Jun 1, 2023

RFK Jr. is running against Biden.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the red carpet in 2017. Image: Gage Skidmore
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the red carpet in 2017. Image: Gage Skidmore

Plus, why won't Biden ditch Kamala Harris?

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.”

Are you new here? Get free emails to your inbox daily. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.

Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we're covering Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s candidacy for president. Plus, a question about why Biden won't ditch Vice President Kamala Harris.

Quick hits.

  1. The House passed the bipartisan debt-limit bill by a 314-117 margin. It now moves to the Senate for approval. (The passage)
  2. Former Vice President Mike Pence is expected to announce his presidential campaign in Des Moines, IA, on June 7. (The campaign)
  3. North Korea’s launch of its first military surveillance satellite failed. (The launch)
  4. Federal prosecutors say they've obtained a 2021 audio recording of former President Trump acknowledging he held onto a classified Pentagon document. (The tapes)
  5. A federal appeals court allowed the maker of OxyContin to settle thousands of legal claims tied to the opioid epidemic while shielding the wealthy owners of Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family, from future lawsuits. (The ruling)

Tomorrow's interview.

In tomorrow's subscribers-only Friday edition, we'll be publishing a transcribed interview with Daniel Stone, a behavioral economist at Bowdoin College who studies biases in belief formation. We discuss Daniel's new book, Undue Hate, and what people tend to get wrong about those they disagree with.

Today's topic.

RFK Jr. In April, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. filed paperwork to run for president in 2024 as a Democrat. The 69-year-old is a longtime environmental lawyer and activist, who has sparked controversy for questioning the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and the safety of other vaccinations. Politically, he has spent much of his career fighting pollution and pushing to rein in the power of corporations.

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, Kennedy has been described as a long shot, though his polling numbers are unusually strong for a primary challenger to an incumbent president. A recent Fox News poll found 16% of Democratic primary voters support him, while 8% support Marianne Williamson and 62% support President Biden. Similarly, a CNN poll found 20% of Democratic voters in support of Kennedy.

While Kennedy has asked to debate Biden, the Democratic National Committee has coalesced around the president, announcing it did not plan to hold any debates for the nomination. There has also been speculation that Kennedy may consider an independent run to try to upend Biden's campaign.

Kennedy has emphasized his long-standing friendship with President Biden, saying he is running simply because he disagrees with him on the direction of the country.

“I’m not running a mean-spirited campaign against Joe Biden. I’ve been friends with Joe Biden for 40 years,” he said on the Cats & Cosby radio show. “I’m grateful for his service to our country and his family’s service to our country. But I just disagree fundamentally with him on where the country is going... I don’t want Wall Street running the country. I don’t want the neocons running our foreign policy. I don’t like censorship. I think I’m skeptical about war,” Kennedy continued, adding that he thinks the U.S. should “settle” the war between Russia and Ukraine.

On his campaign website, Kennedy emphasizes his core issues of honest government, healing the political divide, championing environmental issues, supporting government assistance for the impoverished, ending foreign wars, and restoring freedom of speech. He has also tried to address the claim that he is "anti-vaccine."

“People who advocate for safer vaccines should not be marginalized or denounced as anti-vaccine. I am pro-vaccine," he wrote in a book calling for mercury to be removed from vaccines. "I had all six of my children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of humans over the past century and that broad vaccine coverage is critical to public health. But I want our vaccines to be as safe as possible.”

Despite the historical failures of primary challengers to incumbents and independent candidates, Kennedy's polling numbers have consistently hovered around 20% — roughly 1 in 5 Democratic voters — more than enough to make a mark on the 2024 presidential race.

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

What the left is saying.

  • The left is mostly distrustful of Kennedy’s “populist appeal,” comparing him most closely to Trump.
  • Most are labeling him a crackpot, saying his anti-vaccine theories and radical brand of environmentalism are too dangerous and too far out on the fringe.
  • Others say he’s the skeptical anti-authoritarian we need to get the country back on track.

