2016 GOP Candidates Could Learn Something From 'Bleeding Heart Conservative' Jack Kemp

They don't make Republicans like Jack Kemp anymore.


| Library of Congress Congressional Portrait Collection

Just in time for the Republican presidential primary season—and for the free-for-all search for a new speaker of the House—comes a new biography of Jack Kemp. Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America, by Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, tells the story of a man the authors claim was the most important politician of the 20th century who was not president—a man, they say, whose sprit and policy ideas "could again help the country turn around."

It's an illuminating read. The authors quote Vin Weber, the congressman from Minnesota who is now a Washington lobbyist, describing Newt Gingrich's distinction between "magnet issues" and "wedge issues." Magnet issues attracted followers. Wedge issues divided Republicans from Democrats.

Said Weber: "There was no such thing as a wedge issue in Jack Kemp's vocabulary. Everything was a magnet issue."

One of Kemp's projects was to attract more blacks, Jews, and immigrants to the Republican camp. The authors trace his attitude on race to his time as a pro football quarterback in the early 1960s with a lot of black teammates. He told team management that it was unacceptable for black and white players to be housed in separate hotels, or to be assigned roommates based on race. Later, as a congressman, he supported voting rights for the District of Columbia and a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Kemp attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles at a time when it was heavily Jewish. As a congressman, Kemp outflanked the Reagan administration on the pro-Israel side, opposing a big arms sale to Saudi Arabia and supporting Israel's preemptive attack on an Iraqi nuclear facility, an action the Reagan administration condemned. He was prone to quoting Maimonides on the campaign trail, occasionally frustrating his campaign staff in Iowa and New Hampshire. And he was a prominent advocate for Jews who were denied the right to leave the Soviet Union.

On immigration to America, Kemp consistently favored liberalization, including a path to citizenship for illegals. He criticized a Republican proposal for a wall along the Mexican border as "a prescription for electoral and political disaster" akin to Barry Goldwater's 1964 vote against the Civil Rights Act.

The book argues that Kemp's greatest significance was not his inclusive style but rather his championing of pro-growth tax-cutting during the Reagan presidency. There the most fascinating part of the story is the role played by another former professional athlete, Bill Bradley, a Democrat senator from New Jersey who used to play for the New York Knicks.

Kondracke and Barnes report that Bradley read Milton Friedman and that he disliked the tax code because of "the gyrations he and other athletes went through to avoid taxes."

In August of 1982, Bradley and, of all people, Rep. Richard Gephardt introduced a bill reducing the number of tax brackets to three from 14 and reducing the top rate to 30 percent from 50 percent. The Democratic presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, rejected the plan. Then came a poolside dinner at Jack Kemp's house in Bethesda, Maryland, where the writer and policy intellectual Irving Kristol "stunned the group by suggesting Republicans simply adopt and cosponsor Bradley-Gephardt."

The book says Kemp and Bradley, as the "leading proponents" of tax reform, "made numerous joint appearances—not acting as rivals, but as collaborators."

Democratic involvement wasn't totally unexpected; the Reagan tax cuts were modeled on President Kennedy's, as this book makes clear. It quotes Kemp aide Bruce Bartlett as recalling Kemp telling him, "We keep talking all the time about the Kennedy tax cut. Why don't we just replicate it? Let's get rid of all this baggage and just do a clean, straight, duplication of the Kennedy tax cut."

What part of the Kemp agenda remains to be implemented? There's a monetary policy piece of it; the congressman was an advocate of a return to a gold standard, or at least changes to the Federal Reserve. There's an anti-poverty piece of it; Kemp, who served as secretary of housing and urban development in the George H.W. Bush administration, favored both school vouchers and Margaret Thatcher-style privatization of public housing projects. Immigration reform is yet undone. On the tax issue, Kemp wanted a 19 percent flat rate on income while retaining the charitable and mortgage interest deductions.

Kemp's legacy is not only ideas but also people. Paul Ryan, now the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a possible speaker, was, early in his career, an assistant to Kemp at the advocacy group Empower America. The question that lingers, though, is where are the Democrats of today to play the roles of John Kennedy or Bill Bradley? If there's a hope that Kemp's ideas will again help turn the country around, it may depend on them finding at least a few allies outside the confines of the Republican Party.

