Oct 12, 2023

RFK Jr. is running as an independent.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a "health freedom" rally. Photo: Pamela Drew
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a "health freedom" rally. Photo: Pamela Drew 

Plus, a preview of tomorrow.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

RFK Jr. announces he is now running as an independent. Plus, a reader question about the Iran money and the attack in Israel.


"My take" from Tuesday's piece on Israel-Palestine has now been viewed 13.8 million times on X/Twitter. There are thousands of unread emails in my inbox. I'm still catching up on the texts, DMs, and messages. There are so many valuable perspectives, thoughtful criticisms, and important clarifications. I also made one important, regrettable mistake. Tomorrow, I'll be sending a Friday edition to all of our readers — free and paid — addressing some of the overall feedback, and then sharing many of your responses. I can't reply to everyone but I will try to highlight a wide range of voices, and I won't shy away from the criticism. I am still learning, as we all should be.

Thanks to all of you for writing in. Keep an eye out for the email. And keep praying, hoping, and wishing for peace.

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YouTube plug.

We just published a new YouTube video of "my take" from Tuesday.

Quick hits.

  1. Egypt reportedly warned Israel of potential violence three days before the Hamas attack (The warning). Children were found butchered in an Israeli kibbutz that Hamas attacked, and 25 Americans are now reported among the 1,200 killed (The tragedy). Egypt and Israel are working to evacuate more than 500 Americans and hundreds of other foreign nationals who are in Gaza, including UN workers, journalists, and aid workers. (The plan). Egypt has continued to reject an evacuation corridor for Palestinians from Gaza across its border. (The decision). Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed to form a rare emergency unity government (The government). The Gazan health ministry says 1,354 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes since Saturday, and another 6,049 were injured (The toll).
  2. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) won the GOP nomination for Speaker of the House on Wednesday. Now he will face a floor vote to get elected; a number of Republican representatives have said they won't support him. (The choice)
  3. Exxon Mobil Corp. has agreed to purchase Pioneer Natural Resources for $59.5 billion, which will allow Exxon to expand into the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico. (The deal)
  4. The United States announced $200 million in additional aid to Ukraine, bringing the total commitment to just shy of $44 billion. Separately, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to NATO headquarters to ask for more military support. (The visit)
  5. Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism that South Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature unconstitutionally gerrymandered black voters out of a congressional district. (The arguments)

Today's topic.

RFK Jr. Earlier this week, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced he will be running for president as an independent and is no longer seeking the Democratic nomination. The 69-year-old longtime environmental lawyer and activist has spent much of his career fighting pollution and pushing to rein in the power of corporations. More recently, he has sparked controversy for decrying the U.S. commitment to the war in Ukraine, questioning the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, and for appearing on the Joe Rogan podcast to defend his record of questioning the safety of other vaccines.

He is the son of former New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968, and the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. In 2019, two of his siblings and his niece published a piece in Politico denouncing his stance on vaccines.

Since entering the race as a Democrat, Kennedy has been described as a long shot, though his polling numbers have been unusually strong for a primary challenger of an incumbent president. A recent Ipsos poll found 14% of all voters would support him in a hypothetical three-way race with President Biden and former president Trump — more than enough to have a significant impact on the race. The poll also found that Kennedy’s unfavorability rating (38%) is lower than Biden’s (56%) or Trump’s (56%).

His decision to run as an independent may more closely represent his appeal to voters who are dissatisfied with both parties and want an alternative to the expected Biden-Trump rematch. However, both sides are on alert to his role in the race as a potential spoiler.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s siblings, Kerry Kennedy, Rory Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, oppose their brother’s campaign. “The decision of our brother Bobby to run as a third party candidate against Joe Biden is dangerous to our country,” the siblings said in a statement on X/Twitter. “We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country.”

Republicans are also concerned by the announcement. “Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values,” said Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung in a statement, calling Kennedy’s campaign “nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy looking to cash in on his family’s name.”

Meanwhile, Kennedy is staunchly critical of both parties, and on his campaign website he emphasizes his core issues of promoting honest government, healing the political divide, championing environmental issues, supporting government assistance for the impoverished, ending foreign wars, and restoring freedom of speech. He also tries to address the claim that he is "anti-vaccine," and to distance himself from that label.

