Robert F. Kennedy Jr. declared his “independence from the Democratic Party” on Monday in Philadelphia, ending his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and launching an independent bid that he said aims to heal the political divide, which he portrayed as a fiction of a corrupt establishment.
“I intend to wrest the reins of power from both parties and give to it the American people,” he said, comparing Republicans and Democrats to teenagers fighting over the steering wheel of an out-of-control car, both following a GPS route programmed by lobbyists.
“This hatred we have for each other is orchestrated,” Kennedy said, switching to a medieval metaphor. “My job ... is to unify Americans. Then we’re all going to go over the castle walls together.”
Kennedy has struggled to gain traction in the Democratic primaries, even with voters expressing a desire that someone younger take the party banner from President Joe Biden. His views on issues like vaccines and abortion has left him outside the Democratic mainstream.
A crowd of about 1,000 turned out on a sunny fall day to hear Kennedy speak in front of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Some wore suits and ties; others wore homemade Kennedy T-shirts, hats and buttons and at least one custom-made cape. One sign read, “I want Camelot," a reference to the mythologized Kennedy dynasty.
“There have been antiestablishment candidates before but none of them who actually understand how to get the job done,” he said. “This time the independent is going to win.”
Kennedy said the time is ripe, citing the growing proportion of Americans who tell pollsters they’re fed up with both parties — a record 63% say Republicans and Democrats do “such a poor job” of representing America that “a third major party is needed,” according to a new Gallup survey.
Still, Kennedy faces long odds. The best-performing independent presidential candidate in the past century, Ross Perot in 1992, won just 19% of the popular vote, which translated to zero Electoral College votes, because the winner of each state collects all the votes that actually determine who wins the White House.
“Three-quarters of Americans believe Biden is too told to govern effectively,” Kennedy said before he noted that former President Donald Trump, the likely GOP nominee, faces multiple criminal indictments.
“My intention is to spoil it for both of them,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, the scion of the first family of Democratic politics, said it was “very painful” for him to leave the party of his uncles (one was president; another was senator), his father (a former attorney general and senator), his grandfather (an ambassador) and his great-grandfathers (one was a mayor and a congressman; another was a city council member) and break with their “political dynasty.”
The rest of the Kennedy family, most of whom remain committed Democrats, have been generally critical of “Bobby’s” campaign, but he took time to mention the names of several Kennedys and Shrivers who were in attendance.
In a statement, four of the most prominent and politically active members of the Kennedy family condemned his decision to run against Biden.
"Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment. Today’s announcement is deeply saddening for us. We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country," said Rory, Kerry and former Rep. Joe Kennedy, along with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
But Kennedy said the break was necessary because Democrats have lost their way and because being free of any party is the only way to overcome the totalizing tribalism of contemporary politics and the paralysis it has wrought.
Kennedy launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in April in Boston, a place associated with his famous family, but he chose different symbolism for Monday’s announcement, which was made in front of a large banner that read, “KENNEDY 24 — DECLARE YOUR INDEPENDENCE.”
He said he and his “populist movement that defies left-right division” were declaring independence from corporations, Wall Street, polluters and polarizing politics. He at times seemed to echo Trump, saying he would break from “the mercenary media that is here to fortify all of the corporate orthodoxies from their advertisers.”
“It’s going to be very hard for people to tell if my administration is right or left. Is it right or left to support small farms? Is it right or left to pull our country back from the brink of war with Russia? Is it right or left to have a totally secure electoral system where we know every vote will count?” Kennedy said. “As long as we’re locked in these habitual debates, the two parties are often blind to commonsense solutions.”
And Kennedy — who has wrestled with the media and other fact-based institutions for decades over his conspiracy theories about vaccines and technology — took aim at the media for, he claimed, undercounting his prospects and sowing political division.
Pointing to Kennedy’s views about China, the environment and other issues, Trump campaign spokesman Steve Cheung said: “Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values. The fact is that RFK has a disturbing background steeped in radical, liberal positions."
Kennedy's announcement that he would be independent of "any party" also put to rest speculation he would join the Libertarian Party, whose chairperson he met with this summer, or the Green Party, whom Democrats blame in part for spoiling the 2000 and 2016 elections.
That means next year’s general election ballot may be crowded. In addition to the two major-party candidates and two from the established third parties, two well-known independents are running — Kennedy and the philosopher Cornel West — as well as the possible addition of a centrist No Labels candidate.
Still, getting on the ballot in all 50 states is a tall order without the help of a party. And with more than a year to go, several candidates may end their bids before Election Day.