Well, I wouldn’t say that Wallace had the Presidency stolen from him. There was no way that he was going to win a national election for the Presidency on his own, and his own party was sufficiently worried about him that they didn’t even want him to be in the Cabinet, let alone nominated (again) as Vice President in 1944, so he wouldn’t have ever gotten close to the Democratic Presidential nomination in the first place. When he did run for President — in 1948 — it was as the Progressive Party’s nominee. In that election, a third party candidate did win some Electoral votes, but it was Strom Thurmond, the States’ Rights or “Dixiecrat” Party nominee. The fact that the Dixiecrat candidate for President won 39 Electoral votes while the Progressive Party candidate, Wallace, won a grand total on 0 Electoral votes is an indication of how he was perceived nationally. That’s why the Democrats never would have nominated him and it required FDR threatening to quit the 1940 Presidential campaign unless the Dems nominated Wallace as his running mate that year.
Henry Wallace was a loyal soldier during most of FDR’s Administration and was undoubtedly the greatest Secretary of Agriculture in American history, but he was politically capricious and leaders in both political leaders simply didn’t trust him. His only shot at being President would have been if he had been renominated as FDR’s running mate in 1944, inaugurated alongside Roosevelt as FDR’s fourth term begin, and happened to be Vice President when Roosevelt died 82 days later. But by 1944, even Roosevelt had soured on him and didn’t hesitate for a second to dump him from the ticket in favor of someone else — eventually Harry Truman. Wallace was capable, but Roosevelt clearly understand that he was dying as he sought he sought re-election in 1944 and that he would not survive his fourth term. There’s a major difference between being a capable Cabinet officer (or Vice President — a job which still about 20 years away from being even equal to that of a Cabinet Secretary when Wallace was VPOTUS), and being President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the United States military in the midst of the deadliest war in the history of the world.
If the Democratic Party wanted to nominate him as Vice President again and Biden wanted to run for Vice President again, yes, he could be nominated as VP again. The only thing that could prevent someone from being Vice President is if they were Constitutionally ineligible to be President. So, a Vice President that never served as President could technically continue being elected Vice President every four years and never be term-limited.
With all of that said, Biden doesn’t want to be Vice President for four more years. The Democrats wouldn’t nominate Biden for another four years as Vice President. And a ticket of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden wouldn’t work for a number reasons — the main one being that Hillary is going to be 69 years old on Election Day in 2016 and Biden is going to be 73 years old (and he’d turn 74 before they were inaugurated). Both of them need a younger running mate, no matter what position of the ticket they are on, and neither of them want to be Vice President. But, if everyone wanted to do so, yes, they could nominate Biden again.
If Hillary Clinton doesn’t seek the Democratic nomination in 2016 (and, don’t get me wrong, she is definitely running in 2016), Biden would begin the primary season as the frontrunner. Name recognition, eight years as Vice President, a consistently solid favorability score, an extensive coalition of former campaign workers and longtime supporters, and a headstart in fundraising would definitely put Biden at the front of the line if Hillary wasn’t in the race.
Biden’s age could be a potential issue, but the ages of Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008 really didn’t become as big of a problem as many people thought it would be. Same deal with Reagan in 1980 and 1984, although there were a few worries about Reagan during the ‘84 campaign when he seemed sluggish and tired and somewhat confused during a few appearances. Reagan’s opponent in 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale, saw a possible opportunity by making Reagan’s age an issue but Reagan shut it down with one of the greatest moments ever to take place in a Presidential debate. When asked about the age difference, Reagan said, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” It was such a brilliant comment that even Mondale couldn’t stop laughing and the questions about Reagan’s age immediately disappeared. Biden definitely has the ability to use his verbal talents to disarm any questions about age.
Also, even though Biden will be 74 years old on Inauguration Day 2017, he’s healthy, active, and energetic. When Reagan ran for re-election in 1984 at the age of 73, his events were very carefully choreographed — even more so than regular White House or campaign events, which are already strictly regimented — because he had dealt with some health problems. Of course, he had been shot in 1981 and came far closer to dying from his wounds than most people realized at the time, and Nancy Reagan had been extremely protective of his physical well-being following the assassination attempt. Bob Dole led an active, hard-working lifestyle despite his age and was Senate Majority Leader until resigning during the summer of 1996 to focus on his Presidential campaign, but he had been severely injured during World War II and was disabled, so that was a concern when he faced Bill Clinton since Dole was 73 and Clinton hadn’t even been born when Dole was nearly killed in Italy during World War II. McCain was 72 years old when he faced Obama in the 2008 election, but he was also disabled from his military service when he was shot down, captured by the North Vietnamese, and brutally tortured while being held as a prisoner of war for nearly six years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. So, the three recent major Presidential nominees closest in age to how old Biden will be in 2016 had potentially worrisome health problems. After Biden’s unsuccessful bid for the 1988 Democratic Presidential nomination, he suffered an aneurysm and a blood clot, but there’s been no recurrence of those health scares in the past quarter-century, and I don’t think Biden’s age would be that big of a problem if he did run.
