Of all of the what-ifs of post-war American politics, none is extra haunting than the imaginative and prescient by which an murderer didn’t shoot down Robert Kennedy whereas he was working for president in 1968. Had Kennedy lived, runs this counterfactual historical past, he would have turn out to be president, and America would have left Vietnam years earlier. There would have been no Nixon administration, no Watergate scandal to sharpen cynicism and no profitable Republican “southern technique” to deepen racial division. The Democrats would have turn out to be the occasion of the multiracial working class, fairly than of the multiracial skilled elite.
Now, as his father challenged President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination, Robert Kennedy junior is difficult President Joe Biden. You may hear echoes of the daddy’s politics, as when the son inveighs towards “the warfare machine that’s bankrupting our nation” or towards the Democratic Occasion for “inviting Wall Avenue to strip-mine the American public”.
However in contrast to his father, this Kennedy has little probability of the nomination. Relatively than falling in love with him, leftish journalists are tearing him aside for his opposition to vaccination and his yen for conspiracy theories, together with in regards to the murders of his father and his uncle, John Kennedy. Having provided the tragedy in 1968, historical past is providing up the farce.
And but an unflattering comparability is also made with most different trendy Democratic campaigns, even permitting for mythmaking: all of them appear a bit pallid beside Kennedy’s blazing, tragic 82-day race. A mixture of idealism and pragmatism led him to attempt to reassemble the Democrats’ New Deal coalition, fractured by the Vietnam battle and the civil-rights motion. He received in late, after the New Hampshire major. One other Democratic challenger, Eugene McCarthy, a cerebral senator from Minnesota, had claimed the hearts of prosperous, educated opponents of the battle.
Kennedy got down to construct on his help amongst black voters by displaying working-class white People they’d widespread pursuits. His insurance policies have been heterodox, geared toward holding households and communities collectively, to nurture civic delight and a spirit of mutual obligation. For many years liberals had linked the expansion of the federal authorities to the growth of rights and freedom, however Kennedy sensed People felt they have been shedding management to a distant authorities with big, one-size-fits-all programmes. He argued that individuals wished the dignity of labor fairly than welfare, and he favoured native, public-private jobs schemes. “He sensed and managed to articulate that feeling of disempowerment skilled by abnormal People, together with the white working class, black and Hispanic voters and different teams excluded from the mainstream of American prosperity and respect,” says Michael Sandel, a political thinker and writer of “Democracy’s Discontent”.
As riots tore internal cities aside, Kennedy referred to as for “regulation and order”, courting the disdain of some liberals who, then as now, heard that as racist code. However he at all times twinned his name for regulation enforcement with calls for for racial justice, saying white People bore duty for black violence.
To housewives in Terre Haute, Indiana, he cited Camus, urging empathy with the hopelessness of destitute households. In Indianapolis, on the night time Martin Luther King was killed, Kennedy defused the anger in a crowd primed to riot. He quoted Aeschylus on the knowledge that comes with despair and added, “Allow us to dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so a few years in the past: to tame the savageness of man and make mild the lifetime of this world.”
He typically stated what voters didn’t need to hear. “You sit right here as white medical college students, whereas black individuals carry the burden of combating in Vietnam,” he scolded college students at Indiana College, saying he wished to take their draft deferments away. “He kind of respects our intelligence,” a farmer informed a reporter in Nebraska, the place Kennedy freely admitted he had no thought find out how to milk a cow.
The honesty and depth of Kennedy’s marketing campaign—alongside together with his resolution to go to Native American reservations, the place presidential candidates seldom trouble to go, to attract consideration to their wretchedness—could have resulted partially from the sense of doom suffusing it. Just like the reporters masking him, the candidate feared he would finally be shot.
From George Wallace to Donald Trump
But Kennedy insisted on so exposing himself that supporters would make off together with his jacket and even his footwear. He ended his marketing campaign in Indiana with a nine-hour experience in an open automobile inching by means of black and white communities. The reporter Jules Witcover described an “unbroken show of adulation and help” as he rode by means of neighbourhoods “that ran smack towards each other, and also you learn their racial or ethnic composition within the faces that appeared up at him, within the color of the palms that stretched out to him, within the accents that shouted out at him”. Kennedy didn’t succeed with well-off white voters. As a substitute, he received the Indiana major by carrying 86% of black voters together with working-class white Democrats, together with many who had defected to the segregationist George Wallace 4 years earlier.
Kennedy would go on to lose the first in Oregon, an prosperous white state, however he received Nebraska, South Dakota and California. There, after his victory speech on the Ambassador Lodge, he broke certainly one of his personal guidelines. As a substitute of wading by means of the group he left by means of the kitchen, the place his murderer waited.
It’s unattainable to know what Kennedy might need achieved. But it’s also laborious to imagine Donald Trump would have achieved a lot had the Democrats modelled themselves much less on McCarthy and extra on Kennedy. He was, in brief, the final nice Democratic populist. Kennedy liked to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: “Some individuals see issues as they’re and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of issues that by no means have been and say, ‘Why not?’” Lately each questions appear value asking. ■
Learn extra from Lexington, our columnist on American politics:
Joe Biden’s re-election bid is in trouble (Aug thirty first)
How Donald Trump won the debate he skipped (Aug twenty fourth)
The case for a third-party campaign in 2024 is actuarial, not ideological (Jul twentieth)
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