August 12th, 2020


Is There A Republican In This Race Who Knows Jack (Kemp)?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Oct. 1, 2015

He hasn't been on a presidential campaign stage since 1996 — that was eight years after another run for national office — and yet he lingers over the current field of Republican hopefuls.

Bob Dole? Good guess, but wrong. The answer is the late Jack Kemp — quarterback, congressman, HUD secretary, presidential and vice presidential candidate, tax-cutting/empowerment icon, and the subject of a biography released today.

Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America, coauthored by Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes (you might remember them from their days as Fox News' Beltway Boys).

(Buy it at a 45% discount by clicking here or order in KINDLE edition at a 50% discount by clicking here)

It chronicles the conservative icon's journey from the mean fields of the old American Football League to the even meaner (some would say: stranger) world of national politics, where Kemp emerged as a voice for a "supply-side" approach to economics later embraced by Ronald Reagan.

Why a book on Kemp?

In part, Kondracke and Barnes contend, because he doesn't get his historic due:

"Jack Kemp was the most important politician of the 20th Century who was not president, certainly the most influential Republican," begins the bio (they probably should have added the word "American", to make it clear that Winston Churchill doesn't qualify).

And: because Kemp's an overlooked player in the Reagan-era team photo.

"Jack Kemp was at the center of the great turnaround. He did not invent supply-side economics: the combination of lower tax rates, particularly on individual income, and a stable dollar . . . Kemp became the leading political evangelist of the supply-side movement. Lowering taxes, he argued, would create incentives for work, savings, and investment — and produce booming growth in a way that Keynesian public spending programs had not."

The authors' other motivation: there simply aren't enough figures in today's GOP who choose to mimic Kemp's upbeat style.

They write: "Kemp was positive, optimistic, idealistic, energetic, growth- and opportunity-oriented. He was incapable of personal attack and negative campaigning, even when it cost him. "The purpose of politics," he said, "is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas that the opposition.""

To their credit, Kondracke and Barnes resist the temptation to elevate Kemp to extremes. As they point out, the man had his flaws: he was tough on staffers, feuded with friends and sympathizers.

I'd add: sometimes, you wished he had an on/off switch. A friend of mine recalls being seated next to the man on a flight from Washington to upstate New York; my friend, a big Kemp fan, asked a question right after takeoff — Kemp was still answering it while the plane was landing.

And there's no forgiving Kemp's decision to give Al Gore a pass during 1996's vice presidential. Quarterbacks are supposed to be team players — you don't call an audible on national television.

The nagging question after wading through these 327 pages of Jack Kemp's life and times (he passed away in May 2009, after a bout with cancer): who in this current field of Republican presidential hopefuls is the legitimate air to the "GOP JFK" (as in: Jack French Kemp).

Kondracke and Barnes provide us with a laundry list:

It would have been Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, had he run. Ryan was a Kemp aide at Empower America, the now-defunct think tank. He calls himself a second-generation supply-sider; emulates Kemp in minority outreach.

Like Kemp, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's adopted an urban policy and talks minority compassion. Un unlike Kemp, Paul's not an internationalist, which has killed his campaign. Besides, Paul's past proposal to balance the federal budget in five years is at odds with Kemp's embrace of big government.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has called Kemp "an influence on me" (the senator unveiled an economic plan at last year's Kemp Forum on True Growth). Then again, he's seen a need to nuance his stance on immigration reform.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, the authors write, "is a model Kempian. He was a relentless reformer. He cut taxes. He did more to advance radical changes in his state's school system than any other governor."

One other note about the Jeb-Jack connection (ironic, given that it was Bush 41's proximity to Ronald Reagan that helped prevent Kemp from winning the presidency in 1988): Jeb Bush entered the 2016 presidential sweepstakes sounding more like his 41's HUD Secretary than 41 himself.

"In any language, my message will be an optimistic one because I am certain that we can make the decades just ahead the greatest time ever to be alive in this world," Bush declared during his June kickoff speech in Miami. "I will campaign as I would serve, going everywhere, speaking to everyone, keeping my word, facing the issues without flinching,"

Since then: Donald Trump's negativity hangs over the GOP like a California "May Gray/June Gloom". Bush may be that optimistic champion a year from now — but like Bushes 41 and 43, the man who would be 45 may have to show a meaner streak in order to get his party's nod.

One other thing about Jack Kemp: give him credit for seeing Democratic class warfare a mile away.

Here's a passage from a Kemp address in 1979 — roughly the same time Barack Obama was transitioning to college life and Bill and Hillary Clinton were making a mess of things during their first go-round as Arkansas' First Couple: "[I]n a stagnant or contracting economy, politics becomes the art of pitting class against class, rich against poor, white against black, capital against labor, Sunbelt against Sunbelt, old against young".

Sound familiar?

In order to take down Hillary Clinton — or whomever the Democrats put forward: it pays to know Jack.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: “The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain.” During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.

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