Why Jack Kemp’s Legacy Is More Relevant Than Ever

The former vice-presidential nominee offers lessons for his party that a new biography doesn't quite capture.

John Duricka / AP

Can the spirit of Jack Kemp save today’s Republican Party?

The former representative and 1996 vice-presidential candidate, who died of cancer in 2009, still occupies a vital spot in the conservative imagination. Kemp designed and endlessly promoted the Kemp-Roth tax cut that would be adopted in 1981 as the signature initiative of the Reagan administration. Later in the 1980s, he’d advocate no-tax, minimal-regulation zones as an anti-poverty program for America’s bleakest neighborhoods.

At a time of ideological sectarianism, inflammatory talk, and intergroup division, Kemp symbolizes for many the hope for a more decent and humane conservatism—a conservatism that leaves nobody out and nobody behind. His admirers host a tribute dinner in his honor every year. At the 2012 dinner, only a few days after his own loss of the vice presidency, Kemp protégé Paul Ryan celebrated his inclusive message:

Jack just hated the idea that any part of America could be written off. In the 1970s, when people spoke of malaise and scarcity, Jack was talking of an ‘American Renaissance.’ It just wasn’t in his nature to accept limits to growth and opportunity for anyone. And nothing could be more foreign to Jack’s way of thinking than to accept poverty as a permanent way of life. When he saw people striving, he was on their side.

This Kemp looms large in the new biography by two journalists who knew him well, Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes. Both men covered Kemp at the zenith of his celebrity. Kondracke conducted the Jack Kemp oral history project, collecting memories from friends, family, and colleagues—and now holds a chair named for Kemp at the Library of Congress’s public policy center. The two biographers write with admiration of an admittedly imperfect man they regard as a model for the present day. We’re unlikely to see another Kemp biography soon, if ever. Kondracke and Barnes have provided an indispensable resource to understand the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s and 1990s.

Their subtitle, “The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America,” riffs off of one of Kemp’s favorite self-descriptions. Kemp delighted in paradoxical juxtapositions. He called himself a “Lane Kirkland Republican.” (Kirkland was then the head of the AFL-CIO, and a staunch Cold Warrior.) He called himself “progressive, conservative, radical, and revolutionary”—all in the same sentence. I interviewed him for a book in the early 1990s and was overwhelmed by his habit of piling proper names atop each other the way other people used subjects, verbs, and objects. “Reagan … Thatcher … Churchill … Lincoln … Reagan … Lincoln … Reagan.”

Kondracke and Barnes nicely capture Kemp’s torrential personality:

Kemp was positive, optimistic, idealistic, energetic, growth-and opportunity-oriented. He was incapable of personal attack and negative campaigning, even when it cost him. “The purpose of politics,” he said, “is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas than the opposition.’ ... He wanted his own party to once again be ‘the party of Lincoln.’ Even before very conservative audiences, he argued that the GOP should again become the “natural home of African Americans,” as it had been from Lincoln’s time to Franklin Roosevelt’s.

Their book, however, is something more than a sentimental tribute to an ebullient extrovert in politics. They have an argument to make, and they mount their case consistently and forcefully from first page to last. As much as they celebrate Kemp’s optimistic style, it was, they say:

... neither his most significant achievement nor the heart of his historical legacy. Kemp’s style as a politician has many admirers and may yet transform the Republican party. But it was Kemp’s leadership of the supply-side revolution that changed America and the world and altered history... That the policy of deep tax rate cuts and sweeping tax reform spared a quarter century of economic growth and prosperity when all else had failed—that is what makes it Kemp's greatest legacy.

And it is this legacy that Kondracke and Barnes want to recommend to modern Republicans.

True, they want to tidy that legacy up a little. A lot of Kemp’s ideas were frankly odd, and they got odder later in life. His mid-1990s fascination with Louis Farrakhan and his early 2000s advocacy for Hugo Chavez—these make appearances in the biography, but they are dealt with in passing. Kemp’s monetary enthusiasms get more attention from Kondracke and Barnes, but are relegated to secondary status, as is the big turn in his foreign-policy thinking after about 1990. As a vice-presidential candidate in 1996, Kemp attacked the Clinton administration as too forceful, mocking its air strikes against Saddam Hussein as a policy of “bomb before breakfast.”

