RFK Jr. Has A Big Problem With Consistency — Will His Voters Care?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may not have qualified for Thursday’s CNN-organized presidential debate, but the independent candidate for president definitely has the juice to make an impact in November. Multiplenationalpolls have shown Kennedy with double-digit support, and he’s officially on the ballot in several states, with enough signatures to appear on a dozen more.

The candidate has faced an uphill climb not only because he’s up against one current and one former president, but also thanks to his decades of false statements about vaccines and his embrace of other conspiracy theories.

Another key problem for Kennedy’s campaign? Consistency. On several key issues, Kennedy has flip-flopped numerous times since launching his White House bid, leaving voters with a fuzzy picture of what he actually supports and why.

After Kennedy’s switch from a Democratic presidential contender to an independent one in October of last year, he had tens of millions of new voters to court. In a speech announcing the independent bid, Kennedy said he’d “surrendered my attachment to taking sides.” On the contrary, he seems to love taking sides, having now positioned himself on the dueling ends of key debates on abortion, environmental policy and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow at New America who has writtenabout Kennedy’s candidacy and voter base, said he didn’t expect that Kennedy’s habit of changing course would hurt him too much.

“Very few voters are policy voters, especially anti-system voters” like Kennedy’s, he said. “There’s a lot of political science that suggests people pick candidates first, and then they update their issue positions to follow that.”

Still, Drutman acknowledged that if Kennedy is seen as untrustworthy, “that could hurt his support a little bit,” and given that even a 3-5% vote share for the independent could impact who wins in November, these issues could be significant in the long run.

From Trusting Women To Empowering Red States On Abortion

No issue shows Kennedy’s tendency to change positions more than abortion.

In June last year, Kennedy told a town hall event, “I’m not going be in a position, put myself in a position, where I am going to tell a woman to bring a child to term.”

That lasted a couple months. In August, Kennedy told NBC News reporter Ali Vitali that “a decision to abort a child should be up to the women during the first three months of life.” Pressed by Vitali on whether that meant he would support a federal ban on abortion at 15 or 21 weeks, Kennedy said “yes” twice.

“Once a child is viable, outside the womb, I think then the state has an interest in protecting the child,” he said.

These benchmarks are hardly standard for “viability.” As writer and neonatologist Rachel Fleishman wrote in 2022, “Only 1 in 10 babies born at 22 weeks survives to go home, and that’s after months of intensive care. At 24 weeks, the likelihood of survival increases to only 68 percent. Infants born beyond 25 weeks are no longer considered periviable, as each successive week of pregnancy confers protection against death and disability, but these complications remain possible even when babies are born on time.”

A spokesperson for Kennedy’s campaign quickly said in a statement that Kennedy had “misunderstood” Vitali’s question, that he believed “it is always the woman’s right to choose” and that he “does not support legislation banning abortion.”

Kennedy hardly seems to have misunderstood the question, however. After the story blew up, Vitali posted the full transcript of her exchange with the candidate, showing she confirmed Kennedy’s answers with him multiple times. Similarly, a video of the exchange did not show any miscommunication.

There’s a lot of political science that suggests people pick candidates first, and then they update their issue positions to follow that.Lee Drutman, political scientist and senior fellow at New America

Details about Kennedy’s beliefs on abortion, to the extent he had any, came out in a trickle. In November, he stumbled when asked on PBS News what he would do, as president, to protect abortion rights after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. “I’m all ears,” he said.

He told Reuters in March that abortion ought to be up to pregnant people “throughout the pregnancy.” In April, after The Washington Post noted he had barely spoken on abortion despite it being a major campaign issue for many Americans, a Kennedy spokesperson told the outlet that he opposed both leaving abortion policy up to states and the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling at the time clearing the way for a near-total abortion ban in the state (one that has since been reversed with legislation).

In May, interviewer Sage Steele pressed Kennedy on abortion rights through the “full term” of a pregnancy, including “when there’s drugs involved and people aren’t thinking clearly.”

“I don’t trust the state and I think we need to trust the woman,” Kennedy said. “I wouldn’t leave it to the states.”

That position lasted just a couple days. Members of Kennedy’s campaign, including his vice presidential pick, Nicole Shanahan, and an adviser, Angela Stanton King, expressed surprise at Kennedy’s statement, with Shanahan saying she and Kennedy had discussed his belief “in limits on abortion.”

