Jack Kemp quarterbacked pro football squads in an era when his $50,000/year was a fat salary. Yet during an off-season, he served as an intern for California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Years later, while serving in Congress, the old quarterback would supply “the Gipper” with a playbook that won 25 years of American prosperity.
It was a fringe idea then, and perhaps again now, that by reducing the tax rate, and eliminating many loopholes, you could unshackle market-based incentives for long-term investment in people and capital, and thus spur economic growth that would juice tax revenue beyond what was possible with higher tax rates. They called it supply-side economics, and Kemp didn’t create it, but he did more to spread the good news than any apostle then or since.
Critics in both major parties mocked it. Sen. Bob Dole snarled at “the quarterback’s” irresponsible supply-sider team, preferring instead what Kemp viewed as a sour agenda of austerity aimed at largely-useless deficit reduction. Yet in 1996, Dole picked Kemp as his VP running mate.
George H.W. Bush smirked at “voodoo economics,” while running against Reagan, then shut up as Reagan’s vice president, but later earned eternal political opprobrium for breaking his “Read my lips. No new taxes.” pledge. He should have listened to Jack Kemp, yet he did appoint him as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
It takes a certain amount of faith to believe that reducing tax rates will increase revenues because it will spark economic growth. Projections can’t account for the growth, and so government beancounters speak of tax-rate cuts in terms of the “cost” to the treasury in lost revenue. Jack Kemp was not only a man of faith, but a student of history and economics. In particular, he frequently noted President John F. Kennedy’s proto-supply-side rationale for cutting taxes to spur growth.
The fact that Kemp quoted Kennedy highlights another major aspect of his legacy. He was an idea man, not primarily a partisan. As such, he often bucked his own party, not to cultivate a reputation as a rebel, but to follow his convictions.
Despite the quarterback’s aggressive offense, he tried to avoid being personally offensive. He saw ideological rivals not as enemies, but as the guys on the other team, against whom one would play hard, but among whom one might name good friends, and occasional policy partners.
A portrait in bold — sometimes clashing — colors, emerges in the first biography of the man, Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America, penned by Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes, due for release September 29.
As Michael Gerson noted, Kemp was “the most influential modern Republican who never became president.”
Barnes and Kondracke clearly hope to hold out Kemp as a model, and perhaps an antidote, for our current crop of politicians. It’s not just his passion for supply-side economics and growth, but his commitment to expanding opportunity for minorities, and his honorable approach to electoral competition that inspires admiration, and perhaps a bit of wistful longing.
The full Kemp model — “bleeding heart” and “conservative” — is what the nation needs. Politicians who are principled, dynamic, positive, cheerful, inclusive, bipartisan, optimistic, unorthodox, disposed to compromise, committed to courting minorities, urban oriented, pro-growth, and antibureaucratic — and interested in ideas and action, not political tactics or personal attack. Idealistic. Visionary. “The goal of achieving House Majority was too small for Jack,” former representative Vin Weber said. “He wanted to transform the country.”
It’s been too long since we’ve seen a national Republican leader who strips off his suit jacket and wades into a crowd of inner-city Black people — shaking hands and making friends — though Rep. Paul Ryan (a Kemp acolyte) and, to a lesser extent, Sen. Rand Paul, have made some praise-worthy, if tentative, outreach efforts. But Kemp came from a world where some of the best performers and best people he knew were Black fellow football players. He stood up for, and with, them before it was fashionable, and he never stopped working to kick down the barriers to equal opportunity for all.
He was the kind of man who could vigorously oppose Keynesian Democratic policies, but also send a joyful letter to his grandchildren on the night of Barack Obama’s 2008 election to the presidency, celebrating a moment just 40 years removed from a day when many Blacks were denied the vote.
Libertarian-leaning critics saw Kemp as inadequately committed to smaller government, and too supportive of a muscular geostrategy. But Kemp saw an important role for government in spurring opportunity, and once referred to himself as not a hawk, but “a well-armed dove.”
Drawing upon hundreds of hours of documentary interviews that Kondracke did with Kemp friends, staffers and associates, the authors make no effort to cloak, or excuse away, the shortcomings of the Buffalo (NY) Congressman, HUD Secretary and VP nominee.
He was frenetic, and somewhat disorganized. He failed to notice the dark side in others, and couldn’t say ‘No’ often enough to spare his staff from chaos. He failed to prepare for a vice presidential debate with Al Gore, and “got Gored,” as wags in the press noted. He played staff members against each other, consulted experts then failed to take their advice, and gave long-winded, dense but erudite speeches that left heads shaking, or bobbing. And he was a supply-sider to a fault, expressing little concern for big government spending, and less for deficits. Growth would make all of that irrelevant, he thought. He inadvertently scuttled his own White House bid because he hated fundraising, bumper-sticker speeches, and attack ads.
Jack Kemp could assemble and lead a team, but in a sense, he wasn’t a team player.
His friend Chuck Colson eulogized him as unqualified for the presidency because, among other reasons, he was without guile.
Kondracke and Barnes have filled a void, not merely with an engaging, fast-paced first history of Jack Kemp, but with political writing that mixes boldness and subtlety, ideas and heart, to produce a poignant picture of a great man.
“This will sound goofy…but in a real sense, Jack brought love into the Republican party. He loved people. He loved life. He made people happy. He was a genuine comrade. You were companions on a quest.”
— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, quoted in ‘Jack Kemp‘, p. 81