November 14, 2013

Alternative history: Kennedy vs Goldwater, 1964

What if Jack Kennedy had never been assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963? Would he have been re-elected?

Contra the Camelot mythers, Jack wasn't universally politically popular. And, pre-Watergate, presidential polling tended to reflect personal popularity of presidents more than it did political popularity at times. Yes, his poll numbers were still high; however, they'd been slowly but surely slipping across most of 1963.

The most recent American Experience, a two-part, four-hour special, details much of this.

So, what about 1964, in an alternative history?

Jack probably would have won, but by nowhere near the margin that LBJ did.

For purposes of this counterfactual thought exercise, I'm assuming Barry Goldwater still gets the 1964 GOP nod.

First, Jack wouldn't have had a martyr's coattails, plus an extended presidential honeymoon, on which to run. With liberals, he wouldn't have had any 1964 Civil Rights Act to run on, either, because he wouldn't have gotten one passed, and frankly, he probably wouldn't even have tried. Therefore, he would have had to run on both the minuses and pluses of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall, and Vietnam.

Second, and related to that civil rights bill, he would have been facing a less-extreme sounding Goldwater. Sure, Barry still might have said, "let's lob one in the men's room of the Kremlin," but he wouldn't have also looked like a racist for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Bill because there would have been no such bill to oppose.

Third, do to fears of appearing soft on Communism, Jack might have escalated in Vietnam in 1964 MORE than LBJ did. (That said, he he been re-elected, he likely would have escalated less than LBJ afterward.)

Fourth, from Jack's own words in the second half of 1963, we know he was worried about the election in general and about Goldwater as a specific opponent. (That said, Barry had his moments of naivete at times, if he thought that Jack would have run a lot "cleaner" election than LBJ actually did. Reality is that Jack would have run a more suavely dirty one.)

Now, per good, no time travel alternative history, how do we get to this point?

Quite simple.

In real-world Dallas of Nov. 22, 1963, I believe that Vincent Bugliosi and Gerald Posner are right about Lee Harvey Oswald. The first bullet missed, the second was the so-called "pristine" one (it wasn't), and the third was the head shot.

Let's say Oswald's first shot misses, as in reality. And then, his Mannlicher-Carcano jams! Not for long, but, say 6-7 seconds. He snaps off a second shot, as Jack's limo starts to turn onto the Stemmons Freeway, and misses again. He's quickly found out and arrested.

That said, I'm not sure if Jack would have kept Lyndon on the ticket in 1964 or not. I could see either option. And, I'm not sure how much difference it would have made.

Per Wikipedia's 1964 presidential election article, I see Kennedy, vs. Johnson's actual 1964, I see Kennedy losing all border states except Missouri and West Virginia. That alone would take him down to 388. If he lost those two plus Indiana and Utah, he's down to 353. And, California would take this down to 313. I'm listing these in order from most to least likely. Midwestern farm states might also be more in play, as in 1960. And, the Rust Belt states. Urban blacks might have stayed at home.

And, what would the result have been? Probably little more accomplished in the second term than the first. Kennedy, to protect family Cold Warrior legacy in order to give brother Bobby a shot at the throne, would have escalated in Vietnam, but at a slower pace, again, than LBJ. We would have been at 150K troops, but no more, by the end of the 1966 midterms. After that, it would depend on whether Bobby (who might well have run for Senate in 1964 anyway) had a shot at the crown or not.

We would NOT have had Medicare or Medicaid. Any civil rights acts would have been tepid. We would NOT have had a fair housing act. The gloss would have finished coming off Camelot, and all of Jackie's horses and all of her men and Manchesters couldn't have put it back on again.

And, I'm not alone in saying that. James Patterson at History News Network has a great analysis of what the next 1,000 or 2,000 days would have looked like, and he largely agrees.

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