Would we have seen a winning Hubert Humphrey/Robert F. Kennedy Democratic ticket?

Six 'What-Ifs' to Twist Your Political Brain

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Steve Kornacki, Rich Yeselson, and some others are playing "What If?" on Twitter today, specifically "What if Ronald Reagan had defeated Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976?"

It's good fun (and I was sucked into one or two subthreads), but I have a mild dissent to that particular question. Yes, the Ford/Reagan contest was extremely close, but I suspect it wasn't a random outcome, and I think "What if?" games are better with truly random events. That is, I think Ford defeated Reagan because incumbent presidents have built-in advantages for being renominated. Even if they themselves were fluke, fairly random, presidents.

All of which leads me to thinking of the best "What If?" questions in postwar U.S. history. In each case, I picked something that was sort of random. However, I only included events that actually occured; there are an infinite number of excellent "What if?" games to be played based on the absence of events (what if so-and-so president, Supreme Court justice, or other important person suffered a fatal heart attack that never happened). So, ranked from least consequential to most:

6. What if Lyndon Johnson had been able to get a new chief justice confirmed? Either Abe Fortas was confirmed and scandal wasn't enough to bounce him, or Johnson made a better choice.

5. What if John F. Kennedy had lived? I'm a Kennedy (and a Johnson) skeptic, and suspect that we would get many of the same policy successes and failures ... but obviously a lot of people disagree. In their favor: it's hard to imagine Vietnam turning out any worse.

4. What if Jimmy Carter hadn't won the 1976 nomination? Carter's nomination was essentially random, the result of a dysfunctional rules process followed by a series of unlikely events. At the very least, a different Democrat in the White House from 1977 to 1981 almost certainly would have changed policy in several domains. And I wouldn't rule out the possibility that a better president would have been re-elected in 1980, though at least some of Carter's electoral problems were probably beyond any president's control.

3. What if John Tower had been confirmed as secretary of defense? An overlooked and, it turns out, important event. Clearly could have happened; it would have changed the course of the House Republican conference and both Bush presidencies, especially George W. Bush's administration.

2. What if Al Gore had won Florida in 2000? A random result in many ways, and obviously, Ralph Nader notwithstanding, an incredibly important one.

1. What if Robert Kennedy hadn't died in California? On this one, I subscribe to Nelson W. Polsby's scenario: Hubert Humphrey would have won the nomination anyway, but a HHH/RFK ticket (with a much happier convention and a unified party) would have defeated Richard Nixon in the general. After which ... well, that's when it gets fun.

I have no idea where to place the question of Martin Luther King Jr. in this list. Surely it would have mattered had he lived, and I don't mean to discount the possibility that it would have mattered more than any of the above; blame my bias for government institutions.

So, what am I missing?

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net