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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 23: The Case For Exposing, Not Ignoring, RFK Jr.

Many strategic decisions by Democrats for 2024 are difficult. There’s one that shouldn’t be, as I argue at New York:

While the 2024 Republican presidential field continues to expand, it looks like the Democratic field will consist of President Joe Biden and two nuisance candidates. One of them, Marianne Williamson, is a 2020 retread who is having serious problems with the management of her campaign; she’s also polling consistently in the single digits. She can be left to exercise her First Amendment rights until the money runs out. But the second candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is another matter. His last name is extremely famous in Democratic politics, and he’s polling regularly in the double digits — sometimes above 20 percent of the vote. As The Hill reports, that has spurred a debate among Democrats about what to do with the man mostly known as an anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist:

“Party strategists cleave into two camps on the question of how Biden and his campaign should respond.

“One faction argues that Biden should ignore Kennedy. Engaging him would only legitimize and elevate his candidacy, they say.

“The other school of thought holds that Kennedy is too dangerous a figure to let campaign unimpeded. This second camp notes that, even if Kennedy never looks like a fully serious contender for the nomination, he could hurt Biden if he continues edging up in the polls.

“In a hypothetical scenario where Kennedy rose to 25 percent or 30 percent in the polls, questions about Biden’s age and political vulnerability would grow much sharper.”

The big problem with the “ignore him” approach to RFK Jr. is that he doesn’t depend on Biden or other Democrats for the publicity that will keep his candidacy running along like a low-grade fever. He’s getting all the attention he needs from his fellow anti-vaxx and conspiracy-theory buffs on social media. He’s also drawing plenty of conservative-media love for being a thorn in Biden’s side and for his willingness to consort with those types of personalities regularly (in part because they agree with much of his agenda). Kennedy has been featured on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, Joe Rogan’s podcast, and in Elon Musk’s Twitter Spaces discussions. These invitations came after the candidate sucked up to all three figures (he called Carlson “breathtakingly courageous” when Fox fired him, he played into Rogan’s stunt of trying to ambush a prominent vaccine scientist for an impromptu debate, and he gushed about Musk’s alleged contributions to free speech).

So ignoring RFK Jr. won’t starve his candidacy to death. But exposing him for what he is — not a real Democrat — could effectively cap his vote while forcing the mainstream media to stop treating him as a legitimate Democratic candidate. He should be regarded as a pest doing the bidding of the opposing party.

That means constantly calling out Kennedy for the abovementioned coziness with conservative-media figures and for his substantive points of agreement with the less savory elements of the American right. RFK Jr. is set to address Moms for Liberty, the extremist “parental rights” group, at an event next week along with Donald TrumpRon DeSantis, and an assortment of hard-core right-wing conspiracy theorists. As The New Republic observes, Kennedy is very much at home in such company:

“In the last week alone, RFK Jr. has made news for comparing Covid-19 mask mandates to Nazi experiments, saying chemicals in our water are making frogs gay and kids transgender, and claiming Wi-Fi causes cancer. He appeared on the conservative network NewsMax and accused China of developing “ethnic bioweapons” designed to go after specific races of people. And he promised to, if elected, gut funding for federal health agencies that recommend vaccine schedules for children. That includes agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The man’s views simply aren’t those of a Democrat’s circa 2024. Even Democratic primary voters unhappy with Biden do not want to help produce a Trump or DeSantis presidency in 2024. Democratic messaging should make it clear that every vote for Kennedy generates smiles in Tallahassee, the fever swamps of the right-wing internet, and at Mar-a-Lago.

Any campaign to expose and discredit RFK Jr. should focus on a particular risk: that he could win, or at least put up headline-grabbing numbers, in a rogue New Hampshire primary that won’t include Biden. New Hampshire law traps Democrats into a first-in-the-nation primary date that defies the national party’s plan to start the 2024 nomination process in South Carolina. Without question, the president and party leader who created the new calendar cannot appear on the New Hampshire ballot or campaign there. So the key thing for Democrats nationally is to relentlessly pound away at the assertion that the nominating contest begins in whatever state’s primary Biden first enters (probably South Carolina’s). Fox News may celebrate a Kennedy win or near win in the Granite State. That should be regarded as spin or the kind of conspiracy RFK Jr. often embraces.

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