Jack Kemp, RIP


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.