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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

RFK Jr. Goes It Alone

 For all his virtues, personal and political, the freshly launched independent candidate faces an almost prohibitively steep road.

Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Makes Campaign Announcement In Philadelphia
Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

On Monday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced he was running as an independent candidate for president before Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The weather was sublime, clear, a first touch of fall in the air. But the timing was otherwise abysmal. Kennedy, like any third party candidate, needs media attention like oxygen, and 95 percent of that attention was focused on Israel, which had just suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Before the speech, I wondered whether Kennedy could say something profound and memorable, some worthy-of-Theodore-Sorensen formulation which spoke to the sentiments of a world which now seems terrifyingly near to a spiral into a world war. What could one say that could at once speak to the enormity of the barbarism just unleashed on Israel (as well as the 75-year-old pattern of dispossession which had inflamed it) and acknowledge the very real dangers of a lurch towards a wider war, for which many powerful people are openly clamoring—and punctuate this by mentioning that his own father was killed by a Palestinian gunman? Perhaps all sealed together by a vision that, with proper and firm diplomacy, a peace that gave all the peoples of the region hope for self-determination and the chance for the pursuit of happiness was not beyond reach; it seemed very achievable a mere thirty years ago. 

Such a vision may be impossible to formulate on 48 hours’ notice; it’s not yet known whether Kennedy even contemplated giving it a try. Instead, the candidate, in his hopelessly raspy voice, spoke of his preference for “peace and diplomacy” over “forever wars”—which was nice, but didn’t quite speak to the moment. 

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There is much about Robert Kennedy Jr.’s candidacy that is very attractive. His record of environmental lawyering is substantial; his sense that a good American politician is open to learning from and embracing his political opponents’ best arguments is genuine, and was practiced by his illustrious father and uncles. His analysis of the link between NATO expansion and the Ukraine war is courageous and true, and he is the only candidate thus far willing to voice it. It is a shame for all of us that the DNC was able to rig Democratic primary process to deny Kennedy the oxygen of a campaign in New Hampshire or a debate with President Biden; he would have done formidably. Judging by the scope of the rally outside Independence Hall, he now has a far more substantial campaign operation than Pat Buchanan had 24 years ago when he launched a third party bid with slightly more support in national opinion polls. (High teens, as I recall; Kennedy polled recently at 14 percent versus Biden). Buchanan of course ended up with half a percent in the general election, bested soundly by Ralph Nader. 

Having attended both third party launches, I can’t help but recognize similarities and differences. “Two wings of the same bird of prey” was Buchanan’s trope for the Republicans and Democrats; Kennedy spoke of the two wings, but more irenically referenced a Native American saying that the two wings came from the same bird. (Native American “stuff” was prominent in the RFK event; there were Native American chants when I arrived an hour before, a homily by a Sioux warmup speaker, and Kennedy’s own poignant reference to his Dad’s winning the South Dakota primary the day before his assassination, fueled in part by a landslide in unprecedented Sioux turnout.)  

A theme throughout Kennedy’s speech was that the (good) American people were being set against one another by elites of both parties; their joint establishment control was ensured by constant political culture war battles among those who might otherwise get together to “storm the castle.” I can see the populist argument, but kept asking myself, Is this really the case? The two most tender political issues in the current culture war are not especially imaginary. One faction is pushing the idea that kids (with the help of sympathetic adults) should be able to choose their own gender, while at the same time decriminalizing all kinds of criminal activity if it is carried out by allegedly oppressed people. Another side is vigorously pushing back against this wave. There are life and death interests involved, and genuinely different values, so I couldn’t agree that the battles have been artificially created, and am not sure how many others will. (Interestingly, the one issue where Kennedy mentioned he had changed his mind was the border and immigration, where he said that the consultation with border patrol officials and leaders in the communities most affected had made him realize that the pro-border enforcement position was not simply rooted in nativism and xenophobia.)

Kennedy was notably running as an independent, and though he might in some scenarios acquire access to a third party (presumably Libertarian) line, there was no mention of it. Even with an established third party’s support, ballot access signature-gathering for a third party run requires huge and costly effort, requiring many dozens of effective staffers and millions of dollars. I couldn’t help but look at Kennedy, who doesn’t have the billions of Ross Perot, and wonder if he recognizes the steepness of the road ahead. 

If the Republicans nominate an aging, selfish demagogue or a warmonger (two distinct possibilities), I would vote for RFK Jr.; I think he is a genuinely good person, sincere in his expressed desire and capacity to reach across the aisle, find common ground with one’s opponents, and set his country back on a decent track. (That capacity is not just a campaign expression; RFK Jr. was a close friend, since their youthful drug days, and funeral pallbearer of my former colleague and good friend Eric Breindel, the late neoconservative editorial page editor of the New York Post. Eric also shared that gift for friendship with people of different politics, surely much harder to attain these days than in the 1980s and ’90s.) 

In this perilous moment, there is a wide political lane open for something like an RFK Jr. candidacy; whether he can fill that lane in the face of inevitably vicious establishment efforts to shut it off will be one of the more telling stories of the months to come. 

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