No RFK

by Michael O. Allen on February 8, 2008

All the comparisons of Barack Obama to the Kennedys, both John and Bobby, bring to mind the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s putdown of Dan Quayle. Quayle was fond of invoking the martyred young president whenever anyone questioned his qualification to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

The question came up again during the vice-presidential debate on October 5, 1988 in Omaha, Nebraska. Quayle felt put upon and whined that it was the fourth time he’d been asked the question.

I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” Quayle said.

Bentsen, who was lying in wait for this very answer to the question, pounced.

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said to a roar of applause.

This brings me to my examination of the comparisons of Obama to the Kennedy brothers.

Hillary Clinton seems to have been scared off, at least for now, questioning Obama’s qualification to be president (her ‘ready on day one’ is an oblique way of coming at the question but that doesn’t help her because of Obama’s counter about judgment and ‘being right on day one’) for fear she’d be accused of racism, especially since Obama is the same age her husband was when he ran for the same office 16 years ago. Obama, in fact, has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

And his expectations and that of his supporters have grown as a result of his success.

But, over at TPM Cafe, Jim Sleeper pointed to at least one remaining weakness that Obama still has: He has great support among the young, blacks, and educated and affluent whites. In that respect, he’s very much like JFK. He’s no RFK, however, because his message is not resonating with women, Latinos and working class whites.

Even with RFK’s widow Ethel supporting him, Obama lost these key demographic groups to Sen. Clinton on Super Tuesday. For all his vaunted rhetorical skills, Obama seems unable to inspire them, losing them to Mrs. Clinton so far this primary season. And she seems to have come by this constituency by default—by being the wife of Bill Clinton, who is believed to be a friend of Latinos and the working class—not anything that she herself is doing.

Race is not the reason Obama does not have these groups’ support. He needs to find the key to reach them if the true promise of his campaign is to be realized.

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