JFK, Liberal

(Part one of four: one, two, three, and four)

Some on the right have argued that John F. Kennedy was a conservative.

This argument has recently gained attention because of a book by Ira Stoll that was published this year: JFK, Conservative. It has created a bit of a stir in the mainstream media. It seems to be mostly people trying to grab a bit of the JFK assassination semi-centennial limelight.

Still, not everyone is interested in this media game of making outrageous statements. As demonstrated by the Cato Institute Vice-President Gene Healy, at least some on the right won’t embrace this tactic of co-opting liberals for the conservative cause:

Stoll lays it on pretty thick: in his telling, JFK was a great president, a good man, and—no kidding—a good Catholic. Moreover, Kennedy’s policies—his “tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his pro-growth economic policy, his emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom”—show that he was, “by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.”

It’s a cramped, reductionist account of conservatism, one that collapses the entire political tradition into its neoconservative variant. But an even less charitable person than I could make the case that it’s a fair approximation of “actually existing conservatism,” and Stoll’s thesis has already received a fair bit of praise from commentators on the Right.

God help us. If our 35th president—fiscally profligate, contemptuous of civil liberties, and criminally reckless abroad—is a paragon of modern conservatism, conservatism is in even worse shape than I thought.

Albert J. Menendez who is the author of two books on JFK, after pointing out that “[h]e was a liberal in the context of his times, and Congressional Quarterly and others who rated his votes in Congress asserted his liberalism.”, put his conclusion more bluntly:

Certainly, Southern racists and segregationists and Goldwater supporters did not see Kennedy as a conservative. And African Americans all over the South placed his picture on their walls after Nov. 22, 1963.

Or as Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University history professor, likewise stated it (in being quoted in an article by Joe Strupp):

“He certainly wasn’t considered a conservative at the time by the rising conservative movement like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater,”

As many have pointed out, Stoll’s argument is similar to that of claiming Ronald Reagan as a liberal. Even a strongly conservative commentator like Albert Milliron understands there is nuance in the views of politicians and yet still refuses to accept JFK into the conservative fold:

We think that JFK was as conservative as Bill Clinton. Probably the reason we didn’t jump on the “JFK is a Conservative” bandwagon.  I have often seen folks point out that Nixon and Reagan had some ‘Liberal’ ideas.  But that doesn’t make the sum total of their political life liberal, just as some of JFK or Clinton’s conservative statements or policies made them a Conservative.

Then again, I would add that there is actually more evidence supporting Reagan being a liberal. Reagan originally was a New Deal Democrat and president of a union, was a progressive who only later in life turned neocon.

Distinctions do need to be made.

Unlike Reagan, JFK never changed parties. It wasn’t JFK or the Democrats who changed. It was Reagan who helped change the Republicans when he transformed his progressivism into neoconservatism. “Republican praise of Kennedy,” explains Bernard Von Bothmer, “began with Ronald Reagan, who presented himself as a political admirer and even descendant of Kennedy.” That is because he in fact was a descendant of the progressive liberalism of the Democratic Party.

But in the process of becoming a neocon, Reagan discarded JFK’s confidence in seeing the government as part of the solution. JFK had no desire to Starve the Beast or wait for tax cuts to trickle down, as many others have articulated:

Stoll’s case for JFK’s domestic conservatism rests heavily on his commitment to a tax cut passed three months after his death. On November 22, Stoll notes, Kennedy was en route to the Dallas Trade Mart to stump for reduced rates: “he was fighting for a tax cut to the end”—the martyred Christ of supply-side economics (or military Keynesianism, depending how you look at it). Tax cuts weren’t a conservative litmus test at the time, however; as Stoll notes, Goldwater feared that the Kennedy cuts “would lead to deficits, inflation, and even bankruptcy.”
(Gene Healy, Kennedy Was No Conservative)

“It’s rather silly to portray him as a conservative,” Critchlow said, later adding that the tax cut “doesn’t make him Republican or a conservative. He was trying to pursue policies, a new policy that would address the issues of three recessions in the 1950s. He wasn’t an extreme left-wing Democrat, but he wasn’t a Republican.”
(Joe Strupp, Historians: Right-Wing Media Claims Of A Conservative JFK Are “Silly” And “Ludicrous”)

Fair’s fair, but what’s really amazing about Will is that he can’t even see that liberals would see it this way. In his mind, liberals are yearning for a 100 percent tax rate so any admission that any rate—even 91 percent!—might be too high, suddenly turns JFK into Grover Norquist.
(Matthew Yglesias, George Will Hails JFK’s 70 Percent Income Tax Rate)

Yes, JFK supported cutting taxes back in the early 1960s, but then so did many members of his own party, as the fact that he was able to get his tax cut package through a Congress overwhelmingly controlled in both Houses by the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean, however, that, were he alive today, he’d be signing on to Grover Norquist’s tax pledge and supporting calls to shut down the government rather than agreeing to any tax increase at all. Making that argument involves nothing less than drawing the kind of false historical analogies that only a blind partisan would make.
(Doug Mataconis, John F. Kennedy A Conservative? No, Not Really)

Kennedy’s statement needs to be put in the proper historical context. When Kennedy gave that speech the top marginal tax rate – the tax rate for the nation’s highest levels of income – was 91 percent. The “conservative” cut passed after Kennedy’s death lowered it to 77 percent. Today it’s 39.5 percent, a figure Kennedy couldn’t have imagined and certainly wouldn’t have supported.

