Millennials have only one Democrat president to remember, Barack Obama, though those born earlier might have a fleeting memory of Bill Clinton. If only my grandparents were alive today, so I could ask of them, “what do you think of today’s Democrat party?” Three of my four grandparents were loyal Democrats, though they occasionally split their ticket depending on the person. All were blue-collar workers with high school or less education.
It’s become somewhat fashionable to say, “John F. Kennedy would turn over in his grave” when comparing the former president to today’s Democrat party. Indeed, consider the tax cut package JFK put forward to reduce individual rates from 91% to 70% and corporate rates from 52% to 48%, among other provisions. His stated goal was to get a sputtering economy moving again. The tax cuts never passed while JFK was in office, and many in his own party helped sink the proposal, considered unorthodox for the party in 1963 and perhaps even “too conservative” and/or “too pro-business.”
Then there was Jimmy Carter, who became somewhat of a mystery to Americans. He confused almost everyone with his mix of left and right ideas, such that he ended up having far more trouble dealing with liberal Democrats in Congress than with Republicans by 1980. That’s why Senator Ted Kennedy challenged him from the left, considering the feckless Carter too centrist and conservative. Carter actually began much of the deregulation that his successor Ronald Reagan continued and accelerated.
Enter Bill Clinton, who ran as a “New Democrat” in 1992. Clinton stunned many pundits by governing to the left in his first two years, trying to enact a broad stimulus right out of the gate. It was soundly rejected even though his party controlled both houses of Congress. His tax increase did pass but failed to garner a single GOP vote in either chamber. This leftism costs Democrats dearly—53 House seats and 9 Senate seats in the 1994 midterms.
Having learned his lesson, Clinton went on to declare, “The era of big government is over” in a second term. Liberals cringed. Clinton completely ignored his left flank and went on to sign landmark welfare reform legislation that required work, and he cooperated with Republicans to balance the federal budget. It was unheard of, even as a goal, for almost any Democrat to suggest to that point in time.
Even Barack Obama, who many asserted was a socialist in his two terms, looks rather tame as just a typical left-of-center Democrat in retrospect as compared to the Democrat party of 2021. In many ways, Obama knew exactly how far left he could go without rankling a majority of Americans. The cautious Obama went to that point, but never a step over it.
The Biden Administration’s far-left tack to date is confounding for several reasons. One, the election of 2020 was not a mandate for a left-wing agenda. Pandemic fatigue and rejection by broad swaths of independents of some of Trump’s rougher edges (i.e., his tweets) is a better explanation. Two, candidate Biden had zero coattails in Congress. In fact, the GOP stunned both the media and political establishments by not losing a single House seat nationwide and then picking up a dozen new ones. Three, little in Biden’s past could have predicted this far of a left turn. Biden’s early career was quite conservative, in fact. He took some “pro-life” type positions (though never used the phrase to describe himself) and was critical of busing. Biden understood runaway entitlement spending as a serious long-term threat and endorsed reforming the programs numerous times.
Can anyone imagine Joe Biden trying to solve either Medicare’s or Social Security’s long-term ill-health now? Nope. What about budget deficits and the national debt? No, as more spending is better. Where’s the Biden that rose to the Senate floor on occasion to challenge overspending? Not present. And does anyone think Biden would ever acknowledge the obvious—that some poverty and racial problems are caused by dropping out of school, having children too early, joining gangs, and/or a lack of fathers as heads of households? Not on your life.
Today’s wokeness, cancel culture, critical race theory, and overall progressivism on steroids is in sharp contrast to the causes of anti-communism, a strong defense, and economic growth championed by JFK. Many conservatives and mainstream Democrats would be understandably nostalgic for the days of JFK. There’s even a book out from 2013 by Ira Stoll entitled “JFK Conservative.” Instead, we’re left perplexed and wondering who Biden is, what motivates him, and what happened to his Democrat party. Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) spoke for a lot of Americans when he said this in April—“I never dreamed Biden would be left of Lenin.”
Jeff Szymanski works in political communications for AMAC, a senior benefits organization with 2.4 million members.