Republicans promoting Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are playing with fire

by Jonathan Bernstein

Nominations define parties. But what we’re seeing in Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s futile challenge to President Joe Biden is an odd situation in which a nomination skirmish won’t change anything in the Democratic Party, but might have real impact on the Republican Party. 

Kennedy, who has promoted numerous conspiracy theories and falsehoods over the years, is doing relatively well in early presidential primary polls, running in the mid-teens in hypothetical match-ups with Biden. Democratic Party leaders have universally either condemned or ignored Kennedy’s campaign, and there is no party pressure on Biden to debate Kennedy or otherwise engage with him. 

Yet Kennedy is getting a lot of attention and even interview appearances across Republican-aligned media, including Fox News. It’s not clear whether the goal of these outlets is to cause trouble for Biden in the primaries, or if any famous-ish Democrat attacking a Democratic president is automatically popular with Republican audiences. 

Nomination challenges to sitting presidents don’t defeat them, but they may nevertheless change the party. Ronald Reagan in 1976, and Ted Kennedy in 1980, failed to defeat Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but both efforts helped shift their parties to reflect the priorities of ideological conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Ford ended up replacing his liberal vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, with conservative Bob Dole. Since then, every national Republican nominee has been a conservative. Kennedy’s challenge pushed Carter to draft a national health care plan. The plan went nowhere in Congress, but it helped make health care reform a top priority for the Democratic Party. Even Pat Buchanan’s revolt against George H.W. Bush, where he failed to win a single primary, contributed to the anti-immigrant, Christian conservative future of the Republican Party. 

Kennedy won’t accomplish anything so substantive. To the extent that anything changes, it’s likely that the reaction to his campaign will contribute to the anti-kookery trend among Democrats over the last decade. In 2004, Kennedy’s false claims that rigged voting machines in Ohio helped re-elect George W. Bush found an audience among a fraction of Democrats, including some elected officials. A segment of the party’s voters were at one time sympathetic to his anti-vaccination rhetoric. That’s faded over the years, with Democrat’s priding themselves on being the reality-based party. As a result, high-profile Democrats have become much better at rejecting baseless theories and the politicians, including Democrats, who push them.   

Don’t be fooled by the polls either. Any unpopular president will be vulnerable to polling showing that the party would consider alternatives. Barack Obama only won 89% of Democratic primary votes in 2012, and was under 80% in several states, despite having opponents who were virtually unknown. Kennedy is only doing somewhat well now because Biden is unpopular and Kennedy enters with a very famous name (although most of his famous family have rejected him). My guess is that few of the 15% or so who say they support him know his views and that the more coverage he gets, the fewer Democrats will find him a good place to park their Biden-hesitant votes. 

And then there’s the Republican side. 

It’s rare for a party to feature a candidate from the opposing party so prominently and positively. We can’t predict what effects this will have. But it certainly seems likely that Republicans already exposed to anti-vaxx views from their own party will mistakenly conclude that this position is far more legitimately held across the political spectrum than it really is. In reality, most Republican elected officials and virtually all Democrats reject the views of anti-vaxxers like Kennedy. 

Even worse for Republicans is that they can’t control what Kennedy will say when they amplify him and his sources of (mis)information are not part of the same closed information loop within which Republican-supporting nutty ideas thrive. So the gatekeepers of the party are potentially introducing a whole new set of kookery, some of which may undermine their party’s interests to an audience trained to accept whatever their TV networks, radio talk shows and podcasts supply for them. It’s not that Kennedy will personally take over the Republican Party, even if he wanted to — it’s that the party’s policy agenda and priorities may wind up being affected by what he imports. 

All of which points, again, to a core problem within the Republican Party. Republican-aligned media will continue to amplify Kennedy as long as he gets decent ratings. They have no incentive to do what’s good for the party as a whole and no reason to listen to anyone within the party who might want to prioritize winning elections and governing. Instead, their influence is sufficient that the rest of the party often follows their lead, regardless of long-term consequences. Republican presidential candidates may be willing to take on Donald Trump, but none of them can afford to get on the wrong side of Fox News or any of the major talk show hosts. 

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy and a former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.