Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, Robert Kennedy Jr.
Left to right: Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED), Palácio do Planalto / Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED), and © Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press Wire.

The biggest tell yet as to Kennedy’s true role in this election?

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Maybe he just changed his mind. As reported by NBC, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in an interview released Wednesday with podcaster Sage Steele, said that he would allow women to have abortions at full term if that was their choice.

It’s a free country and, if Kennedy out of the blue decides that there should be no restrictions on abortion whatsoever — that a woman “at full term” should have an unconditional right to terminate her pregnancy, a right that the late, lamented Roe v. Wade was gassed for conditionally protecting — why not just celebrate the independent presidential candidate’s sudden come-to-Jesus embrace of unfettered reproductive choice?

Perhaps because we’ve learned a few things in this annus horribilis electoralis.

What, specifically, have we learned about RFK Jr.?

  • His campaign was strongly encouraged, if not outright conceived, by MAGA guru Steve Bannon, who told The New York Times, “The path to [a Trump] victory here is clearly maximizing the reach of these left-wing alternatives.”
  • He shares a number of major donors with Donald Trump, including, most notably, Mellon family scion Timothy, who had, as of March, given $15 million to Trump’s and $20 million to Kennedy’s super-PACs. According to the same Times piece referenced above, titled “Trump Allies Have a Plan to Hurt Biden’s Chances: Elevate Outsider Candidates,” “Republican donors are pouring funds into Mr. Kennedy’s independent bid for the presidency.”
  • A top New York staffer, Rita Palma, subsequently fired from her position with the Kennedy campaign, was videotaped making the case that Kennedy was positioned to serve as a spoiler, ensuring a Trump victory.
  • Until recently, polls generally confirmed that spoiler effect, showing Trump gaining and Joe Biden losing support when Kennedy was included in the field.
  • Recently, however, as Kennedy has leaned into conspiratorial positions and veered ever further right, some polls have begun to show the opposite effect, with Kennedy drawing more votes from Trump than from Biden.
  • In response to this development, the Trump campaign and Trump himself have begun attacking Kennedy and attempting to paint him as a left-wing radical.
  • Specifically, again as reported by the Times

[Allies of Mr. Trump] plan to promote the independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a “champion for choice” to give voters for whom abortion is a top issue — and who also don’t like Mr. Biden — another option on the ballot, according to one person who is involved in the effort. (emphasis added)

All of this serves as context for Kennedy’s sudden pro-choice absolutism. His prior position on abortion rights was, to put it mildly, difficult to pin down. At one point, while regarding any abortion as “a tragedy,” he seemed to embrace something like a Roe approach, keeping abortion legal up to a certain stage of pregnancy and in certain circumstances. At another point he went so far as to embrace a national abortion ban, though his campaign quickly backpedaled from that stance.

In a campaign not distinguished by policy and platform coherence, it is possible that abortion presents just another area in which Kennedy is unable, or refuses, to take a consistent position and live with the political consequences of his convictions.

It is also possible that his new, absolutist position on abortion — which shocked his own running mate, Nicole Shanahan, whose jaw-drop reaction was “My understanding is that he absolutely believes in limits on abortion, and we’ve talked about this. I do not think, I don’t know where that came from” — is the biggest tell yet as to Kennedy’s true role in this election.

Because what could fit more perfectly the aforementioned “plan to promote the independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a ‘champion for choice?’” 

That “plan” presents itself as a potent countermeasure in an election in which undying fury over the Roe-killing Dobbs decision — not to mention the subsequent parade of state-level bans, the attack on mifepristone, and threats of a national ban and/or revival of the 19th century Comstock Act — is expected by both sides to give Biden and the Democrats a potentially decisive boost. All the more so with polls now showing Kennedy taking a bigger bite out of Trump than out of Biden.

Troubleshooting the Plan

It seems to have dawned on the Trump campaign that “their” spoiler is something of a loose cannon, one that has tacked right, has some serious MAGA appeal, and is now flipped around and pointed at their own walls. Trump is rightly terrified now of being, as Hamlet put it, “hoist with his own petard.” 

But, if Kennedy sticks with anything close to his recently articulated extreme position that a woman can kill her 9th-month fetus — thereby out-Roeing Roe, and wiping out 50-plus years of conservative sweat equity — how many MAGA votes will he draw from Trump come November?

If you said “zero,” you’d not be far off. 

He’d return to his MAGA-envisioned role as spoiler, only on steroids — not just anathema to pro-life MAGAs but also pulling far more furious pro-choice votes from Biden than he would with his previous muddled abortion stances. 

It will be most instructive to see whether the mercurial Kennedy adheres to this new absolutist position, reading from the revised MAGA script. And interesting too to see how long it takes the polls to register a sea-change in his impact.

Of course, it could be a deep new-found conviction. Perhaps his worm just turned. But neither Trump nor Kennedy has earned much if any benefit of the doubt when it comes to adopting cynical and deceptive means to their ultimate ends.

JFK’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg — who, like the vast majority of the Kennedy clan, finds his cousin’s campaign appalling — has taken to commenting on Junior in the voices of various person-on-the-street characters. As “Jimmy” from Boston, Schlossberg had this to say about Kennedy’s candidacy: 

‘Independent,‘ ‘third party,’ yeah freakin’ right. He’s got Trump’s donors. He’s got Trump’s advisers. Him and Trump go way freaking back.

Perhaps. Donors, advisers: check. I haven’t yet been able to confirm the last one. But I think time — and Kennedy’s next move — will tell what’s really going on here.

Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.


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