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Why not?

(Photo of Donald Trump by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images. Photo of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

A few days ago one of the least scary Republicans in Washington said something very frightening indeed.

Oh dear.

Regular readers know where I stand on a No Labels candidacy. But for the diehard optimists among us, intent on believing that a centrist third-party run for president wouldn’t necessarily usher in the Trumpocalypse, I’ll concede that there’s data out there that suggests you’re right. A new poll from Monmouth finds that a generic “fusion ticket” consisting of one Democrat and one Republican would actually outperform the Republican frontrunner in the general election. Topline: Biden 37, Fusion Ticket 30, Trump 28.

Even a less generic ticket does about as much damage to Trump as it does to Biden. Monmouth has the head-to-head race between the two at 47-40 in favor of the president; after adding a Joe Manchin/Jon Huntsman campaign to the mix they get Biden 40, Trump 34, Manchin/Huntsman 16. That’s seven points subtracted from the Democratic column by the third-party candidates and six from the Republican column, a difference of a single percentage point. Not much.

… Until you recall that Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin were each decided by less than a percentage point in 2020.

With apologies to Monmouth and said optimists, I remain skeptical that a centrist No Labels ticket would affect both parties equally. (How seriously should we take a poll that finds the incumbent winning head-to-head by seven points, a margin of victory in presidential elections managed only once this century, despite a sub-42 percent approval rating?) Another of Washington’s least scary Republicans succinctly explained why:

“The No Labels effort would elect Donald Trump,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), a prominent Trump critic in the Senate GOP.

“I asked my chief strategist: ‘What would a candidate have to be like in order to draw [voters] from Donald Trump as opposed to drawing from Joe Biden?’ He said it would have to be someone to the right of Donald Trump,” Romney said.

Any No Labels candidate—including Manchin—Romney said, would be to the left of Trump and would pull votes from Biden.

That’s the problem, wrapped up in a bow, and it’s what makes Murkowski’s attempt to mainstream a centrist independent ticket so ominous. For a third-party candidate to reliably take more votes from Trump than from Biden, he’d need to be a gonzo populist, not a squishy establishmentarian like Joe Manchin. And there’s no politician with a national profile who can out-gonzo Trump.

Well … almost no one.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is nominally a Democrat, dogmatically of the left in matters like environmentalism and gun control, but he’s more aptly described as the “horseshoe option” of this cycle.

Kennedy sits at a respectable 14.1 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average of the Democratic primary, not much worse than Ron DeSantis’ share of the Republican vote against Donald Trump. Maybe it’s his famous name, maybe it’s progressive disillusionment with Biden, maybe it’s the fact that the left has its own cohort of contrarian kooks desperately seeking a vehicle: Whatever the secret is to his appeal, RFK running as an independent could hurt Biden.

But he might hurt Trump more.

He’s received lavish attention from right-wing media and has used it to build a following among its millions of consumers, many of whom sympathize with his skepticism of COVID countermeasures and American interventions abroad. If you’re anti-vax and suspicious of Operation Warp Speed, if you’re anti-lockdown and resent Anthony Fauci’s influence over policy early in the pandemic, if you’re anti-anti-Russia and disappointed by the frontrunner’s equivocation about cutting off weapons to Ukraine, if you’re a right-wing populist who’s disillusioned with Trump and Trumpism for whatever reason, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. seems like an attractive option for a protest vote in the general election.

He’s the one figure in America besides Tucker Carlson who could plausibly launch a third-party campaign and do Trump more harm than good, I think.

But all of this has me thinking. If Kennedy is so popular among MAGA voters, why shouldn’t Trump choose him as a running mate instead?

The Republican base would never accept a Democrat on the ticket, you scoff. Is that so?

In 2016 their choice to face Hillary Clinton was a guy who had donated to Hillary Clinton. Tulsi Gabbard shifted effortlessly from progressive Democrat to Tucker Carlson guest host on Fox News by tweaking her left-wing populism to be a bit more MAGA-friendly. Contrarian journalists with long leftist pedigrees like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi now draw huge, admiring right-wing audiences for their eagerness to slaughter liberal sacred cows.

For all of the modern right’s contempt for leftism and intense negative partisanship, they’re dependably enthusiastic about welcoming Democratic converts into the tent. Progressives are far more likely to hold a grudge against someone who used to play for the other political team than Trumpists are. 

