May 04, 2009

A Hero Of My Youth Passes

If, at age 20, you had asked me what I thought the future of the GOP would be, I would have offered you a nameJack Kemp. Kemp was a truly compassionate, big tent conservative whose vision encompassed all races and classes of Americans. Indeed, I have often felt that it was a great tragedy that the first President Bush did not pick him as his running mate in 1988 – such a choice would have invigorated the youth of the party while adding an intellectual heft to the GOP ticket that Dan Quayle lacked. Indeed, it would have likely led to Kemp seeking and winning the presidency in either 1996 or 2000, rather than being the vice presidential candidate on a doomed ticket with Bob Dole.

The hero of my youth passed this weekend.

Jack Kemp, the former tax-cutting Republican politician and American footballer, who ran for the White House in 1996 as Bob Dole’s running mate, died of cancer on Saturday at the age of 73. As a Republican congressman, Kemp latched on to supply-side economics and advocated sweeping tax cuts as a means to stimulate production and growth. Initially stymied in Congress, his legislation found a sympathetic supporter in Ronald Reagan, who put forward a fiscal revolution as a campaign pledge in 1980 before his victory in the presidential election. Kemp’s influence on Republican politics reached its zenith with “Reaganomics” but his voice as a conservative libertarian, who aimed to broaden the party’s appeal among black voters, continued to be heard after Reagan’s presidency.

Kemp’s vision was and is mine, though I at times took issue with his stance on illegal immigration. I admired him greatly, and regret that it was Newt Gingrich, not Kemp, who became the face and the voice of the GOP in the 1990s.

I have a particular memory of Jack Kemp, one which has stayed with me for over two decades. One of my college buddies was an intern in Kemp’s congressional office, and arranged to get a group of our fellow College Republicans a private meeting with the presidential candidate before he addressed a gathering of Republican activists at a presidential forum in the Chicago area. Being a rather arrogant college student, I confronted Kemp on his unwillingness to support right-to-work laws – and questioned how, as a conservative, he could fail to do so. His response is what has stayed with me for years – that it is unrealistic for conservatives to expect every candidate and every officeholder to check every box on what it means to be a conservative. In his own case, he noted that he represented a blue-collar district in the northeastern US with a high percentage of union members. While it might be more pure for him to take the right-to-work position, it would also doom his electability in that district – and the electability of any similar candidate in any similar district. It was therefore better to prioritize what was truly important and to elect candidates that would pursue those goals, and leave other, less important, principles and platform planks for another day. Failure to do that, he noted, would likely lead to the ultimate failure to accomplish even the goals that were important.

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