The most influential figure in the Republican presidential contest just may be a Democrat who died more than 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy.
When Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer recently predicted Marco Rubio as the eventual 2016 winner, Krauthammer praised the senator from Florida with a label encapsulating political vigor, pro-growth ideas, and a robust foreign policy of peace through strength: "Kennedyesque."
The former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, another Republican with eyes on the White House, is, as Kennedy was, a Catholic from a wealthy and politically active family with bases in both New England and Florida. Jeb Bush even wrote a book, Profiles in Character, with a title that is a conscious imitation of JFK's Profiles in Courage. Bush and Kennedy also both wrote books extolling immigration; Bush's was A Nation of Immigrants.
And don't forget Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas. Cruz's Senate Web site hosts a video featuring Fox News's Neil Cavuto and a historic clip from Kennedy under the headline "The Success of President John F. Kennedy's Tax Cut." On the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, Cruz published a remarkable piece in National Review Online crediting Kennedy with laying the foundation for Ronald Reagan's tax cuts and Cold War victory.
At a forum last month with Jonathan Karl of ABC News that was sponsored by the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Senator Cruz placed Kennedy with Reagan and Calvin Coolidge in the pantheon of conservative tax-cutters: "Every single time in our history that we have simplified taxes, reduced the burden, reduced the compliance cost, simplified regulation …. We've seen an economic boom, we've seen people climb out of poverty into prosperity. That was true in the 1920s, it was true in the 1960s, it was true in the 1980s."
When another Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, spoke to me about his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said he would have responded instead to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with "a Kennedy-esque moment," launching a "national project" to become petroleum independent.
Call it the John F. Kennedy Republican presidential primary. It's almost to the point where you'd expect the GOP to announce that one of the party-approved debates will be at the JFK Library in Boston, in addition to the usual standby of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.
My own interest in all of this, as the author of the book JFK, Conservative, goes beyond the merely commercial. I find it an encouraging sign on two levels. First of all, as a political matter, if any of these Republicans hopes to win in a general election, they'll need to carry some Reagan Democrats and independent voters. So they are smart to talk about JFK, just as winning Republican candidates like Reagan and George W. Bush talked positively during their own general election campaigns about Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt.
Second of all, on a substantive, ideological level, the embrace of President Kennedy is progress for a party that once had significant elements that were sharply critical of JFK and his record. They mocked his obsession with economic growth. They, along with some Democrats, opposed his tax cuts for fear that, if not paired with spending cuts, they would explode the deficit. They blamed him for dividing Berlin and starting the Vietnam War, and they saw his space program as classic big government. (On the space program, contemporary Republicans who, unlike Rubio, Cruz, and Bush, don't hail from the space states of Florida and Texas may yet be unconvinced on this particular point.)
The death of Ted Kennedy, a longtime bogeyman for Republicans despite his contributions to deregulation of energy and airlines, has made it easier for today's GOP to embrace JFK. So, too, did the evolution of the Republican party's tax and deficit views in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a change that is a long story with a lot of heroes, among them the editor Robert L. Bartley of The Wall Street Journal and another JFK, Congressman Jack F. Kemp of New York.
Sure, even if Bush, Cruz, Carson, or Rubio emerge as the Republican nominee, expect remaining members of the Kennedy family to endorse the Democrat. But how can they not also take some satisfaction from the Republican scramble to claim JFK's legacy? It shows the 35th president, who served less than three years in office, as a monumental figure whose greatness is shaping our politics to this day.