Today, we're going to take a look at how his announcement to run as an independent is being received by the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is mixed in their reaction to the news, though most are glad that Kennedy is no longer running as a Democrat. 
  • Some say the move helps Biden by eliminating the chance of any surprise outcomes in the primaries.
  • Others say it’s too early to tell what the effect will be — but both parties should be on high alert. 

In MSNBC, Zeeshan Aleem explored whether RFK Jr. could “siphon off voters from both major parties.”

“If you haven’t been following the race closely, you might think that an independent Kennedy run would hurt Biden in the general election. If Kennedy is consistently able to attract the support of a nontrivial share of the Democratic electorate, he could, theoretically, inspire some of those voters to defect from the party for him,” Aleem said. “But if you’ve been following the race or Kennedy’s political views, you’ll know that Kennedy hardly resembles a Democrat. Some of his policy positions are progressive on issues such as raising the minimum wage, cracking down on corporate union-busting, and making it easier to get rid of student debt. But he also is skeptical of fighting climate change, opposes universal health care and declares ‘we should have closed borders.’

“As of now Kennedy is a true 2024 wild card. In the online world of political punditry, Kennedy seems to code increasingly as a right-winger. But that doesn’t mean voters will see him that way. Many of Kennedy’s views that endear him to the right do have a minor constituency on the left. There are people left-of-center who are skeptical of vaccines and the medical establishment, and who share his skepticism of supporting Ukraine. And he has enough left-leaning views — particularly on the economy — to honestly appeal for their votes… Neither party should sleep on him. Nobody — seemingly including Kennedy himself — knows where his candidacy is headed.”

In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore argued that RFK Jr.’s independent run “means one less headache for Biden.”

“The truth is we don’t have a good way of assessing a Kennedy independent candidacy until we see if he has the money and moxie to get on the ballot in competitive states. It won’t be easy, now that the adulatory treatment he has been getting from conservative media as a burr under Biden’s saddle may come to an abrupt end. But we do know the absence of the Kennedy name on Democratic primary ballots next year is an unambiguous boon to the incumbent,” Kilgore wrote. “[Biden] can run as the all but unanimous Democratic favorite who need not campaign for the nomination or even look or sound defensive about refusing to debate intraparty opponents.”

“Gone with RFK Jr.’s Democratic candidacy, moreover, is any fear of an embarrassingly poor showing in New Hampshire, whose rogue primary he could not enter and that media folk might find themselves unable to ignore,” Kilgore added. “Kennedy also takes with him, via his departure from his ancestral party, any lingering affection of Democrats for him in tribute to his famous relatives… What’s left is a veteran scandalmonger and misinformation peddler who belongs to no party because no party really wants him.”

In CNN, Harry Enten said RFK Jr.’s independent ticket “could make a big difference” in the election.

“While Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination was largely inconsequential, he could play a big role as an independent candidate in determining the winner of the general election. The polling on an independent run by Kennedy is limited, but the data we do have suggests he would start out as one of the strongest third-party or independent candidates this century,” Enten wrote. “A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted this past week among likely voters finds former President Donald Trump at 40%, Biden at 38% and Kennedy at 14% in a hypothetical November 2024 matchup… from a historical perspective, the 14% for Kennedy is quite unusual.”

“The question, therefore, is: Which one of them should fear a Kennedy candidacy more? The answer is far from clear at this early stage. Although Kennedy has so far been running in the Democratic primary, his favorability ratings are far higher among Republicans,” Enten said. Polling has shown that Kennedy’s presence on the ballot (compared to a generic third-party candidate) gives Trump an edge over Biden, so Kennedy “could benefit Republicans a tad more… The race between Biden and Trump is so close, though, that I’m not sure either side wants to risk a Kennedy candidacy potentially taking votes away from them.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right thinks Kennedy is still poised to undercut Biden’s support with Democrats but is unsure how his presence will impact the broader race. 
  • Some say that Trump and his supporters should be wary of propping up RFK Jr. now that he’s running as a third-party candidate. 
  • Others suggest both parties are in danger of losing voters to RFK Jr.