In The Washington Post, Matt Bai called Kennedy’s campaign “pure Trump.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that a Trumpian candidate would emerge inside the Democratic Party, someone trying to run for president with the same cynical mix of star power and misinformation,” Bai said. Kennedy might not align with Trump on policy, but he has the same “dark strand of populism mixed with self-grandeur and self-created reality.” Like Trump, Kennedy does not have "a day of actual governing experience but loads of celebrity."

Kennedy seeks to channel a “destructive distrust in the electorate,” Bai wrote. In a Trumpian monologue at his campaign launch, “Kennedy sketched the bleak tableau of a government wholly owned and controlled by corporations, of nefarious powers in both parties hellbent on enslaving people with bureaucratic mandates.” His family has criticized his anti-vaccine stances, showing the distance between JFK’s liberalism and RFK Jr.’s “Trumpian theme of trashing government and science, while stoking fear and resentment.”

In The Daily Beast, Matt Lewis said Kennedy was "always a crackpot," he "just switched political tribes."

"Though he lacks anything close to his father’s résumé, he has spent decades as an influential 'conscience of the left' —promoting the worst kind of left-wing environmentalism," Lewis said. "Most recently, this involved helping convince his former brother-in-law, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to shut down a nuclear plant, which predictably led to New York state burning more carbon." Arguably even more damaging than this environmentalism that has led to more fossil fuel burning is that he's "promoted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories."

In a 2005 interview with Jon Stewart, he spewed “his anti-science rhetoric on vaccines,” which Stewart said he “appreciated,” Lewis wrote. Since Covid-19, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has embraced him and encouraged him to challenge Biden. “This is to say that while RFK Jr. may be an imbecile with no real qualifications, both sides of the American political spectrum have embraced him, at different points—when he told them what they wanted to hear.”

In Counterpunch, Anis Shivani suggested the left should give RFK Jr. a chance.

“If Joe Biden was hoping to sail through to renomination despite abysmal approval ratings, that’s not going to happen anymore, even if all the potential establishment candidates have backed out,” Shivani said. Kennedy is picking up the baton of “protest against extreme corporate power allied with state tyranny. To these he is adding a unique poetic calibration of his own, which comes from his unmatched personal experience as the nephew and son of a slain president and a possible future president respectively."

“To the extent that liberals have bought into the compulsions of the national security state in recent years with unquestioning obedience, because populist nationalism on the right is presented as an existential threat by the organs of the same national security state, liberals in fact create the conditions for a resistance to empire, mostly on the right, that takes distorted forms,” Shivani said. “RFK Jr.’s is the voice of rationality that we badly need, able to connect the immediate anguish to the larger factors that set us up to accept our assaulted state and do nothing about it," and he’s able to communicate "all the ways we are poisoning ourselves and all life on earth, and how we might return to health."

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on Kennedy, with some supporting his anti-establishment tack and others wondering why the right is backing him.
  • Some say his candidacy is a reckoning for the Democratic party.
  • Others criticize the right for embracing the "authoritarian Democrat" who is a paranoid crank.

In The Free Press, Peter Savodnik called Kennedy the Democratic Party’s reckoning.

“The most recent CNN poll shows Kennedy winning one in five voters,” Savodnik said, while Biden’s favorability rating is 35%. In an interview with Savodnik, Kennedy said “that Biden is a function of a system that a growing majority of Americans don’t trust. ‘I see him doing things that I know, at his core, he cannot possibly believe in—the censorship that’s coming out of the White House, it’s so contrary to everything that he’s stood for over his life.’” Kennedy further decried the relationship “between the most powerful technology companies and the American government.”

“‘It’s become a war party,’ Kennedy said of the Democrats. ‘It’s become the party of the neocons. It’s become the party of Wall Street and the party of censorship, which, I think, was, you know, antithetical to liberal values.’” Kennedy’s popularity is due to a real “confusion and sense of loss on the left,” Savodnik said. “And just as it upended right-wing norms and expectations, it will upend the whole progressive project. It will redefine it.”

