|John F. Kennedy: A Closet Conservative?|
On another blog post, a friend of mine made a comment recently suggesting that JFK was probably to the right of George W. Bush on the political spectrum. To support this, he mentioned JFK's escalating of military intervention in Southeast Asia, and his policy of lowering taxes across the board to help spur a somewhat flagging early 1960's economy.
This was the first time I had ever heard anyone say such a thing. I don't know if this is my friend's own pet theory, or this is an idea that is bandied about among conservatives as a way to get under a liberal's skin (sort of the way a liberal might point out that while Republicans love to claim Abe Lincoln as their own, the Republican party actually rejected Lincoln's bid for re-election in 1864 and nominated someone else, forcing Lincoln to form a third party in order to run).
In any case, my friend's comment spurred me to do a little research, to find out just how much veracity there was to this claim that JFK was "conservative" by modern standards.
Granted, I only did a brief survey of JFK's presidential policies and platforms, but from that survey, the only similarity I can find between JFK and modern day Republicans is that JFK wanted to lower taxes as a means of helping to spur the economy. This, of course, is exactly the piece of evidence presented by my friend for why JFK was "conservative."
There are manifold problems with this, however. To begin with, in the 1960's, personal and corporate tax rates were significantly higher than they are now. In fact, they were so high, that the U.S. federal government had never had a budget deficit, outside of a war or an economic recession, in its entire history. Essentially, in 1960, budget deficits simply didn't exist under normal circumstances. This is due, primarily, to the fact that federal tax rates were so high. There was always plenty of money coming in.
So JFK's push for lower tax rates is in no way analogous to the modern conservative insistence on lower and lower taxes. In 1960, taxes were very high, primarily as a result of tax increases during World War II that had never expired. Our tax rates today are already at historic lows, and it has been years since any significant tax increase was enacted. We simply are not in the same economic position, in 2011, that we were in during the 1960's.
Furthermore, this argument seems to presuppose that "lowering taxes" is a Republican ideal, while "raising taxes" is a liberal ideal. Since JFK wanted to lower taxes, he is more like a "conservative" than a "liberal."
This, of course, is complete nonsense. In the last 25 years, two presidents have raised income taxes: one was a conservative/Republican (George H. W. Bush), and one was a liberal/Democrat (Bill Clinton). And both of those presidents had to get congressional approval to raise taxes, and both had congresses who were controlled by the opposite party.
Raising vs. lowering taxes is not a liberal vs. conservative issue, much as the conservative pundits would like you to think so. Both parties have track records of raising and lowering taxes.
Additionally, in regards to the current president, Obama has pushed endlessly for lower taxes across the board, and has approved legislation as such. The only taxes Obama has attempted to raise are the taxes on the super wealthy. This, of course, is because the super wealthy - like the rest of the country as a whole - are presently paying taxes at a historically low rate. Obama and his administration believe that one way to helps solve the country's enormous economic problems are to raise taxes on this segment of the population. You may agree or disagree with this perspective, but it hardly makes "liberals" a group who are ideologically married to "raising taxes," as my friend's perspective seems to presuppose.
This is a completely different scenario than what was faced by JFK in 1960. The super wealthy, along with everyone else, were paying enormously high tax rates by our modern standards. It was a time when tax rates needed to be lowered, and when JFK worked to lower them, he wasn't being a "conservative."
The other point my friend made was that JFK's escalation of intervention in Southeast Asia is analogous to Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, too, I believe is a narrow-eyed view of the situation.
To begin with, JFK didn't start the war in Vietnam. He merely continued the policy of his predecessor - Eisenhower - of sending military advisers to assess the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. He also provided military aid to the South Vietnamese in their fight against a Communist takeover. Virtually every president in the 20th century used the military to support and prop up countries that were in the midst of hostile takeovers by groups the U.S. was opposed to - something that still continues to this day.
The fact that the situation descended - after Kennedy's death - into a horrific and unwinnable war, can hardly be put on Kennedy's shoulders. In fact, Kennedy is known to have said that he had no intention of keeping U.S. forces in Vietnam, and that he intended to pull Americans out of Vietnam after the 1964 election. He is known to have privately admitted that one of his biggest reasons for sending military aid to Vietnam was simply because he knew it would win him support in a re-election bid.
Now this, of course, is not a particularly laudable aspect of Kennedy's involvement in Vietnam, but it does show what a false analogy it is to compare Kennedy's Vietnam with Bush's invasion of two sovereign countries in 2003. It was a totally different scenario all together. We weren't aiding Iraq against a hostile takeover - we were committing the hostile takeover. We ousted a government and put in place one of our own making. This is actually what communist North Vietnam did to democratic South Vietnam in the 1960's. In that sense, a better analogy would be to compare Ho Chi Minh to George W. Bush. (Yes, I know that's an inflammatory and unfair remark; I use it simply to show how false this analogy really is).
And just like with the issue of economic policy and lower taxes, I might also point out that it is a false dichotomy to assert that military intervention is, by nature, a "conservative" ideal - that somehow JKF's military intervention in Vietnam makes him "conservative" like George W. Bush. In the same way that lowering taxes is no more a conservative ideal than a liberal ideal, so too is military intervention to support U.S. interests no more a conservative ideal than a liberal ideal. It's simply a false dichotomy.
In the end, I have to disagree with my friend that JFK was "more conservative" than George W. Bush. I simply can't find any reasonable evidence to support this notion. It is essentially just a way for modern conservatives to disassociate with Bush - by suggesting he was basically more "liberal" than a well-loved liberal president - while making an inflammatory remark to irritate liberals. Not that I was irritated or inflamed by the comment...I actually appreciate the opportunity to address the question and do a bit of research to better widen my understanding of American politics. I suspect very strongly that this opinion is not just one made on the fly by my friend. I suspect this idea is thrown about among conservatives, so I appreciate the opportunity to address it.
Thanks, Trent :)