Kennedy is benefiting from that. Look at the polling.

State and national data this week show his support on the left beginning to collapse. Quinnipiac finds RFK’s national favorability within his own party at 21-47; a month ago it was 25-39. In New Hampshire, a state normally drawn to political “mavericks,” he’s rocking a favorable rating among Dems of 9-69. It was 15-37 as recently as April, per the Washington Post

The New Hampshire pollster asked likely Democratic primary voters to describe each presidential candidate in a single word, then made a “word cloud” of responses to show how common each one was. The results for Kennedy were … yikes.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a word cloud for a politician before that was entirely negative. Marianne Williamson, another no-shot Democratic challenger, didn’t fare much better but at least the term “interesting” pops up in hers.

RFK is down to 10 percent support against Biden in New Hampshire and just 7 percent nationally in another new poll, leading Semafor to declare, “The Robert F. Kennedy Jr. boomlet is over.” Sure looks that way—on the left. Not on the right.

The same Quinnipiac poll has RFK’s favorables at 48-22 among Republicans. In April he pulled a 40-18 rating within that group. In other words, after three additional months of nuttiness on the trail replete with musings about whether Ashkenazi Jews were “deliberately” spared from COVID, the right has grown more fond of him, not less.

It’s no exaggeration at this point, in fact, to say that he’s been adopted by the GOP.

On Thursday he was the guest of honor at a hearing on censorship called by the Republican-controlled House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. Jim Jordan introduced him by taking ideological ownership of RFK’s candidacy. “It’s why Mr. Kennedy is running for president—to help us expose and stop what’s going on,” Jordan said of the day’s business.

House Democrats used the hearing as an opportunity to symbolically excommunicate him from the party. Afterward Kennedy went running to Fox News to complain about the liberal establishment trying to “silence” him and again a right-wing audience was encouraged to treat Kennedy as an ally. “The Democrats came after you hard. The Republicans were sticking up for your right to say what you want to say,” host Martha MacCallum told him. “Do you feel like you’re, as a Kennedy, sort of in upside-down world when you’re sitting there this morning?”

Later that day Laura Ingraham joined the parade, praising Kennedy by claiming that “he represents the values of the old Democrat Party—pro-free speech, anti-war, skeptics of big business, defenders of human rights, including in China. So the question is not what’s happened to Robert Kennedy Jr. The question is, what happened to the Democrat Party?” Left unsaid was why the Trump-era right should admire a figure who allegedly embodies the values of “the old Democrat Party,” an institution Fox’s elderly audience has spent its adult life despising.

In short, consumers of populist media are being conditioned hour by hour to accept Kennedy as not just a political kindred spirit but an enemy-of-my-enemy martyr, victimized by the same center-left persecutors who are allegedly forever victimizing the right. The fact that MAGA stars like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Chip Roy now feel obliged to caveat their disagreements with Kennedy by mentioning their points of agreement with him goes to show how much influence he’s gained among the GOP base. When Republican bomb throwers are afraid of being too mean to a Democrat, that’s a very unusual Democrat.

Unusual enough for Trump/Kennedy, perhaps? If not, why not?

This isn’t just a Friday hot take proposed by a writer who is desperate for content. The possibility of a nut-cutlet “fusion ticket” has made its way all the way up to the nut-cutlet-in-chief.

The two would-be running mates have had only warm words for each other lately despite their differences on policy. To earn the VP slot Kennedy would obviously need to find right-wing religion on a few non-negotiable culture-war matters—gun rights, abortion, one or two others—but that shouldn’t be difficult. The subjects on which he seems to be most passionate, like vaccines and Ukraine, happen to be the subjects on which Trump’s base agrees with him emphatically. He’s gotten the big stuff right in their eyes. They’ll cut him some slack on coming around belatedly on lesser subjects, just as they did with Gabbard and with Trump himself before her.

Besides, we’ve heard endlessly about “realignment” during the Trump era. The activist vanguard of the Trumpist base is pro-entitlement and anti-war, protectionist and more than willing to use the power of big government to push their cultural agenda. They’ve moved a lot ideologically in the last decade. Placing a Kennedy on the ticket would reflect that. Who’s to say that the realignment wouldn’t continue and that they won’t begin to budge on climate change, say, if the GOP elevates a pro-entitlement, anti-war, protectionist, big-government, environmentalist Democrat to its leadership?