In Fox News, Liz Peek outlined the reasons “why RFK Jr. poses a real threat to Biden.”

“RFK reminds voters that Democrats did not used to be the party of war or backers of Big Pharma. He rails about corruption in both major parties and the bitter partisanship dividing our nation. He pledges to be honest with the American people,” Peek said. “Kennedy’s politics are all over the lot. Conservatives love his skepticism about top-down vaccine mandates but loathe his green energy embrace, enthusiasm for Big Labor and opposition to defense spending. Democrats may celebrate his push for free childcare but hate his determination to stamp out illegal immigration and they are horrified by his anti-vax history.”

“Kennedy offers something for everybody, which threatens, especially, Joe Biden and to a lesser degree Donald Trump. Trump supporters, an Ipsos poll reveals, are more committed to their candidate than are backers of Biden; they are less likely to stray,” Peek wrote. “The election is a long way off, and independent candidates rarely make much of a dent. This time could be different, in that the two leading contenders are both unpopular. More important, and more worrisome for Biden, is that young voters age 18-29 appear to be drifting away from the Democrat Party, and becoming independents. These voters could latch onto RFK Jr.’s campaign.”

In Newsweek, Stephen L. Miller said RFK Jr.’s independent candidacy is a “lesson for MAGA world: be careful what you wish for.”

“Kennedy's horseshoe philosophies and campaign have found allies on the political Right—so much so that he may end up hurting former President and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump more than President Biden in the 2024 election. Kennedy's Democratic populism has found a home in MAGA world media, whose punditry sees him as a useful ally and tool against Joe Biden and in particular, the mainstream media. He has successfully courted some of MAGA world's biggest media stars, who have given him a large platform to stand on, and his popularity with Republican voters eclipses that of Democratic ones,” Miller wrote. 

“Yet MAGA World embraces Kennedy at their own peril. Recent polling has shown that Kennedy would not hurt Biden as an Independent in a general election run—though he would hurt Trump. The prospect of a Kennedy third party run should be putting Donald Trump and his supporters on all kinds of notice. With the narrow margins with which Trump lost the previous election, RFK's popularity could be enough to swing the election to Biden—especially with the coveted normie suburban voters who don't align with some of Kennedy's more extreme positions.”

In RedState, Ward Clark wrote about why RFK Jr. “could spell danger” for both parties.

“Kennedy's stated political opinions seem to straddle both sides — his background as an ‘environmental lawyer’ may cost him some GOP support. He is pro-same-sex marriage, but against the COVID panics; on the Second Amendment, his statement is that ‘he believes in gun control,’ but that the Supreme Court has (presumably in the Bruen decision) decided the issue of keeping and bearing arms. There are positions in his portfolio that will appall and appeal to both sides,” Clark said. “If Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has an advantage, one that may make him a major spoiler, it is this: At the moment, he commands a big advantage in favorability ratings.

“But bear in mind, it's awfully early in the game, and we haven't heard all that much from him yet, compared to the other major candidates. In other words, while everyone knows where Mr. Kennedy springs from, too many people do not as yet really know who he is. On the other hand, we certainly do know who Donald Trump is, as he's spent a great deal of time telling us, and in the Republican primary debates, we've been learning quite a bit about the GOP's other contenders. And the one other fly in the ointment is that Joe Biden almost certainly won't be the Democrat's candidate; at this juncture who that candidate might be is anyone's guess.”

My take.

  • His poll numbers are pretty stunning, and I think he can have a meaningful impact on this election.
  • He is no conservative — let’s clear that up right now.
  • It’s not clear yet who he hurts more, but the smart money is on Biden.

Well, I think he just got everyone's attention (again).

If Kennedy were to keep running as a Democrat, his impact on the race would have been limited. He never had a shot of winning that primary, and still has a near-zero chance of winning the general election — though of course that could change if Trump actually goes to jail and Biden actually has some major health episode. But in any case, he will have a stronger impact on a Biden-Trump race if he sticks it out as an independent.

