Was Kennedy a Conservative?

A month ago, Jeff Jacoby claimed in the Boston Globe that JFK was conservative.  Some evidence he marshals in support of this claim:

Kennedy cut taxes

He cut top marginal tax rates from 90% to 70%.  If direction is all that matters, then that makes him a conservative.  But on top marginal rates the Overton Window, and the current state of policy, is well to the right of where it was in Kennedy’s time.

Kennedy said “I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort.”

That’s just the sort of token, lip-service reassurances that are a staple of the rhetoric of all Democratic Presidents and candidates.  It’s a defensive point coming from them, not an offensive one.  A similar remark from the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, with fuller context, is revealing: “I know that there are those who want to turn everything over to the government. I don’t at all. I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years.  The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so.  I don’t believe in big government, but I believe in effective governmental action.”  Everybody wants the government to do only what it can do best, I suppose, but there are different ideas of how extensive that sphere is, to say the least.

He favored huge increases in military spending

Absolutely true, of course.  This wouldn’t be welcome in today’s Democratic Party.  And I can’t just say this is because the Cold War is over, because obviously in the 70s and 80s the left hated defense spending.  Nevertheless, more defense spending was just part of Kennedy’s theme that the U.S. needed a more vigorous government to defeat the USSR.  Political alliances are now such that supporters of high defense spending form a coalition with opponents of social spending.  Kennedy-Johnson years were a time of commitment, usually excessive, in all directions- coming off beating the Depression, winning WWII, the 50s boom, and dominating the world economically, what could America not accomplish if only it got some will power and a sense of purpose.  We would pay any price, bear any burden, end poverty, go to the moon, etc.  Kennedy’s opening remarks in that debate set the tone.

Liberal Republicans were more liberal than Kennedy

That just tells us that the Parties weren’t as ideologically sorted as they are today.  It tells us nothing about whether the center was left or right of where it is today, or whether Kennedy was left or right of center.  Idiosyncratic Northeastern aristocrats like Rockefeller and Cabot Lodge are one thing, but I don’t think they represented the mainstream of the Party; that would be Nixon, right of Rockefeller but obviously well left of Goldwater or, later, Reagan.  Kennedy was considered more liberal than Nixon, and it’s clear in the debate that both candidates see it that way, but also that there’s really very little difference- it’s really a coin flip, it’s a time of post-New Deal ideological consensus. 

I think it’s clear that Nixon would be too far left for the GOP today.  I’m not even sure he was right of Clinton or Obama as President (I mean 70% taxes, wage and price controls, a national health insurance proposal, “we are all Keynesians now,” the 55 mph speed limit- you could make the case, right?)  On the other hand, Kennedy didn’t support gay marriage or abortion, so maybe he was conservative after all- these exercises are sort of problematic.

Kennedy was anticommunist

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