Kennedy, in Party Switch, Will Mount Independent Run for President
PHILADELPHIA — Robert F. Kennedy Jr., scion of a liberal and Democratic political dynasty, on Monday declared his intention to continue his pursuit of the White House as an independent candidate.
Speaking before a crowd of about 2,000 supporters outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, a stone’s throw from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Kennedy surprised no one with the announcement that had been teased for a week, but nevertheless drew enthusiastic applause from those in attendance.
“I am here to declare myself an independent candidate for president of the United States,” Kennedy said after a warm introduction from his wife, the actress Cheryl Hynes.
Kennedy’s decision could prove to be pivotal even if he doesn’t eventually win the presidency himself.
With the race to date shaping up to be a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, no one is quite sure who Kennedy’s campaign will hurt most.
While many pundits in the past week have said the nonconformist anti-vaccine activist would pull a sizeable number of voters from Trump, others pointed to Kennedy’s decent showing in the polls — recently as high as 20% with Democratic voters — to say they feared he’d walk off with a sizeable chunk of Biden’s base.
During his remarks, Kennedy essentially said, a pox on both their Houses.
In doing so, he recalled a visit his father, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, paid to the Lakota Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, a week before his assassination in 1968.
“It was one of the few times in his lifetime that I heard him crying,” Kennedy said of his father and namesake, and the response of the elder Kennedy to the poverty he encountered there.
Twenty thousand Lakota Sioux were waiting to see Kennedy that day, and word of his tears swept through the reservation.
On primary day, June 5, 1968, the last day of the elder Kennedy’s life, he won South Dakota in large part thanks to the Sioux, who a local aide had dismissed as not being voters.
“I go back to Pine Ridge as often as I can,” the younger Kennedy said. “And almost every time I go there, the elders share that story with me.
“They tell me it was the highest voter turnout in the history of the nation and that my father got nearly 100% of the vote. In fact, they say, after all the votes were tallied, only three had been cast against him. And the elders always close that story by saying, ‘We’re still looking for those guys.’”
Acknowledging that Monday was Indigenous Peoples Day, Kennedy said the observance on what was formally only known as Columbus Day, is “a hopeful sign.”
“It shows that our country is now ready to explore and to tell each other the untold histories of those dispossessed people who have previously languished on the margins,” he said. “But today, as the corrupt powers have overtaken our government, the ranks of the dispossessed … not only include indigenous Americans and Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, but also include tens of millions of people living paycheck to paycheck, in financial desperation.
“The dispossessed also include the legions of the chronically ill, of the addicted, the depressed — 80% of our country cannot afford a middle-class lifestyle,” he said.
“A rising tide of discontent is now swamping our country. There’s a danger in this discontent, but there’s also opportunity and promise. The danger is that the demagogues will hijack it toward fascism, or that our rulers will use it as a pretense for an attack on an existential enemy in another in the long pipelines of continuous wars.
“The biggest danger that we’ve all seen on a day-to-day basis is that they’ll direct that discontent against each other. As Abraham Lincoln observed, quoting Jesus Christ, ‘a house divided, cannot stand.’
“A polarized nation is easy for corrupt powers to manipulate and to control and to strip of its wealth, its freedoms, its equity, its dignity. Those are the dangers,” Kennedy said. “So what is the promise? The promise is a reunion. We are told today that our nation is hopelessly divided. But I have found something different as I travel this country. The most hateful voices, of course, are always the loudest. But there are a lot of quiet Americans who are looking in disgust at the vitriol, the name calling and the venom. They want it to end. They want us to get along.”
Kennedy went on to say he believes there’s “broad agreement” that the country has lost its way. “Americans are weary. They’re tired of the culture war. The phony slogans. The politicians who use the partisan blame game to divide us and keep us at each other’s throats.
“And people suspect these divisions are deliberately orchestrated; that getting us to hate each other is all part of this game. And they’re fed up with being fooled. They’re ready to take back power.
“I’ve come here today to declare our independence from the tyranny of corruption which robs us of affordable lives, our belief in the future and our respect for each other,” Kennedy said at the climax of his remarks. “But to do that I must first declare my own independence. Independence from the Democratic Party and from all other political parties.”
Kennedy’s announcement comes just days after Cornel West, a liberal academic and presidential candidate, announced he is running as an independent, abandoning his efforts to secure the Green Party’s nomination.
To do so and have any chance of winning, both candidates will have to wage an expensive and difficult effort to get on the ballot in all 50 states. At same time, however, it will allow both to run races unencumbered by party rules and dictates.
Since he declared his candidacy in April, Kennedy has repeatedly slammed the Democratic Party for throwing its support behind Biden’s reelection at the detriment of other Democratic candidates.
It has done this, he has said, by reordering the party’s primary calendar to make it more favorable to the president, and by refusing to arrange for debates between Biden, Kennedy and the other Democrat in the race, author Marianne Williamson.
In a letter from his campaign sent to the Democratic National Committee last month, Kennedy chided the party, saying its voters should choose the nominee, “not party insiders.”
“The DNC is not supposed to favor one candidate over another,” he continued. “It is supposed to oversee a fair, democratic selection process, and then support the candidate that its voters choose.”
Among those who disagree strongly with Kennedy and his decision to run for president are four of his eight surviving brothers and sisters.
As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wooed the crowd in Philadelphia, Rory Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend put out a statement in which they denounced his candidacy and said it deeply saddened them.
“The decision of our brother Bobby to run as a third-party candidate against Joe Biden is dangerous to our country. Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment,” they said.
Historian Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, also took a dim view of Monday’s announcement.
“My first blush reactions — and they are only suspicions — are a) that he and his advisors think they can get more attention and do more political damage outside the Democratic Party than inside; and b) following on that, that they think he stands to raise much more money as an independent,” said Wilentz, whose many books include “The Rise of American Democracy,” “The Politicians and the Egalitarians” and “Bob Dylan in America,” among others.
“Historically, primary challengers are most effective in challenging incumbents on a particular issue where the party voters are leaning heavily against the incumbent,” Wilentz said. “Think Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire in 1968. Or Bobby Kennedy for that matter, who might just have won the nomination had he not been murdered.
“But these are highly unusual situations,” he continued. “Third-party independents, on the other hand, generally help that party to which they are, at least nominally, the most opposed. Think [Ralph] Nader in 2000, [Jill] Stein in 2016. Very rarely, third-party candidates can augur a shift in the entire political scene. Think Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 or Geroge Wallace in 1968.
“John Anderson in 1980, although a Republican, was perceived as closer to President Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan and hurt Carter more — though it was such a landslide it didn’t matter much in the final count,” Wilentz said.
Asked who he believes RFK Jr. would hurt most with his bid as an independent, Wilentz said Biden, given he could pull some disaffected Democrats and independents away from the president.
“Trump’s vote, on the other hand, is adamant,” he said.
With that he added, “I don’t think RFK Jr. is a viable candidate under any circumstances.
“In a very close election, though, he might just drain enough votes away from Biden to make a difference in one or another swing state, which is where I imagine he will concentrate his efforts, places like North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
“If he and his advisors imagined they would have anything other than a sour relationship with the Democratic Party, they are more deluded than I’d’ve thought,” Wilentz added. “I’m not sure whether there’s much strategy at all to this effort, legitimate or illegitimate. It’s on a very fringy fringe.
“Everything RFK Jr. has done in this campaign has hurt the country, along with, above all, his own reputation. That won’t change. Otherwise, he’s mostly helped Trump, and will continue to do so. Follow the money,” Wilentz said.