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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Leubsdorf: RFK Jr. running on name

Member of famed political clan has few qualifications for office

By Carl P. Leubsdorf
Published: April 15, 2024, 6:01am

At a 1962 Massachusetts Senate debate, challenger Edward McCormack told his rival, the youthful future Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy, that, “if his name was Edward Moore, with his qualifications … your candidacy would be a joke.”

McCormack’s tactic failed. Kennedy won. But six decades later, the same rejoinder could be applied with even greater saliency to the presidential candidacy of the late senator’s nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: “If his name was Robert Francis Jr., with his qualifications, your candidacy would be a joke.”

An environmentalist turned anti-vaccine crusader and government critic, Kennedy is running on his name, not his achievements. His sole government job was as an assistant district attorney four decades ago, a job he resigned after failing the bar exam. (He subsequently passed.)

Donald Trump’s presidency showed the challenge of trying to govern without prior experience.

Besides, there is no sign yet the 70-year-old son of the late Attorney General Robert Kennedy can attract the support needed to win the presidency — or even any state. He has yet to qualify for most state ballots, though his campaign says he has enough signatures for Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina. National polls show him with about 10 percent, and history says support for independents drops as the election nears.

But Democrats fear he could help Trump by attracting votes in battleground states that might otherwise be for President Joe Biden. They jumped on a statement by Rita Palma, a New York Kennedy operative, that her “No. 1 priority” was to “get rid of Biden.”

Though now an independent, Kennedy is culturally a Democrat though his candidacy has turned off most members of his fabled political clan, who back Biden.

He also may be helping Trump by calling Biden a greater danger to democracy than the former president, who sought to overturn the legitimate 2020 results.

But Kennedy also worries Trump’s strategists when he echoes the claim that “political objectives motivated the vigor of the prosecution” of the pro-Trump mob that overran the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

He also sounds like Trump when he explains why he is running.

“I can fix this country,” he said in Las Vegas in February. “All these agencies that intimidate normal politicians, I’ve sued every one of them.”

In fact, Kennedy is basically an alternative for disaffected members of both parties: Republicans who like Trump’s anti-government rhetoric and disdain for the Ukraine war and older Catholic Democrats who revere the Kennedy name.

The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Kennedy attracts many of the same sort of alienated political eccentrics who in the past have gravitated to Trump.” Current polls show he marginally helps Trump.

His potential voter pool suggests he must simultaneously appeal to groups with opposite views, a tricky feat. And, like many neophyte candidates, he has encountered difficulty in explaining his positions, as scrutiny increases.

That has been evident in his series of muddled comments about Jan. 6.

He has decried what he called the Democrats’ “obsession” with it, and his campaign said in a recent fundraising appeal that the Jan. 6 defendants were “activists” who had been “stripped of their constitutional liberties,” a missive his campaign promptly disavowed as an error by a new marketing contractor.

In a follow-up statement, he seemed to seek a middle ground.

It is “clear,” he said, that many people broke the law on Jan. 6. But he blamed “political objectives” for “their long sentences, and their harsh treatment.” He repeated an inaccurate claim the rioters “carried no weapons,” then retracted it three hours later.

A Trump vote is understandable for religious conservatives who think the most important thing is naming Supreme Court justices or rich people focused mainly on tax breaks.

And a Biden vote is logical to maintain an American role overseas and a compassionate government at home.

But the only reason to vote for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is to avoid the real choice in the 2024 election.