AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
If not for his name, most Democrats would be quick to argue that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has nothing going for him in his long-shot primary challenge to Joe Biden. But whispers are beginning to arise that perhaps, just perhaps, Biden and his team should start taking the Kennedy challenge seriously.
Biden’s numbers remain soft, but more worryingly, Kennedy, rather than proving an inexperienced flake, has shown remarkable energy. He clearly takes his bid seriously.
Kennedy has never held elected office and is estranged ideologically from the rest of the party, especially on issues of foreign policy and vaccines. Even the power of the Kennedy name itself has seemed to fade with time. In 2020, Congressman Joe Kennedy III lost his primary challenge to Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey, widely considered one of the most backbench members of that body. Furthermore, Joe Biden is an incumbent, who has followed a highly partisan and ideological approach while in office, and is nominally supported by every major figure and faction within the party.
Yet Kennedy has made the most of his unconventional views, arguing they represent independence from the elites of the Democratic Party, and that they represent the sentiment of many grassroots Democrats.
While it is unlikely Kennedy represents majority sentiment, it has long been conceded, even by Democrat leaders, that the party’s voters are far less enticed by the open-borders approach increasingly advocated by younger Democrat leaders. Likewise, enthusiasm for Zelensky mixed with hostility to Putin cannot erase decades of skepticism of foreign entanglements among Democrat activists who opposed George W. Bush over Iraq.
Even on the issue where Kennedy is seen as furthest from the mainstream, his attitude to vaccines, there is an audience on the left. In fact, prior to 2021, vaccine skepticism tended to be associated more with the left-wing of the political spectrum and its historic distrust of Big Pharma than with the American right, which tended to trust corporate America over the government.
In Kennedy, Democrats may be getting flashbacks to another unconventional campaign, that of Bernie Sanders in 2016. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had seemingly secured a clear road to the nomination, having forced then-Vice President Joe Biden out of the race. Her two challengers were Martin O’Malley, the former two-term governor of Maryland who in other circumstances would have been considered a perfectly viable nominee, and Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s Senator who was not even formally a Democrat, having been elected as a socialist independent.
As with Kennedy, who branded himself “an evidenced-based person” in a SiriusXM interview with Michael Smerconish, Sanders tried to spin his extreme views as novel, balancing heresy on gun rights with his support for universal healthcare.
Kennedy’s appearance on Smerconish also illustrated another similarity with the Sanders campaign through his efforts to reach demographics that mainstream Democrats ignored using mediums they avoided. This approach also led Kennedy to an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, prompting an angry response from Democrats which illustrated one of the problems the party has, especially when it comes to appealing to male voters. It was arguably Sanders’s decision to embrace Democratic orthodoxy on guns and immigration which helped sink his 2020 campaign, removing its unique appeal without reconciling his elite opponents to his candidacy.
Kennedy has gone further. He recently took part in a Twitter space with Elon Musk, a major bogeyman to the left, and received the endorsement of Musk’s predecessor, Jack Dorsey. He has also reached out to former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, another critic of Biden’s interventionist foreign policy.
How much movement this is producing in the polls is a matter of perspective. Over recent weeks, Kennedy has consistently begun to poll in the double-digits, reaching 20 percent in CNN’s most recent poll. While that was still 40 percent behind Joe Biden’s 60 percent support, it is beginning to become too close for comfort for the president and his supporters.
While Kennedy drew 20 percent support, 44 percent more indicated they were open to considering him, showing that his views have yet to prove disqualifying. Biden’s current RealClearPolitics average lead of 59-17 percent is actually smaller than Clinton’s lead of 59 -12 percent over Sanders on June 8, 2015.
The real worry for the Biden campaign, and Democrat leadership, is less losing to Kennedy and more the fear they will be forced to run an actual campaign against him. Currently their policy is to treat Biden as the nominee, Kennedy as a flake on par with the other declared candidate, psychic Marianne Williamson, and the primary as nonexistent.