To be clear: Kennedy is no conservative. I think his language is coded with a lot of stuff that appeals to the conservative base right now — on corrupt media, morally bankrupt politicians, forever wars, and vaccine hesitancy. But his policy positions are mostly old-school liberal, and in some cases very progressive. Look at Kennedy's priorities on the economy and you'll struggle to find a difference between him and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT): Minimum wage at $15, prosecuting union-busting corporations, free childcare, and so on.

His entire professional career has been built on environmentalism, and while he has expressed some skepticism about energy policies like the Green New Deal or agencies like the EPA, he is wholly committed to using government to address climate change. He wants to "incentivize" zero waste cycles and clean energy sources, while also "curbing" mining, oil drilling, and suburban sprawl. That is just as "left" and in some ways more so than President Biden's climate change agenda. On his campaign website, one of his 11 priorities as president is a commitment to representing the interests of Native Americans. That’s hardly a conservative priority.

As for how his decision impacts Biden and Trump, I genuinely think it is too early to say. There’s still a lot we don’t know. Will he get on a debate stage with Biden and Trump? I hope he does for the sake of having an option that isn't the red-blue duopoly, but whether he does or doesn't could change the shape of the race in a big way.

I know plenty of Democrats want an option that isn't Biden, but I also think RFK Jr. will get crushed once he goes through the partisan media wringer. As I've written before, many of his views are indefensible, and he is prone to some wild claims. When you have headlines floating around like "RFK Jr says COVID may have been 'ethnically targeted' to spare Jews," you are going to run into a lot of electoral trouble. Also, if this really does end up being a choice between Biden and Trump, I think enough Democrats are so committed to ensuring Trump doesn't win the White House again that they will stick by Biden nearly wholesale in the end.

Speaking of Trump, what conservative voter who was planning to cast a ballot for him is going to jump ship to Kennedy? I am trying and struggling to paint a picture of one in my mind. Again, there may be something there for them on immigration policy and rhetoric about Covid-19 vaccines, but if they’re considering leaving Trump for Kennedy then they’re going to run headfirst into mostly progressive positions. I imagine anyone planning to vote for Trump at this point will decide to keep their vote with him after Trump hammers Kennedy with a few barbs or — in what is a near certainty — comes up with a derisive nickname for him.

The most interesting voters to watch are the other cohorts. America is not a binary of red and blue. What about never-Trump Republicans? Kennedy has the policy positions of progressives paired with some Trumpian rhetoric on vaccines and Ukraine. That's the worst of both worlds for them, so I don’t see him winning that camp. What about hardcore progressives who want Biden to go left? I could see some appeal in Kennedy, especially among the liberals who are more antagonistic toward vaccines, but will enough of them cede a stronger vote against Trump to cast a ballot for a candidate who can't win just to make a point? It's possible, but I'm skeptical.

And yet, Kennedy's poll numbers truly are stunning — as a share of the electorate they would represent a historic performance for an independent. They are also in line with one of my 19 predictions about the future I made at the end of 2021: "In the 2024 presidential election, a third party candidate will carry the largest percentage of the popular vote since Ross Perot in 1996, who got 8.4%."

On the net, I think Kennedy is a much bigger threat to Biden than Trump, as Democratic voters are more likely to cast a protest ballot than Trump voters are to abandon him now. All Kennedy has to do is peel off 1-2% from Biden in some important swing states to change the election, and I do think he is capable of that. The question is whether he is okay with that. Will he run his candidacy to the end if it becomes clear he is hurting Biden, a man he seems to respect deeply, and helping Trump, a candidate whom he is deeply critical of? That’s one of the things we still just don’t know.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I appreciate your honest and open response to this tragedy [in Israel and Gaza]. Your fairness helped me to understand the underlying issue more clearly. My question is how is your statement about “money freed up by the Biden administration’s prisoner swap” not fuelling the misinformation machine in the US when everything I’ve read says that none of the money has been released yet?

— Anonymous from Bozeman, Montana

Tangle: First of all, thank you for the kind feedback about the piece we wrote about Israel and Palestine on Monday. To all other readers who have written in with criticism or questions about that piece: Please know that my phone is melting and my inbox is overloaded. I’m trying hard to respond to the criticisms I got from all directions, and I will be responding to as many questions and comments as I can in a piece this Friday. But today I want to respond to this question since it’s tangential to the main point and I’ve received similar pushback from a few other readers on it as well. 

