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We Need More Republicans Like Jack Kemp

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Former Congressman Jack Kemp succumbed to cancer over the weekend. He left behind a political career which seems sadly incomplete, full of potential greatness which was never quite realized. His legacy is a reminder of what the Republican Party could have become, and perhaps a suggestion of where it ought to go in the future.

After a successful football career with the Buffalo Bills, Kemp entered Congress representing Buffalo in 1971, serving in that office for the next 18 years, before moving on to take the role of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the George H. W. Bush administration, and running unsuccessfully for Vice President and President.

Kemp was inspired by the ideas coming out of the Chicago School of Economics in the 1970s and played an important role during the Reagan administration in translating their ideas into a program of lowering taxes and encouraging economic growth which came to be known as Reaganomics. In his book American Renaissance he wrote that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” expressing the essence of supply-side economics. He went on to co-author the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill which was the basis of Reagan’s low-tax, pro-growth budget. This approach to the economy resulted in the longest period of sustained economic growth in American history.

Kemp stood out from other Republicans of his time because while he was socially moderate, he was strongly fiscally conservative and did not fit with the fading liberal wing of the party or the emerging socially conservative faction. Kemp was poised to lead the GOP in a very different direction when he ran for president in 1988 on a platform of tax cuts, urban enterprise zones and smaller government.

In the campaign Kemp tried to appeal to the conservatives, but his libertarian views on social tolerance and individual liberty and his long-standing support of minority interests and organized labor weakened his appeal. Despite his intellectual acuity and positive reputation, his speeches tended to be long and dry, he prepared poorly for debates and his campaign fund was poorly managed. As a result he did poorly in the early primaries and ended up dropping out of the race in 4th place.

Some of Kemp’s ideas from the campaign did win him a following and President Bush appointed him to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the strength of his ideas for revitalizing failing urban areas. Even there, Kemp found himself frustrated as Congress consistently failed to provide him with more than a fraction of the funds he requested for his programs and the president gave him very little support. Ironically many of Kemp’s ideas which failed during the Bush administration became cornerstones of successful urban renewal efforts in many states during the Clinton Administration and his idea of Urban Enterprise Zones proved to be remarkably successful.

Kemp felt himself to be increasingly out of step with the more socially conservative direction which the GOP was taking in the 1990s and chose not to run for president in 1992 or 1996. During this period he became one of the first major advocates of the idea of a flat tax, which was picked up as a campaign issue in 1996 by both Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm.

Kemp also took a controversial pro-immigration stand during this period, pointing out that the benefits of immigrants to the economy far outweighed the costs. In 1993 Kemp was one of the founders of the free-market advocacy group Empower America which eventually evolved into the Competitive Enterprise Institute and FreedomWatch, which is playing a large role in the resurgence of free-market libertarianism in the Republican Party.

To the surprise of many social conservatives, Senator Bob Dole picked Kemp as his running mate in 1996. They ran a principled but unsuccessful campaign against the very popular Democrat incumbent which played a large role in strengthening the Republican hold on Congress during that era. Dole said of Kemp, “Jack was an eternal optimist who was always searching for solutions that would help the American people.”

After the 1996 campaign Kemp focused on public speaking and promoting his ideas of free markets and political inclusion. He believed in an inclusive Republican Party which should welcome minorities and working people and champion the idea of creating opportunity for all Americans. Throughout his career he was promoted smaller, better government, low taxes and free trade. While he was personally socially conservative he understood and was tolerant of the individual rights of others and was reluctant to support socially repressive policies.

Kemp was in many ways out of step with his times. He would have fit better in the politics of the Goldwater era when he was a young football player, or in the emerging politics of the post-Bush libertarian swing of the Republican Party. He may not have been perfect, but he remains a positive example for a new generation of political activists as a Republican of consistent integrity and great vision whose ideas are still relevant and appealing today. Kemp is gone now and that highlights how badly the Republican Party needs a new generation of Jack Kemps. The time has come to make the GOP the party he wanted it to be — inclusive, pro-liberty and working for prosperity for all Americans.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Bubble and Squeek

    Again, Dave is spot on. Let them the Dems do their magic–to get republicans elected.

  • Ah, Zedd. You’ve been away for a while and missed all the fun. Blogcritics is a nice shiny new site now. Vroom, vroom!!!

