Jack Kemp, RIP

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As noted below, former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) died over the weekend at the age of 73. He is in many ways an inspiring figure, but for dead-end Republicans, his career is also a cautionary tale on never quite fulfilling your promise or thinking truly radical thoughts.

A football standout in the old AFL (he quarterbacked the Buffalo Bills to two consecutive championships in the mid-60s), he pretty much closed out his political career with an embarrassing run for vice-president on one of the worst presidential tickets in recent memory. Not only was Bob Dole a total joke (remember his dissing of non-Arnold Schwarzenegger violent movies he acknowledged he had never seen? his pledge to build a bridge back to the past? his promise to serve only one term?), but Kemp was pretty godawful too, totally back on his heels, untutored in the issues of the moment, a lumbering stumblebum in debates with Al Gore.

By all accounts, Kemp was a good guy and he is already being showered in death with praise, most of it deserved. He systematically referred to himself as a "bleeding heart conservative," promoted entrepreneurship, good race relations, and, most influentially, tax reform. He was in the happy warrior mold and seamlessly shifted from talking about his personal experiences to his politics. This was especially true when it came to civil rights and Kemp, as a guy who saw the last gasp of segregation from the crucial vantage point of sports, was genuinely moving at times. Along with Bill Bennett, Kemp's public stance against California's odious Prop. 187, a massively popular anti-immigrant measure that got then-Gov. Pete Wilson re-elected and destroyed the GOP in California, was a stand-up-and-cheer moment, one of those all-too-rare episodes in which a pol does what is right despite his party affiliation.

Yet when you survey his actual accomplishments compared to what might have been, it's hard not to conclude that he faded badly in the second half. In the late '70s, he became the chief legislative voice for supply-side economics and the idea that cutting onerous marginal tax rates would unleash productivity and, ultimately, increase tax revenue. He championed low-tax "empowerment zones" in rotten urban areas (and implemented some as George H.W. Bush's HUD secretary). A lot of Republicans spent the second half of the '80s and early '90s wishing he'd been Reagan's VP pick. He was, they figured, a youthful version of Reagan and he would have kept to a No New Taxes pledge better than Bush 41.

Maybe, but throughout his career, Kemp never really finished or followed up on anything. He didn't score bigger victories with tax policy and he never pushed through for higher office. His ideas were easily co-opted by government and he never dug around for the empirical evidence that his empowerment zones would become anything more than a bureaucratic morass. He championed home ownership in public housing policy with his much-ballyhooed HOPE program, a classic case of a well-intentioned plan that absolutely failed in practice. Designed to transfer public units to low-income residents, it didn't transfer a single unit. His creation, along with Bennett and former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) of Empower America was supposed to provide a bold new voice in GOP circles, but it ultimately did nothing of the sort and whimpered to an end. Despite his accomplishments in professional sports, in the end he was like a high-school jock who ends up trading on faded glory to sell insurance and have a life spent in front of sympathetic audiences.

Republicans and small-government reformers should take from Kemp his vitality, genial nature, and genuine sense of inclusivity regarding the American Dream—when you compare him to folks such as, say Trent Lott, you can understand how appealing Kemp could be as a model for a party that might not creep out half or more of Americans. They especially should focus on the notion that having a positive agenda might win some hearts and minds. But they should also remember that being a true policy innovator, like being a successful entrepreneur, requires the sort of principles and sweat equity that Kemp in the end couldn't or wouldn't deliver on.

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  1. Kemp was an outspoken gold bug. It’s fair to say it was just another thing he failed to deliver on. But I don’t think it’s fair to say Kemp was insufficiently radical.

  2. Kemp ran into the brick wall of anti-libertarianism and stopped fighting so hard. He could’ve been a more successful Ron Paul, but he had too many enemies within his own party to succeed.

  3. Pro,

    I meant to tell you on the other thread yesterday that yes Foundation is going to be a horrible movie. The problem is that the guy directing it did “the day after tommorow”. The movie is being billed as the story of a man put on trial after predicting the fall of a galactic empire. The math on that is pretty easy. They are going to turn it into an environmental polemic and have Seldon predicting that the empire will fall because of its refusal to use wind power and its commitment to an unsustainable consumer lifestyle. Interestingly, the book, written in the 50s, viewed nuclear power as a savior. I am sure that will either get dropped out or completely inverted to have Seldon fighting against the unsafe disposal of nuclear waste. The more I think about it, the more depressed I get.

    Sorry for the thread jack. But I wanted to respond to your comment where you would read it rather than in a dead thread.

  4. Well, it’s early yet. Maybe he’ll get canned and someone less stupid will get the gig.

  5. a lumbering stumblebum in debates with Al Gore.

    Think about what it takes to look like a lumbering stumblebum next to Al Gore. Al Gore!