Two liberal economists, Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond of MIT and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, recently concluded that the most effective top tax rate – the one that would create the most “jobs and income and eventually more revenue” – is 73 percent. When today’s conservatives embrace rates like that, we’ll call John Kennedy a conservative.
(Richard Eskow, The “Real JFK” – Not Conservative, and Not Forgotten)

Among historians, the general consensus is that is that Kennedy’s economic fix had a significant — though complicated — long-term effect on the economy. Nearly all agree that his policies were partly responsible for the golden era of the mid-1960s, a time when the U.S. experienced vigorous economic growth. By 1966 — almost three years after Kennedy’s death — stock prices were soaring, the economy was expanding at a rate of 6.6 percent, and the unemployment rate stood at just 3.8 percent. His agenda included an increase to minimum wage, an expansion of unemployment benefits, improvements to Social Security benefits to encourage workers to retire earlier, and greater spending on highway construction and urban renewal. In essence, he was pushing Congress to jump start the economy by increasing government spending, as NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax explained on a NPR-affiliated public radio station earlier this week.

One tool Kennedy employed to encourage an economic recovery seemingly contradicts that liberal agenda. He cut taxes — despite concerns from conservatives who feared his policies would greatly increase the deficit. In response to his critics, the president famously said “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
(Meghan Foley, JFK and Obama: The Recession Presidents)

Furthermore, Kennedy’s goal was a Keynesian demand-side cut: He wanted to create a deficit in order to assist the economy by putting money in the hands of middle- and working-class consumers. Reagan’s tax policy, a supply-side cut, aimed to raise revenue and reduce the deficit; he wanted to put more money in the hands of business leaders and the wealthy in order to spur investment.

Finally, Kennedy’s ultimate plan was to use government spending to increase purchasing power, the opposite of what Reagan wanted. As Kennedy told his economic adviser, “First we’ll get your tax cut, and then we’ll get my expenditure program.”
(Bernard Von Bothmer, The right’s JFK myth: Now they claim he was conservative)

He did so in order to run a larger budget deficit, because his economic advisers, including Arthur Okun and Walter Heller, believed this would provide a Keynesian stimulus to demand. Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment. One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment “except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.”

Another way to look at this issue is to look at Kennedy’s justification for the tax reforms in 1961, when he originally proposed them. The initial list of reforms does not even mention a cut in the top marginal rate. It does, however, spend a lot of time arguing for taxing dividends as ordinary income, since lower rates unfairly privilege the rich who are the overwhelming beneficiaries of dividends.
(M.S., This week in up-is-downism)

Robert Schlesinger, in US News and World Report, writes that Kennedy as a conservative tax-cutter “is a powerful myth, but it is a myth”.

Tax cuts for Kennedy, he argues, were a means to an end – in much the same way as tax cuts later proposed by Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “The key distinction is that JFK and his successors saw tax cuts as one of many available economic tools,” he writes. “Indeed Kennedy, like Obama, favored both tax cuts and spending increases to stimulate the economy.”

“Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment,” writes Matt Steinglass for the Economist. “One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment ‘except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.'”
(Anthony Zurcher, JFK, conservative hero?)

I hope that clears things up.

To question JFK’s liberal credential is ultimately to question the liberal credentials of the entire Democratic Party establishment.

One could note that some have argued, Rachel Maddow most recently, Clinton was the best Republican president ever and similar things have been said about Obama (following Bush military policies and pushing healthcare reform that serves big biz insurance companies is hardly the New New Deal we’ve been waiting for). And indeed, some have more favorably and less favorably compared Obama to JFK. Unsurprisingly, as time goes by, conservatives increasingly reminisce about Clinton. Give it a few more decades and someone will write a conservative hagiography of Clinton similar to that of Stoll’s book. In the words of Jim Antle:

Noting that many contemporary conservatives now celebrate liberals they once opposed—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy among them—the late columnist Joseph Sobran predicted they would one day embrace Bill Clinton and remain conservatives in good standing. That day has come to pass.

The Democratic Party following Clinton’s third-way politics can at times feel like Republican-lite, no doubt about that. But how does that make a liberal icon like JFK a conservative of the variety defended by movement conservatives? If JFK is a conservative through and through by the standards of today and of the past, then what the heck is liberalism besides a bizarre straw-man argument made in the ‘Commie’ image of the Cold War Red Scare? Or do conservatives want to make liberalism into such a wimpy shade of its former self, so small that like government it can be drowned in a bath tub? Portraying liberals as scary and wimpy is the conservative attempt at a one-two punch.

I just don’t get the agenda behind this, other than just messing with people’s minds and otherwise creating empty media buzz. In some ways, I don’t care about this entire debate, at least not on the terms it is being held. I’m more interested in the underlying issues and motivations.

I’ll put it this way:

If conservatives want to claim JFK, fine by me. But in that case, in order to be consistent they’ll have to claim a bunch of other typical Democratic politicians. That is something I doubt many conservatives would want to do. What they want to do is somehow entirely separate JFK from his Democratic Party roots which is an impossible thing to do. To claim JFK, conservatives will have to claim the Democratic Party worldview that he represented.

(Continue reading: part two)

8 thoughts on “JFK, Liberal

  1. Benjamin,

    I appreciate you mentioning Politisite in your article on JFK. Your selection from my article encompassed my views in the ‘JFK Conservative’ movement.

    Think this article would be a nice fit for our site. Be happy to post it on Politisite with a link back to your blog.

    We are always looking for interesting articles, Politics, Psychology and Religion (the forbidden subjects) are welcome.

    If you have an article you would like to cross post let me know.


    Albert N. Milliron
    Politisite /Iron Mill News

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