Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) made a campaign stop in, of all places, Massachusetts over the weekend, where he spoke to several hundred supporters in one of the nation’s bluest states. As BuzzFeed noted, the far-right Texan even connected his message to one of the Bay State’s favorite sons.
“I would point out that in the 1960s, one of the most powerful, eloquent defenders of tax cuts was John F. Kennedy. As JFK said, ‘Some men see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask why not.’“JFK would be a Republican today. There is no room for John F. Kennedy in the modern Democratic Party.”
We can quickly dispense with some of the minor details. The “some men see things as they are” quote, for example, originated with George Bernard Shaw, not the Kennedys. What’s more, it had absolutely nothing to do with tax cuts.
For that matter, the notion that contemporary Democrats are reflexively hostile to tax breaks isn’t true – President Obama’s Recovery Act included hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, and it enjoyed overwhelming Democratic support. Indeed, by some measures, it was among the largest middle-class tax breaks in modern American history.
But that’s not the important part. Rather, what matters here is the ongoing Republican confusion about Kennedy’s tax cuts from the early 1960s.
This comes up from time to time, so let’s set the record straight. In the years following World War II, both Truman and Eisenhower kept high tax rates in place in order to help pay off war-era debts and help in post-war reconstruction. By the time Kennedy took office, the nation could afford to reduce rates, so he lowered the top marginal tax from 91% to 65%. (For comparison, note that a 65% top bracket is still far higher than today’s 39.6%.)
In an amusing twist, many congressional Republicans opposed JFK’s plan – Republicans had not yet made the transition in earnest from an anti-deficit party to an anti-tax party, and many GOP lawmakers from the era questioned whether the nation could afford Kennedy’s tax breaks.
But Democrats, recognizing that the nation had a small debt and almost no deficit, followed JFK’s lead and approved the “peace dividends.”
Does that suggest JFK was some knee-jerk supply-sider, who’d be comfortable with contemporary Republican policies? Um, no. Not only was Kennedy’s plan rooted in Keynesian economics, it was also designed to spread the wealth around – the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation determined that the bottom 85% of the population received 59% of the benefits of JFK’s tax cut. The top 2.4% received 17.4% of the tax cut, and the top 0.4% received just 6% of it.
By 2015 standards, Republicans would look at such an approach as a misguided mess, failing to appreciate the importance of “job creators” in a free-enterprise system.
In general, I sometimes understand the appeal of the “Would ____ be a Democrat or a Republican?” parlor game. It’s a little diversion for political nerds (like me) to kick around – Lincoln was pretty liberal, so what would he think of what’s become of his radicalized party? Would Reagan survive a Republican primary in 2016? The speculative arguments make for fun arguments among poli-sci undergrads.
But for Ted Cruz to argue, out loud in and public, that JFK would be a Republican is ridiculous, even for Ted Cruz.