Yes, I did write the following: “Iran probably helped organize the attack and the money freed up by the Biden administration's prisoner swap probably didn't help the situation, either.” And first off, you and others are right that Iran still does not have the $6 billion of Iranian funds the U.S. released as part of the recent prisoner swap deal. That money was already Iran’s, it was frozen in a bank in South Korea, and it is currently being held in Doha, Qatar.

It’s also true that those funds are specifically designated to be spent only for humanitarian purposes. “And, as we've said many times, it can only be used to purchase food, medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products for the people of Iran," a State Department spokesperson has said.

That’s all true. But I still stand by what I wrote, simply because that money being on the way to Iran does free up money they currently have to be spent as they wish. I don’t see how it couldn’t. As many Republican critics have said in response to the deal, money is fungible: Just because we can track where each of these dollars goes doesn’t mean that we can track the destination of the dollars Iran currently has that these dollars will be displacing.

And I’ll reiterate my original phrasing: Those funds coming to Iran probably didn’t help. We don’t know for sure that Iran preparing to recuperate $6 billion of designated funds resulted in them sending money to Hamas or Hezbollah, and it looks like this attack had been planned for some time. But I think there’s good reason to believe that it could have.

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.

The high school class of 2023 had the lowest ACT admissions test scores in more than 30 years. Scores had already been falling for six consecutive years, but the trend accelerated during Covid-19. Average ACT composite test scores for U.S. students was 19.5 out of 36. Last year, it was 19.8. Average scores in reading, science, and math were all below what benchmarks the ACT says students need to hit for a high probability of success in first-year college courses. "The hard truth is that we are not doing enough to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career," Janet Godwin, chief executive officer for the nonprofit ACT, said. 1.4 million students took the ACT this year. CBS News has the story


  • 14%. The percentage of voters who say they would support RFK Jr. in a three-way race with Trump and Biden in the 2024 presidential election, according to a Reuters/Ipsos survey. 
  • 9.8%. The polling average of Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson four months before the 2016 presidential election.
  • 3.3%. The percentage of the national vote that Johnson ultimately received in the 2016 election.
  • 28%. The percentage of Democrats who have a very or somewhat favorable view of RFK Jr., according to a New York Times/Siena College poll. 
  • 22%. The percentage of 2020 Biden voters who have a very or somewhat favorable view of RFK Jr. 
  • 55%. The percentage of Republicans who have a very or somewhat favorable view of RFK Jr.
  • 55%. The percentage of 2020 Trump voters who have a very or somewhat favorable view of RFK Jr. 
  • 44%. The percentage of voters who live in the South and have a very or somewhat favorable view of RFK Jr., the highest of any region in the U.S.
  • 32%. The percentage of voters who live in the Northeast and have a very or somewhat favorable view of RFK Jr., the lowest of any region in the U.S.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the protests in Iran.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the German-Israeli woman who was thought to be dead but is still alive.
  • Do something else: 793 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about Biden's new border wall construction, with 34% saying he's right to build more wall but should be constructing more. 32% said he's wrong to build more wall and should not be constructing any new barriers, 25% said he's wrong to build more wall but should be constructing some barriers, and 3% said he's right to build some wall and should only be building a small amount. "The wall is a waste of money. Technological improvements and more manpower would help more," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Reminder to Phillies fans this postseason: Leave your emotional support gators at home. 
  • Take the poll. Tangle snap poll: Who would you support in a hypothetical three-way race between Biden, Trump, and Kennedy? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Generally speaking, most vaccines work by instigating an immune system response. But this approach doesn’t work for autoimmune diseases, where the immune system becomes the enemy. But new research by scientists at the University of Chicago could offer a way forward.  An “inverse vaccine,” reported this month in Nature Biomedical Engineering, was shown effective in mice by attaching sugars to molecules that provoke immune cells, and could potentially lead to new ways to combat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus. Though peers are suggesting cautious optimism, as the new approach is unproven in humans, the novel approach has garnered acclaim. “The method they use is promising and potentially can induce better tolerance,” says neurologist and neuroimmunologist A.M. Rostami of Thomas Jefferson University. Science.org has the story.

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