Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Was JFK a Conservative?

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 :)


Trent N. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trent N. said...

Wow. That was quite an undressing Scott! My comments were actually even less than a pet theory. It was just a quick thought that crossed my mind as I was reading the comments section of your prior post. I obviously didn't put a lot of effort into my post and I apologize for that. But I am glad we both used it as a chance to learn more about JFK.

Although you made some good points, you didn't exactly convince me JFK was akin to a modern day "liberal" (certainly not in the mold of his recently deceased younger brother). Side note: You only delved into war and taxes, I wonder where Kennedy stood on the vital social issues of the day?

Allow me to rephrase my original comment...... Instead of saying Kennedy was to the right of GWB, how about we compromise and agree that Kennedy was to the right of Obama?

I enjoyed your post but have to nit pick one thing. What is your specific definition of the "super wealthy"? You say this is the only group Obama wants to raise taxes on. But as I'm sure you know, Obama wants to raise marginal tax rates for any family that combines for $250K and above. Now, I'm not denying that $250K for a married couple is not a very nice income...... but "SUPER" wealthy????? Not exactly. That's why it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine when people arguing for higher tax rates only use Warren Buffett, Bill Gates et al as the only people who will be affected. There are actually veteran firefighters married to veteran school teachers in Connecticut who combine for over $250K, and under your definition would be considered "super wealthy".

As a reviled member of the 1%, I'll pay your extra taxes without complaint IF we cut spending 5% to go along with the tax hikes? Perhaps i'm completely nuts, but that sounds more than reasonable to me.

As always, you make me think and that's why I enjoy your stuff. Keep it up and thanks for writing a whole piece on my passing comment!

PS - Kennedy has an invasion of a sovereign country on his resume as well. See Cuba, Bay of Pigs.


Scott said...

Yeah, it wasn't very fair for me to take your passing comment and turn it into a whole blog post about a serious discussion. Kind of a dirty trick, really :)

It actually started as merely a response to your comment, and then I decided it would make for a good post in its own right.

I do think that Kennedy was pretty much a "liberal." Of course, we can debate about how he would fall in the modern world, but that's ultimately just an academic activity. The fact is, he can only be judged by the world in which he lived. It's a bit like trying to argue about whether Jesus is a Republican or a Democrat, or trying to determine if Caesar would have preferred a Mercedes or a Cadillac.

Within the context of his life and times, there's no question JFK was a liberal, and was viewed as such by those who were living at the time.

Whether it means something different to be a liberal today than it did in the 1960's is ultimately irrelevant, although putting issues like this in a modern perspective can certainly be instructive in terms of understanding them better.

Honestly, I don't know if I can say that Kennedy was to the right of Obama. Would Kennedy have wanted universal healthcare and higher taxes on the wealthy if he had lived in a world identical to the world we live in? Again, it's impossible to say for sure, but I suspect he would have (particularly if his younger brother's politics are any measuring stick with which to gauge JFK).

As for "super wealthy" - that comment was specifically referring to the latest tax plan axed by Republicans. This was part of the "payroll tax cut" bill, which lowers the amount taken out of your paycheck for Social Security - thus putting more money in your pocket. It was first enacted in 2010, and now Obama wants to make it an even bigger cut, to put even more money in your pocket. To pay for it, he has proposed a new tax for people making more than 1 million dollars per year - 3.25%.

Essentially, this would be helping out the middle class by requiring a little bit more of the "super wealthy". So yes, I would say that 1 million a year makes you super wealthy.

However, I agree that 250K per year does not make you "super wealthy." I should have made that more clear in the post.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent response to Trent. You could also add that we were obligated by the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) as strongly as we are obligated to NATO. We went for a reason and it was more than simply “to stop communism”, though that was certainly the center-piece of the argument. Australia, South Korea, maybe even the UK, and others were involved in Viet Nam. But as usual, we took the lead and did most of the dying. The rationale for Viet Nam (even its later escalation) was infinitely greater and more justified than when Bush invaded a sovereign nation and did so on the basis of what he knew or should have known were lies. And Viet Nam was fought using Draftees also. Bush was smart enough to know that had a draft been instituted, the support would have melted into the woodwork.

Involvement in Viet Nam was not inherently a mistake. It had a rationale (though, in fact, all wars are a mistake on another level!) The execution of the war…now THAT is a completely different story.

Anonymous said...

To follow up on Scott's point about Teddy Kennedy's politics, if you've read Teddy's last book, he's very clear on the fact that his father's "liberal" politics informed everything about the family. The emphasis on helping others, working to fight poverty, and in general giving back in thanks for the families' own monetary fortune were instilled in all the children, and Teddy as the youngest brother always felt the burden of living up to these ideals and carrying his brother's legacies forward.

Sally MJ said...

Hey Scott - Actually, you are incorrect in saying Lincoln had to form a third party because the Republican Party nominated someone else. ThLincoln wanted to attract some War Democrats, so the GOP temporarily changed their name to the National Union Party.

Interesting article. I think people's perspective is whether they think the Democrat Party has moved left or not. Many people who were JFK Democrats say yes - and they left the Dem Party to join the GOP. . THey say they didn't leave the Dem Party, but that the Dem Party left them.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Sally.

I'm not sure what history books you are reading, but the "GOP" did not "temporarily change their name" to the National Union Party in 1864.

The Republican Party, which was less than a decade old, split in 1864 between abolitionists who saw Lincoln as weak on slavery and too eager to reconcile with the South, and moderates who supported Lincoln's stance.

As a result, two new parties were created for the election - a pro-Lincoln party called the National Union Party, and an anti-Lincoln party called the Radical Democracy Party.

The National Union Party was a fusion of moderate Republicans and pro-war Northern Democrats. Hence the reason Lincoln's running mate, Andrew Johnson, was a lifelong Democrat and disciple of Andrew Jackson.

The Radical Democracy Party was made up of abolitionist, anti-war Republicans.

Near the end of the campaign, the Radical Democracy Party's candidate, Republican John C. Fremont, bowed out of the race. As a result, Lincoln managed to win re-election.

After Lincoln's death a few months later, Andrew Johnson took over and continued to consider himself a "National Union" president. When he failed to rally supporters under his National Union banner, he returned to the Democratic Party, only to lose his bid for nomination in 1868.

During that same election year, the Republicans regrouped and reinvented themselves behind Grant.

In any case, Lincoln was forced to form a coalition of supporters from among both Republicans and Democrats, and form an entirely new party, in order to run for reelection in 1864.

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015