In The National Review, Noah Rothman dismissed Kennedy, asking why his supporters are backing him.

“There has been quite a lot of debate — for now, mostly academic — about what Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s primary challenge to President Joe Biden says about this political moment,” Rothman said. Some have said “there is a marketplace for his heterodox ideas” — others characterize “much of that heterodoxy as paranoia,” but admit the “public demand” for irrationality. “I come down on the side of the ledger that views Kennedy’s political outlook as, on balance, crankish.”

“As a blunt instrument, Kennedy’s candidacy has a lot to say for it if you’re a disaffected Democratic voter who wants to broadcast displeasure with the party as an enterprise,” Rothman said. Kennedy’s candidacy, along “with mystic self-help guru Marianne Williamson’s,” are telling “a consistent story about Joe Biden’s presidency and his appeal to Democratic primary voters. What these alternative candidacies say about the candidate[s] themselves, however, is too nebulous to constitute anything other than a negative verdict on the incumbent.”

In Reason, Matt Welch criticized "libertarians and/or right-of-center journalists expressing strange new respect for a Hugo Chavez–admiring scion of the Establishment."

"The newly Kennedy-curious are intrigued by the rabble-rouser's potential to disrupt an otherwise rubber-stamped Democratic primary, sure, but also by him having the right enemies—the media, the military-industrial complex, and, most of all, a political class that backed COVID-19 lockdowns and mandates," Welch wrote. But "Recasting RFK Jr. as a foe of censorship and potential tamer of government requires ignoring what he has been and imagining things he'll never be. Among a lifetime of eyebrow-raising public activities, Bobby Kennedy's son has repeatedly egged on government to punish those who disagree with his idiosyncratic understandings of science."

In a September 2014 interview, he argued that the Koch brothers "should be in jail" and politicians who were equally skeptical about global warming were "contemptible human beings" whom he "wished there was a law that you can punish them under." He wrote an entire piece headlined "Jailing Climate Deniers." This episode "was not some momentary anti-speech glitch in RFK Jr.'s otherwise civil libertarian matrix," yet he now tries to claim the "mantle of anti-censorship" for being on the receiving end of "Big Social Media's government-pressured pandemic speech policing."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • Kennedy’s views on vaccines are one of the least important parts of who he is as a candidate.
  • What he really speaks to is how much pain, suffering, and distrust there is amongst Americans on both the left and right.
  • Many of the politicians mocking Kennedy would be wise to take note of where his support is coming from.

I don't want to spend too much time on the anti-vaxxer label because I think it is mostly unimportant. RFK Jr.'s views on vaccines could be charitably described as nuanced, and critically described as totally contradictory. This quote — "I am pro-vaccine. I had all six of my children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of humans over the past century and that broad vaccine coverage is critical to public health" — paired with his belief in the debunked nonsense that vaccines can cause autism basically says it all. (And, yes, it is debunked: As Savodnik put it under "What the right is saying," there is "zero scientific evidence to back this up. The 1998 article in the journal Lancet that first posited a link between vaccines and autism has been debunked and retracted.")

I will say this, though: The dismissal of RFK Jr. as little more than some rabid anti-vaxxer says more about the corporate media's laziness and groupthink than it does about him as a person.

What I find far more interesting is why he’s getting the support of one in five Democrats, and why he could potentially get a larger share of voters in an actual election. Much like Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, I think RFK Jr. is a reminder that for much of the country, things are just not going that well. And Covid-19 has accelerated it.

Fundamentally, this reality is what so many people writing about politics from Washington D.C. or New York miss. It's the environment he is running in more than the candidate. It is not hard for a new voice to tell these voters the story that the only way forward is to burn down the empire.

Almost half of all Americans are in low-wage jobs paying median annual wages of $18,000. Most middle-class Americans can't support their cost of living. The rust belt continues to rust. Our cities are too expensive and increasingly dangerous, while the suburbs are out of reach for many. Health insurance prices continue to rise, as does the cost of everything else. Our young adults are dying of addiction and gun violence and crippled by anxiety and depression. There is another major war in Europe, one we're already dumping money into and seem increasingly likely to get dragged into.