Forget Kennedy, you say. He’d hurt Trump in the election. Too much baggage. To which I gently reply: Do you hear yourself right now?

The presumptive nominee is likely to be facing four separate criminal indictments by the time Iowa votes this winter. He’s been impeached twice, once for a coup attempt, yet remains within a half-point of Biden in the national polling average. Lately he’s taken to issuing barely veiled threats against a federal prosecutor and posting videos like this without the barest hiccup in his numbers:

RFK is a galactic-scale crank but if you can get past the hallucinatory insanity at the top of the ticket, nothing in the Kennedy oeuvre will put you off voting Republican. Remember, the VP shortlist already includes intellects as atypical, shall we say, as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kari Lake. If Trump insists on torching whatever chance he has of regaining ground in the suburbs by choosing one of them, he might as well make the anti-vaxxers and Putinistas in his base happy by choosing Kennedy.

Especially since, unlike Greene and Lake, RFK has some crossover appeal.

In the Quinnipiac poll I mentioned earlier, he’s at 39/27 favorability among independents. Despite his slide in Democratic primary polling, he retains enough support on the left (for now) to make Biden sweat if those supporters were to follow him to the right and support a Trump/Kennedy ticket next fall.

The Kennedy name is worth something too. Potentially a lot.

I agree with those who think part of the reason RFK made a splash initially in Democratic primary polling is because of his pedigree. Most liberals didn’t know a thing about him except who his father and uncle were and that was enough to convince them to prefer him to the desiccated incumbent. As they’ve learned more about him their infatuation has cooled—see again the word cloud of doom posted above—but not every voter will pay close enough attention to next year’s election to get the lowdown on Kennedy.

A few here and there will go to the polls, search the ballot, see “Donald Trump/Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,” and conclude that that ticket sounds rather moderate compared to Biden/Harris. It’s bipartisan, isn’t it? Why, if RFK Jr. is anything like RFK Sr., his mainstream liberalism could be a domesticating influence on the feral Trump once he’s back in the Oval Office.

Are there a lot of voters out there likely to be as ignorant of Kennedy’s politics as that by Election Day 2024? No, not a lot. Are there enough to swing one percentage point in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin?

Boy, I don’t know. Maybe.

There’s one more reason to prefer a Trump/Kennedy pairing: It’s what the modern right, and we, deserve.

Everyone likes Tim Scott. Many people like Nikki Haley. They’d each be smart picks by Trump for vice president. Either would give him a racially diverse ticket with meaningful legislative chops and both would help him in the aforementioned suburbs more than they’d hurt. If you view the Trump-era GOP as a coalition of conservatives and crazies, the conservatives will need to be represented on the ballot somehow a la Trump/Pence in 2016.

Trump/Scott or Trump/Haley is the shrewd play. But it wouldn’t feel right. It’s not where the party is.

The whole point of electing Trump president again for those enthused about such a thing is the prospect that he’ll be unleashed once he’s back in office. Does “Vice President Nikki Haley” say “Trump unleashed” to you?

The Trump GOP isn’t a coalition of conservatives and crazies, in fact. It’s a coalition of crazies plus conservatives who are willing to tolerate any degree of craziness in the name of electing Republicans over Democrats. I’d rather see Trump rub their faces in their civic depravity by sticking them with a far-left Democrat named “Robert F. Kennedy” as their new No. 2 than placate them by adding Tim Scott to the ballot. Dare them to boycott the election just because the most infamous anti-vaxxer in America, an ardent progressive and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, happens to be the GOP’s new second-in-command. See what they do.

There’s no doubt, is there? They’ll turn out. Better President Kennedy than President Kamala.

As I’ve said before, the modern right is a revolutionary post-liberal movement with a rump faction of “Never Democrat” hyperpartisans attached. A revolutionary movement deserves a revolutionary ticket, not a ticket of Trump plus whichever genial Reaganite from South Carolina you happen to prefer. Trump/Kennedy is the revolutionary option. Let’s find out at the polls how The People feel about it.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.