No elected president has been denied his party’s nomination for a second term since Franklin Pierce in 1856. The last time one even faced a serious primary opponent was 1992, when Pat Buchanan challenged George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination. And the last time it happened on the Democratic side was when Ted Kennedy ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
But according to recent polling, only 37 percent of Democrats say they want Joe Biden to seek a second term. His age has a lot to do with that. But so does the state of the country.
Biden came into office surrounded by credulous journalists hailing him as a second FDR. He’s utterly failed to live up to the hype. If anything, the recently concluded debt ceiling negotiations made him look more like a second Bill Clinton — haggling with Republicans about exactly how much to shrink the welfare state. Meanwhile, the United States is becoming ever more deeply involved in a potentially catastrophic war between Russia and Ukraine.
All of this creates an opening for a primary challenger. Ted Kennedy’s nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, has stepped in to fill that niche. He’s not the only Democrat running against Biden — Marianne Williamson is too — but in most polls I’ve seen, Kennedy is well ahead of her. And it’s not hard to see why he might emerge as Biden’s most prominent challenger. On the one hand, he comes from a lineage of Democratic Party royalty. On the other hand, he’s an edgy antiestablishment “populist.”
Or at least that’s how he’s been widely portrayed — both by commentators who are repulsed by Kennedy’s proclivity for anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and by those who find his criticisms of the Biden administration compelling. But the populism label is false advertising. On key issues from Israel/Palestine to Medicare for All, RFK Jr’s politics are a thousand miles away from his branding.
A Bold Truth-Teller?
Is Kennedy really a tribune of ordinary people screwed over by powerful interests? If so, it might be surprising that so many of his biggest fans are on the Right. He recently hung out on Twitter Spaces with union-busting billionaire Elon Musk, and last month a paean of praise for Kennedy appeared in the conservative journal National Review.
The author of the National Review piece, Matthew Scully, calls Kennedy “courageous of heart.” He writes that the mainstream media is hostile to the Kennedy campaign because of RFK Jr’s “inability to tolerate the intellectual dishonesty he finds in his antagonists.” He says that Kennedy would still be in liberals’ good graces “if only he didn’t have so much integrity.”
Much of this is about Kennedy’s stance on COVID-19. It’s probably true that he wouldn’t be such a pariah if he weren’t a “skeptic” about vaccines and masking — although the claim that his positions on these issues display honesty and integrity is far more dubious. For example, Kennedy has claimed that there are “mountainous archives of peer-reviewed science supporting the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.” But meta–analyses of the research so far show exactly the opposite. Nathan Robinson and Lily Sánchez look at this and a number of other examples in a long article on Kennedy’s COVID conspiracism and conclude that “he’s telling people lies that will endanger their health.”
That would be bad enough if it were his only flaw. Part of the job of a president, after all, is to provide leadership during public health emergencies. But COVID policy isn’t likely to loom as large in the 2024 election, as some voters might care less about whether Kennedy thought they should get vaccinated two years ago than where he stands on health care policy in general right now.
Is Kennedy prepared to pick up where Bernie Sanders left off in 2020, continuing the fight to put an end to the parasitical private insurance industry and institute Medicare for All?
Antiestablishment or Just Eccentric?
In a recent interview with left-wing journalist Krystal Ball, Kennedy was asked whether, given the hostility to the pharmaceutical companies he often expresses while talking about vaccines, he’d be willing to support a “public option” for pharmaceuticals or maybe even the outright nationalization of the industry. He immediately dismissed this, saying, “Oh, I don’t think that’s the right thing,” and switching the subject to how to insulate regulatory agencies from the industry’s influence. He didn’t even pause to explain why it wouldn’t be the right thing. Apparently, he finds the suggestion too outlandish to even consider.
It’s worth noting that Kennedy’s hostility to even providing a public option to compete with privately manufactured medicine puts him to the right of California governor Gavin Newsom, a thoroughly mainstream Democrat who recently announced that California is going to start manufacturing its own insulin later this year.
