Apr 3, 2024

RFK Jr. picks his running mate.

Maxim Elramsisay — Shutterstock
Maxim Elramsisay — Shutterstock

Who is Nicole Shanahan? Also, what's the problem with a flat tax?

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

RFK Jr. chooses a running mate. Plus some responses to our reader question on taxing the rich.

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Quick hits.

  1. A 7.4-magnitude earthquake in Taiwan killed at least nine people and injured 963, while also causing extensive infrastructure damage. It is the strongest earthquake to hit Taiwan in 25 years. (The quake)
  2. The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined roughly 640 points over the first two days of April, its worst two-day point loss since March 2023. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq also dropped. (The numbers)
  3. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek (D) signed into law a bill that re-criminalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs, rolling back a 2020 ballot measure that eliminated criminal penalties for possession of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. (The law)
  4. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) vetoed a proposal to ban transgender student-athletes from competing in divisions consistent with their gender identity. (The veto) Meanwhile, voters in Wisconsin approved a constitutional amendment on Tuesday to ban private money support for elections. (The amendment
  5. A coalition of civil rights and medical organizations announced ​​they are suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over its failure to ban menthol cigarettes by the deadline the agency had set for itself last year. (The lawsuit)

Today's topic.

RFK Jr.’s pick for vice president. On Tuesday, March 26, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced his running mate in his independent bid for president: Nicole Shanahan, a 38-year-old attorney from California. Kennedy’s decision followed weeks of speculation about his VP shortlist, which reportedly included NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I).  

Shanahan leads the Bia-Echo Foundation, an organization she founded to direct money toward causes like women’s reproductive science, criminal justice reform, and environmental issues. She was also the founder and chief executive of ClearAccessIP, a patent management firm that was sold in 2020, as well as the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Notably, Shanahan has an extensive history of donating to Democratic politicians and progressive causes, including President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. She gave Kennedy’s campaign $6,600 — the maximum an individual can give to a political candidate per election cycle — when he was still running as a Democrat, and she expressed disappointment at his decision to run an independent campaign. Her support of Kennedy was renewed with a $4 million contribution to the super PAC that aired a campaign ad boosting Kennedy during the Super Bowl in February. As a vice presidential candidate, Shanahan is allowed to give unlimited sums to the campaign directly. 

At the event announcing her as his running mate, Kennedy said he chose Shanahan for her focus on increasing access to healthy foods, knowledge of technologies like AI, athletic ability, and support for revamped border security. 

“Now I have a governing partner who will fight for you and your family,” Kennedy said. “I’m confident that there is no American more qualified than Nicole Shanahan to play this role.”

Shanahan, who has said she supports Kennedy in part due to his anti-establishment stance on issues like vaccine safety, alluded to a health crisis in America in her opening remarks, mentioning “toxic substances in our environment” and “electromagnetic pollution” from devices like cell phones. 

“Our children are not well, our people are not well, and our country will not be well for very much longer, if we don’t heed this desperate call for attention,” she said.

Kennedy has consistently polled in double digits in a three-way matchup with Joe Biden and Donald Trump. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in March found him receiving 16% of the vote, while a Quinnipiac University poll released last week had him at 13%. 

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s campaign is working to get him on the ballot in as many states as possible. On Monday, they said they had collected enough signatures to qualify in North Carolina, which is expected to be a key battleground state in 2024. Though the campaign claims it has collected enough signatures for ballot access in five states, Kennedy has only officially qualified for the ballot in Utah. The campaign faced pressure to make a vice presidential pick so Kennedy could qualify in states that require independent candidates to nominate a vice presidential candidate before collecting signatures.

The ballot access challenge has led to speculation that Kennedy could consider running as the Libertarian Party candidate, since that party will be on the ballot in all 50 states. Last week, Politico reported that Kennedy spoke with Libertarian Party Chair Angela McArdle about pursuing the nomination, though that was prior to naming Shanahan as his running mate.

