Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 28 March 2024


 Robert Kennedy Jr’s perilous voyage of discovery

Edward Luce · Mar 28, 2024

Brace yourself, Nicole Shanahan. Most Americans have not heard of the ex-wife of Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin. Having been introduced on Tuesday as Robert Kennedy Jr’s running mate, Shanahan’s life will now be turned inside out. RFK’s third-party candidacy could split the vote in key swing states. That makes him 2024’s potential Ralph Nader, the Green party candidate who in 2000 siphoned support from Al Gore. The winner was George W Bush. This time it would be Donald Trump. If there is anything damaging out there about Shanahan, Joe Biden’s campaign will be motivated to find it.

There can be little doubt as to why Kennedy picked Shanahan; she is superrich. The cost of getting a third-party candidacy on to 50 state ballots is a big barrier to entry. Shanahan, who settled for an undisclosed sum in her divorce from multi-billionaire Brin, is happy to spend. She contributed $4mn towards RFK’s Super Bowl advertisement earlier this year in which he outraged his family by likening himself to his uncle, John F Kennedy. Now she will help pay the legal bills and fund the signature collections needed to get their names on to the ballot. Until now, the tech lawyer and philanthropist had no political experience or national presence. “I’m confident there is no American more qualified to play this role than Nicole Shanahan,” said RFK Jr at the Tuesday event.

At 70, RFK Jr is somewhat old to be running for office for the first time. At 38, Shanahan still has most of her life in front of her. There can only be two end points to the path they are on. Either the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket will be another quixotic entry in America’s colourful history of third-party bids; or they will go down as the pair that helped return the White House to Trump. The latter might complicate the remainder of Shanahan’s life. Nothing could prepare her for what she is about to go through. On Tuesday, she awoke as a relatively obscure Silicon Valley investor. She ended the day as one of the most pilloried figures in America.

The Kennedy-Shanahan case is that US politics is broken. There is little argument with that. In practice their candidacy might not be the remedy America needs. Polls show that RFK Jr would draw most of his support from Democratic voters. The fact that Timothy Mellon, a strong Trump supporter and donor, has given $20mn to Kennedy indicates that private surveys back that up. You would be unlikely to waste that kind of cash on a hopeless cause without a larger aim. Polls give RFK Jr between 2 and 15 per cent of the vote in a threeway race. Even the lower number could alter a close election. Nader got 2.7 per cent in 2000. Jill Stein, the 2016 Green party candidate, got barely one per cent. But her tally was larger than Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin.

The Democrats have every incentive to make life as hard as possible for Kennedy and Shanahan. Kennedy’s personal history is well known. He recovered from heroin addiction and a twoyear probation to become a crusading environmental lawyer. He is no stranger to scandal. In 2013, the New York Post got hold of his private diary in which he chronicled infidelities with women — 37 affairs in 2001 alone. His second wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, who suffered from depression, died by suicide in 2012. Kennedy is often criticised by siblings and other family members for his anti-vaccine campaigns. The theory he promotes — that vaccines cause autism — has been medically debunked.

But he appeals to swaths of America that are hostile to the pharmaceutical industry. Most Americans have a close family member who suffers from a chronic disease, such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension or addiction. Millions feel ripped off by the big drugs companies. On Tuesday, Shanahan vowed to fix chronic disease within “weeks, not years” of being elected. Many Americans are also affected by pollution — another of RFK’s themes and one of Shanahan’s philanthropic causes. If their names appear on the ballot, they will get some votes. The question is whether the trade off will be worth it.

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal alleged that Shanahan had an affair with Elon Musk, owner of Tesla, SpaceX and X, which had led to her divorce from Brin. Musk and Shanahan have denied it. Shanahan has since been candid about her search for meaning in life. “It’s nearly impossible to have mega wealth and be deeply grounded,” she told People Magazine. Teaming up with RFK Jr is certainly one way of addressing that.

No comments:

Post a Comment