The California news is one small indication of the way health care policy debates have shifted in the last decade and a half. I can remember watching then president Barack Obama on TV when he first rolled out the Affordable Care Act (the ACA, otherwise known as “Obamacare”) in 2009. Obama said that if the United States was starting its health care system over from scratch, he would prefer a “single-payer” system — what would later became known as Medicare for All. But because we weren’t “starting from scratch,” what Obama actually proposed was a market-based patchwork of regulations.
He never actually explained why the fact that we weren’t “starting from scratch” meant that we can’t switch to single-payer health care now. And it says a lot about the dismal political landscape of 2009 that hardly anyone at the time challenged him on that point.
Obama’s original proposal at least included a public option that would compete with private health insurance plans. This always would have been something much less than a half measure. Americans poor enough to qualify for Medicaid have long had a “public option” — and many doctors don’t take it. A proposal for a more widely available public option is still a proposal for two-tiered health care, and it would leave in place many of the deep injustices of the existing system. People would still stay in jobs they hated, for example, for fear of losing the better insurance they received from their employer.
Even so, a public option would be better than nothing. But Obama abandoned the public option by the time the ACA’s final form took shape.
Debates about abandoning the ACA in favor of Medicare for All dominated the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders argued for Medicare for All, while Joe Biden said he’d veto any such proposal that crossed his desk as president. Biden did, however, say that he’d support a revival of Obama’s “public option” proposal.
Where does RFK Jr stand on all this?
In the conversation last month with Ball and her cohost Saagar Enjeti, Ball asked Kennedy if he would support “universal health care through a Medicare for All program.” In his response, Kennedy shifted the goalposts in a more moderate direction, redefining “single-payer” health care to mean something more like the Obama/Biden “public option” proposal. “I would say,” he said, “[that] my highest ambition would be to have a single-payer program . . . where people who want to have private programs can go ahead and do that, but to have a single program that is available to everybody.”
Or at least this is what he would support if he were “designing the system from the beginning.” But we aren’t. And he’s not sure enacting such a system now would be “politically realistic.”
Measuring Kennedy’s Foreign-Policy Courage
As bad as that answer is, there are other subjects where Kennedy’s pronouncements are more promising. For example, he’s advocated peace negotiations in Ukraine, and in his best moments, he even talks about “unwinding” the United States’ global empire.
Actually doing any such unwinding as president would require tremendous courage and resolve, since he would be facing down fierce opposition from the “intelligence community” and America’s vast and multifaceted military-industrial complex.
How would a hypothetical President Kennedy hold up under such pressure?
We got a significant clue last week, when Kennedy made the mistake of praising Roger Waters — who’s recently been accused of antisemitism due to the rock star’s advocacy on behalf of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Whatever legitimate criticisms can be made of Waters, this one is a cheap smear.
Kennedy responded to anger about his praise for Waters not by mounting a principled defense of Palestinian human rights or condemning the weaponization of spurious accusations of bigotry, but by rolling over and playing dead. He met with a prominent supporter of Israel, Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, and abjectly apologized — pleading ignorance of Waters’s “antisemitism.” According to Boteach’s summary of the meeting, “Kennedy said his dedication to Israel’s security is unshakable and unalterable”:
I told him his father was one of Israel’s greatest friends and we in the Jewish community mourn him till this day. I then asked him to please march with me tomorrow, June 4, at the annual “Celebrate Israel Parade,” and he immediately agreed.
If Matthew Scully is right that Kennedy is “courageous of heart,” the candidate has a funny way of showing it. But Scully is probably right that Kennedy’s zany position on vaccines is the main thing keeping him out of mainstream liberals’ good graces.
As little as I like Kennedy’s stance on COVID, the way most coverage of his campaign zeroes in on that issue might be obscuring a more mundane reality. On issues ranging from Medicare for All to Palestine, he’s just another mediocre Democrat.