With all the focus on Joe Biden-Donald Trump redux, it’s easy to ignore more than 1,000 other people who have filed papers to run for US president this year.

OK, there’s a reason for that. They come from dozens of political parties or with no party affiliation at all. For some, it’s serious. For others, it’s a joke. Most won’t get too many votes beyond immediate family members.

But one outsider has infused the campaign with alarm, because he could swing the election one way or the other: Robert F Kennedy Jr.

No stranger to America, RFK Jr is primarily known as a member of a storied political family of Democrats. Kennedys have been serving in elected and appointed positions since the 1880s, including two of the most illustrious: his father Robert F Kennedy was attorney general under his older brother, President John F Kennedy.

RFK Jr was once a Democrat but is now running as an independent under the banner of various outsider parties. He has no experience in elected office and minimal chance of winning the White House, but maximal chance of ruining election night for one of the favourites. Biden and Trump both recognise Kennedy as a viable alternative for voters who find them unacceptable. And while Biden and Trump have generally been within the margin of error at high 40s to low 50s in most polls, Kennedy’s percentage has sometimes crept as high as the low teens.

Like the men he’s chasing, Kennedy has baggage. Once a respected environmental lawyer who fought policies detrimental to poor and working-class people, he has drawn more recent attention as a fabulist.

He’s a long-term sceptic about vaccine efficacy, contending that some vaccines cause autism in children. He claims the government’s former infectious disease chief, Anthony Fauci, profited from covid vaccine production and suppressed other options to gain profit. He is not convinced Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed his uncle, as multiple investigations have concluded, nor that Sirhan Sirhan fired the shot that killed his father during his own presidential run, despite eyewitness accounts and Sirhan’s own confession.

RFK Junior lacks the support of four of his ten siblings, who, along with dozens of other Kennedy relatives, have endorsed Biden, fearful of another four years of Trump.

The biggest political parlour game is: who can RFK Junior hurt most?

“The decision of our brother Bobby to run as a third-party candidate against Joe Biden is dangerous to our country,” his sister Rory wrote on Instagram. “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment.” Another sister, Kerry, added, “I can only imagine how Donald Trump’s outrageous lies and behaviour would have horrified my father.”

Kennedy has the additional challenge of meeting state requirements to get on the November ballot. Each state has its own rules, and so far he’s qualified only in Utah, Michigan, Hawaii and California, though he anticipates others accepting him.
So now the biggest political parlour game is: who can he hurt most? Biden’s campaign has appointed a team dedicated to tracking Kennedy’s candidacy, to highlight his specious claims and positions. Trump has branded Kennedy a “radical leftist” while cynically applauding him in the belief he cuts deeper into Biden voters than his own. “I love that he’s running!” Trump said in a recent social media post. Trump allies are pumping millions of dollars into Kennedy’s campaign, to raise his profile among Democrats.

Kennedy is not easily pigeonholed by his politics because some of his policy positions hew closer to Biden’s, others to Trump’s. Polls show he draws voters from both.

At 70, his relatively youthful age could be a key factor persuading voters to abandon Biden, 81, or Trump, 77, but seniority is just one consideration.

Republicans who abhor burdensome regulations might appreciate Kennedy’s opposition to vaccine and mask mandates during the pandemic, which plays to Trump’s antipathy toward over-reaching bureaucracies and the so-called “deep state” that runs them. Kennedy’s eagerness to scale back military spending plays to Trump’s isolationism even if it threatens future relations with Ukraine and Israel.

Large numbers of other Republicans might prefer Kennedy just to move on from the chaos of Trump. They would presumably include the millions of voters who originally backed Nikki Haley in Republican primaries.

As for Democrats, many still cherish the Kennedy name. His uncle and father were prominent in American life in times of profound social change, both working hard for Black Americans during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. A third brother, Edward Kennedy, who shared their views, served 47 years in the Senate until his death in 2009. RFK Jr also has a foot in Hollywood through his wife, Cheryl Hines, who played Mrs Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Democrats have other reasons to abandon Biden. The party is splintered over Israel’s war tactics against Hamas. Young voters, progressives and Arab-Americans who typically vote Democrat have turned on him for continued military support for Israel, the mounting deaths of innocent Palestinians, the lack of a permanent ceasefire and an inability to free hostages. In Michigan, a battleground state where the largest concentration of Arab Americans live, 100,000 people put their cross by “uncommitted” rather than by Biden’s name, in the state’s Democratic primary.

