Varnish Remover

JFK as Forrest Gump

Growth & Jobs, produced by National Media Inc. for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Broadcast by the National Association of Manufacturers during the now-resolved debate over cutting federal taxes, this timely, pointed spot extends history’s reach in an effort to push for the tax breaks favored by the NAM.


The opening shot of Growth & Jobs takes us back to 1963 and John F. Kennedy. Black-and-white footage invokes a past that, thanks to the image of a man who remains a compelling symbol of hope, is not passé. Targeting Democrats and the middle-class voters who were, at the time, being told by President Clinton that the Republican version of the tax cut was unfair, the spot challenges their confidence in the president. Whom do you believe, it seems to ask, Clinton or Kennedy? (Clinton later compromised with the GOP, and the final bill included many of the latter’s proposals.)

“This nation needs a tax cut,” JFK says–nothing new here, given the climate: This “need” for a tax cut seems to have asserted itself in every post-Reagan campaign. In the very different context of 1963, however, Kennedy was the first president to call for a tax cut with the explicitly Keynesian purpose of creating a deficit to stimulate the economy. JFK was concerned about an economy in crisis; current lawmakers don’t have to be. JFK’s tax cut was designed to result in a deficit; the current cut, in keeping with the supply-side doctrine of the Republicans, was part of a deficit-ending package.


Moving to a full-screen chyron of Kennedy’s words (etched in an appropriately antique font), the spot transitions seamlessly to another section of the speech. Back then to a shot of JFK, who now links a tax cut to “buying power.” It’s true that buying power isn’t exactly a problem in today’s economy–credit-card debt is at an all-time high–but most viewers won’t stumble over the words, which are quickly absorbed by a visual transition to “1997” and what appears to be a scene in a contemporary factory. JFK’s voice continues to extol the tax cut, predicting that it will bring “more production and the jobs the nation”–and the workers we see–need.

Details of the plan

At this point, the spot ‘fesses up via a crush of chyrons that it’s “the Republican Tax Cut Plan” that’s at issue here. JFK’s words imply that he’s for the plan, or at least for something very like it (in fact, the three Kennedys currently in Congress opposed the Republican version and were split on the final compromise). Details of the plan are listed in order of polling appeal–starting with the $500-per-child tax credit, a proposal Clinton campaigned on in 1996; and spiraling to the far less popular capital-gains tax cut, that Holy Grail of the Gingrich revolution. The ad’s euphemism for capital gains–“tax cuts for economic growth and jobs”–testifies to its proponents’ paranoia: They don’t want to talk it up, and probably assume that it will be lost in the crowded screen.

Against the background of validating words and what seem to be specific details, Growth & Jobs responds explicitly to Clinton’s accusation that the plan served the wealthy: “76% of the tax relief is aimed at middle income taxpayers.” “Aimed” lets the spot skirt the charge; critics of the plan argued that 60 percent of the population would get little or nothing.

Kennedy urges that voters accept the tax cut “we’re talking about.” History is the more persuasive when the facts are blurred: Lost is the fact that JFK proposed to cut the top rate from 90 percent to 60 percent, whereas the ‘97 Republican bill reduced the capital-gains tax from 28 percent to 20 percent and even lower.


Legally required to carry a disclaimer, the spot eventually identifies its sponsor: the National Association of Manufacturers, which believes that “[t]ax relief … [is] a good idea then … a good idea now.” Ironies abound. The NAM didn’t think JFK was “a good idea then.” His address to the 1961 NAM convention included this dig: “It would be premature to ask for your support in the next election–and untrue to thank you for it in the last one.” And it is also true that most of the association’s corporate clients opposed the ‘63 tax cut.

But for most viewers, the varnish remains. Growth & Jobs follows the Reaganesque strategy of invoking Kennedy’s words on behalf of a very different kind of tax cut. (Republicans revel in quoting JFK to Democrats, and especially to the Kennedys now in the Senate and the House.) It also follows an American tradition: In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, both sides quoted Jefferson. Anyone can cite Jefferson, or Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or Kennedy for his own purpose–and will. It’s not clear what, if any, effect this spot had on the outcome. Growth & Jobs seems to make a good job of it–the devil is in the details.

–Robert Shrum