Today, we’re going to explore opinions about Kennedy choosing Shanahan to be his running mate and the state of his campaign, with perspectives from the right and left, followed by the Tangle staff’s take. 

You can find our past coverage of Kennedy’s campaign here.

What the right is saying.

  • The right uniformly believes Kennedy’s choice of Shanahan will hurt him among Republicans due to her progressive background.
  • Some suggest Biden and Democrats should be concerned by the strategy Kennedy’s campaign seems to be pursuing. 
  • Others say Kennedy’s continued relevance is a sign of a dissatisfied populace.

In The Dispatch, Chris Stirewalt suggested Kennedy’s “choice of running mate shows the independent’s growing danger to Democrats.”

“The way forward for Kennedy other than the Libertarians is to really try to make a go of winning ballot access in all 50 states. And for many states, an additional hurdle—beyond massive petition drives and onerous bureaucratic requirements—is to have a running mate, something major parties don’t need to worry about for five months or so. So when Kennedy this week chose his running mate, we got our best look yet at where the presidential nephew is heading. And it sure wasn’t to the right,” Stirewalt said. “What Shanahan does have is the ability to bankroll the expensive effort to get Kennedy on the ballot.”

“Young, rich, lefty, Californian, and Asian-American, Shanahan seems very much the running mate one would pick to go after disaffected Democrats, not mad-as-hell MAGA men. And that’s a big problem for Biden,” Stirewalt wrote. “If Kennedy isn’t going to win, what might his secondary goal be? It seems increasingly likely that the lifelong Democrat and scion of the party’s most famous family might be more interested in forcing change in his own team than pushing Republicans to reform in his direction.”

In The Washington Examiner, Elizabeth Stauffer called the pick “a gift to Donald Trump.”

In choosing Shanahan, Kennedy “settled the debate over which party would be hurt the most by Kennedy’s candidacy: the Democrats,” Stauffer said. “With his choice of the far-left Shanahan, Kennedy is likely to lose much, if not all, of his current support from conservatives and conservative-leaning independent voters, who will either cast their ballots for Trump or stay home.

“By the same token, he will see an increase in support from progressive voters — the same ones the Biden campaign is courting. Stranahan’s tremendous wealth will also help put Kennedy’s name on the ballots in key battleground states,” Stauffer added. “With Shanahan on the ticket, Biden and Kennedy are now targeting the same voters and, unfortunately for Biden, it’s a zero-sum game. Remember how well a similar situation turned out for President George H.W. Bush in 1992.”

In The Las Vegas Review-Journal, Victor Joecks wrote about “what’s fueling the rise of RFK Jr.”

Shanahan is “extremely wealthy and helped pay for a nostalgia-invoking Super Bowl ad promoting Kennedy. She could fund the state-by-state effort it would take to get Kennedy on the ballot around the country,” Joecks said. “Conventional wisdom says that Kennedy’s support will wane. As the election draws near, most voters tend to settle on one of the two candidates with a realistic chance of winning. But there are plenty of reasons to think Kennedy will have staying power.

“For one, even some Democrats acknowledge President Joe Biden’s age is a problem… Many of those voters wouldn’t dream of voting for Donald Trump, but they may find Kennedy a palatable alternative. Another is that Kennedy is positioning himself outside the traditional left-right divide. He often sounds as if he’s running to be America’s doctor-in-chief,” Joecks wrote. “As an independent presidential candidate, his platform is bigger than ever… Kennedy is explicitly running against that corruption. Little wonder he has attracted a loyal following.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left worries that Shanahan could boost Kennedy just enough to damage Biden’s election performance.
  • Some say the pick shows how wealthy candidates can distort campaigns.
  • Others contend the decision undermines Kennedy’s image as a political outsider.

In The New Republic, Greg Sargent argued Shanahan’s “money is likely to do a whole lot of talking.”