Meanwhile, there is an overwhelming sense that neither party seems to be doing much about any of these problems. The Democratic party has now allied itself with intelligence agencies, corporate elites, and Big Tech, apparently willing to silence dissenters while totally abandoning its once vibrant anti-war image. The Republican party is on an unpopular anti-abortion crusade, can't find a cultural issue it won’t go to war on, elevates unqualified extremist candidates, and seems increasingly uninterested in the ideals of democracy. The leaders of both parties are basically loathed by half the people who are supposed to vote for them, and yet we're likely facing a re-run of 2020 at the top, something the vast majority of voters don't want.

All of this comes after three years of fighting a pandemic where The Experts got a lot wrong and, even with the hindsight of being mostly removed from the pandemic, nobody seems to agree on what we got right and what we got wrong. More than one million people died from or with the virus right here in America, impacting an untold number of families. Thousands of others were injured by the vaccines meant to save us from that virus or are living with never-ending symptoms after contracting it, which is to say nothing of the pain for businesses or the learning loss from school closures. Amidst all this, some groundbreaking journalism has given us an unprecedented and shocking look at how our government, mainstream media, and Big Tech conglomerates work behind the scenes on everything from the Trump-Russia collusion narrative to where Covid-19 originated.

This is the environment RFK Jr. is entering. It's much like the environment in 2016, only all the things a candidate like Trump or Bernie was supposed to address appear to have gotten worse. Kennedy’s appeal doesn’t come through a traditional story about immigration or gun control or abortion, but through a story about something much more sinister, something in the shadows, something darker and more malevolent: We live in a dying environment, under the watchful eye of government surveillance and the crushing weight of our jobs moving offshore and our "medicine" making us sick. That story’s appeal doesn't just speak to the weakness of Biden, but to the readiness of a significant portion of both parties to listen to it. It’s a story about the psyche of a country that is increasingly distrustful of everything around them and finding very, very few reasons not to double down on that distrust.

Do I think RFK Jr. has a chance? No. Of course not. He has zero establishment support or experience, and he is mostly unknown to voters, who seem open to him primarily because his name is Kennedy (and not Biden). He is out of step on the environment with too many moderates and on Covid-19 with too many Democrats. He is basically an unabashed far-left progressive who also happens to distrust vaccines and loathe the intelligence agencies that are now en vogue with the Democratic establishment.

Much like Marianne Williamson, he shouldn't be a viable candidate. I don’t believe anyone with zero governing experience should be able to walk into the hardest job in the world. I stand firm in that belief. And I think his candidacy will ultimately burn out.

Yet, I also think his relevance now — even if only for a brief moment — is instructive. It's a reminder of how many people in our country feel their views are not represented by the politicians we have, and how unsatisfied so many are with our political duopoly. No matter how you feel about him, that'd be a great lesson to take from Kennedy's moment in the sun — one that politicians on both sides would be wise to note.

Don't forget!

Tickets for our event in Philadelphia on August 3rd are now live. We are hoping to sell this event out, that way we can start booking some others across the country. Guests will be announced soon, and details can be found here!

Your questions, answered.

Q: Greetings from Alaska. I've got a question about the seemingly inevitable Trump v. Biden II: has there been much talk about Biden getting a new VP? As you've mentioned a few times, Kamala Harris has just not been popular. Trump (assuming he wins the nomination), will definitely have a new VP candidate. Wouldn't it be smart politically for Biden to add someone to the bottom of the ticket?

— Matt from Anchorage, Alaska

Tangle: I think the smart money is on a Biden/Harris ticket out of the Democratic Party.