Unfortunately, there are more serious problems that Vice President Biden would face if Hillary Clinton decided not to run in 2016 and Biden entered primary season as the frontrunner. First of all, let me point out that I’m such a big fan of Joe Biden that I would not only fully support his candidacy, but I’d work on behalf of his campaign if offered an opportunity. However, if Hillary declines to run in 2016, the Democratic Presidential nomination process would be a free-for-all. Every Democrat in the country with Presidential hopes would jump into that race if they knew Hillary was sitting 2016 out because they know that Biden is more vulnerable than Hillary. We’d end up seeing debate stages full of potential Presidential contenders doing whatever they could to squeeze in some television time and create name recognition. In other words, it would be like the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Republican Presidential nomination battles.
Believe me, there are numerous Democrats sitting on the sidelines right now, watching from the periphery, and publicly supporting Hillary Clinton’s possible bid for the Presidency in 2016 because they know right now that she’s the frontrunner, the uncrowned nominee, and someone who might end up being able to find them a place in her Cabinet if they are strong enough as surrogates on her behalf in 2016. But many of those Democrats who are “Ready For Hillary” are also “Ready To Be There Just In Case Hillary Isn’t Ready”. They are quietly building organizations that can either be used to support Hillary in that surrogate role in 2016 or to activate into their own exploratory committees if Hillary doesn’t run.
As I mentioned, Biden would be the frontrunner, and Biden would have significant advantages because of his leadership role in the party over the past eight years, his incumbency (it’s easier to draw a crowd to a thinly-veiled campaign event if you land in Air Force Two, drive through town in a Vice Presidential motorcade, and are already a heartbeat away from the Presidency). But Biden would have disadvantages, too. In case you haven’t noticed, Barack Obama isn’t exactly the most popular boy in school anymore. Biden hasn’t had a separate Vice Presidential agenda since 2009 — he’s connected in every way to the Obama Administration, and that could actually hurt him with voters suffering from Obama fatigue. Now, if you ask me, I personally think that Biden should get a free pass from any controversy or political messes simply because he looks badass with his mirrored aviator shades, bomber jacket, and that Ric Flair-style comb-over that Biden does with his hair. Unfortunately, I’m one of the few people in the world who thinks that the fact that Biden looks like the world’s hippest grandfather translates into Presidential leadership material.
But, seriously, a Biden candidacy will be automatically linked to the Obama Administration and, for those with Obama fatigue, it’s easy for Biden’s opposition to claim that he’d be nothing more than a continuance of the current Administration — basically a third term. If Obama’s popularity continues to plummet, that could be dangerous. And I don’t see Joe Biden pulling an Al Gore and running as far away from the President he served diligently for eight years in hopes of distancing himself enough to win the election. Biden’s too loyal and too invested in what Obama has done. In 2000, Gore was so worried about the Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s impeachment that he all but stood on the roof of the White House and shouted, “No, I don’t know anyone named Bill Clinton,” or invited Clinton to go golfing with him, brought the press along, and then pushed Clinton into a pond while screaming, “You are a dirty liar and I did all of the good things during this Administration while you were being a dirty liar, you dirty liar.” Distancing himself from Clinton — the best pure politician of the last 40 years — ended up costing Gore the 2000 election. Biden wouldn’t distance himself from Obama, and his opponents wouldn’t allow the voters to forget that.