  6. I dont know how you would make Foundation a movie anyway. That would be like making Neutron Star a movie.

    Okay, Foundation is probably a little easier than that.

    Sounds like Foundation is getting the I, Robot treatment.

  7. “But they should also remember that being a true policy innovator, like being a successful entrepreneur, requires the sort of principles and sweat equity that Kemp in the end couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver on.”

    Couldn’t you say the same thing about the Reason Foundation? That is a pretty cheap shot if you ask me. Kemp worked his ass off. The fact that his efforts failed says more about the country than it does about him.

  8. I was never a Kemp guy, to say the least, but you’re almost making me feel sorry for the poor schmuck. Jack, I think, wasn’t all that smart, and he thought that once his ideas were enacted all you had to do was sit back and watch the cash roll in.

    Most of all, he lacked the nerve to take his act state-wide. He remained a congressman from Buffalo for too long. He should have run for governor. If he had, he might have been a contender.

  9. “Republicans and small-government reformers should take from Kemp his vitality, genial nature, and genuine sense of inclusivity regarding the American Dream-when you compare him to folks such as, say Trent Lott, you can understand how appealing Kemp could be as a model for a party that might not creep out half or more of Americans.”

    Another cheap shot. Lets talk a little bit about what creeps out most Americans. Libertarians may not like it, but fully legalized drugs, an end to the FDA and the ability to sell your organs to the highest bidder, creeps out a hell of a lot more people than being against gay marriage or thinking it is ok that some podunk town in Texas says a prayer at its graduation. If Reason would just all its policies that creep out Americans and forget its principles it might get somewhere right?

  10. Couldn’t you say the same thing about the Reason Foundation?

    STFU Lonewacko

  11. I spent something like an hour talking to Kemp after he appeared at my college. While I won’t gush over his politics, I will say that he was on the right track, and was a genuinely caring, intelligent, and charismatic guy.

    Incidentally, this was shortly before Dole’s run. I asked him point-blank if he would accept the VP nomination, and he bluntly said ‘no.’ I don’t know if he was bullshitting or just changed his mind.

  12. R.I.P., Mr. Kemp

  13. A “positive agenda” generally involves telling people what the government will give them as a hand-out.

  14. He was too nice a guy to challenge Sen. Javits (then already ill) for the Senate seat… so ultimately it went to the odious d’Amato.

    Maybe the country would have been better off he had made it to the first ranks. But being a strong influence on Reagan’s tax policies is a pretty solid legacy.

  15. Nick Gillespie – everyone’s favorite pleather-wearing paper tiger hack – is, of course, an idiot. Here’s the real story about Proposition 187.

    P.S. Doesn’t his whine about that sound just like JanetMurguia? Is she writing his lines?

  16. I don’t know if he was bullshitting or just changed his mind.

    It’s quite possible he wasn’t expecting to be considered. Of course, that depends on when this was.

    As I recall, he was well known, but there were plenty of Republicans who were much more prominent.

  17. Prop. 187 wasn’t “anti-immigrant,” it was anti-illegal immigrant. That’s an important distinction.

  18. Hey, a dead politician post! Can we have more of these, and less Radley? He depresses me.

  19. Jack Kemp was a decent and honorable man throughout his life and elevated American politics during his too short term in congress.
    He served in administrations and America missed a true opportunity for greatness by not making him their vice president.I know his son Jimmy and admired his work as a Canadian Football quarterback and hope that some day he will be able to make his mark in American politics and carry his fathers Progressive compassionate conservative banner to benefit all Americans.Canadians also miss this truly fine man.

  20. So, Nick, why was prop 187 odious IMHO? The link you posted made it sound quite positive, and if I had been living in CA at the time, I would have voted for it.

  21. I liked Jack Kemp, and I think “supply side” economics did help promote tax cuts, and at least discussion of less regulation and more free markets.

    The biggest chance he missed was the 1980 Senate race against Jacob Javits. D’Amato’s victory showed that Javits was vulnerable, and that a conservative could win in New York state. Had Kemp run, he would have joined Arlen Spector as a freshman Republican Senator.

    Apparently Ron Unz talked Kemp into opposing 187. I ran for Congress that year as a Libertarian, and I was able to invoke Kemp and Ron Unz when I spoke against 187.

    While 187 sounded good to conservatives, in fact it was already illegal for illegal immigrants to get welfare, and 187 would have laid the groundwork for a national ID card – and Governor Wilson stated this during the campaign.

  22. Kemp was a good man, one who deserved better than the above from Nick. The fact that he- alone- was unable to further his positive and- largely- freedom-oriented agenda speaks more to the incredible inertia of Washington politics, then and now, than to Kemp’s limitations or “laziness.”

    RIP, Jack.

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