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It's not just Reagan: Republicans flunk JFK history, too

Ted Cruz seems confused about the Reagan legacy, but when it comes to JFK, the Texas senator even more lost.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a campaign stop on Jan. 13, 2016, in Dorchester, S.C. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a campaign stop on Jan. 13, 2016, in Dorchester, S.C.
The more Republican presidential candidates cite Ronald Reagan's policy towards Iran as an example to follow, the more obvious it is they don't really know what happened in the 1980s. But as it turns out, the iconic GOP leader isn't the only president about whom these candidates are confused.
ThinkProgress noted yesterday that at least one of these candidates is equally lost about an iconic Democratic leader, too.

Just days after attacking the values of New Yorkers, GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) traveled to New England on Sunday and attempted to claim that he was heir to the mantle of one of the nation's most beloved presidents, Democrat John F. Kennedy. "JFK campaigned on tax cuts, limiting government and standing up and defeating Soviet communists," he told a New Hampshire audience. "JFK would be a Republican today. He stood for religious liberty, and he would be tarred and feathered by the modern Democratic Party."

This is bonkers, and it's worth revisiting some of our previous coverage to explain why.
Let's quickly dispense with some of the easy points. It's true that Kennedy championed religious liberty, but he did so by becoming one of the strongest advocates for the separation of church and state in modern history. That doesn't put him at odds with contemporary Democrats; it puts him at odds with contemporary Republicans. Indeed, at least one of Cruz's GOP rivals has condemned Kennedy's approach to religious liberty as being hostile towards people of faith.
And while it's also true that Kennedy was one of many presidents who maintained the Cold War, Soviet communists are no longer a threat, and they have no Democratic allies.
And then there's JFK's tax cuts. 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 can 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 -- and would be unwelcome in the Democratic Party -- is ridiculous, even for Ted Cruz.