This solves a number of thorny issues for them.
First, it negates the need to debate. Debating would be problematic for Biden in a number of ways. It would attract attention to his mental condition and age, which might well not produce a favorable impression. It is far from clear there will even be general election debates, as there will be plenty of opportunities for negotiations to “founder” over the “neutrality” of the moderators and formats, and Biden’s public appearances have been strictly curated. His fall during a recent speech at the Air Force Academy seemed to justify these worries.
Even absent concerns over Biden’s fitness to debate, a confrontation with Kennedy holds large downsides and few possible benefits. Kennedy’s views on vaccines, Ukraine, and immigration are minority positions with the Democrat Party, but contrary to the insistence of Biden team, they are not non-existent minorities.
On some level they represent 20-25 percent sentiment rather than 2-3 percent, and Biden will need to rally the support of old anti-interventionist leftwingers and those distrustful of big pharma in a general election, especially if he is facing a Republican nominee skeptical of both and on the attack when it comes to the medicalization of minors with gender dysphoria.
The clearest method of crushing Kennedy in a Democrat primary debate – highlighting his views which are unpopular with the majority of Democrats – would involve attacking as fringe cranks the very voters Biden will need in a general election.
Second, even if debates are avoided, actually running a primary campaign carries hazards of its own. Some are similar to those regarding debates. An active campaign would highlight Biden’s age and polarize the party on the issues Kennedy hopes to highlight.
But the greatest obstacles to an active Biden primary campaign are self-inflicted. Where would Biden run this campaign?
In 2021, the Democratic National Committee undertook a review of the primary process, at the end of which it decided to terminate the Iowa caucuses’ first in the nation status, replacing it with a South Carolina primary.
This had the effect of making New Hampshire’s primary the second in the nation, a violation both of Biden’s campaign promises and of New Hampshire state law. Worse, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa all have Republican legislatures which refused to move their contests, with the result that the DNC has been faced with the choice of surrendering its authority, or insisting these primaries are illegitimate.
The DNC would have loved to postpone this choice until 2028 by avoiding a 2024 primary process altogether. Kennedy, by proving viable enough to puncture this illusion, a threshold far below that needed to seriously win, is upsetting these hopes. He is freely campaigning in New Hampshire, while Biden has to insist the New Hampshire primary itself is illegal, which both insults the state and precludes campaigning.
Yet accepting the legitimacy of a New Hampshire primary in 2024 carries risks of its own. The new calendar was championed by substantial elements of the Democrat Party who felt that largely white and rural Iowa and New Hampshire failed to properly represent the party.
South Carolina’s move to first was no accident. Its primary electorate is majority African-American, and in 2020 those voters along with Congressman Jim Clyburn’s endorsement secured Joe Biden the nomination. Allowing New Hampshire a veto on South Carolina’s reward would be seen by African-American Democrats as a betrayal and leadership knuckling under to a “white temper tantrum” yet again.
In the background must linger the ghosts of Hillary 2016. In that year, Hillary Clinton mobilized all the resources of the DNC and polarized the primary electorate along ideological and racial lines in order to beat Bernie Sanders.
In particular, Clinton castigated Sanders as the candidate of resentful white and Latino men: “Bernie bros.”
It worked, barely. But in the general election the bill came due with those groups swinging to Donald Trump or sitting it out.
There is no doubt Biden can crush Kennedy the way Clinton did Sanders in 2016, but the challenge will be to do so without paying the price Hillary paid in November.
All of this comes together to create a major headache for the Biden team when it comes to Robert Kennedy. Kennedy is not strong enough to threaten to wrest the nomination from Biden, but he does not need to be to throw Biden world into a crisis.
All Kennedy has to do is run a viable campaign, sufficient to make ignoring it as risky as engaging. Biden can only lose if he engages, which is why the Democratic Party and Biden White House wish to pretend that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., does not exist.
Daniel Berman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.