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.