If Hillary Clinton doesn’t run, Biden will begin the primary season as the frontrunner and it’s not impossible for him to win. The difficult part would be getting the Democratic nomination; I think Biden matches up just as well as Hillary does against the major contenders rumored to be seeking the GOP nomination. Biden’s toughest match-up against any of the potential Republican nominees would be Jeb Bush, but I think that Bush is Hillary’s toughest match-up, too. But Biden would have to win the Democratic nomination first in order to get to that general election, and I just think it would be such a chaotic nomination process without Hillary, that Biden could run into trouble. Elizabeth Warren has sworn up-and-down that she’s not running, but if Hillary doesn’t, the clamor for Warren and the encouragement for someone to break that glass ceiling that Hillary has frequently referred to may urge Warren to make a bid for the White House (although I think it’s still a little early for her and that she doesn’t match-up quite as well with many of the possible GOP candidates). Brian Schweitzer, the former Governor of Montana, has been putting his name forward and visiting early primary states for the past few months, so he might be testing the waters for a run even with Hillary in the race. Governor Schweitzer has a populist attitude which might appeal to some groups, particularly moderates straddling the center of both parties, but he’d find out quickly enough that he’s not in Montana anymore. I can’t see Governor Andrew Cuomo or Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, two popular New York Democrats, making a strong enough connection nationally to put together the impressive showing in early primary/caucus states necessary for launching a full-blown Presidential campaign.
So, who would be Vice President Biden’s biggest challenge in 2016 if he didn’t have to worry about Hillary Clinton running for President? It’s Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Governor O’Malley doesn’t have significant name recognition right now, but he’s been accepting speaking engagements throughout the country — and, for some strange reason, a lot of those speeches tend to be in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Governor O’Malley is dynamic, charismatic, and a popular two-term Governor of Maryland about to be term-limited out of office. Until last year, O’Malley had spent two years as the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association — a position that gives Governors like O’Malley the opportunity to make trips to dozens of states, speak to tons of potential voters and possible delegates and surrogates (fellow Governors, Mayors, State Legislators, unions, local party organizations, etc.), raise money for other candidates (an important role since that often inspires loyalty and offers of future support from grateful candidates across the country), and introduce himself to scores of Americans — usually fellow Democrats — while gathering their information (names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, the issues they care most about, etc.).
O’Malley has long been a supporter of the Clintons — both Bill and Hillary — but he’s also extraordinarily ambitious and the fastest rising star in the Democratic Party that most people don’t know about. If Hillary Clinton runs for President in 2016, Martin O’Malley will be one of he strongest surrogates, most influential advisers, and a powerhouse fundraiser. If Hillary doesn’t run, nobody besides Vice President Biden has a better built-in campaign organization than Governor O’Malley. It’s been done on the down-low because of his close ties to the Clintons, but I guarantee that O’Malley could have a campaign on the ground and running full speed within hours of Hillary’s decision if she chooses not to run. Without Hillary, Biden could win, but Governor O’Malley would probably beat him. And once the American people who are unfamiliar with Governor O’Malley get to hear him speak and know him better, he’s going to be a rock star like the 1991-1992 version of Bill Clinton and the 2007-2009 version of Barack Obama. That’s how talented Martin O’Malley is — and he’d beat any of the Republicans we often hear bandied about as 2016 contenders.
No, definitely not.
After spending eight years as Obama’s Vice President, I’m positive that Biden would have no interest in settling for the Vice Presidency again; he has his eyes set on the White House. If that’s not a possibility, I would not be surprised to see Biden attempt to reclaim his old seat in the U.S. Senate. Biden loved his time in the Senate, he is perhaps more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the Senate than anyone else alive right now, and another stint in the upper chamber of Congress would keep him far more active than continuing as Vice President under another Administration. Biden hasn’t been shy about teasing a possible Presidential run in 2016, but that’s going to be tough (and likely not winnable) if Hillary Clinton indeed runs. However, Biden has also openly said that he has no interest in retiring once his term as Vice President ends on January 20, 2017.
Another big obstacle to a Clinton/Biden ticket in 2016 are the ages of both candidates. Hillary Clinton is already going to face questions about her age if she runs in 2016. If elected, she’ll be the second-oldest President in American history on Inauguration Day 2017; Hillary will be 69 years, 86 days old — just 263 days younger than Reagan was when he was inaugurated. Biden will be 74 years, 61 days on Inauguration Day 2017, so he’d be the oldest President in American history (nearly five years older than Reagan was in 1981) as well as the oldest Vice President in American history (a full three years older than Alben Barkley, who is currently the oldest VP in history and was 71 years, 57 days old when he became Truman’s VP in 1949).
So, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden will undoubtedly face questions about their age if they run for President in 2016, just as Bob Dole did in 1996 and John McCain did in 2008. In fact, Biden will not only be older than either Dole or McCain was when they ran for the President, but if he were elected President in 2016, he’d be older on Inauguration Day than any other President was upon LEAVING office. Political parties prefer to balance their tickets during Presidential elections geographically, ideologically, experience-wise, and by age. If Hillary or Biden are nominated for President by the Democrats in 2016, the age issue will attempt to be addressed by nominating a running mate who is younger. There’s no way that the Democrats would nominate a 69-year-old President alongside a 74-year-old Vice President.
Jimmy Carter wasn’t a bad nominee — I mean, he did win the election — he just ended up being a failure as President. You can’t really fault the Democrats for nominating Carter especially since, like I said, he actually won.
Looking back, it does seem crazy that the field of Democrats running for President in 1976 was so unimpressive, especially since the Democrats were facing a President in Gerald Ford who had been appointed to the Vice Presidency and assumed the Presidency following Nixon’s resignation. The Republican Party was in disarray because of Watergate and President Ford was challenged for the GOP nomination by Ronald Reagan, which really hurt his campaign against Carter in 1976 and might have been a bigger reason for Ford’s loss than anything else. Yet, Carter wasn’t really seriously challenged during his bid for the Democratic nomination even though he was a dark horse candidate. Carter’s major rivals only had strength in certain regions and no broad support, so Carter appealed to way more Americans than people like George Wallace, Morris Udall, and Henry Jackson (who weren’t all that appealing in the first place). Other Democratic hopefuls were Hubert H. Humphrey, who was dying, and California Governor Jerry Brown, who was 38 years old and had only been in office for a year. Brown might have caused Carter some trouble — in fact, he won the California primary — but he jumped into the campaign WAY too late and never had a chance to make a dent in the huge delegate lead that Carter had already accumulated.
The 1976 election is a fascinating one for many reasons and it’s definitely surprising that the Democrats didn’t have a more impressive field of contenders battling for the nomination in an election that was so winnable that a largely unknown one-term Governor of Georgia ended up as President. Quite frankly, the talent roster of top-level Democrats simply wasn’t very deep in the 1970s. Ted Kennedy was probably the most appealing possible Democratic Presidential candidate in 1976, but he was still on the sidelines because of Chappaquiddick.
It’s a confusing one, but Andrew Johnson was a Democrat.
The reason for the.confusion stems from the fact that Johnson was elected Vice President in 1864 alongside Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican. Lincoln and Johnson ran in 1864 under a unified party ticket — they were nominated as the National Union candidates, in fact.
But Lincoln was a Republican, of course, and Johnson’s ties to the Democratic Party were no secret. Actually, that was the appeal. To balance the ticket better in 1864, Lincoln dumped his first term Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, a Republican who came from about as far North as one could come from — Maine.
The Republicans, gathering under the National Union banner in 1864, wanted to balance the ticket better because there were worries about a strong challenge from the Democratic nominee, former General George B. McClellan, and McClellan’s running mate, George H. Pendleton of Ohio.
The National Unionists were made up of the Republicans who had supported Lincoln since 1860 and Democrats supportive of Lincoln’s leadership in prosecuting the Civil War and wary of what McClellan might do if he happened to be elected President. Johnson fit right in with the National Unionists — a Democrat who supported Lincoln and, better yet, a running mate who could balance the ticket politically and geographically.
Despite belonging to a different party, there was no doubt about Johnson’s loyalty to Lincoln and the Union. Johnson was the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union and hold on to his seat after secession, the formation of the Confederacy, and the outbreak of Civil War. Johnson spent most of the war as Military Governor of Tennessee.
Johnson only served as Vice President for 42 days, succeeding to the Presidency upon Lincoln’s assassination. Once Johnson became President, the fact that he was actually a Democrat eventually caused him major problems. Johnson clashed with his Cabinet, most of whom were holdovers from the Lincoln Administration. His battles with Congress, particularly the Radical Republicans, helped contribute to his failures as President, and after the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868, Johnson was narrowly acquitted in his Senate trial. The Senate was just one vote short of the two-thirds necessary to convict him and remove him from office.
As President, Johnson wasn’t quite a “President without a party” like John Tyler, but his election alongside Lincoln in 1864 on the National Union ticket did put Johnson in an awkward position once he assumed the Presidency. After all, Lincoln and Johnson DID defeat opponents duly nominated by the Democratic Party. Johnson was also in a strange position because the Democratic Party was so weak following the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction.
