When I returned from a trip to China nearly eight years ago, I found my inbox full of requests from editors to write about two huge stories that unfolded while I was away: the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage and the emergence from a surprise candidate who entered the race after I left, Donald J. Trump.
Needless to say, my inbox this week after a few weeks off in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have nearly as many requests as it did after the Obergefell decision and Mr. Trump’s trip down the escalator. But the requests I do have center on a similar set of issues: a major Supreme Court decision, this time to end affirmative action programs, and two initial candidates who didn’t get much attention before I left, Robert F. Kennedy. Jr. and Chris Christie.
Court gives Democrats some cover
As I wrote at the time, the Supreme Court’s decision to make same-sex marriage a fundamental right was likely politically advantageous for Republicans. Yes, the court decision was popular and the Republican position on same-sex marriage was increasingly unpopular, but that’s exactly why that decision did them a favor: It almost removed the topic from political discourse, freeing Republicans from an issue that might otherwise have been. hobbled them.
In theory, something similar can be said for the court’s ruling, but this time with the decision helping Democrats. Here again, the court is taking a popular position that potentially frees a political party — this time the Democrats — from an issue that could hurt it, including the rapidly growing group of Asian American voters.
It’s worth noting that this is in no way similar to how the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade helped Democrats. Then, the court ruling sparked a backlash that energized liberals and gave Democrats a new campaign issue with grassroots appeal and moderates alike. If the most recent case would help Democrats, it would do so in almost the opposite way: To benefit from the ruling politically, Democrats may have to stop talking about it.
It was pretty easy for Republican elites to stop talking about same-sex marriage in 2015, because many already wanted to move on from a losing political battle. It is not so obvious that Democratic elites are inclined to walk away from the affirmative action fight or that they even can, given their base’s passion for racial equality.
About those other candidates
Obviously, any analogy between the first few weeks of Mr. Trump’s campaign and the slow emergence of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Christie will be much more strained. First, Mr. Christie and Mr. Kennedy were already making waves in the race when I left, and I did think I might need to write about them at some point. In contrast, Mr. Trump could not have been further from my mind in mid-June 2015. Upon hearing of his offer upon my return, I thought he might fade so quickly that I would never even have to write about him. Whatever you think of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Christie, there is not much reason to think that they could simply be “pop.”
Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Christie don’t have much in common — except for their decidedly low chance of actually winning — but they have, in their own ways, become factors in the race simply by being the best or even just a vessel to express. explicit opposition to the leaders of their party, Joe Biden and Mr. Trump.
Usually, a willingness to stand up against a front is not enough to distinguish an aspiring candidate. This year, it is. No current or former elected official has challenged the incumbent president so far in the Democratic primary. And while many prominent Republicans appear ready to enter the race against Mr. Trump, few appear ready to directly, forcefully and consistently attack him. When they attack him — as Ron DeSantis recently did for supporting LGBT people a decade ago — it’s often from the right, and not about the issues that animate the base of some hypothetical non-Trump coalition: relatively moderate, highly educated Republicans.
Of the two, Mr. Christie is probably the one who most effectively fulfills this requirement of direct opposition to the incumbent. There may not be a large constituency for anti-Trump campaigning, but it exists and Mr. Christie is feeding it what it wants. Just as importantly, directly attacking Mr. Trump ensures a steady diet of media coverage.
All of this makes Mr. Christie a classic partisan candidate, one who doesn’t usually win presidential nominations but can still play an important role in the outcome of the campaign. If he gains the allegiance of those staunchly opposed to Mr. Trump, he will deny a vital non-Trump voting bloc to another Republican who might have broader appeal across the party — say, Mr. DeSantis. This is most likely to happen in New Hampshire, where fragmented polling data (often from Republican-aligned firms) shows Mr. Christie creeping into the mid-high single digits.
Mr. Kennedy is a more complicated case. With the help of a famous surname, he is pushed ahead of Marianne Williamson for the minor distinction of being Mr. Biden’s main rival in Democratic primary polls. Average, Mr. Kennedy ballots in the mid-teens, with some polls still showing him in the single digits and one poll showing him above 20 percent. That is more than Mr. Christie can say.
But unlike Mr. Christie, Mr. Kennedy isn’t exactly feeding Biden skeptics what they want. Instead, he promotes conspiracy theories, appearing in right-wing media and winning praise of conservative figures. And unlike Mr. Trump, whose most ardent opposition is probably to the center, Mr. Biden is probably most vulnerable to challenge from the ideological left. This is not what Mr. Kennedy is proposing, and it is reflected in the polls. While a Times/Siena poll last summer showed Mr. Biden most vulnerable among “very liberal” voters and on progressive issues, Mr. Kennedy actually fares much better among self-described moderates than liberals. He does not clearly fare better among younger Democrats than older ones, despite Mr. Biden’s longstanding weakness among the younger group.
It is too early to say whether Mr. Kennedy’s modest standing among moderate and conservative Democrats reflects a constituency for anti-modernist, anti-establishment liberalism, or whether Mr. Kennedy’s last name simply draws him closer to less committed Democrats, who are more likely to will do identify as moderate. Either way, his ability to play a major role in the race is limited by embracing conservative and conspiratorial positions, even if he can still win modest support in the race in the absence of another prominent non-Biden option.