The Big Hail Mary: Can Jack Kemp Save the GOP?

October 22, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: Jack KempGOPEconomics

The Big Hail Mary: Can Jack Kemp Save the GOP?

In their new biography, Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke contend that Jack Kemp, football star, politician and champion of supply-side economics, is an exemplar for today’s GOP. 

Barnes and Kondracke present Kemp as the main driver of the supply-side revolution, even to the point of minimizing the importance of Rep. William Steiger’s 1978 capital-gains-tax cut, which many historians have credited with setting off the venture capital boom of the 1980s. But they fail to dispel the impression that supply-side quickly became more a quasireligious faith than a mode of rational economic analysis. (Jude Wanniski only half-jokingly described himself as Kemp’s theologian.) And if supply-side economics is Kemp’s principal legacy within the Republican Party, then it doesn’t seem a durable one. Barnes and Kondracke conclude that “Kemp was a big government conservative,” but the Tea Party rebellion that has swept the GOP in recent years ultimately has been a revolt against anything resembling Kemp-style compassionate conservatism, as opposed to mere antitax rebellion.


KEMP’S SIGNIFICANCE at the present moment would seem to be not his economic credos so much as his passionate belief in a big-tent Republican Party, and particularly his desire for the GOP to fully engage with the African-American community. Kemp was one of the few politicians of either party who would rather speak to a downtrodden audience in a ghetto or barrio than a gathering of deep-pocketed donors. As reporter Jason DeParle observed in the New York Times, Kemp “brought more zeal to America’s poverty problems than any national politician since Robert Kennedy” and likely was “the only official to have won standing ovations in black ghettos by calling for a capital gains tax cut.”

As secretary of housing and urban development under President George H. W. Bush, Kemp advanced a creative agenda for uplifting distressed minority communities through creative policies such as enterprise zones, education and housing vouchers, and incentives to rebuild blighted neighborhoods. Although his program was rooted in traditional Republican ideals of individual initiative, Kemp came to recognize the realities of structural racism and poverty. While most politicians condemned the 1992 Los Angeles riots as mob brutality, Kemp believed that it was lack of opportunity that undermined respect for law and property. “Our system has locked in rewards basically for people who have already made it,” he told reporters, “and it’s preventing people who don’t have anything but the shirt on their back from getting access to property and the seed corn and the capital and the jobs and the ownership of homes.”

Kemp never realized his hopes of attracting significant numbers of black and Hispanic voters to the Republican Party. But if more Republicans had followed his example of visiting minority communities, engaging them with respect and shaping legislation with their interests and concerns in mind, the party might have chipped away at the legacy of decades of mistrust. Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein maintains that “if Kemp had prevailed, we would be looking at a majority Republican party today,” since minority opposition provided the margin for Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential campaign. It’s worth noting that Kemp strongly supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and condemned California’s Proposition 187 (which would have denied public services to undocumented immigrants) as an expression of “an ugly antipathy toward all immigrants,” particularly Asians and Latinos. He also denounced the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” which he described as “not even asking blacks to vote for you for fear of losing white votes.”


BARNES AND KONDRACKE are partisan journalists, but their portrait of Kemp as a man is coolly objective and indeed unsparing. They are candid about their subject’s disorganization, bad temper, sexism and self-absorption. Staffers are quoted bemoaning Kemp’s inability to make decisions or to deliver a short speech, and the authors make no excuses for his lackluster performance as Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election. Barnes and Kondracke also observe that Kemp’s influence would have been greater if he had risen above his back-bencher status by taking greater political risks—running for the Senate or New York governorship, for example, or actively campaigning to become George H. W. Bush’s vice-presidential pick.

But the authors are confident that a full accounting of Kemp’s character shows that his virtues outweighed his defects. Kemp wanted no part of the meanness and polarization that characterize today’s politics, and he had many close Democratic friends. He displayed real courage defending his principles, even to the point of angering President Reagan when he felt that his hero wasn’t staying true to his beliefs. He was no foreign-policy visionary, but, in the authors’ words, he “deserve[s] credit for holding the idealistic view that the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by Americans should be available to people all over the world, and trying to put that belief into action.” His political career suffered because of some of his most endearing qualities, including his uncontainable excitement about ideas and his genuine compassion for ordinary folks. After Kemp died in May 2009, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, praising him as “a conservative thinker, a Republican leader and a defender of civil rights.”

Whether Kemp can make a comeback in the GOP is questionable. Kondracke and Barnes breezily declare, “with the return of Keynesian economics and its subsequent failure in America, Kemp represents a shining alternative. All that’s needed now is a leader, a few disciples, and a megaphone.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kimberley A. Strassel suggests that Paul Ryan is the natural legatee to Kemp. According to her,

The Kemp-Ryan view knows that government is the problem, not the answer—not in any form. The answer is to devolve the money and power back to states and communities, where it can do the most good for the people who most need it.

But as the GOP focuses on deficit reduction rather than economic growth, Kemp’s eupeptic credo looks lonelier than ever. For all his proselytizing fervor, Kemp seems destined to become a historical footnote.

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author, most recently, of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Image: Rebecca M. Miller