Don’t underestimate the appeal of Covid lockdown-critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“You give me a piece of ground and a sword and I am going to take back this country with your help, to help all the homeless Republicans and Democrats and independents who are Americans.”
These were the closing remarks of Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. as he announced on April 19 that he is running for president in 2024. Despite the expectations of some, he did not come off as a lunatic in a tinfoil hat. Instead, his address had the kind of historical detail one does not often find in modern political speech, including a discussion of the repression of Catholics in Great Britain during the 16th through 19th centuries.
The focus of Mr. Kennedy’s announcement was his opposition to most measures taken to combat Covid-19. The media has widely publicized his opposition to vaccines, but in this speech he zeroed in on lockdowns, and most of what he said had the ring of common sense. He said, for instance, that because Covid posed a particular danger to people with obesity, it was a bad idea to keep everyone inside, closing parks and gyms and punishing people who dared to leave their homes. He also said that social isolation also had adverse effects on mental health (possibly leading to increases in depression, domestic abuse and suicide), claimed that “children all over the country have missed their [learning] milestones” and have even shown lower IQ scores during the past few years, and noted that thousands of small businesses were shuttered, at least temporarily, because of Covid.
The focus of Mr. Kennedy’s announcement was his opposition to most measures taken to combat Covid-19.
These valid criticisms of Covid policy may be overshadowed by Mr. Kennedy’s almost-20-year campaign against vaccination in general and by his repeated hyperbolic statements comparing Covid vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate him.
In late May, Real Clear Politics had Mr. Kennedy with an average of 17 percent in national polls of the race for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, with 59 percent for the incumbent, Joe Biden, and 7 percent for gadfly candidate Marianne Williamson. One should not read too much into early polls, but there are reasons to suspect that Mr. Kennedy will be around for a while. One poll from April, by AP-NORC, showed that nearly half of all Democrats did not want Mr. Biden to run again, and concerns about his age are not likely to disappear. Mr. Biden’s move to make South Carolina the first official Democratic primary also gives Mr. Kennedy an opening in New Hampshire, which is virtually certain to hold the “first” primary anyway, even if Mr. Biden is not on the ballot. Mr. Kennedy could force the president to move past his limited, front-porch approach to campaigning sooner than expected.
One should not read too much into early polls, but there are reasons to suspect that Mr. Kennedy will be around for a while.
Things have also changed since “anti-vaxxers” were largely seen as cranks, along with flat-earthers and people who think Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. As The Atlantic’s Julie Beck put it in 2015, when vaccines were being linked, without evidence, to autism, vaccine skepticism was “the domain of hippie liberal mothers who distrust modern medicine.” Covid-19 changed that. There has been a significant rise in people expressing hesitancy toward vaccines in general, as well as a sense of fatigue with endless Covid booster shots.
The possibility of a wider anti-vaccine movement did not emerge out of a vacuum. For years, both Democratic and Republican politicians gave cover to the movement, and liberals like Jon Stewart gave respectful coverage of Mr. Kennedy’s activism against vaccines. And in 2020, Democrats like Kamala Harris repeatedly hinted that the Trump administration was rushing government approval of a vaccine to help his re-election. Given how politicized Covid policy became, it was only a matter of time until vaccine skepticism became a badge of honor and a sign of loyalty to the former president or simply a way to stick it to all the people who supported lockdowns.
Another Ted Kennedy…or another Pat Buchanan?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. obviously brings to mind his late uncle Ted, who challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. However, a closer comparison may be Pat Buchanan, the Republican who opposed George H.W. Bush for renomination in 1992. As chronicled by his biographer Timothy Stanley, Mr. Buchanan launched what he called the Middle American Revolution, arguing that working-class Americans were losing ground economically and were being mocked by a bipartisan elite class consisting of Wall Street Republicans and Democrats contemptuous of traditional values like patriotism and religious devotion. George Wallace, Richard Nixon and even some Democrats such as Barbara Mikulski and Daniel Patrick Moynihan had made similar points in the ’60s and ’70s, but Mr. Buchanan breathed new life into the idea.
Covid lockdowns are unlikely to return for the 2024 election, but there is still anger about them, and R.F.K. Jr. tapped into this sentiment during his announcement speech.
Mr. Buchanan’s quixotic campaign attracted people long consigned to the sidelines of American politics. Mr. Stanley writes that it included “an army of Catholic trade-unionists” and “was an extraordinary alliance between scholars and workers.” In working-class neighborhoods, people flung $10 bills at him and cheered when he entered their pubs. He ended his campaign with 367 delegates and nearly three million primary votes, or around 23 percent of the vote. Against an incumbent president, this was an impressive score.
Covid lockdowns are unlikely to return for the 2024 election (Democrats know it would be political suicide to advocate for them), but there is still anger about them, and R.F.K. Jr. tapped into this sentiment during his announcement speech. He said that the lockdowns cost $16 trillion (this would include lost economic output and the cost of treating Covid patients), and in exchange the United States got 500 new billionaires (mostly in the pharmaceutical industry) and the devastation of small businesses. Trust in government, the media and other major institutions is at or near record lows. Add to this thehypocrisy of politicians in both parties in flouting Covid restrictions (and the inconsistency in messages about social distancing when it came to Black Lives Matter protests), and Mr. Kennedy’s outsider status looks better and better. Mr. Stanley mentioned that Buchanan voters hated both big business and the government that helped big business. Mr. Kennedy could as easily tap into that feeling.
The Kennedy family no longer captures the imagination of the American public the way it once did, but many still long for the “Camelot” era that was snuffed out by Lee Harvey Oswald and for the promised return that was prevented by Sirhan Sirhan. Who’s to say that R.F.K. Jr. will not capture some of the old magic? Already he has labeled himself a “Kennedy Democrat”:
I don’t want the Democratic Party to be the party of fear and pharma and war and censorship. We have to be more than just neocons with woke bobbleheads. We need…to stand up to corporations…to stand against war…to put our children first…to stop listening to the large corporations…. That’s what a “Kennedy Democrat” is. We need to bring this party back to the party of F.D.R., of J.F.K., of R.F.K., Martin Luther King, and those values.
There are two other quotations that might be relevant to the upcoming campaign. The first is from the reporter Jack Newfield in 1971:
[L]iberal Democrats governed the country. But nothing basic got done to make life decisively better for the white workingman. When he bitched about street crime, he was called a Goldwaterite by liberals who felt secure in the suburbs behind high fences and expensive locks. When he complained about his daughter being bused, he was called a racist by liberals who could afford to send their own children to private schools…. Liberal hypocrisy created a lot of [George] Wallace votes in 1968.
The other is from former president Richard Nixon during the 1992 campaign. After speaking with Mr. Buchanan, the “Old Man” told reporters, “There’s only one thing worse in politics than being wrong, and that’s being dull. And Pat Buchanan is far from dull.” The same might soon be said of Robert Francis Kennedy Jr.