On Thursday of last week, the young conservatives at In the Agora announced a holiday dedicated to breaking Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of A Fellow Republican.” This is a good and right thing to do every so often, as any political movement, ideology, religious inclination, or even personal relationship becomes flabby and stagnant without self-criticism every once in a while. In the summary post, Zach Wendling suggests a number of ways in which others can break the 11th commandment. One of Zach’s recommendations is “write down a list of reasons of why you became a Republican,” which is what I’d like to do today by way of a book review.
I recently finished The Politics of Inclusion, the 1988 autobiography of former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean. I’m a child of New Jersey in Kean’s era, and if anyone would press me, I’d say Kean is one of the top 5 individuals whose influence caused me to self-identify as a Republican even before I knew what that involved. The Politics of Inclusion reminded me a good bit about why I am a Republican and why Kean is a personal hero.
It should be said that The Politics of Inclusion is not a comprehensive autobiography. In fact, I hope that Kean sits down to write an in-depth autobiography now that he has retired from the presidency of Drew University. The additional chapters on Drew and on his work with the 9/11 Commission would definitely be worth it. As it stands, The Politics of Inclusion reads more like a campaign autobiography more than anything else. Its time line is fast and loose—Kean covers the first 30-some years of his life (until his first term in the state assembly—in the opening chapter, and organizes the book by-and-large by issue topic rather than chronology. It is a portrait of the man’s political philosophies rather than a tight chronology of his life, and many of the vignettes read like well-worn campaign stories, but for the most part the book works.
So what are those philosophies that Kean found so important and which shaped my earliest conceptions of what it meant to be a “Republican”?
Growth and Opportunity
First off, Kean is an unashamed supply-sider. He believed in cutting taxes to spur economic growth and create jobs. When Kean took office in 1982, New Jersey faced an annual budget deficit of $600 million. People told him that he had to raise taxes to balance the budget and that the real challenge of governance was to be able to properly slice up a limited economic pie. The state’s economy was grown out they said, like much of the Northeast, and nothing more could be done. Kean argued instead that New Jersey could move again, so he cut income and business taxes and held the line on government spending by using the line-item veto. New Jersey’s governor’s office is very powerful and Kean used his powers to the fullest, earning the nickname “Caesar on the Hudson” in the process. The plan worked. As New York Democrats were tax-and-spending their way through the 1980s, businesses crossed the river to New Jersey because of its favorable tax policies and Kean’s cheerleading for the Garden State. The economic pie was growing and deficits once considered permanent started disappearing.
A Social Conscience
Kean coupled pro-growth economic policies with a strong social conscience that might seem out of place in today’s GOP. He was an old-fashioned “generous patrician,” who showed gratitude for his family’s prominent position by being good to others. He was certainly not a Social Darwinist, which a lot of today’s libertarian-type GOPers flirt with, and he maintained that the government did have an obligation to help the least of us. In fact, Kean tied support for the poor in with pro-growth economics, for he maintained that societies that ignore their poor will never have their economies running at full speed. Like a bad ankle on a marathon runner, a destitute, permanent underclass is a drag on economic growth. If people are starving and homeless they cannot be productive workers, and if they are uneducated, they will never reach their full growth potential. Now Kean was not coddler; in fact, many of his prescriptions sound like what went into welfare reform in the 1990s, such as requiring welfare recipients to be actively looking for jobs. But the poor could not be ignored or shoved entirely off to churches and private enterprise for support. Kean’s positions are very close to those of former Congressman Jack Kemp, the Republicans’ 1996 vice presidential nominee. Kemp too combined a devotion to supply-side pro-growth economics with concern for the poor. Both were strong apostles of inner city enterprise zones to bring business investment into blighted areas that needed it most. In the book, Kean tells a story of campaigning through the ghettos of Camden, New Jersey, and being followed followed by many young men asking, “You’re running for office? Put us work, we need jobs!” Without basic education and the opportunities that free enterprise provides, these young men would never reach their potential.
Kean was committed to racial justice. As I’ve stated before, Republican presidential candidates have not received 20 percent of the African American vote since 1960. Kean was told to expect the same numbers in New Jersey and not to be concerned with the African American vote, but he took a shot anyway. He appointed record numbers of African Americans to important state positions, such as judgeships, stating in the book on a number of occasions that, “we tell African Americans that justice is colorblind, but when they look to the bench all they see is white.” More importantly, he made a concerted effort to reach out to black churches and businesses, preaching the same supply-side pro-growth gospel he presented to other audiences. No pandering, no set asides; just the same message of opportunity in new places. All people, regardless of race, have the same hopes and dreams of a better future for themselves and for their children. The efforts paid off. Kean won over 60 percent of the African American vote in his 1985 re-election bid.
Kean was also a committed environmentalist. I was gratified to learn that one of his proudest achievements in the state legislature was preserving Sunfish Pond from development. Sunfish Pond is an idyllic spot on the Appalachian Trail in northern New Jersey and one of my favorite locations for camping as a Boy Scout. It was also the first place I ever walked on water (relax, the lake was frozen!). Kean viewed a clean environment as a legacy we leave our children, and believed that the government had a role in keeping the environment clean. Specifically, that meant holding businesses accountable for practices that harmed local environmental resources.
New Jersey doesn’t have a sterling environmental reputation. I remember the jokes when former Governor Christine Todd Whitman was named EPA administrator. In fact, in the 1980s New Jersey had the most Superfund sites of any state in the union. Kean explains how this was a deliberate policy on the part of his administration (Superfund came into being in 1980). While other states hesitated to put sites on the Superfund list because of the bad publicity, Kean’s administration aggressively sought out toxic waste sites for inclusion, figuring that the short term hit on the state’s reputation would be made up in the long term by having a better environment. While the state’s reputation hasn’t fully recovered, many in the know credit the state for its aggressive action. The New York Times called New Jersey’s approach the model for the rest of the nation, and when Superfund money briefly ran out in 1986, the state was actually able to loan the federal government the necessary funds because it was so far ahead of the game.
Part two will feature the two most important parts of Kean’s legacy—two characteristics the governor shares with Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. I will also explain why for me his book works as a celebration of “Breaking the 11th.”