But Johnson was indeed a Democrat. Before the.Civil War, Johnson won elections as a Democratic candidate to become Mayor of Greenville, Tennessee, a Member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, a Tennessee State Senator, a U.S. Representative, Governor of Tennessee, and a U.S. Senator. And, despite his disastrous Presidency, Johnson found some redemption shortly before his death as he once again won election (as a Democrat) to the U.S. Senate.
Even if Hillary and Obama hadn’t run for President in 2008, I don’t think John Edwards would have been the Democratic nominee. If there’s one thing that I know it’s that is really tough to be the frontrunner for your party’s nomination as President of the United States when you knock up a member of your staff while your wife is dying of cancer and then try to get one of your aides to fall on the sword for you.
Without the heavyweights (Hillary and Obama), another Democrat would have emerged from the field — maybe Joe Biden or Bill Richardson, or maybe someone who didn’t run in 2008 like Howard Dean or General Wesley Clark or even Al Gore.
First of all, I personally don’t think that there is a frontrunner for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination yet. The GOP is a mess right now. Of course, we hear certain names being tossed around, but a lot of those names are the Tea Party Republicans. People like to talk about the Tea Party Republicans as if they are credible Presidential candidates because they are adept at capturing headlines, but I will confidently and adamantly continue to say this: none of the politicians who are identified as leaders of the Tea Party wing of the GOP will be elected President of the United States. They make a lot of noise, they get a lot of TV time, and they might even raise a lot of money…but they cannot win a national election. They can’t even win the GOP nomination. It’s not going to happen. Maybe they can stretch out the primary process by splitting the GOP, but that’s only going to hurt the Republican Party, not result in a Tea Party candidate as the nominee.
So, with that said, who is a dark horse from the GOP that could surprise people? Well, right now it seems insane to suggest that a Republican member of the House of Representatives or U.S. Senate could be a Presidential contender, but I’ve been worried about Senator John Thune of South Dakota since 2007. Senator Thune didn’t run in 2008 or 2012, but Thune would be a formidable candidate. He is experienced, he is well-respected, he isn’t a bomb-thrower, he comes across as Presidential, he’s solidly Conservative and should appeal to the GOP’s base, yet he doesn’t come across as an extremist. John Thune could absolutely be elected President if he decided to take a shot at the White House.
As for the Democrats, President Obama still has three years left in his term, yet Hillary Clinton has been all but crowned as his successor and the leader the party. Nearly everybody thinks that she’s going to run and, if so, that she will win. Vice President Biden, who has been a loyal, hard-working, efficient, and important partner to Obama, is waiting in the wings just in case Hillary decides not to run. Hillary and Biden are the obvious frontrunners.
But the Democrats have a superstar-in-the-making who also has nowhere to go but the White House and, quite frankly, with the right campaign, with the perfect introduction to the American people, and if he caught the right breaks since anything can happen in Presidential primaries, Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley could shock the establishment and steal the nomination from Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden.
Governor O’Malley is Bill Clinton in 1992, except O’Malley is more experienced, tougher, and doesn’t have the “weaknesses” that almost cost Clinton the Democratic nomination in ‘92 and ended up leading to his impeachment. Like Senator Thune, O’Malley looks like a President. Now, being telegenic and charismatic doesn’t make someone a good President, but it sure as hell helps with getting elected. O’Malley is a proven executive with a record he can run on while also pointing out that he isn’t part of Washington’s business-as-usual. He’s had a successful political career with a variety of significant experience, but he’s never served in American’s least popular institution — Congress, his name isn’t Bush or Clinton, and he hasn’t served in previous Presidential Administrations like many of Washington’s other recycled bureaucrats. Could Martin O’Malley be President of the United States? Without a doubt.
It’s only October 2013, and the more famous 2016 contenders will continue to hog headlines until Iowa and New Hampshire, but keep your eyes on Senator John Thune and Governor Martin O’Malley.
Bobby Kennedy? No, I don’t think so. In my opinion, the greatest President that we never had was probably either Charles Evans Hughes or George C. Marshall.
I should probably be careful with what I am about to say because as a lifelong Democrat — and quite a Liberal (with a capital “L”) Democrat at that — the personal opinion that I am about to give may result in somebody revoking my membership in that wing of the party. Now, I know that Robert F. Kennedy was becoming the idealistic, anti-war hero of the Democratic Party who picked up the torch of his slain brother’s Camelot before he too was murdered by an assassin’s bullets. Because of the political dynasty he belonged to and because he was cut down while he was still a young man in the midst of fighting to lead the country through turbulent times, there is and will always be a romantic perception of RFK — just like there will always be one of JFK.
