BOSTON – The signs and banners displayed the last name only: Kennedy. A fanfare overture that evoked “Camelot” played through a sound system. When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. walked onstage, the hundreds gathered to see him chanted “Bobby,” a reference to his father, and the 1968 campaign ended by an assassin’s bullet.
But no Kennedy had run for president like this. Over one hour and forty-eight minutes — “this is what happens when you censor someone for 18 years,” he joked — Kennedy attacked “corporate feudalism,” denounced the “economic cataclysm” of COVID stay-at-home orders, questioned why so many children were being diagnosed with autism, and worried that America was risking a “nuclear exchange” over Ukraine.
The median Democratic voter, who got vaccinated against COVID and supports every sort of aid for Ukraine, wasn’t looking for a candidate like this. The people who’d shown up for Kennedy couldn’t imagine a better one.
“We were taught, growing up, that we had certain liberties as Americans, and they’re being stripped away from us,” said Cheryl Wooden, who said she hadn’t voted for any candidate in years, but pinned a Kennedy ‘24 button to her Columbia fleece. “It’s all about control.”
Democrats seeking a stronger challenge to Biden weren’t impressed. Chris Liquori, the New Hampshire coordinator for Don’t Run Joe, said that he’d expected more alternatives to emerge by now, reflecting Democratic discomfort with Biden’s age and record. Yet just days before Biden was expected to launch his re-election campaign, the alternatives were author Marianne Williamson, and Kennedy.
“He’s crazy. He’s anti-science. His whole charade on vaccines is deeply concerning,” Liquori explained. If there was an upside, he said, it would be watching the Democratic Party “sabotage a Kennedy” for a change.
It’s the great paradox of 2024: Most Democrats say they want an alternative to Biden, but no alternative they’re happy with wants to run.
Party operatives I talked to this week considered Kennedy a non-factor, and assumed that most support for his challenge — 14%, in a poll released the day he announced — was down to name recognition, from Democrats who missed the Kennedys but hadn’t followed this one too closely.
“Is Biden going to be advised to just ignore him?” asked David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk poll that found one in seven of the president’s 2020 supporters now considering Kennedy. “That’s possible, but what if Kennedy gets 30% in an early state?”
Biden’s age does, on paper, make him vulnerable; so does progressive disappointment with some unfulfilled campaign promises and decisions like the move to stop a railroad worker strike.
But the Kennedy challenge isn’t about a well-known environmental advocate, who at one point was floated as a possible EPA director for the Obama administration, running at Biden from the left. In 2005, Kennedy began arguing that “government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma” to approve dangerous vaccines that might have been responsible for the rise in autism diagnoses.
That got a friendly hearing from liberal media outlets at the time. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Jon Stewart told Kennedy when he joined him for an interview on The Daily Show. But as the data continued to back up vaccine safety and “trust the science” became a Democratic mantra, that view fell out of favor among Democrats. By the time he joined other vaccine skeptics at a D.C. rally against vaccine mandates in 2022, mistrust of government health agencies was an overwhelmingly conservative issue.
In Boston, Kennedy was joined by vanishingly few Democrats, including just two of his siblings — and not the ones who’d run for office. The most prominent guests at the Park Plaza hotel were vaccine skeptics, including Steve Kirsch, the founder of a COVID early treatment fund who cut ties with it over his criticism of vaccines; Del Bigtree, the founder of an anti-vaccine mandate group and host of the skeptical web news show The HighWire; and Robert Malone, a vaccine scientist who’s perhaps best known for telling Joe Rogan that only “mass-formation psychosis” explained why so many Americans trusted the government’s COVID response.
“The government lies to us, we all know it,” Kennedy told the crowd. “The media lies to us.”
Kennedy’s speech only dealt with the vaccine issue obliquely. He promised to end “the corrupt merger of state and corporate power” and the crisis of “chronic disease.” Then he asked why autism diagnoses had surged after 1989, alluding to a theory linking the condition to vaccines fueled by a long discredited study that was later withdrawn by the health journal Lancet and contradicted by subsequent research.
“I have never seen somebody my age with full-blown autism — I mean, stimming, head-banging, non-verbal, non-toilet trained,” Kennedy said.
That’s not a conversation Democrats are eager to elevate in a primary, and the White House has had absolutely nothing to say about Kennedy. The new candidate spent less time criticizing Biden on Wednesday than he spent criticizing Donald Trump, for ignoring the people who’d “begged him not to do the lockdowns” after COVID reached America. Kennedy wanted in on the national conversation that social media censorship had denied him. That was clear, if his path to the nomination wasn’t.
The View From Marianne Williamson
“Democracy is a good thing, and anyone should join the race who feels they have something to contribute,” Williamson told Semafor. “There are issues where Bobby and I agree, and issues where we do not agree. I look forward to what I hope will be an exciting and respectful primary campaign.”
Room for Disagreement
At least some pundits think Kennedy's message, and not his name, may explain his surprising early showing in the polls. “Madman he may be, but RFK Jr is trying to revive a progressivism that isn’t just the scowling face of corporate and government power,” tweeted Michael Brendan Dougherty of the conservative National Review. “I’m not surprised he’s already at 14 percent.”
- Protest candidates, even with limited name recognition, can sometimes have surprise showings in a sleepy primary with an incumbent on the ballot. In 2012, a prison inmate named Keith Russell Judd won more than 40% of the vote against then-President Barack Obama in West Virginia’s Democratic primary. “Simply put, West Virginia does not like Obama,” The Washington Post’s Rachel Weiner wrote in a piece explaining Judd’s performance. Many of the party’s ancestral Democratic voters were trending Republican by then and were also upset with Obama’s policy towards coal.
- Looking back on the Kennedy legacy, Texas politics reporter Christopher Hooks described this week’s campaign announcement as history repeating “first as tragedy, then as tragedy, then as tragedy, then as tragedy, then as tragedy, then as tragedy, then as farce.”