At that point, Kennedy posted a lengthy statement on social media announcing his new position: “I support the emerging consensus that abortion should be unrestricted up until a certain point. I believe that point should be when the baby is viable outside the womb. Therefore I would allow appropriate restrictions on abortion in the final months of pregnancy, just as Roe v. Wade did.”

What is “a certain point”? Kennedy hasn’t said. A few days ago, he said in a campaign video that he supported abortion rights “up until a certain number of weeks and restricted thereafter” and that although red-state voters had rejected abortion bans, “almost no one supports the gruesome late-term abortions except to save the life of the mother.” He went on to share how he’d recently learned that “sometimes women abort healthy, viable, late-term fetuses.” (This is exceptionally rare.)

What Kennedy would do as president is unclear, too. He has said he would “allow appropriate restrictions on abortion in the final months of pregnancy” and that this principle would guide his presidency “whether implemented by Congress, the states or in court.”

In an email to HuffPost on Monday, Kennedy’s campaign press secretary, Stefanie Spear, reiterated his “viability” test and said he believed “that states should have the right to enact policies and for cases when a fetus is viable outside the mother’s womb.”

‘The Carbon Orthodoxy’

Kennedy’s career as an environmental lawyer and activist means he has plenty of knowledge of the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, and he has supported federal action in the past. Two decades ago, he told Grist that it would be more beneficial to “work for a politician who is going to implement the [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards” than to recycle or buy a Prius.

However, as a presidential candidate, he has reversed course, focusing not directly on regulating carbon emissions but instead on steps like regenerative farming, ending deforestation, lowering subsidies for fossil fuels, and cutting plastic waste.

In April, E&E News, Politico’s energy- and environment-focused publication, reported after an interview with Kennedy that he “did not present any policies that would meaningfully address rising greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming” and that he was “noncommittal about keeping the Biden administration rules meant to cut greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles and power plants.”

Kennedy has been consistent on some positions, such as his belief that incentives for “carbon capture” technology, included in Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, are really just a boon for fossil fuel polluters. He’s also long implied there should be some sort of cost on pollution, though he hasn’t specified what that would mean in a detailed policy proposal and hasn’t explained how this would square with his criticism of “totalitarian controls” supposedly employed by elites to fight global warming.

But in other debates, he’s simply tried to replace his earlier positions. An old “environment” policy page on Kennedy’s website mentions his plan to “incentivize the transition of industry to zero-waste cycles and clean energy sources, and forge agreements with other countries to implement these policies throughout the global supply chain.” However, the new environment page appears to have abandoned these ideas altogether and doesn’t mention them. The old page is still available on Kennedy’s website with a little poking around (the URL is “environment-old”).

An old 'environment' policy page on Kennedy’s website mentions his plan to 'incentivize the transition of industry to zero-waste cycles and clean energy sources, and forge agreements with other countries to implement these policies throughout the global supply chain.' However, the new environment page appears to have abandoned these ideas altogether and doesn’t mention them.

In September, Kennedy pledged to “ban fracking” as president. Then he reversed course, with his campaign saying he recognized that “an immediate and total ban on fracking would devastate the US economy, and is therefore unrealistic,” and that instead “he favors a gradual phase-out of the practice, starting with the removal of subsidies and a moratorium on new exploration.”

The statement continued, saying Kennedy believed fracking “will no longer be viable when the practice does not receive direct or indirect subsidies, and instead is exposed to the free market,” and that “existing productive oil and gas fields will only be phased out as suitable alternatives are available, so that people and the economy can transition smoothly to new technologies.”

But he subsequently celebrated American natural gas production, telling E&E News in April, “It’s cheap energy that puts us at a global competitive advantage, and we ought to be keeping that gas in our country and using it to rebuild our industrial base.”

Kennedy’s website also criticizes Donald Trump for installing “representatives of the coal and oil industries to run the EPA,” a statement that linked to a story about Scott Pruitt, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator. But in an August campaign video where Kennedy criticized people who ascribe to “the carbon orthodoxy,” a 2017 CBS News story is shown that emphasizes his point, with a digital highlighter underlining the headline: “EPA chief says carbon dioxide not a primary cause of global warming.”