You make a good point about her approval rating — if Biden's approval is a problem at 41%, then Harris's 38% isn't doing anything to help. As many of the pieces we quoted today mentioned, Democratic voters aren't very excited about Biden. So it's a pretty simple calculus: Take an unpopular unexciting ticket, subtract an unpopular unexciting VP, add a more popular more exciting VP, and you get a more popular and more exciting ticket.

But there's more to it than that. For one, despite her underwhelming job performance thus far, she and President Biden reportedly have a good working relationship. Second, former DNC Chair Donna Brazille has suggested that Harris will not be replaced, and flat out said that she will be the nominee if Biden were to decide not to run. But most importantly, it's just not a thing incumbents seem to do anymore.

The last time an incumbent president ran for re-election without their elected vice president was 1944, when President Roosevelt swapped out Henry A. Wallace for Harry S. Truman. Making that change would signal to voters that there's something wrong with the current dynamic in The White House, and do we really think today's Democratic Party and President Biden would want to send that kind of message?

Even if the Dems could get a running mate to make a stronger ticket (and it's not like new and exciting Democrats are flooding the national landscape), I just don't see it happening. Democrats are running as the party of stability and Biden as the candidate of compromise; I don't think they want to rock the boat ahead of a likely showdown with Donald Trump.

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.

Insurers are fleeing California. This week, State Farm said it would stop selling new insurance policies to homeowners in California, worsening an already dire situation for thousands of residents who face a consistent threat of wildfires. State Farm's provider of homeowners insurance said it made the decision due to "historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market." Some commentators on the left blamed the decision on worsening climate change, while others on the right suggested it is California's hostile insurance environment where there are stringent regulations on how insurers can price plans. Reuters has a round-up.


  • 60%. The percentage of Democratic voters who support Biden for next year's Democratic ticket, according to a new CNN poll.
  • 20%. The percentage of Democratic voters who support Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
  • 8%. The percentage of Democratic voters who support Marianne Williamson.
  • 8%. The percentage of Democratic voters who said they'd support an unnamed "someone else."
  • 58%. The percentage of Biden's primary supporters who said they were "definitely" going to support him.
  • 42%. The percentage who said they could change their minds.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we wrote about Biden's executive order on police.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the drone picture of the harbor that looks like a dolphin.
  • Brett’s middle: Justice Brett Kavanaugh won a majority of the Tangle readership's support, with 52% supporting the court's decision and his proposed legal test on the Clean Water Act. 6% agreed with the court's decision and Alito's test, 13% agreed with the decision but neither's legal test, and 21% disagreed with the opinion entirely.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Today I learned that Harry S. Truman's middle name was just "S". Now you know that, too.
  • I’m going live: On Instagram at 4pm EST today to discuss our recent editorial changes. You can follow along here.
  • Take the poll. If you had to vote in the Democratic primary, which Democrat would you vote for? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

Scientists in Denmark believe they've discovered a new tool in the fight against climate change: powdered rock. "Rock flour," which comes from rocks that were ground down beneath massive glaciers, can be spread on fields to absorb enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere while also increasing crop yield. Plus, since the rock flour that researchers used comes from mud flowing from underneath the ice sheet in Greenland, the supply is virtually unlimited. The process, called “Enhanced Rock Weathering,” has the potential to remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. "You can’t have very sophisticated things with all kinds of hi-tech components," Professor Minik Rosing from the University of Copenhagen said. "So the simpler the better, and nothing is simpler than mud.” The Guardian has the story.

Before you go...

Remember: We have no investors, a small team, and are up against all the divisive, partisan, sensational news outlets in the world. There are so many ways to support us — please consider taking one action to help!

📣 Share Tangle on Twitter here, Facebook here, or LinkedIn here.

🎥 Follow us on Instagram here or subscribe to our YouTube channel here

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

🎉 Want to reach 58,000+ people? Fill out this form to advertise with us.

📫 Forward this to a friend and tell them to subscribe (hint: it's here).

🛍 Love clothes, stickers and mugs? Go to our merch store!

Subscribe to Tangle

Join 90,000+ people getting Tangle directly to their inbox!

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.