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VOICES

RFK Jr is demanding a place on stage alongside Trump and Biden - he may have a point

The pair’s first encounter – on 27 June – is only a couple of weeks ahead of Trump’s 11 July sentencing date.

IT IS OBJECTIVELY preposterous that there are, for all intents and purposes, only two major political groupings in the United States.

The country of my birth is massive both in terms of its physical size and population. It is also diverse in every conceivable way.

To make these rather abstract observations tangible, the reality is that my upbringing in the Boston area was more similar to my contemporaries who grew up here in Ireland than to my fellow Americans who were born and bred in, say, rural Idaho.

Moreover, much is made of the statistic that fewer than half of the US population have passports.

Some consequently describe them as culturally illiterate compared to Europeans. There is some merit to this point, but it overlooks the fact that the cultures to be found in various regions of the US are dramatically disparate, rendering it more akin to the European Union as a whole than to any single member state thereof. A cross-cultural experience can be had without traversing a land border or an ocean.

When assessed in this light, the two party system is even more unfathomable. Defenders of what has been the status quo used to argue that the Democrats and Republicans were big tents that were united around a few broad ideological propositions, yet accommodated and tolerated a range of perspectives, as well as intermittent vociferously dissenting views.

Due to oft-discussed political polarisation driven largely by the pernicious, disproportionate role of the almighty dollar in campaigns and elections, this is no longer the case.

Liberal Republicans, such as Vermont Governor Phil Scott, and conservative Democrats, like retiring West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, are an increasingly rare species in state and federal government.

In 2024, consistent data indicates that many are frustrated by the drift of the parties to the poles and that a solid majority wish neither Joe Biden, whose capacity they doubt, nor Donald Trump, who is now a convicted felon, were pursuing a second term in the White House.

screen-shots-of-the-cnn-website-live-coverage-of-u-s-presidential-debate-between-president-donald-trump-and-former-vice-president-joe-biden Trump and Biden during the first debate of the 2020 campaign. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

One can imagine, therefore, that the moment is ripe for a third party hopeful to challenge the stranglehold on power which Democrats and Republicans have shared since the 19th century.

And there are several attempting to seize the opportunity. The most prominent of these is Robert F Kennedy Jr, the descendant of Irish American political royalty. The son of Bobby and the nephew of Jack beat drug addiction to become an environmental activist and successful lawyer prior to turning his energies to a variety of fringe causes, such as condemning vaccines and interrogating the validity of the 2004 presidential race.

Although his family has robustly endorsed President Biden’s bid to continue as commander-in-chief and been harshly critical of RFK Jr’s insurgency, he does have a dedicated, albeit not enormous, following.

He has qualified for the ballot in at least seven states and his allies assert that he will soon earn spots on plenty more. He is pushing hard to be given a place on the debate stage in the face-offs currently slated for June and September. (The debates are being held earlier than usual. The 27 June encounter is only a couple weeks ahead of Trump’s 11 July sentencing date in the wake of the guilty verdict rendered by the jury in New York this week).

Qualifying criteria 

The networks televising the hugely anticipated forums, CNN and ABC respectively, have specified two criteria that aspirants have to meet.

They must achieve 15% support in four approved national polls and must be on enough state ballots to win the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to prevail in November. Kennedy has garnered 15% in three recognised opinion surveys, but remains short on the second requirement.

It has been fascinating to monitor the reaction of Teams Biden and Trump. Biden has said little on the topic. That he made an online offer to joust with the soon to be GOP nominee, and him alone, with a number of preconditions, such as no studio audience being present, suggests he doesn’t want Kennedy there.

In typically bombastic style, Trump says that he doesn’t care if RFK Jr participates and that the incumbent is endeavouring to keep the independent away because the 70 year old is “sharper and far more intelligent” than him.

The last occasion on which a third candidate appeared in an officially sanctioned affair was 1992, when the eccentric billionaire, H Ross Perot, took on then President George HW Bush and a young Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton.

Perot, for a time, had the establishment by the ropes and attracted a broad swathe of the citizenry who were curious to see how a businessman, an anti-politician, might fare as commander-in-chief.

Ultimately, Perot’s inexperience and ill temperament sunk him. His quest unravelled. Yet it was impossible for the Commission on Presidential Debates – sponsored jointly by the Democrats and Republicans and comprised of quintessential Washington, DC insiders colluding in a cosy, mutually beneficial arrangement – to leave out the man who briefly led Clinton and Bush.

It is welcome, in one sense, that Biden and Trump have bypassed the commission this year. That said, the CNN/ABC rules are still exceedingly stringent.

Kennedy is not accepting his potential exclusion lying down. His lawyers have filed an appeal with the Federal Election Commission alleging that, if CNN puts on the June event minus their client, the station will be breaching the benchmark it set.

For that clash would precede the party conventions in July and August where Biden and Trump will presumably be ratified as nominees. And technically, they won’t be on a ballot anywhere, never mind in position to collect 270 Electoral College votes, before then.

The lawyers pose a colourable argument. Their related contention that a two person debate would constitute an illegal contribution in aid of the putative Democratic and Republican standard bearers is interesting, too.

independent-presidential-candidate-robert-f-kennedy-introduced-his-running-mate-nicole-shanahan-at-a-campaign-event-in-oakland-california-on-tuesda Independent presidential candidate RFK Jr Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

An uncomfortable truth

To be clear, I am no fan of Robert F Kennedy Jr. He talks a lot of nonsense. Barring a miracle, he will not be the next POTUS. His presence may prove an odd, distracting sideshow. Nonetheless, I think he has achieved a level of backing sufficient to warrant his inclusion – in June anyway. Further, it’s not solely about him.

One trusts that other, more credible individuals will take on the deep-rooted, two party hegemony in future.

And without wishing to seem flippant, let’s acknowledge the uncomfortable truth. The elderly duo who’ll almost definitely be in CNN’s studio on what will be a very important, very hot, summer night in Atlanta aren’t any great shakes.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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