The obituaries for Jack Kemp described him as a “former congressman” and “former cabinet secretary.” Just like Norman Mineta!
These descriptions were not inaccurate, of course, but they were hopelessly inadequate. Kemp was the sponsor of the Kemp-Roth tax cut that formed the basis of the Republican platform in 1980. He championed one after another of the tax reductions and reforms that constituted the most exciting portion of the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. A visionary advocate of a Republican rainbow coalition of tomorrow, Kemp was the great hope of a generation of conservative activists, the true prince, the president who should have been: Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy and Mario Cuomo all rolled into one. That he got no further in American politics than Secretary of Housing and Urban Development says much about him—and about us.
As a politician, Kemp possessed amazing skills: a magnificent physical presence, boundless energy and vigor, an easy assurance with all sorts of people. (One of his admirers attributed this last virtue to his football background: “Jack has showered with people whom most Republicans would never even talk to.”)
Yet Kemp also labored under two great weaknesses: an aversion to political risk and a susceptibility to wishful thinking on policy.
In 1980, Kemp’s supporters had hoped that Reagan would name the Buffalo congressman as his running mate—opening an easy route to the presidency in 1984 or 1988. Reagan chose otherwise, leaving Kemp to make his own career.
Always a united party man, Kemp had already declined to challenge New York’s liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits in the 1980 primary. Alphonse D’Amato seized the opportunity instead, and won first the party primary and then the seat. Kemp opted against running for governor of New York in 1982 to succeed Hugh Carey, and likewise chose not to challenge Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that same year.
Consequently, 1988 found Kemp exactly where he had been in 1980: on a back bench in the House of Representatives. From that weak base, he could not mount an effective presidential run, leaving him to hope forlornly that George H.W. Bush would do what Reagan had not: choose him as a running mate. The longed-for vice-presidential nod only arrived in 1996, from Bob Dole, and by then it was not worth much.
Kemp’s uneven performance as a national candidate in 1996 finished his hopes. He made two lethal errors in his televised debate with Al Gore. When Gore complimented Kemp for eschewing the racial prejudice that (Gore insinuated) infected other Republicans, Kemp did not repudiate the barbed compliment; he accepted it. Then, Kemp criticized the Clinton administration for taking too tough a line against Saddam Hussein—memorably accusing the administration of “bombing before breakfast.” When he stepped off the platform that night, his conservative constituency was lost.
Kemp’s words about Saddam underscored his second weakness: his susceptibility. He was heavily influenced by Republican policy guru Juide Wanniski, a man of promiscuous enthusiasms. Wanniski was convinced that the route to conservative ascendancy ran through black America . . . and that the route to black votes lay through Louis Farrakhan . . . and that the route to Farrakhan lay in a soft line on Iraq. It sounds kind of crazy when you state it explicitly, but Wanniski believed it, and in the hours before the debate, he sold the concept to Kemp.
This was not Kemp’s biggest miscalculation. Forever the optimist, he always wanted to believe that all good things went together. You could have low taxes and generous social spending, combine high wages with open immigration, be pro-Israel and also pro-Saddam. If anyone could have pulled it off, it ought to have been him. He was a man of generous impulses, without rancor, a natural coalition-builder. But politics is a business of objective facts as well as subjective feelings. Sometimes one must choose. Sometimes one choice precludes another. That was news Jack Kemp did not like to hear.
In death, Kemp leaves behind two significant legacies to his party, one positive, one negative. The positive legacy is the humane spirit and broad sympathy that led Kemp to campaign in communities where other Republicans did not venture. Maybe it was unrealistic to think that Republicans could ever win many votes at a meeting of the NAACP. But it was not unrealistic to think that by attending the meeting, by speaking and listening, by showing respect, a Republican politician could assuage mistrust and lay a foundation for the future. Kemp instinctively understood something that today’s Republican Party needs to rediscover: that the American voter responds to generosity, not resentment; to hope, not anger.
Unfortunately, while this positive legacy goes for the moment unclaimed, Kemp’s negative legacy has been eagerly embraced. Like some of his political heirs, Kemp not only hoped for the best, too often he was willing to gamble the future of the country on those hopes—no mater how dubious.
Cut taxes on savings, investment, and work, and urban poverty would fade away, the wages of labor would surge, and the budget would balance itself.
Offer tax credits for health care in lieu of the current tax exclusion, and medical cost inflation would painlessly subside.
Provide vouchers for private schools, and poor students would overcome the educational deficits created by single parenthood.
All these ideas contain some measure of truth, but only some. Yet Kemp was always ready to take as proven truth what he wished were true. He was always ready to subject every problem—no matter how seemingly intractable—to the pleasing remedy of a tax cut. At Jack’s restaurant, the lunch was always free.
In the context of 1981, tax cuts were just the medicine the patient needed. But it is not always 1981, and marginal income-tax rates are not the secret cause behind every social problem.
Jack Kemp does offer an inspiring model for later Republicans, if we would receive it critically. He has much to teach about what to do—and, inadvertently, about what not to do. This is one leader about whose words and deeds it could most aptly be said: The letter killeth—but the spirit giveth life.