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  1. “I think it is important for all those young out there?who someday hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put it in your hands? a distinction should be made that football is democratic capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist sport.”

    I can forgive him a lot for these words of true wisdom.

    1. That’s total nonsense. Football is a militaristic top-down sport where the coach controls every play. The players are basically puppets. In contrast, soccer is more like capitalism, because each player makes his own decisions and yet has to cooperate and coordinate with his teammates. The soccer coach controls the strategy, but the tactics are generally much more up to the players than in football. Soccer is definitely the more libertarian sport.

      1. They are both good sports to play and watch and neither subscribe to a particular political ideology?

  2. I think the average Republican politician is less conservative today than was Bill Clinton during his presidency. What exactly are candidates supposed to learn from Kemp?

    1. Amen. Seems the only conservatives on the GOP side are the ones that the party mainstream wants to run off.

      1. Individual thought does not mesh well with “team” groupthink.

      2. And since Conservatives tend to recognize that admitting large populations that don’t assimilate is stupid and ignoring the war waged on the West by a minority of Islamic idiots given far too much power by the Internationalists is suicide, the cuurent bunch of writers at Reason aren’t going to like them either.

  3. Geez guys, way to miss the message.

    Don’t you all know that the only good Republicans are (long) dead Republicans?

    How else are they going to explain their endorsement of the proggy?

  4. I met Kemp when I was a high schooler in the late ’80s, and had to do some volunteer campaign work for my Civics class. He came to do a speech at a nearby high school. I tried to shake his hand, but he completely brushed me off. So, In my opinion, he was an overrated dick who barely kept up with Al Gore in their ’96 VP debate.

    1. He knows where your hand had been.

    2. A former fan, I was appalled at Kemp’s utterly weak and inarticulate performance against Al Gore in the 1996 Vice-Presidential debate.

  5. The last major politician I can recall to point out that the poor face the highest marginal tax rates in the country, often exceeding 100%.

    Hmmm, seems like Kemp made the agenda at the latest Proggy retreat. I see 3 current articles about him.

    1. Can you explain how it is that the poor have, or had, marginal tax rates often exceeding 100%? Sounds dubious.

      1. At certain points on the income scale, you lose more in taxpayer provided benefits than the money you are earning- still haven’t heard why this is bad…

      2. It’s true. It’s called the effective marginal tax rate. The combo of income taxes and phaseout of means-based income transfers. It is why there is such a thing as a welfare trap.


        That link has some graphics that show a 95% rate – but depending on specific family circumstances it can go over 100%. And overall, there are serious disincentives to working at the margin unless you can get your income over about 50,000 in one big pay increase

        1. It might be called an effective tax rate, but it’s not. An effective marginal tax rate is the ratio of additional taxes paid to the additional income that caused the taxes. By what logic can one call a reduction in transfer payments a tax? Yes, the additional income may cause the recipient’s spending power to decrease, and that may be bad public policy because of the incentive implications, but let’s not muddy the waters with sloppy terminology. It gives people the impression that our tax structure is out of whack, as opposed to our transfer payments structure. With that kind of thinking someone with a particular political agenda might start calling a tax rate reduction a governmental expenditure. Oh wait, that’s already happened….

          1. It doesn’t much matter if it is called a purple cow. It is not sloppy terminology that is the reason people want to blame the poor for their poverty and for their failure to be able to get out of dependence. Hell Milton Friedman had no problem calling for all transfer spending to be rolled into a negative income tax – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtpgkX588nM – and was also the guy who created the analytical framework here.

            The only political party in America today that can understand what Milton Friedman was saying and advocate it is – the Green Party. Everyone else seems to prefer the semantic toilet

            1. These are the pillars of the Green party.
              1. Grassroots Democracy
              2. Social Justice and Equal Opportunity
              3. Ecological Wisdom
              4. Non-Violence
              5. Decentralization
              6. Community Based Economics
              7. Feminism and Gender Equity
              9. Personal and Global Responsibility
              10. Future Focus And Sustainability

              These are ‘nice’ sounding agenda items that are blanketed in government regulation and force to implement that agenda.

