It is awkward but necessary to draw comparisons between Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign for president today with the 1968 Democratic campaign in which his own father was slain.
But it is not Sen. Kennedy to whom we should be comparing RFK Jr., but rather Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the quixotic anti-war candidate who was able to expose the vulnerability of President Lyndon Johnson.
President Biden’s handlers may be acting as though they don’t consider RFK Jr. a credible threat, but that’s exactly what it is – acting. They know that their octogenarian candidate has dangerously low favorability numbers, an arrogance perhaps not seen in Washington since LBJ retired to his Texas ranch, and as many putative supporters in his party as Julius Caesar had assassins.
Meanwhile, Kennedy comes from a beloved political family, yet at the same time is a fierce outsider. That is a combination rarely seen in a candidate and gives him at least the potential to achieve enough success to demonstrate to Democrat donors and primary voters that Biden is the emperor with no clothes.
So far, Kennedy has barely edged into the low 20s in polling, and currently he lags even lower in the RealClearPolitics average. But it’s still early. At this point in 1968, LBJ seemed untouchable to the establishment media and the political class. Gene McCarthy, however, recognized that the nation was at a tipping point. And though he failed to capitalize, his campaign was the beginning of a new era of grassroots politics.
As described by PBS in an article for “The American Experience”:
He didn’t win the White House. He didn’t even win his own party’s nomination. But in 1968 Eugene McCarthy revealed major divisions among Democrats, changing the political landscape in a way few American politicians ever have.
McCarthy was an unlikely national candidate. An aloof intellectual from Minnesota, he reluctantly challenged LBJ mainly over Vietnam. But McCarthy also represented a much more radical approach to politics than the Democratic establishment at the time. McCarthy’s platform included a smorgasbord of liberal policies, some of which have since been accomplished and some of which are still being sought: guaranteed jobs, guaranteed minimum income, a federally subsidized health insurance program, affirmative action in education (although based on poverty, not race), and guaranteed quality housing.
What made McCarthy a viable candidate wasn’t his domestic agenda, however; it was his promise to end the unpopular war in Vietnam, which had already cost nearly 20,000 American lives by the time McCarthy announced his candidacy. And at a philosophical level, McCarthy was boosted by his pledge to unite the country at a time when riots and protests were televised on the nightly news with regularity:
The role of the presidency – at all times, but particularly in 1968 – must be one of uniting this nation, not by adding it up in some way, not by putting it together as a kind of jigsaw puzzle. To unify this nation means to inspire it, to encourage the development of common purposes and shared ideals, and to move toward establishing an order of justice in America.
It is widely agreed that the divisiveness of America in 1968 was as great as at any time since the Civil War. Confidence in the institutions of government was at an all-time low, partly as a result of doubts surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK Jr.’s uncle and President John F. Kennedy’s killing five years earlier. And partly because of the war itself.
These two great themes – polarization and war – are at the center of RFK Jr.’s campaign. As in 1968, we are seeing an unbridgeable gap between those who trust the institutions of government and those who don’t. Much of that doubt has been brought about by the government’s heavy-handed response to the COVID pandemic, including the mask mandates, lockdowns, and vaccine mandates. Kennedy Jr. has cornered the market among Democrats who still treasure civil rights and fear an oppressive government.
Our administration will make it a top priority to protect and restore the fundamental civil liberties, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, that hold the essence of what America can be. These liberties have endured constant assault for over twenty years, starting with the Bush/Cheney War on Terror, and accelerating in the era of COVID lockdowns.
But it should not be discounted that, just as in 1968, we are also fighting an increasingly unpopular war, not with our soldiers but with our national treasure, and as the Biden administration sends billions of dollars to Ukraine with no end in sight, RFK promises to put an end to that spending, and much more:…