With all of that said, I have to admit that I think Bobby Kennedy is vastly overrated as a politician and I am certain that if he had lived, not only would he not have been elected President in 1968, but he wouldn’t have even won the Democratic nomination.
It is important to remember that RFK had made it clear on numerous occasions that he would not challenge LBJ for the Democratic nomination in 1968. But as soon as Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing with a second-place finish as the anti-war candidate in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary (a result that is partly explained, as I have written before, by the fact that LBJ won despite being a write-in candidate), RFK jumped into the race and usurped McCarthy’s position as the peace candidate. RFK really screwed McCarthy over in the process. LBJ, of course, announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection soon afterward and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (the main opponent of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Democratic primaries) jumped in the race.
While RFK and McCarthy battled each other in primary contests, HHH shored up support amongst surrogates in non-primary states and built up a solid bloc of delegates. In a way, RFK and Senator McCarthy were canceling each other out, splitting primary states and sharing the anti-war support while Vice President Humphrey gave himself a foundation of the important Democratic leaders that he needed in his corner in order to control the Democratic National Convention and win the nomination. Had Robert F. Kennedy lived, the DNC probably would have started with Humphrey enjoying a sizable advantage in delegates with RFK needing McCarthy to release his delegates to Kennedy in order to have a shot at the nomination. McCarthy had refused to bow out of the race and the fact that RFK blindsided him by jumping into the campaign as another anti-war candidate after pledging to stay out gave McCarthy added incentive for denying RFK his help. Even if Kennedy had lived and McCarthy had thrown his support behind RFK and released his delegates to him at the Convention, Humphrey most likely would have still won the nomination because his lead was too strong.
Plus, with LBJ withdrawing from the race, the favored candidate of the Democrats who controlled the party (and, thus, the Democratic National Convention) was LBJ’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey. Although he was no longer seeking the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson was still the incumbent President of the United States, still the leader of the Democratic Party, and still the most clever and effective politician in the country. LBJ would have rather seen anybody, including Richard Nixon, elected President than Bobby Kennedy. LBJ and RFK hated each other and President Johnson wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help Bobby but would have done everything in his power to deny the nomination to him.
Had RFK lived and won the Democratic nomination in 1968, it’s difficult to say how he would have matched up against Richard Nixon in the general election. But I am so convinced that RFK wouldn’t have been nominated in ‘68 that I don’t spend much time considering the options if he had.
As for the reasons that I think RFK is overrated as a politician, it’s always tough to make these arguments about someone who was assassinated because, as I said, their lives tend to be romanticized. But there’s also the simple fact that it’s almost unfair to judge someone on a political career that they weren’t able to see through because they were murdered.
RFK had definitely changed after his election to the U.S. Senate from New York, particularly after 1966. Kennedy was becoming more idealistic and progressive and since that aspect of his life and career was beginning to bloom right around the time of his Presidential run and assassination, that’s what we tend to remember best about him.
We tend to remember RFK as the voice of reason announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to a stunned crowd at an Indianapolis airport. Personalizing things by reminding the people that his brother had also been the victim of a senseless, violent crime, RFK urged the crowd to remain calm and remember Dr. King’s devotion to non-violent demonstrations at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s the Bobby Kennedy we tend to remember rather than the Attorney General who authorized tapping Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phones and bugging his home and hotel rooms in order to help J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI gather dirt on the Civil Rights leader.
Before that progressive pivot in the last couple of years of RFK’s life, Bobby Kennedy was fairly conservative for a Democrat. He was JFK’s bulldog and rubbed almost everyone who didn’t know him really well the wrong way, especially those who worked for or around him. When his brother was elected President, he was named Attorney General despite cries of nepotism. RFK was the federal government’s top law enforcement official despite an absence of any courtroom experience on the federal or even state level. What RFK really was during JFK’s Presidency was his brother’s consigliere — not merely Attorney General but also Chief of Staff and whatever role he felt needed to be played no his brother’s behalf. He worked outside any traditional chain of command and was often disrespectful to those who were nominally his superior, particularly members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Vice President whom he treated with disdain. It was basically the same role that he played during JFK’s 1960 campaign for the Presidency, and it made him extremely unpopular with a lot of powerful people.