              Milton Friedman is not the guru of everything economic. Clinging to one persons opinions is typically a mistaken strategy. He made some good points and had good ideas. he also had bad ideas.

              The Libertarian Party is the only US political group that wants to encourage people to be personally responsible and bring back natural incentives to productivity of Americans.

              1. Well as long as the Libertarian Party can’t even accept small-l libertarian thought like Friedman and Hayek and others into their anarchoplutocrat church; then the Libertarian Party is as relevant as Martians.

                And no I’m not a freaking Green you twit.

  6. I liked Kemp and William Weld who both would no longer be welcome in the GOP.

    Today the GOP has become the province of sleazy rednecks like Jesse Helms, Jim DeMint, and Jeff Sessions (to span a few Senate decades).

    1. Today, the Dems have become the province of abject morons like Sheila Jackson-Lee, Patty Murray, Bernie Sanders, Hank “freezer” Jefferson, Maxine Waters, Al Sharpton etc. ad nauseum


    3. God your a mendacious fuck. Weld is still kicking and is still a member of the GOP. In fact Weld raised money for Romney in 2012.

      1. Don’t worry. Give it a couple of years and Shriek will be talking about how he just loved GOP old-timers like Mitt Romney.

      2. Don’t worry. Give it a couple of years and Shriek will be talking about how he just loved GOP old-timers like Mitt Romney.

  7. “”””Kemp outflanked the Reagan administration on the pro-Israel side, opposing a big arms sale to Saudi Arabia “””

    So the great free marketeer was opposed to selling to the Saudis but was in favor of giving US taxpayer money to the Israelis.

    Also shouldn’t a US Congressmen be on the pro-US side, not the pro-foreigners side since it is the US taxpayer who pays his salary?

    1. Be wary of any American politician who supports Israel above America’s interests. Israel’s interests are not America’s interests.

      Never forget the USS Liberty!

  8. Kemp was a fraud,a scam artist- just like all the rest of them, both before, and since.

    However, most likely:

    “In In your dreams Donald Trump is not a scam,
    In your dreams,Bernie Sanders is not a scam
    In your dreams, all the rest [of the candidates] are not a scam
    “In your dreams Obama is not a scam,
    “In your dreams George Bush was not a scam,
    “In your dreams Clinton was not a scam,
    “In your dreams Reagan was not a scam,
    In your dreams, all the rest were not a scam”
    “In your dreams the constitution is not a scam,
    “In your dreams the Supreme Court is not a scam,
    “In your dreams, welfare is not a scam”
    “In your dreams, social security is not a scam ”

    ……And so on and so forth, ad infinitum 🙂 .

    My original music and lyrics: “Dreams[ Hormegeddon Blues]”:

    Regards, onebornfree.
    Personal Freedom consulting: onebornfreeatyahoodotcom

  9. Kemp and Bartlett. No thanks, we’re full up on compassionate conservatism here.

  10. Kemp would be great today in the GOP. While I didn’t agree with all of his positions, I respected him as a leader and an elected that was willing to compromise. There is too little of that in politics today. The tea party conservatives are inflexible and negative and more concerned about control than the good of the country. What that group is doing to Paul Ryan indicates how pathetic they are. The democrat establishment is completely out of touch with reality. Hillary Clinton, a dishonest charlatan and Sanders the self-proclaimed socialist are their two top choices? Yes, I would love to see someone like Jack Kemp take a leadership role, for either party.

    1. Why do want compromise? The Constitution was designed to limit compromise on the backs of taxpayers. The Founding Fathers knew that government would grow and grow because it has an interest to do so. The Constitution would try and slow the growth by encouraging major legislative initiatives be passed with only a 2/3 majority rather than 51% and dividing power between the three branches of government. Our elected lawyers have seen to most of those limitations and now we are teetering on the edge.

      The less compromise the better. Go back to every government penny needs annual authorization by Congress and shrink the government by 1/2 at least.

  11. Kemp was a wanna-be fiscally conservative Democrat. There are not many of those around. Kemp still loved to spend your taxpayer dollars for interest groups.

    All you have to do is look to Democrats/Liberals who praise Kemp and you have your answer on how good of a fiscally conservative Republican he was. Not good.

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