“This might seem like a strange choice. Shanahan has no political experience or national name recognition. Her image as a wealthy dilettantish sort has no obvious appeal to the disaffected voters that Kennedy hopes to lure from President Biden and Donald Trump,” Sargent wrote. “But if you want to understand this decision—and why Democrats believe it poses a potential problem for them—follow the money. To get on the ballot in numerous states, Kennedy will need to fund a large operation. Shanahan has already proven willing to bankroll Kennedy’s efforts.”

“There are plausible reasons why Kennedy might fail to pose a threat to Biden. His bid for ballot access might fail: His campaign appears to be blundering on this front, as evidenced by the news that it gathered a lot of access signatures in Nevada that may get invalidated because he hadn’t listed a running mate on his petition, as required by state law,” Sargent said. “But still: Kennedy only has to get on the ballot in one or two key states, and pull relatively small percentages of votes from Biden, to return Trump to the White House.”

For The Brennan Center, Ian Vandewalker wrote that the pick demonstrates “the dangers of self-funded campaigns.”

“Kennedy’s campaign has raised far less than the 2024 frontrunners, and he may see a running mate with the ability to self-fund as necessary to keeping his bid afloat,” Vandewalker said. “Kennedy’s choice highlights the crushing pressures of fundraising in today’s elections. Campaign costs have soared in the Citizens United era of unlimited donations to super PACs and ‘dark money’ groups that keep their donors secret due to a boom in spending by the richest donors, making bigger and bigger donations increasingly essential to running for office.”

“Even though they often lose, self-funders distort politics. Their unlimited spending helps drive up the costs of campaigns, making them too much of a rich person’s game and limiting the choices available to voters,” Vandewalker wrote. “Some have suggested that self-funding candidates can’t be corrupted by special interests, because they are too rich to bribe. But that misses the reality that wealthy candidates typically already represent a special interest: the business and industry that got them (or their parents) rich. More generally, studies show that the affluent have different policy views than most Americans.”

In Bloomberg, Nia-Malika Henderson said “RFK Jr. is a royal pretending to be a commoner.” 

“Kennedy is running for president as an independent and claiming to be an outsider. But the political scion is trading on his name like any other good-ole-boy insider. He’s what the kids like to call a nepo baby. He hates ‘the system’ yet kind of is the system, drawing millions from a conservative banking heir to fund his campaign. Oh, and he named another big donor, Nicole Shanahan, a tech millionaire (or billionaire by marriage), to be his running mate/piggybank. Talk about buying access.”

“Of the third-party threats, Kennedy has emerged as the most serious,” enabling him to “soak up all the attention and ire. Shanahan’s millions will give his ballot access efforts a boost,” Henderson wrote. “Kennedy’s name and family legacy are the entry point for many voters, but Democrats, especially, will aim to make him synonymous with crazy, fringe, and dangerous ideas and dampen his standing by November. And key to that should be telling voters that Kennedy and his running mate are bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires.”

Our take.

Reminder: "Our take" is a section where we give ourselves space to share Tangle's opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Each side is very consistent, and they’re both right — picking Shanahan plays better for Trump, and helps Kennedy with his money issues.
  • We aren’t sure how impactful Kennedy will ultimately be, but picking Shanahan gives him the best chance of going the distance.
  • It looks like a smart pick, but time will tell how the Biden and Trump camps respond.

Shanahan probably won’t move the needle in either direction as a candidate, but she could still have an outsized impact on Kennedy’s campaign — and the entire election.

Choosing three articles each from the left and right for this story was difficult — not because of a lack of commentary, but because most of the pieces were so similar. On the right, here are six different pieces arguing that Kennedy picking Shanahan is a gift to Trump; on the left, here are six different pieces criticizing Kennedy for choosing Shanahan because she’s rich. 

We’re always inclined to be skeptical when we see this degree of shared messaging on both sides. What’s behind all this partisan orthodoxy, we ask. What hidden dynamics might both sides be missing?

In this case, though, it’s pretty easy to see why both sides are parroting the same talking points: They’re straightforwardly true.

