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Be Careful of Pat Answers About 2024
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Be Careful of Pat Answers About 2024

As history shows, a lot can happen in a short time.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, his wife Ethel standing behind him, gives the victory sign to huge crowd at the Ambassador Hotel June 5, prior to making victory speech after winning the California primary. A few minutes later, the senator was assassinated by Sirhan Bisara Sirhan. (Photograph from the Bettman Collection/Getty Images.)

First, the dull but important disclaimer: What appears to be the most likely scenario for the presidential contest now underway is a repeat of the previous one, with similar results.

That’s far from assured, but you’d have to say that’s the trajectory we’re currently on in our narrowly divided nation. Being trapped by negative partisanship in broadly unsatisfactory standoffs was the major political motif of the 2010s and the ’20s so far. But that’s not the bad news. That’s the good news. 

Even though most Americans would glumly regard a Biden-Trump rematch in which one of them—more likely Biden—limped to a narrow but decisive Electoral College victory with no mandate and a stalemate in Congress, it is a heck of a lot more appealing than many of the other, lower-probability potential outcomes. 

Now, it is certainly possible that we could find a better way through the coming ordeal. It’s very early still: A star could rise. Divisions could ease. 

But don’t forget the sincere relief many of us in the world of politics felt when America managed to conduct the 2022 midterms without significant violence or widespread efforts to overturn the results. If we can manage the same in 2024 when the stakes are so much higher, it would be no small feat. A 2020 rematch but without the sitting president trying to subvert the results or sending a mob to sack the Capitol wouldn’t thrill many voters, but there are lots of worse options.

Try to imagine the scope of all that might happen in American politics and public life in the 519 days between now and November 5, 2024. 

A very elderly incumbent, his leading potential challenger—reluctantly driven from power after trying to steal a second term—already under one indictment with two others looming. A shooting war in Europe. Hardliners in Beijing. A haywire post-pandemic economy. Social unrest. Political paranoia. The dawn of generative artificial intelligence. A news media of low credibility and great desperation. 

This could be some wild business indeed. If the plot for the 2016 race could have been written by Tom Wolfe, this one is starting to seem more like Charles McCarry. Even to just end up back in the same place we were four years ago, we will have to travel through some deeply weird spaces. And while we can guess at the kinds of twists the plot may take, history suggests the specifics can outdo the greatest imaginations.

It was on this day 55 years ago that a gunman fatally shot Robert Kennedy as he walked through the kitchen of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel after his speech celebrating his big win in California’s Democratic presidential primary.

The victory was thought to be crucial to Kennedy’s late-entry bid for the 1968 Democratic nomination. The New York senator and former U.S. attorney general had only gotten into the race in March, four days after incumbent President Lyndon Johnson’s weak showing in New Hampshire against left-wing insurgent, Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Sensing an opportunity but risking splitting the anti-war vote, Kennedy dove in, directly challenging not just the man whom he had served as attorney general, but who had replaced Kennedy’s slain brother, John, in 1963 and claimed his mantle to pass historic civil rights legislation.

It would be even more shocking if Michelle Obama declared for president against Joe Biden after the first contest next year, but that would give you an idea of the kind of earthquake Kennedy’s entrance in the race provided.

But Johnson was about to shake things up even more. Two weeks after Kennedy got in, Johnson got out. At the end of an Oval Office address on the beleaguered war effort, the president stunned the world by saying he was out of the race. 

With Johnson out and Kennedy not listed on the ballot in upcoming primaries, McCarthy took the next contests easily, including a crushing victory in Wisconsin. Kennedy’s gamble looked like it might not pay off. Needing a win, he picked the Indiana primary for a showdown with McCarthy: a way to prove to party elders—the people who would be the unpledged delegates at the convention—that he could compete. 

Kennedy’s first day on the trail in Indiana was April 4, a date history would remember not for any stump speeches but for the assassination of Martin Luther King at a Memphis motel. The murder remade the political world in an instant. The resulting riots would work greatly to the advantage of eventual Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, but the anger and anxiety over the future of the civil rights movement inside the Democratic Party worked in Kennedy’s favor. 

McCarthy was nearly a single-issue candidate, uniting anti-war students with older voters who had lost patience with the conflict. Kennedy, already the farthest left in general, cast himself as the man to continue the work of two martyred leaders, King and JFK. 

The Kennedy mystique was so powerful among young Democrats that it started to move mountains for the former attorney general. To see how potent it was, look at how Edward, younger brother to Robert and John, made a charge for the Democratic nomination against a sitting incumbent in 1980, despite the younger Kennedy having driven a woman off a bridge and leaving her to die. 

Even now, with those young Democrats of the 1960s and 1970s not young at all (and often not Democrats anymore), Robert Kennedy’s son and namesake, once a zealot for the environment and now against vaccination requirements, is making some trouble for another weak Democratic incumbent. 

But while Robert Kennedy Sr. was making gains in the spring of 1968, Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was lining up support behind the scenes. On April 27, he announced his candidacy, but did not opt to take the populists head on. While he would compete by proxies in some contests, Humphrey aimed at state conventions and national party leaders. That meant Kennedy needed to emerge as the main insurgent in order to nab the nomination. If Humphrey was sure to win the inside game, Kennedy needed to dominate on the outside.

RFK picked the California primary as the palace for his showdown with George McGovern, and there, before a throng of reporters and surrounded by famous faces from the world of Hollywood and sports, he claimed a decisive victory. Just six months earlier, Johnson had been not just a shoo-in for the nomination but likely to win a second full term. And then came the Tet offensive, the King assassination, and Camelot redux. By the second week of June, the political world had spun completely off its axis.

You know the rest of the story, though. After Sirhan Sirhan killed Kennedy, Humphrey emerged as the steady hand in a troubled race. McGovern’s radical insurgents were no match for the disciplined machine of the party and its union allies. The unrest at the Chicago convention that year was an expression of futility and impotent rage, not an emerging movement. But the chaos and rage helped Nixon, a throwback to the more serene 1950s, make his case in the fall.

I tell you all this not because it is instructive in any specific way about what will happen next in our time. The anniversary of his father’s murder carries no special portents for the chances of the younger Kennedy. It doesn’t mean Biden is dropping out after New Hampshire. It isn’t the template for Donald Trump, the dollar store version of Nixon, to surely return to power.

But it is to remind you that the world can pack an awful lot of history into 519 days, and that we aren’t any better at soothsaying now than the best and the brightest of June 1968.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.