Biden is also struggling to convince voters that his economic policies to lower inflation, reduce unemployment and bring back manufacturing are benefiting average families. Food and fuel prices are still high, and many Americans hold him accountable for the flow of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border.

Then there are the “double haters”, voters of all stripes who simply want anyone other than Trump or Biden, seeing them as divisive forces unable to unite a fractured country. Many yearn for a unifier.

RFK Jr is playing to that wish. “We need to start listening to each other even when it’s difficult,” he said when announcing his running mate, Nicole Shanahan, a Democrat-turned-independent, wealthy philanthropist and lawyer who was once married to Google founder Sergey Brin. “We need an historic coming back to each other as Americans again.”

Kennedy’s polling numbers are likely to rise as his ballot access improves. He may be aided, too, by the group “No Labels” deciding not to run a fusion ticket because no one was interested in forming it.

Still, it’s important to remember that a third candidate can have a profound influence on who wins the White House.

Multiple outsider candidates have contested for the presidency since the early nineteenth century. In recent years, the most successful was Ross Perot, a right-leaning independent whose 19 per cent of the vote in 1992 enabled Democrat Bill Clinton to deny George HW Bush a second term. Eight years later, the Green Party’s Ralph Nader won 2.9 million votes, enough to clinch it for Republican George W Bush over Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore.

Like Nader, Kennedy blames the major parties for the current ills of the country, offering himself and Shanahan as a sharp break from the past.

“If we can only persuade enough Americans to vote out of hope rather than of fear, we’re going to be in the White House in November,” he said at the rally with his running mate. “Now, we’ve all had the advantage of seeing what President Trump and President Biden can do for our country. Do any of you want more of the same?”

“No,” shouted a roomful of supporters, a response that November’s loser will no doubt remember when they’re looking for someone to blame.

Republicans are poised to portray any street violence as a metaphor for the Democratic leadership’s inability to safeguard American cities

Naming game

Day by day, work crews are clearing out the debris from the fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, felled on 26 March by a huge cargo ship.

The federal government is putting up $60 million to clear the sea lanes and start reconstruction, after President Biden surveyed the site and promised it would foot all rebuilding costs.

So far, so good. But what’s a policy decision in election-year America without it devolving into culture wars? Just as the clean-up began, a debate broke out over whether to rename the bridge after Francis Scott Key, nineteenth-century lyricist of the “Star Spangled Banner”, but also a slave owner.

It became the latest chapter in an ongoing argument over whether longstanding statues and monuments honouring slave-owners and other disreputable figures should be removed – hundreds have already been taken away.

Alternative suggestions, often loaded with cultural references, have flown across social media. A coalition of black civil rights groups lobbied to name the bridge after the Maryland’s first black member of Congress, the late Parren Mitchell. Other suggestions, courtesy of X, include: Martin Luther King Jr, George Floyd, Volodymyr Zelensky, Billie Holiday, Simon & Garfunkel, Chairman Mao, Julian Assange, Kunta Kinte and Bridgey McBridgeface.

Déjà vu, Chicago

As Democrats plan for their presidential nominating convention this summer in Chicago, the ongoing protests on college campuses over the Israel-Gaza war raise the spectre of their 1968 convention. Also held in Chicago, it saw street violence between police and anti-war protesters over America’s military involvement in Vietnam. Following the assassinations of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy earlier that year, these clashes helped portray Democrats as weak on law and order. Building on that history, Republicans in 2024 are poised to portray any street violence as a metaphor for the Democratic leadership’s inability to safeguard American cities. More directly, it highlights the country’s continuing military support for Israel, which has been blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

In 1968, the violence helped Richard Nixon defeat the Democrat candidate, Hubert Humphrey. This time, the benefactor could well be Donald Trump, who continues to disparage America as a “third-world country”, overrun by undocumented immigrants and wracked by “carnage” in big cities.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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Columns, June / July 2024, Opinions, Stateside

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