To the degree that Kennedy’s vice presidential pick has any impact on the race, choosing Shanahan will certainly help him appeal to left-leaning voters more than right-leaning ones. No surprise there — when we covered Kennedy’s independent bid back in October, Isaac wrote that Kennedy is aligned with Democratic positions on most issues besides vaccines, his unconditional aversion to war, and his feelings about the mainstream media. Shanahan is in that same mold, with a long track record of supporting progressive causes and Democratic candidates. And while some of her positions — like her opposition to in vitro fertilization — will turn many progressive voters off, these stances are derived from her belief in unconventional therapies and medical research rather than traditional conservative stances against government intervention (as Chris Stirewalt noted under “What the right is saying”).

Put differently, even her anti-establishment beliefs aren’t likely to engender support among right-leaning voters in the way that Kennedy’s position on issues like Covid vaccines does. Republicans will have no problem painting her as a far-left, out-of-touch progressive to their voters; Democrats will have a much tougher time convincing disaffected Biden supporters that she represents a threat from the right — to the extent that either side makes her a target of their attacks. 

On the flip side, you can take it to the bank that this pick was all about money. Kennedy’s campaign is in a major financial crunch: It has been spending faster than it can fundraise, its cash reserves are shrinking, and it’s been racking up millions in debt. Enter Shanahan. She’s already spent $4 million on his (unaffiliated) campaign ad during the Super Bowl and her vast wealth will surely be used to support the Kennedy campaign’s efforts to gain ballot access in all 50 states (an expensive undertaking). 

We should clarify that Shanahan hasn’t said explicitly she’ll be putting her own money into the campaign, but we’re aligned with the vast majority of commentators who expect she will offer a substantial financial boost. That could be through her own wealth, her ties to wealthy donors, or both. 

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Kennedy choosing Shanahan for her money. It’s part of the calculus politicians make all the time, especially those waging a longshot campaign. In this case, Kennedy’s most acute problem is a lack of cash needed to fund ballot access initiatives, which the campaign estimates will cost $15 million. Shanahan can help fill that need while making him (at least marginally) more competitive with progressive voters and providing a youthful face for his campaign. To that end, picking Shanahan was a smart decision.

This pick probably won’t change much about Kennedy’s chances in 2024, but he could still play a huge role in tipping the election toward Biden or Trump. His poll numbers were trending downward since he got in the race, but are now holding steady at around 9-10% in a three-way matchup. If those numbers persist through the election, he’ll be a modern-day Ross Perot (in more ways than one) and will almost certainly get the credit (or blame) for handing the election to the winning candidate. And Shanahan’s money could certainly help keep him afloat until then.

Whether that’s enough to make him a truly impactful third-party candidate come November is an entirely different question. But expect to see both the Trump and Biden camps start to take him a lot more seriously — and put both Kennedy and Shanahan in their crosshairs — the longer he’s able to stay in the race.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: What are the pros and cons of a flat tax?

— Ron from Marshfield, Massachusetts

Tangle: I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to take a moment to briefly respond to some comments to my answer to a reader question last week about why we should tax the rich, because we got a lot of them.

First, the pros of a flat tax: It’s the simplest tax proposal to understand. Cons: Everything else. For those unacquainted, a flat tax means everyone pays the same tax rate regardless of income. There are a number of reasons why I don’t think a flat tax is a good idea, but the main one is that it wouldn’t actually be any more “fair” than the system we have now.

I said in my response that every dollar past a certain point gives you diminishing returns, but I’ll describe what I meant a little more clearly. Every person requires roughly the same amount to just “get by,” often called the living wage. In Pennsylvania, for a single person with no children, that’s about $46,000 a year. Every dollar a person makes over that amount is by definition less essential, and should be taxed progressively a bit more (a “progressive tax”). Put another way, that’s why every dollar of income below the highest bracket threshold of $609,350 should be taxed progressively less. Everyone is still getting the same level of taxation on every dollar they make within each tax bracket, so it’s still eminently fair to me.

Now, a few responses to readers.