The EPA chief in question whose statement Kennedy was highlighting? Pruitt. (“Pruitt’s view is contrary to mainstream climate science, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the EPA itself,” CBS News noted at the time.)

“Mr. Kennedy believes climate change is real but he’s not going to try and force others to believe it too,” Spear told HuffPost. “He also believes climate should not be an excuse to impose authoritarian policies.”

‘Tall Fences, Wide Gates’

A few days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Kennedy joined Arturo Rodriguez, the United Farm Workers’ president at the time, for a rally denouncing Trump’s mass deportation agenda, saying Trump wanted “to continue to spread fear and anxiety” in order to exploit undocumented people living in the United States, the Fresno Bee reported.

As a presidential candidate, Kennedy has all but endorsed Trump’s immigration platform. He has called for the deportation of “any” undocumented person who has committed “a crime” in the United States — without specifying whether that means serious crimes or traffic violations, adding up to potentially millions of people — as well as any who are in deportation proceedings if he takes office. There were 2.2 million deportation cases pending in the United States as of July last year, the Vera Institute of Justice found. Spear also told HuffPost Kennedy would “investigate and shut down the NGOs that are greasing the wheels of illegal immigration.”

“We should have closed borders,” Kennedy said in May last year, a month after launching his then-Democratic campaign. He’s separately called to “seal” the border and told PBS that it “was essentially closed three years ago, before President Biden opened it up.”

This was a reference to the pandemic-era authority called Title 42 — apparently one pandemic response program Kennedy supports — which allowed both the Trump and Biden administrations to immediately expel most migrants and even asylum applicants at the southern border. The policy ended last May with the expiration of the public health emergency for COVID-19.

Still, even without Title 42, Kennedy has continued to advocate for aggressive policies at the border, including instituting a nationwide passport card program to make it harder for undocumented people to find work inside the United States.

And, as Kennedy wrote in February, he would “replace the ‘catch and release’ program with a ‘catch and return’ program.”

“Catch and release” is the derogatory shorthand for migrants and asylum seekers who arrive at the southern border, are taken into custody and then are paroled into the United States as they await immigration court hearings. Replacing that system with “catch and return” would require sending asylum seekers to Mexico or somewhere else, which is something both Trump and now Biden (to a lesser extent) have done.

Additionally, Kennedy has called for a surge of immigration judges “so that every case is heard the day they arrive versus seven years after,” Spear told HuffPost. Kennedy argues that this would diminish the incentive for migrants without valid asylum cases to make the journey in the first place. (Biden has similarly pursued a “recent arrivals docket.”)

But Kennedy has also separately, and somewhat conflictingly, called for reestablishing Trump’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” system, in which asylum seekers were made to wait in Mexico for immigration court hearings, severely impactingtheir access to a fair process. (Kennedy incorrectly called the program the “Migrant Protection Act” and mistakenly said it involved cases being “adjudicated in Mexico.”)

Kennedy has cast his agenda in a “humanitarian” light, even calling his border policy agenda “tall fences, wide gates.” And he’s certainly advocated for fences, calling to “patch the 27 gaps in the wall” and fund additional measures like night-vision cameras.

On this front, Kennedy has admitted changing positions. In August, he acknowledged, “I was against Trump’s wall, I thought it was a crazy idea. To me, it was a big mistake,” before saying that he now supported restoring both physical and technological barriers at the border.

When he announced his independent candidacy in October, Kennedy said, “Six months ago, I thought that an open border was a humanitarian policy and that if you were for sealing the border, it meant that you were probably a xenophobe and maybe a racist. I was wrong.”

Still, despite calling himself “pro-immigration,” Kennedy hasn’t offered many details at all on the “wide gates” part of his plan. His border policy page promises he will expand “lawful, orderly immigration according to principles of justice and fairness,” but provides no further detail.

Spear told HuffPost that “once the border is secure, [Kennedy] will address the undocumented migrants. Any who have broken laws while they are here or who already have deportation proceedings in process will be deported.”

Perhaps the answer to the lack of detail comes from Kennedy himself. Despite his own heated rhetoric on the issue — “Just as a cell has a membrane, a country must have borders or it will disintegrate,” his website states — Kennedy recently referred to the border as a “culture war” issue, along with guns, abortion and transgender rights. He contrasted those with “existential” problems, like inflation and housing supply. Yet another flip-flop.