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No, J.F.K. Wasn’t a Conservative

Matt Steinglass ably dissects the recently-revived argument that John F. Kennedy was a conservative. He concludes:

Yet for Ira Stoll, the fact that Kennedy cut taxes on the rich is the most important thing about his economic agenda, justifying the claim that a president who called himself a liberal was in fact a conservative. This tells us nothing about Kennedy’s priorities, or about politics in the 1960s. But it tells us a lot about the 2010s, and how conservatives have come to see cutting rich people’s taxes as the sole overriding economic issue in politics today.

Steinglass has a point here, but I would add that the real polemical purpose of emphasizing Kennedy’s tax cuts is to create a contrast with contemporary Democrats. However, once one looks at the tax rates that Kennedy supported and those that Democrats want today, the polemic backfires. It doesn’t prove that Kennedy is conservative, but it does show how much more conservative on tax policy the Democrats have become in the fifty years since his death. One could go so far as to say that Kennedy could not have won the Democratic nomination at any point over the last twenty years because he would have been considered far too liberal. The “even Kennedy supported cutting taxes” line was originally promoted as a partisan shot against Clinton in 1993, but I doubt that any of the people using it at the time thought that this proved Kennedy to be a conservative.

One of the other pillars of Stoll’s argument for JFK’s supposed conservatism was his aggressive anticommunism, but anticommunism was something that Kennedy had in common with many other Cold War liberals. It was almost two decades later that some Cold War liberals were alienated enough from the Democratic Party that they switched to supporting Republicans primarily for foreign policy and national security reasons, but their migration away from the Democrats nearly twenty years after Kennedy’s assassination does not retroactively make Kennedy a conservative of any kind. Besides, it’s not clear why conservatives should want to claim Kennedy as one of their own. Kennedy’s actions in office show his anticommunist zeal frequently got him and the U.S. into serious trouble, and he laid the groundwork for even greater disasters. Whether it was the doomed operation to invade Cuba with exiles, the ill-advised increase of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, or his alarmist rhetoric while still in the Senate, Kennedy’s anticommunism was of the short-sighted and excessive kind that subsequently drew the U.S. into a disastrous war and then kept Americans fighting in Vietnam for most of a decade. That kind of foreign policy is neither prudent nor wise, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that conservatives should want to avoid.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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