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Will RFK Jr. replicate Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign of 1976?

FILE - Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at the New York State Capitol, May 14, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. Anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. launched his longshot bid to challenge President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination next year. Kennedy, a member of one of the country’s most famous political families who has in recent years been linked to some far-right figures, kicked off his campaign in Boston on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
AP Photo/Hans Pennink
Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at the New York State Capitol in Albany on May 14, 2019. Kennedy, a member of one of America’s most famous political families, has launched a long-shot bid to challenge President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2024.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. officially announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 2024 this week and some in the media, as well as the greater Kennedy clan, made it clear they may not be supportive.

The Associated Press headlined the announcement this way: “Anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. launches 2024 presidential bid.” Left-leaning CNN also described RFK Jr. as “the anti-vaccine activist and environmental lawyer,” saying he “described himself as a truth-teller who will ‘end the division’” as he announced his bid.

Calling him an “anti-vaccine activist” is totally predictable for some in the mainstream media, I suppose. But millions of Americans believe they should have the right to at least question new, rushed or “experimental” vaccines, and many no doubt believe they have a voice in the form of RFK Jr. 

To that point, Kennedy proved himself to be a relentless critic of both the Trump and Biden administrations’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s top point-man at the time, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Kennedy authored a book in 2021, titled, “The Real Anthony Fauci.” It became a bestseller that, among other things, accused Fauci of promoting “a historic coup d’état against Western democracy.”

As for certain Kennedy family members, on April 6, the day RFK, Jr. filed the paperwork for his presidential run, his younger sister, Kerry Kennedy — who heads-up the advocacy group, RFK Human Rights — released a statement saying, “I love my brother Bobby, but I do not share or endorse his opinions on many issues, including the COVID pandemic, vaccinations and the role of social media platforms in policing false information.”

She certainly has a right to disagree with her brother; many others do, and will. That said, once again, millions of Americans do share at least some of his views regarding the pandemic, Fauci, vaccines, school closures, forced masking, and government overreach — Americans who are voters.  

As RFK Jr. said with regard to his potential challenge of Joe Biden: “It has been my difficult choice to put my principles ahead of my personal affections for the president, which remain undiminished. Some members of my family agree with me and others do not. I bear them no ill will. Families can disagree and still love each other. We hold that possibility for the entire country too.”

Some in the Democratic Party, the media, and academia surely will seek to paint RFK, Jr. as a “one-trick pony,” with regard to vaccines and the virus. But it won’t work. Kennedy’s announcement spells out why that won’t be the case.

As he said: “My mission over the next 18 months of this campaign and throughout my presidency will be to end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is threatening now — threatening now — to impose a new kind of corporate feudalism in our country; to commoditize our children, our purple mountain’s majesty; to poison our children and our people with chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs; to strip-mine our assets; to hollow out the middle class and keep us in a constant state of war.”

That message will resonate with many of the disenfranchised in our nation, as well as some who are tired of the entrenched Democratic and Republican machines. To that point, while presumably watching the Kennedy announcement, Sean Ono Lennon — son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono — fired off two quick tweets. The first said: “First impressions on RFK, Jr. sounds pretty good to me.” And then: “Seems like everything he said he was able to support with real examples and numbers. That’s a lot more than most of these politicians who make big broad statements that are utterly vague.”

I spoke with two senior Democrats and veterans of presidential campaigns regarding RFK Jr.  Neither was willing to write him off. One said, “I’d take the long view on this campaign if I were his opponents, the media, or the Republicans. One could certainly find parallels to the Gov. Jimmy Carter campaign of 1976, if one cared to look.”

Just this week, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll found Kennedy already had the support of 14 percent of voters who backed Biden in the 2020 election. 

But on Dec. 12, 1974, when one-term Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter announced his presidential run, he was nowhere near 14 percent in polling. Virtually no one in politics, the media, or academia took him seriously. Some famously laughed out loud with the idea of Carter ever winning the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency — especially with a field of 16 other better-known Democratic candidates. 

And yet, Carter went on to become the 39th president of the United States. With regard to how that ultra-longshot possibility came to be, Steve Schale, who worked on the Obama campaigns and is a longtime Biden supporter, was quoted as saying, “Jimmy Carter’s example absolutely created a 50-year window of people saying, ‘Why not me’?”

So, why not Robert F. Kennedy Jr.?

Although some in his family oppose him, there is no doubt that millions of Americans, who deeply admired his father and uncle, President John F. Kennedy, may well believe that RFK Jr. could carry the torch those men once held high to light the way for so many in despair.

Can RFK Jr. be the next Jimmy Carter and pull off a monumental upset in the 2024 presidential election? Time will tell, but he is the beneficiary of several advantages — the Kennedy name and social media are two — that Carter could only dream about.  

American voters can sometimes prove un-pollable and unpredictable. In 1976 and in 2016, they pulled their arms back and launched Hail Mary passes into the end zone toward, respectively, a peanut farmer and a brash New York City businessman to save them from the entrenched elites.

As Kennedy begins to navigate the treacherous political playing field before him, some voters may be imagining him in the end zone with his hands outstretched waiting to make the next “impossible” catch.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.

Tags 2024 election Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Kerry Kennedy Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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