  • Zedd

    What happened to the vintage/early internet look.

  • Zedd

    Well written.

    This guy seemed to have purpose as apposed to so many up there who seem to simply want a cool job.

  • Baronius

    Bliffle, limitations? Kemp thought that lower tax rates were the answer to everything from missile defense to bad breath.

  • zingzing

    did you guys see that michael savage has been banned from entering britain for being a dangerous, homophobic racist? (a bit of an overreaction, i say, but you know…)

    the best part is that he changed his name to “savage.” know what it was? weiner. come on! change your name, if you want, but… damn, don’t make it embarrassing…

    if dems buy poor people an expanding menu of entitlements, republicans buy rich people with the same. is one better than the other? and since when do entitlements keep anyone down, unless they’re not lifting them up… it all depends on how you see things working. does trickle down work? do we need to raise up the poor? how many ways can we play lip service to the middle class? ahh, politics.

  • It’s all over the libertarian Facebook links, Cindy. I’m curious to see how it shakes out since they seem to have no actual evidence against him.


  • Very nice piece, Dave, although I would amend the title to “We Need More Politicians Like Jack Kemp.”

  • Dave,

    Something you’ll want to see if you haven’t, I think.

    US using Patriot Act against its own citizens: 16yo boy taken 2 months ago stripped of all rights

  • Bliffle

    Good article.

    The egalitarianism that Kemp learned in the winning-is-everything crucible of pro football ran up against the lily-white republican party of the times (is it still around, or is it really gone?), which only considered blacks as pets or tokens.

    Kemp was a smart guy and may have even REALLY understood the meaning and significance of Supply Side econ (which, for example, no one on BC has ever demonstrated any understanding of, except as a political chant) and been able to deal appropriate uses and recognize LIMITATIONS.

  • Clavos

    I know, Bar. I was being facetious.

  • Baronius

    I paraphrase, Clav, but you did say something like that recently.

  • Clavos

    But if you haven’t figured out the benefits of economic prosperity by now, you’re stupid (according to Clavos)…

    Did I really say that? Tsk, tsk. :>)

    But why did his minority outreach never work? Why does it still not work?

    Because too many of the minority folks are in the economic underclass, and the Democrats have, for decades (since FDR, actually), done a masterful job of buying their votes with an ever-expanding menu of entitlements.

  • Baronius

    But why did his minority outreach never work? Why does it still not work? Kemp used to say that it didn’t work because blacks were smarter than Republicans – the GOP never demonstrated the real benefits of a growing economy to the poor, so political pitches were doomed to failure. But if you haven’t figured out the benefits of economic prosperity by now, you’re stupid (according to Clavos), or you’re after something other than prosperity (according to Baronius).

    Also, I hate to be the one to say this first, but who would have thought that Bob Dole would outlive Jack Kemp?

  • Good points, Baronius. One thing Kemp really understood which too many still don’t really seem to get is that the best way to help minorities and the poor and the working class who he was so concerned about, is to build a growing economy and build wealth and opportunity for everyone.

    Kemp was a very smart guy and understood the economy in a way which very few legislators today do, except maybe Ron Paul, but he’s gotten kind of sidetracked from the main issues.


  • Baronius

    If you were a young conservative in the late 1980’s like I was, Kemp was your Elvis. Other people were talking about tax cuts because they were popular; Kemp talked about them because they were economically and morally good. The weird thing was, he stopped talking about anything else. It was all tax cuts and GOP outreach to blacks, and it turned out that most of the blacks weren’t interested. Dave’s right about the sense of incompleteness in the Kemp story, but his fans carry on the tradition of conservatism without cynicism or apology.

    Lack of apology: that was huge. We were never racists or anti-poor, and we never learned to flinch at those accusations. We didn’t call our conservatism kinder, gentler, or compassionate, because we knew that smaller government was all those things. Gingrich was an effective marketer, and W was an electable candidate, but Kemp was Jack Freakin’ Kemp.

  • Clavos

    Very well written article, Dave, and a fitting tribute to an exceptional man!

  • Well, I can think of a few people in the GOP who would be more useful as corpses, but I was thinking more in terms of Kemp while he was alive.


  • Ruvy

    We Need More Republicans Like Jack Kemp

    You need more corpses in the GOP? That’s a brand new one! I’ve never heard any GOP activist say that before – not even when I was in the GOP myself!