Before JFK ran for President, RFK had gained some notoriety going head-to-head with organized crime figures as the lead Senate counsel for the Rackets Committee. He went toe-to-toe with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in hearings and boosted his public profile, but it didn’t necessarily erase the fact that RFK’s earlier job as a counsel for the Senate was on the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The bulldog role that RFK later played for his brother was refined during his time working with McCarthy, a man who Bobby Kennedy often expressed his admiration and “fondness” for.
I don’t mean to completely discredit Bobby Kennedy. He did inspire a lot of people and I do think that he changed his outlook — personally, professionally, and politically — following his brother’s assassination. Despite his early conservatism, the progressive track that he traveled during the last 18 months or so of his life was something that he truly believed in. Reaching out to the poor, to minorities, breaking bread with César Chávez in Delano after César’s hunger strike, vocally opposing the Vietnam War — all of these issues were obviously something that he started to feel strongly about. Some of the issues represented a change in his stance from what he supported or recommended as a member of his brother’s Administration to where he found himself as the 1960s continued.
I imagine that I’d have a much better appreciation for RFK if he just had more time to establish himself, move forward with those progressive changes in his political philosophy, and achieve some of the opportunities that he was robbed of by Sirhan Sirhan. Unfortunately, he didn’t. But as tragic and unfair as an assassination might be, we cannot judge a politician on what could have been. We have to judge him on what was.
None of the campaigns were at the right time. That’s the problem. Poor Jerry Brown has been the victim of terrible timing.
In 1976, Brown had only been Governor of California for one year and was just 38 years old. In reality, it was way too early for him to make a step toward the Presidency. Oddly enough, it was also the closest that he ever got to winning the Democratic Presidential nomination. Brown had name recognition because he was making headlines in California, was a fresh face who appeared to be at the forefront of the next generation of American politicians, and was the son of a former California Governor. He made a good showing in some of the Democratic primaries in 1976, but he entered the race too late. Jimmy Carter had too much of a head start and Brown simply couldn’t catch him. Despite all of that, 1976 was probably his best shot.
The 1980 bid was rough because he was challenging an incumbent President for his own party’s nomination. Governor Brown wasn’t the only Democrat challenging President Carter in 1980 and he wasn’t the most exciting or buzzworthy with the media — that was Senator Edward Kennedy. Brown also faced backlash back home in California because it was the second time he sought the Presidency since being elected Governor. Californians wanted him at work in Sacramento rather than hitting the trail in Iowa and New Hampshire. Even if he had overcome Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination (not an easy task despite Carter’s unpopularity since Kennedy couldn’t beat him, either), Brown would have most likely been trounced in the general election by the man who preceded him as Governor of California — Ronald Reagan.
Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign for the Democratic nomination was a very interesting one, largely because of the genuine animosity between Brown and the eventual nominee (and President) Bill Clinton. There was a nasty confrontation in one of the Democratic debates where it looked for a moment like Clinton might actually punch Brown. Because of his low-budget fundraising, Brown shouldn’t have done as well as he did in 1992, but he started picking up some momentum in the later primaries. Unfortunately for Brown, he needed some of the earlier primaries to keep Clinton from clinching the nomination from the convention in order to force a brokered convention. The dislike between Clinton and Brown was apparent at the Democratic National Convention when Brown refused to endorse Clinton during Brown’s speech.
Of the three bids that Jerry Brown made — 1976, 1980, and 1992 — it was the first attempt in 1976 that was probably the closest Brown came to winning the Democratic nomination. The best chance that Brown might have had to become President was actually in a year that he didn’t run — 1988. The field was wide-open for Democrats and Republicans because the election of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was no sure thing. As I said, however, Brown’s timing when it came to seeking the Presidency has been rather unfortunate.
That hasn’t changed, by the way. Right now, Jerry Brown looks like he will easily be re-elected as Governor of California in 2014. From what I have read (granted, I haven’t lived in California since 2010), Brown has been doing a better-than-expected job and his popularity is high. Because of the size of the state, its worth in the Electoral College, and the nature of the job, California’s Governors are always potential Presidential contenders. Unfortunately for Governor Brown, the man who was once the youngest Governor in California’s history is now the oldest Governor in California’s history and he’ll be 78 years old in 2016 — way too old to be a serious contender for the Presidency. If he were 15 years younger, Brown would be a frontrunner in 2016