Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America

Kemp detested Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ which he defined as ‘not even asking blacks to vote for you for fear of losing white voters.’

BN-KN648_bkrvke_JV_20150929110245When people remember Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman, 1988 presidential candidate and 1996 vice-presidential nominee, they tend to think of Ronald Reagan’s sidekick. They picture the former NFL quarterback, who died in 2009, and the former Hollywood star enjoying a warm, cozy political partnership.

Just the opposite was true. Kemp was a thorn in Reagan’s side, a chronic annoyance with his passionate advancement of supply-side economics. But, as journalists Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes show in “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America,” the fractious relationship transformed U.S. economic policy. Kemp’s relentless attacks on established economic orthodoxy and his blue-collar, racially sensitive advocacy in an all too white-collar GOP made him, the authors contend, “the most important politician of the twentieth century who was not president, certainly the most influential Republican.”

There is a renewed interest in Kemp today. Having alienated minority voters, the GOP is flirting with a presidential lockout if it can’t appeal to the working class. Yet during the two recent GOP primary debates, there was almost no mention that economic mobility has collapsed, that a majority of the country is living little more than paycheck to paycheck, or that the stock-market gains from the Federal Reserve’s zero-interest rate policy have gone largely to the top 1%. Kemp would have pounced on these issues, and he would have tried to develop a capital ownership plan to let everyone ride the financial wave.

Kemp believed in a working man’s capitalism of robust entrepreneurship that cut across ethnic lines. He thought Republicans had a responsibility to address inner-city despair, and in the early 1980s he championed urban-enterprise-zone legislation (tax incentives to encourage inner-city business startups). “Like the Good Shepherd, America must reach out to the weak and to those who have been left behind,” Kemp said when announcing his 1988 presidential run.

When Kemp interviewed me in late 1978 to be his congressional chief of staff, the conversation turned to the unexpected: Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy. Kemp talked about how much he hated its zero-sum politics, which he defined as “not even asking blacks to vote for you for fear of losing white voters.” Such sensitivity was nothing new. In the early 1960s, after being traded to the San Diego Chargers, Kemp learned that his black teammates were going to have to stay in a separate low-rent hotel on a road trip to Dallas. “Either we stay as a team,” he insisted, “or we don’t play.” The entire team moved to the low-rent hotel.

His passion was for big ideas. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kemp played quarterback at tiny Occidental College, was drafted by the Detroit Lions and took the Buffalo Bills to two straight AFL championships. But this jock was an intense reader and developed an abiding interest in free-market economics. He represented a suburban Buffalo district for 18 years in Congress and could see firsthand the stifling effects of inflation and tax-bracket creep on his working-class constituents.

Kemp was, Messrs. Kondracke and Barnes write, “dismayed at the tendency of some in his own party to award subsidies and tax breaks to moneyed interests while imposing austerity on the less favored.” When Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, sought to raise taxes on beer and gasoline in 1982, Kemp demanded to know “why are food stamps, AFDC, Medicaid and Head Start are touchable, but not Exxon, Boeing and Gulf Oil.”

Kemp’s greatness was ultimately due to his influence on Reagan. In the lead-up to the 1980 presidential campaign—the dark years of stagflation and high unemployment—Reagan vacillated between a hopeful economic-growth message and traditional Republican austerity economics. To kill the slight chance that the young congressman might also run, Kemp had been asked to become the Reagan campaign’s lead policy adviser and economics spokesman. For several months, he had close access to Reagan and preached the supply-sider’s gospel. The “welfare queen”—a black woman in Chicago who fraudulently collected $150,000 a year—had been a centerpiece of Reagan’s 1976 campaign and still lingered in 1979 as he prepared for another run. Kemp questioned the economic relevance of the story and detested its racial implications. I was present during one blistering exchange when Kemp demanded that Reagan stop making references to the welfare queen. Make the message restoring the American dream, Kemp yelled; growth is everything. Reagan agreed.

The Reagan-Kemp collaboration produced the 1981 tax-rate reductions and the 1986 tax-reform bill. Messrs. Kondracke and Barnes offer a fascinating account of how a Kemp-led collection of intellectuals and policy activists (Irving Kristol, Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, Paul Craig Roberts and Jude Wanniski, many of whom actively disliked each other)—with the help of this paper’s editorial page—transformed the economic landscape with eye-popping results. In the five years after 1981, growth averaged 4.5% a year, or double today’s rate. After the bipartisan 1986 tax reform, growth continued to be robust. The tax-rate reductions, which addressed the tax-bracket creep plaguing working Americans, and Paul Volcker’s tight monetary policy together did the impossible: They broke the back of the 1970s stagflation.

Were Kemp alive today, he would be appalled by the Republican Party’s growing image of meanness. Yes, on the issue of the competency of government, the GOP is right on the mark. But there is a too eager, Trump-like willingness to pit one group against another (though Kemp would have loved Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” theme) and a Romney-like detachment from working-class reality. Kemp’s advice would be simple: Stop the hate and get back to growth. The average American family is a lot less worried about the cost of capital than the cost of groceries.

David Smick, founder of the macroeconomic advisory firm Johnson Smick International, was chief of staff to Rep. Jack Kemp (R., N.Y.) from 1979 to 1984. He was interviewed for the Oral History Project, which was used in part as research for this book.

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