One of my personal favorite politicians, Jack Kemp, lost his battle with cancer yesterday. He was 73. The former AFL quarterback was a nine-term Congressman best known for his advocacy of supply-side tax cuts (particularly the Kemp-Roth Act) and for being Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election.
Patrick Ruffini has an appropriate remembrance:
What made Kemp different is that he had an original idea of what conservatism could be. The post-Reagan period leading up to the Contract with America was a period of intellectual ferment for the movement. Kemp led the way in advancing a conservative idea that could appeal to non-traditional Republicans, with enterprise zones and school choice lifting more of the poor into the middle class. It was compassionate conservatism — but actually conservative.
The Republican Party in the ’90s then faced many of the demographic problems it does now. Perhaps in contrast to today, there was an actual good-faith attempt made to solve those problems, led by Kemp. Building a GOP that could appeal to urban areas may not have been the most logical next step politically, but it created an ambitiousness in the realm of ideas that we lack today. In the ’90s, we were electing Republican mayors in big cities like Rudy Giuliani, Steve Goldsmith, and Bret Schundler who created a model for how conservatives could govern deep in Democratic terrain.
What I liked about Kemp was that no one could ever accuse him of being anything but sincere. His “compassionate conservatism” and outreach to urban areas was not based on cynical political calculation or the need to present an image. He was a “true believer” in the best sense—he really felt things like enterprise zones could bring businesses to blighted downtown areas and improve the neighborhoods around them. You could call him foolish if you want, but you cannot call him a fake.
In an era where many in the GOP want to close ranks, it would be well to remember Jack Kemp, who actually looked for ways to broaden the party’s appeal without compromising its principles. He will be missed.
Update: Kemp’s letter to his seventeen grandchildren on the election of Barack Obama. It’s genuine class. Does this closing paragraph remind you of someone? “President-elect Obama talks of Abraham Lincoln’s view of our nation as an ‘unfinished work.’ Well, isn’t that equally true of all of us? Therefore let all of us strive to help him be a successful president, so as to help make America an even greater nation.”