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Commentary Election 2024

Josh Kurtz: Remember the lessons of Robert Fustero

Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend speaks at a remembrance for her father, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, at Arlington National Cemetery in 2018. Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for RFK Human Rights.

The most striking thing about the latest Goucher poll on Maryland voters’ attitudes, released last week, is that even in a state he won by more than 30 points in 2020, President Biden’s job approval rating is underwater.

It’s not as bad as it is in national polls — and another one, from The Washington Post and ABC News, found Biden losing to former President Trump by 6 points in a hypothetical rematch. Still, 46% of voters Maryland said they approved of the job Biden is doing, while 49% disapproved.

Democrats, are you ready to panic about 2024 yet? There’s already national polling that shows an overwhelming majority of Democrats don’t want Biden to seek a second term, no matter how affectionately they view him. Even more ominous are the polls that show two kooks, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, collectively getting about 30% of the Democratic presidential primary vote nationwide.

Is that going to cause Democrats to panic?

There is no shortage of irony here. Bobby Jr.’s numbers ought to be a loud and clear warning. They are a little bit like the 20% of the vote that grocery store clerk Robert Fustero got in the 2002 Maryland Democratic Party primary against RFK Jr.’s sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — a screaming warning sign that every Democrat shrugged off. We all remember what happened to KKT in that general election.

And here’s another historical irony: Biden’s new campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, is Cesar Chavez’s granddaughter, and her first job will be to minimize the younger RFK votes in the primaries. How her grandfather and Bobby Jr.’s father, such potent and strategic allies and soulmates in the 1960s, must be turning over in their graves. But this is political reality.

No, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not going to be the next Democratic nominee for president. But could he do well enough in some early primaries that he inspires a late entry by a bigger name and more credible Democratic candidate into the race against Biden? Talk about your echoes of 1968.

Democrats for now seem fairly unified behind the president and that’s to be expected — and is maybe even a little comforting. But that 30% of naysayers in primary polls, preferring Kennedy’s anti-vax patter and whatever it is Marianne Williamson is selling, ought to be concerning somebody.

Democrats are doing themselves and the country a disservice if they are consoling themselves with the notion that Donald Trump is going to be the Republican presidential nominee again. He probably is — and he beat Hillary Clinton, who for all her flaws was one of the most qualified people ever to seek the office, in 2016. And he almost beat Biden, with half a century of accumulated political wisdom, in 2020.

So please, Democrats, don’t kid yourself that Biden will be just fine running against Trump in 2024. Everybody is joking about Biden’s age — even the president himself talked about his “good friend Jimmy Madison” at the White House correspondents’ dinner this year. But this is no joke to the American people who overwhelmingly think Biden is too old for a second term.

Maybe Biden is capable of doing the job for the next 5 1/2 years, until he’s 86; you can argue the point either way.

But perception is reality here, and there’s no turning back the clock on this narrative, or gaining control of it. Heck, Ben Cardin, Maryland’s senior senator, just announced that he would not seek another term — not because of his inability to do the job today, but because of the chance that he might not be able to do it when he’s 87.

Cardin seems far more vigorous than Biden these days, and he’s just a year younger. And the presidency, we can all agree, ages a person far more dramatically than serving in the Senate.

The low poll numbers for Vice President Kamala Harris also come into play here. She is undoubtedly the unfair victim of sexism, racism, and the usual indignities associated with serving as vice president. Biden advisers are wise to try to up Harris’s profile and give her more important duties beyond the thankless jobs that vice presidents routinely get.

But it may be too little, too late.

Is Biden the only Democrat who can save us from Trump? He’s got a track record, and that’s not nothing. But the Electoral College map is so close nowadays that the contours of the race won’t change much no matter who the major parties nominate. A different Democratic nominee would be saddled with their own personal baggage, but the “too old” question would dissipate, and that’s not insignificant.

My general view through the years is that Democrats spend too much time worrying about presidential elections and don’t pay enough attention to down-ballot races. Part of the explanation for the crises our nation face is that too many congressional districts have been too gerrymandered for too long — mostly by Republicans, though yes, by Democrats in Maryland. You can trace that phenomenon directly to Democrats not doing enough to shore up their candidates in down-ballot races.

Right now, Maryland Democratic activists seem most excited by the emerging primary to replace Cardin in the Senate, and the domino effect that race will have on other offices. That’s only natural — Senate vacancies do not come along very often in in this state. (My quick take on the Senate primary: it’s Angela Alsobrooks’ to lose, but Will Jawando will do better than people think if he stays in the race, and David Trone cannot be discounted. If Jamie Raskin gets in, he’ll be very formidable. These predictions could change at a moment’s notice.)

Democrats are almost certain to hold Cardin’s Senate seat regardless of who wins, and all the Democratic candidates will have similar voting records if elected.

So while I can’t believe I’m saying it, Democrats in Maryland and elsewhere may want to turn away from the 2024 Senate and congressional primaries for a while and closely examine the political weaknesses of their incumbent president. You can celebrate the man and his accomplishments, and it’s fair to ask, how did we get here, and how could this decent man and veteran political tactician possibly be vulnerable to an insurrectionist, a serial sex abuser and proven fraudster?

But that’s where we are right now. The lessons of Robert Fustero cannot be ignored.


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Josh Kurtz: Remember the lessons of Robert Fustero