Alternative Political History

I think that Jonathan Berstein has been sniffing too much printers’ ink again. At Bloomberg View he speculates about what might have happened had Robert Kennedy not been assassinated:

It’s virtually certain that Kennedy would not have won the Democratic nomination for president in Chicago. In the pre-reform system, winning a few primaries just wasn’t that important. As long as Lyndon Johnson backed Hubert Humphrey, Humphrey had the delegates necessary to win.

So far so good. But then he’s overcome by the fumes:

But with Kennedy alive, the disastrous convention might well have been very different, especially if (as Nelson W. Polsby once speculated) Kennedy had been offered and accepted the vice presidential nod. With that, the Democrats would have been able to come a lot closer to being united at their convention, and it’s hardly implausible that a Humphrey/Kennedy ticket might have defeated Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

That’s three changes to history and that’s at least one above the legal limit. Let’s put it this way. Would Jack Kennedy have accepted the Vice Presidency if Lyndon Johnson been the Democratic Party’s nominee in 1960? Not a chance.

But I’ll play along. Which states would have switched from Nixon to Humphrey? In my opinion not one and RFK was bright enough to understand that his popularity was a consequence of being viewed as an anti-Johnson candidate. You can’t side with Johnson’s vice president and maintain that veneer.

No, if Robert Kennedy had lived, Humphrey would still have been defeated, Kennedy would have been the Democratic nominee in 1972 instead of McGovern, and he would have gone down to the same defeat that McGovern did with exactly the same advisors and for precisely the same reasons.

But while we’re engaging in wildly counter-factual and unsupportable speculations, what would have happened if Barry Goldwater had won the presidential election in 1964? Would he have escalated the Vietnam War as Johnson did? Now there’s an alternative history worth speculating about.

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  • Modulo Myself Link

    Goldwater winning in ’64 is far more fantastic than Kennedy winning in ’68, simply because it was tried. But I don’t see Vietnam not escalating, and Goldwater’s vision of himself as this man of principle would have been deeply challenged by the protests, civil rights radicalizing, and the power of the FBI and CIA. And I don’t believe the vision would win.

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