Would John F. Kennedy Be A Republican Today?

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John F. Kennedy with Lincoln native Ted Sorenson.

A very common Republican talking point these days is that John F. Kennedy would be a Republican today. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s all part of the phony Fox News talking point that the Democratic party is extreme and outside of the mainstream. To anybody who is paying attention, this is revisionist history at its worst. Let’s take a look at Kennedy’s record shall we?

The main GOP talking point is centered around the fact that Kennedy proposed a tax cut that was passed in 1964 that cut taxes across the board. The Republicans like to trot out this quote from President Kennedy: “Tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now…. And the reason is that only full employment can balance the budget, and tax reduction can pave the way to that employment. The purpose of cutting taxes now is not to incur a budget deficit, but to achieve the more prosperous, expanding economy which can bring a budget surplus.”

This quote is shorn from its historical context and ignores most of Kennedy’s economic program. At the time Kennedy proposed to cut taxes, the top marginal rate was 91%. The tax bill that passed in 1964 lowered the top marginal rate to 70%. If a Democrat proposed a top marginal rate of 70% today, the GOP would accuse him or her of being a socialist and wanting to wreck the economy. Don Bacon has criticized Kara Eastman for wanting to hike the top marginal rate to 50%. Interestingly enough, that was the top marginal rate during Ronald Reagan’s first term.

Historians correctly point out that Kennedy’s largest tax cuts were aimed at working families in hopes that they would spend more. That is quintessential Keynesian economics. In other words, Kennedy’s tax cuts were aimed at the demand side of the equation rather than the supply side.

The rest of Kennedy’s economic agenda was quite progressive in nature and would be anathema to today’s conservative Republicans. The 35th president also supported:

  • Increasing the minimum wage.
  • Expanding unemployment compensation benefits.
  • Boosting Social Security benefits to encourage workers to retire earlier.
  • Spending more on infrastructure projects like highway construction.

Another progressive policy that Kennedy supported was Medicare. This policy initiative was fiercely opposed by the right wing of the GOP. At the time, the American Medical Association hired a washed up actor named Ronald Reagan to oppose Medicare. Reagan not only predicted that passage of Medicare would be the end of freedom in America but he also accused John F. Kennedy of being a Marxist. In a 1960 letter to Richard Nixon, Reagan described Kennedy in the following terms: “One last thought — shouldn’t someone tag Mr. Kennedy’s bold new imaginative program with its proper age? Under the tousled boyish haircut is still old Karl Marx — first launched a century ago. There is nothing new in the idea of a Government being Big Brother to us all. Hitler called his ‘State Socialism’ and way before him it was benevolent monarchy.”

The right wing of the GOP still hates Medicare because it has proven that government can improve the quality of life for senior citizens. The Republicans in Congress have been fighting to cut Medicare and turn it into a voucher program since Newt Gingrich was the Speaker in 1995. The Republican Medicare scheme would cost the average senior citizen an average of $6,000.00 in out of pocket medical costs on an annual basis.

President Kennedy’s last major policy push was on civil rights. In response to the integration of the University of Alabama over the opposition of George Wallace, President Kennedy gave the first nationally televised presidential address on civil rights in U.S. history on June 11, 1963. This politically courageous action laid the foundation for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Housing Act of 1968. The likes of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan opposed these landmark laws.

The right wing of the GOP continues to oppose voting rights. Since the five GOP appointed justices on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, 14 states have passed hyper-partisan voter I.D. or suppression laws. (That’s in addition to the 20 states that already had these kinds of regressive laws.) Many of these laws have were designed to discriminate against African-American voters and are in violation of the 15th Amendment.

It’s pretty obvious that John Kennedy was a progressive president. The right wing of the GOP strongly opposed him when he was president and they still vehemently hate what he stood for. We can’t allow the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to claim Kennedy as one of their own.

President Kennedy himself said he was a proud liberal. As he said in 1960: “What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label, “Liberal”? If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But, if by a “Liberal,” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes that we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say that I’m a “Liberal.”

There is no doubt that John Kennedy wouldn’t be a Republican today. The Republicans are trying to claim Kennedy as one of their own because every Republican president has been a failure since Eisenhower. It’s only been Democratic presidents who have moved the country forward. The last two Republican presidencies have ended in utter catastrophe. We need to remind the voters of this fact again and again if we are to win in 2020. Now let’s get it done!

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