kennedy didn’t mean tearing down a Thomas Jefferson.

JFK’s assassination only prolonged the dream. The nightmare of the Lyndon Johnson years, of Vietnam and the triumph of the civil-rights movement turning into the tragedy of Martin Luther King’s murder and the burning of America’s cities, couldn’t taint the memory of the martyred hero.

RFK Sr.’s murder spared him, too, of responsibility for his party’s capture by the culturally radical left and the Democrats’ defeats by Richard Nixon.

The Kennedys are the enduring symbol of a liberalism, and a party, that died in the 1960s. It lives only in the nostalgia of an idealistic generation that’s now far from youthful. When the baby boomers die, the Kennedy dream, of a Democratic Party that is inclusive yet proud of America’s past rather than ashamed of it, will also be over.

Biden, leader of a party whose liberalism is very different, hid behind the Kennedy dream. RFK Jr. takes that away. And the bottomless sense of betrayal that animates Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an epitaph for a generation. Boomer Democrats loved the American dream. But they failed the real America.


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