“The more money a person earns past what they need or want to survive is most likely invested, which produces jobs!” — Tom from La Mesa, California

“Likely” invested, and may produce jobs. Alternatively, the government can use that money in a way that everyone gets to vote on. I prefer that — and not because I trust government efficiency! I’ve said before that I support smaller government and lower tax levels in general, and I do think private investments from the rich stimulate the economy. But I also think those high-income dollars are the best source for public investment, and I don’t think taking the funds available for private investments down from $0.63 to $0.60 for every dollar of income over $600,000 a year will ruin private investment. 

Something I almost said but cut from my answer was that people who create jobs or own businesses benefit more from public infrastructure that supports those businesses — like roads for commerce and utility services for logistical support. So taking a greater share from the people who benefit the most also makes sense.

Why did you fall for the big lie about rich people paying 42% of taxes? Rich people pay 42% of Income taxes because they make huge amounts of income.” — Rich from St. Simons Island, Georgia

It’s a little hard to call this a “big lie,” then basically agree with it. Yes, I should have specified “income” tax; but I think that was clearly implied. The article I linked to supported that. Though to be fair to Rich here, he did go on to say that the rich pay proportionally less through sales of their income and wealth to property and sales tax, which are harder to aggregate because they’re collected at the state and local levels.

And lastly, to the several people who wrote in to push back on the Laffer Curve, saying that it provided the foundation for trickle-down economics and that that theory hasn’t worked, I’ll reply that you can throw out trickle-down economics without abandoning the basic concept behind the Laffer Curve. It seems almost self-evident to me that taxation past a certain point is increasingly counterproductive. 

Lastly… thanks to everyone for writing in to disagree with or challenge my thinking!

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Google is deleting the private browsing history of millions of people who believed they were searching the web privately using the company’s Chrome internet browser. A settlement filed in federal court this week revealed that, while Google told users of Chrome’s "incognito" mode that they would be browsing privately when the option was turned on, the company was still collecting information from users’ searches with that feature turned on. That information was then packaged with users’ browsing history outside of incognito mode to inform the creation of personalized ads. While Google claims the data “was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalization” and won’t be making any payments as part of the proposed settlement, the news comes as Google simultaneously defends itself against lawsuits brought by the Justice Department over the company’s online search practices and a separate case focused on their advertising business. NPR has the story.


  • 12.3%. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s polling average in a three-way race with Donald Trump and Joe Biden, according to RealClearPolling. 
  • 39.8%. The percentage of Americans who say they have a favorable opinion of Kennedy, according to the latest polling average from FiveThirtyEight. 
  • 36.5%. The percentage of Americans who say they have an unfavorable opinion of Kennedy.
  • $25,000. The amount Nicole Shanahan contributed to Biden's joint fundraising committee (the Biden Victory Fund) in 2020.
  • $2,800. The amount Shanahan contributed to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign in 2019.
  • $2,800. The amount Shanahan contributed to Marianne Williamson’s presidential campaign in 2019.
  • $2.1 million. The amount raised by a super PAC supporting Kennedy’s campaign following the announcement of Shanahan as his running mate last Tuesday.

The extras.

Yesterday’s survey: 799 readers answered our survey on the Francis Scott Key Bridge with 51% saying the federal government should broadly respond to improve infrastructure. “I believe that the government needs to start repairing all of our aging infrastructure. I also believe that the ship's owners should be paying for the bridge that they knocked down,” one respondent said.

What do you think of Nicole Shanahan? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Recent research from the emotional science lab at Texas A&M shows how experiencing emotions that are often thought of negatively — like anxiety, anger, or sadness — can be very healthy. Rather than an outcome to avoid, going through these feelings can actually help us become more resilient. Sadness can help you recover from a trial, anger can help you prepare for one, and anxiety can get you primed to experience danger. Even boredom can be useful to help jolt you out of a rut. “Pleasant or not, your emotions can help guide you toward better outcomes,” said Heather Lench, professor at Texas A&M. “Maybe understanding how they prepare you to handle various situations will help you feel better about feeling bad.” Good Good Good has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.