Streetcar Line

We’re Not OK, Jack

What conservatives need right now is another Jack Kemp for a younger generation.

By 2.20.09

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What conservatives need right now is another Jack Kemp for a younger generation.

Not that there really could be another Kemp either, of course, because his particular brand of infectious enthusiasm and passion for bold ideas are sui generis. But somebody new could play a similar role to the one he played for the conservative movement for the better part of two decades. And somebody darn well better do so. Without the ability to cut through the establishment media noise, capture the popular imagination, and sell solid, intellectually coherent new policy ideas, the movement will be in the wilderness a lot longer than anybody in it seems now to expect.

Lest people forget, it's worth reviewing the manifold ways in which Kemp pushed policies and, equally important, attitudes, into an inhospitable political environment. Kemp always has offered a generosity of spirit and a broadness of vision that keeps conservatism from becoming hidebound. With Kemp long retired from active politics (but not at all from actively communicating ideas in new columns and speeches), today's conservative organizers and officeholders need to learn from Kemp's example.

It is the example of perhaps the single most influential House Member, without official leadership position, since James Madison. And it wasn't just Kemp's successful advocacy of "supply-side" tax cuts that made him so important -- although conservatives today are so steeped in the tax-cut dogmas that they may not remember how revolutionary Kemp's ideas seemed at the time and how hard they were to promote. It was that Kemp was a constant, insistent, optimistic advocate for anything that he thought could spur economic growth and raise people out of poverty. Kemp shaped more successful policy from his post in the House, and later as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, than just about any legislator in American history.

First, the tax cuts: It was Kemp who sold Ronald Reagan on supply-side theory, way back in the late summer of 1976. It was Kemp who sold most Republican House members on supply-side economics between 1976 and 1980, overcoming the party's static, green-eyeshade proclivities. It was Kemp who inspired Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Dan Lungren to form the "Conservative Opportunity Society" that pushed not just tax cuts but a whole host of economic growth and anti-poverty initiatives.

Significantly, Kemp worked across the aisle, forging unlikely alliances without ever giving up his conservative bona fides. Witness Kemp's work with District of Columbia delegate Walter Fauntroy to pass legislation in 1987 establishing tenant management and urban homesteading in public housing. Witness his numerous ideas for "empowerment zones" and his ceaseless push for welfare reform -- the latter of which did not grow directly from his prescriptions, but certainly was inspired by his long-stated goals.

And Kemp never failed to challenge conventional wisdom or narrow preconceptions. It was a joy, for instance, to hear him have the guts to stand up at a hyper-conservative Republican National Convention and extol America's "liberal, democratic values." He meant small "l" and small "d," of course, but listeners weaned only on modern political rhetoric probably wondered what planet sent Kemp to them. (Houston, we might have a problem.)

If Reagan was the Gipper for whom conservatives wanted to win, Kemp has always been the quarterback who repeatedly moves the ball down the field.

Conservatives today who want to recapture the popular imagination (not to mention popular support) ought to emulate Kemp's loud and tireless simultaneous engagement with policy details and public relations in the best sense.

Fortunately, there are some conservatives today who seem to have the right spirit. U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina is one, as are U.S. Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin -- the latter of whom once worked for Kemp at Empower America. Everybody in the conservative movement ought to move heaven and earth to help these lawmakers get wider exposure through speaking events, radio and TV appearances, and other public forums.

But the Kempian model is more than about mere men. It is a model about bedrock values, beliefs, and attitudes. It is a model about openness to new approaches without losing core principles. Kemp's own core was expressed in his 1987 speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency, in words describing the polar opposite of what is now the approach of the Obama administration: "No government in history has been able to do for people what they have been able to do for themselves, when they were free to follow their hopes and dreams. The American Dream is not to make everyone level with everyone else, but to create the opportunity for all people to reach as high as their God-given potential allows."

Today's policymakers also seem not to appreciate Kemp's advocacy (from that same speech) of sound currency, of missile defenses, of protection for the sanctity of human life, and of unfettered school choice.

In Kemp's conception, government can be active, but only as a catalyst for private action, not a replacement for it. Kemp surely would not sit by and let the nationalization of health care occur unchallenged -- but he also would be out front (as Rep. John Shadegg has been) with ideas about what government can do to spur reform.

Pence and Ryan and Shadegg and company would do well to emulate Kemp's boldness. Facing a leftist American administration is nothing in comparison, for instance, to facing the Soviet Empire. But David Caprara, a top Kemp aide at HUD and now a Brookings Institution scholar, recalls Kemp sponsoring him on a trip to Moscow, where he bore a copy of a Kemp speech at the Heritage Foundation called "The Democratic Capitalist Manifesto" -- translated in Russian. Caprara presented the speech to council member Elena Kotova -- and, Caprara said, she later said to him: "I laughed aloud with pleasure when I read Jack Kemp's Democratic Capitalist Manifesto. This is what we reformers have been standing for!"

Conservatives, in that spirit, let's stand tall. And, like Kemp, be bold.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.