Was Eisenhower more of a socialist than Bernie Sanders?

Sanders drew a big laugh in Saturday night's debate by putting himself to the right of 34th US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But there was some truth to Sander's quip.

Michael Dwyer/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2105.

Saturday night, during the second Democratic presidential debate, when candidate Bernie Sanders was asked how high he intends to raise taxes, the Independent Senator from Vermont said his campaign “hasn’t come up with an exact number yet.”

“But it will not be as high,” Sen. Sanders added, “as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was 90 percent,” prompting a chuckle from moderators.

Sanders said he isn’t “that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower” and the room erupted as if on cue, like a sitcom laugh track, and the camera turned to a bemused Hillary Clinton before panning out to show the audience cracking-up to the point of elation.

Sanders, who describes himself as a "democratic socialist," has been known to draw this kind of reaction from crowds. But it wasn’t the first time Sanders invoked Eisenhower while promising to increase taxes on the nation’s wealthiest, and the comparison holds true, because under Ike rich Americans paid considerably more tax than they do today.

As Politifact reports, during Eisenhower’s two-term presidency from 1953 to 1961, the top marginal tax rate, which affects the highest earning bracket, was 91 percent. It applied to individuals with an annual income of $200,000 or more, and couples whose combined earnings was equal to or greater than $400,000. Accounting for inflation, in 2015 those numbers would be the equivalent of about $1.7 million for individuals and $3.4 million per couple.

Today, the top marginal tax rate in 2015 is about 39.6 percent and applies to individuals with an annual income of $413,200 or higher, and couples who make $464,850 or more. The equivalent of these earners in 1954 would have been placed in the 72 percent and 75 percent tax brackets, respectively, leaving that heavy 91 percent rate for the mid-century relative-counterparts to our present-day "1%" of wealthiest Americans.

And that is Sanders’s point. Under Eisenhower, taxes were higher for the upper-class, who weren’t as rich as America’s wealthiest today.

Also, historians would be quick to point out, one of Eisenhower's greatest achievements as president was the creation of the Interstate Highway System – a massive civic infrastructure project that cost the equivalent of more than $500 billion in today's dollars. Also, in his farewell address, Eisenhower warned the country about the growth of the military-industrial complex, a phrase now decidedly associated with liberalism.

And yet the former World War II general and Republican president also outlawed the Communist Party of the United States and stepped up aggression against the Soviets and their allies by adopting the "Domino Theory" of foreign policy, an approach that would ultimately draw the United States into conflict in Vietnam. 

Of course, as many pundits have pointed out throughout the course of the current campaign, Sanders is not actually a socialist either.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, sociology professor Lane Kenworthy of University of California at San Diego said he thinks Sanders’s use of the word "socialism" is, “causing much more confusion than it is adding value.” Mr. Kenworthy suggested a more fitting term for Sanders would be “democratic socialist capitalist,” which essentially means “very liberal.”

President Eisenhower, on the other hand, was no liberal. In a 1954 letter to his brother, Edgar, President Eisenhower wrote of his opposition to centralizing US governmental functions more than necessary. But Eisenhower acknowledged that “to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it.”

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