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RFK Jr. calls Biden-Trump debate 'sad,' sees political opening

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. , who is running as a third party candidate for president, made news this week for his deposition from 2012 that "a worm ... got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died."
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. , who is running as a third party candidate for president, made news this week for his deposition from 2012 that "a worm ... got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died."

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump faced off during their first 2024 debate Thursday night, leaving Democrats concerned about Biden's halting performance and Republicans confident in Trump's perceived victory.

Meanwhile on Thursday, independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. livestreamed his responses to CNN debate questions on X, formerly known as Twitter. RFK Jr. failed to qualify for the debate after he didn't reach CNN's polling or ballot threshold.

Missing the debate stage, combined with a recent drop in fundraising, has raised serious questions about RFK Jr.'s already longshot campaign for the White House.

But with 10 percent of Americans steadily supporting him, both the Biden and Trump campaigns remain concerned RFK Jr. could play a major role as a spoiler — especially in an era when presidential races are often decided by just tens of thousands of voters in a handful of states.

RFK Jr. spoke to All Things Considered about the Biden-Trump debate and what it means for his third-party run for the presidency.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Scott Detrow: What did you make of last night's debate?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I thought it was a sad evening for our country. The idea that this was the best we can produce, I think, is troubling and troubling not only for our country, but just for the whole cause of democracy and self-governance around the world. Democracy is supposed to produce the best of the best, but I don't think that that was on display last night.

Detrow: Well, I want to spend the rest of the conversation talking about you and your campaign. Mr. Kennedy, why do you want to be president?

RFK Jr.: I want to be president because I think our country is going in the wrong direction. I don't think either President Trump or President Biden has the capacity to address the existential issues. Issues like the $34 trillion debt, which they play a disproportionate role in running up. President Trump said that he was going to balance the budget and ran up an $8 trillion debt. He spent more money than every president combined from George Washington to George W. Bush. And President Biden is now on track to beat him. And so. And this is what's driving the inflation. It's driving housing costs that are keeping our children out of housing. Neither of them has capacity to dismantle the war machine. Neither of them can end the polarization that is tearing our country apart. Neither of them can deal with the corrupt capture. This corrupt merger of state and corporate power, where the regulated industries have captured the agencies that are supposed to regulate them and transform them into sock puppets.

Detrow: Can I ask you about debt for a moment? Because you bring it up a lot. You talk a lot about the deficit. Let's just take the two of the biggest areas of federal spending. Would you cut or modify Social Security? Would you cut Medicare? What would you immediately do to lower the spending?

RFK Jr.: Yeah, I would cut the military budget in half down to about $500 billion during my first four years in office.

Detrow: Cut the military budget in half. Would that would that zero out any sort of foreign aid for Ukraine or Israel? The two big topics right now.

RFK Jr.: I will zero out foreign aid for Ukraine. But I'll cut the military budget — close most of the bases abroad, we don't need 800 bases abroad. Those bases that are … we should be focused on national defense. I'm going to cut the military budget back to the point where the same amount it was — in 2024 dollars — at the height of the Cold War, during the Eisenhower era. If that was sufficient during the Cold War, it's sufficient today. We're not using our military budget for national defense. We're using it dominate the globe. And it is not helping us, nor is it helping any of the other nations who we pretend to be helping. Every country that we've intervened in the last 20 years is worse off than we found them. And we have more enemies around the world. The dollar is endangered. We're pushing our Russia, China and Iran into an unprecedented coalition that's weakened us. And it's given to the rise to BRICS, which is threatening the dollar as the world reserve currency, as the world trade currency, as the world's safe haven. And that's going to be like a nuclear bomb hitting our economy. The military is not making America safer.

Detrow: So major cuts to to the military budget. Can we can we talk about the viability of your campaign, though? Tell me what your viable path is to the presidency, because I know you pushed back on the spoiler term, but I would love for you to tell me right now how you get to 270 votes.

RFK Jr.: You mean, how am I going to get on the ballot?

Detrow: No, not just how are you going to get on the ballot? How are you going to be elected president of the United States? Because right now you're on the ballot in eight states. I know that you've submitted signatures in many more states, but tell me how you win 270 electoral votes.

RFK Jr.: Well, you know, I'm beating President Trump and President Biden among young Americans, among everybody under 35. I'm also beating them among independent voters, which is now the largest voting demographic. So this is the first election in American history where independents, Democrats, Republicans — independents, self-identified independents.

Detrow: It's about 10 to 15 percent in the national polls, which is historically good for a third party. But I don't see, sitting here, a path to a winning states. Tell me why I'm wrong.

RFK Jr.: Do you want me to finish what I'm saying?

Detrow: I do.

RFK Jr.: Yeah, so independents now represent 43 percent of the electorate compared to 27 percent for Democrats, 27 percent of Republicans. I have greater — and I beat President Trump in that cohort — I have greater favorability ratings and President Trump and President Biden which means people would prefer to vote for me. They're voting for President Trump and President Biden out of fear for the same reasons that you're bringing up now. They believe that I can't win. If they believe that I can win, I would win. The demographics I'm doing poorly in — that is against me — are baby boomers, which if you think about it, I should be doing the best in. I'm not allowed on the mainstream media that they watch. Baby boomers watch MSNBC, CNN, the networks. They read The Washington Post, The New York Times, and those mainstream media will not allow me on for live interviews.

Detrow: Well, Mr. Kennedy, you're on All Things Considered right now for an extended interview.

RFK Jr.: And this is the first interview I've done on All Things Considered for many, many years.

Detrow: But when it comes to your campaign …

RFK Jr.: And and this is a taped interview so I don't know what you'll do with it in the end, I don't know if you're going to play the whole thing. What I'm saying is the audience that you're reaching when I can reach them, we have a very, very high conversion rate. If you ask me, how do I when I went by getting on, ultimately pushing my way onto the networks and reaching an audience. And in that case, I have four and a half months to do that. People are paying attention to the election now, and I'm hopeful that I will be able to get on those networks and talk.

Detrow: But that actually leads me to another question. When it comes to how you are campaigning for president. I'm curious what your strategy is because your campaign and NPR have actually been having a lot of conversations about you and I doing a sit down interview at one of your upcoming events. But there haven't been that many events scheduled. There's been a long period of time without rallies. What is your plan for the summer into the fall to raise that awareness and to become a competitive campaign like you're talking about?

RFK Jr.: I've been on the road for 13 months and hundreds of rallies during that period. I didn't see NPR at any of them. (Editor's Note: NPR's Stephen Fowler attended and reported on RFK Jr.'s comedy show in Nashville)

And you know, will continue to do rallies. If you want to talk, I'm sure we can arrange a time. What we've focused on now because the rallies are very expensive and I have to pay my own security. And our strategy, because of the cost has shifted, so that now I'm spending more time in Los Angeles or in other places doing media rather than doing the big rallies, which are expensive for us because of the security issues.

Detrow: Do you see last night's debate as an opening for your campaign? What do you see as your pitch for voters who watched both of those candidates and felt frustrated with the choices that they had?

RFK Jr.: I do — I think anybody who watched that. Even before that debate, 70 to 80 percent of Americans said they didn't want to be forced to choose between President Trump and President Biden. So I think I offer a choice. People are voting for them out of fear. Fear that the other guy will win. And if I can persuade people to vote out of hope rather than fear, out of inspiration rather fear and trepidation then I'm going to win the election.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Luke Garrett
Luke Garrett is an Elections Associate Producer at NPR News.
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]