Slighting these more awkward features of Kemp’s life does two disservices to Kemp’s story.

First, it casts into the margins an absolutely central element of that story: Kemp’s intense intellectual relationship with Jude Wanniski, the supply-side advocate who exerted immense sway over Kemp from the middle 1970s until Wanniski’s death in 2005. Kemp can’t be understood apart from Wanniski, and Wanniski can’t be understood apart from his recurring hope that society could be transformed in one revolutionary stroke by a magical leader rightly guided by Wanniski himself.

I had only one substantial conversation in my life with Wanniski. It was early in 1991, just before the final crackup of the Soviet Union. He’d entered the Wall Street Journal editorial office, where I then worked, searching for somebody to buttonhole. Bob Bartley was out, as were other senior editors, and so Wanniski circled the periphery of the octagonal space until he came to me. He plopped into a chair and without any preliminary commenced a lecture about how conservatives were backing the wrong horse in their then-enthusiasm for Russian president Boris Yeltsin. The man to back was Yegor Ligachev, wrongly condemned as a hard-line communist. He, Wanniski, had been in contact with Ligachev and had opened his eyes to the power of the supply side. If Ligachev came to power, he’d appoint Wanniski his supreme economic adviser, rescuing Russia with a gold-backed ruble and a flat-tax. The right editorial in the Wall Street Journal could turn everything around …

Omitting Kemp’s awkward ideas does a second disservice, because it hides from view Kemp’s larger belief system. The harshest term of condemnation in Kemp’s economic vocabulary was “austerity.” There were no hard choices in Kemp’s economics. Tax cuts would deliver growth. Growth would pay for spending. Any inflationary bias would be corrected by a modernized gold standard, which Kemp envisioned as a gentle restraint—not the choking squeeze it had been through most of its history in the United States to 1933. If the foundational problem of economics is to allocate scarcity—and the foundational problem of politics is to mediate disagreements—then Kemp rejected both economics and politics, because he shrugged off both scarcity and disagreement as if they were unreal. If people could only see the truth, they’d enjoy political harmony and material abundance. Jack Kemp’s closest political associate, Bill Bennett, once quipped: “Jack, if you believed in original sin, you’d be president of the United States.” It was a perceptive and profound remark. Kemp did not agree that to govern is to choose. He believed Americans could have it all.

He also believed he could have it all. He flinched from political conflict. Nobody since James Garfield has won the White House from the House of Representatives, but in 1980 and 1982 Kemp ruled out races first for the Senate, then for the governorship of New York—leaving him hopelessly poorly positioned to challenge George H.W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Instead he sought a cabinet position as Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Kemp imagined that from HUD he could unleash a free-market renaissance in inner cities. That hope, unsurprisingly, came to nothing. But having agreed to serve Bush, he declined to resign when Bush violated his “no new taxes” pledge, or to challenge Bush in the Republican primaries in 1992. Those decisions badly diminished his standing as the next leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Kemp had no appetite for the conservative issues of the 1990s—welfare reform, budget-balancing, crime control—and even less for the confrontational style of the new Republican majority in Congress. Kemp endorsed the 1994 assault-weapons ban and opposed Proposition 187, the California voter initiative to deny Medicaid and other benefits to recent immigrants. By 1995, he had been eclipsed by Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and other new conservative leaders. He did not even try to run for president in 1996, and his campaign for the vice presidency won little applause from Republicans, especially not after this moment during the October 9 debate against Al Gore:

GORE: “I want to congratulate Mr. Kemp for being a lonely voice in the Republican party over the years on this question [of affirmative action]. It is with some sadness that I refer to the fact that the day after joined Senator Dole’s ticket, he announced that he was changing his position and was thereafter going to adopt Senator Dole’s position to end all affirmative action ... I hope that Mr. Kemp will try to persuade Senator Dole to adopt Mr. Kemp’s position, instead of the other way around.”

MODERATOR JIM LEHRER: “Mr. Kemp, what is your position?”

KEMP: “That red light means we’re supposed to stop?”

If there had been any prospect of a Kemp presidential candidacy in 2000 (when he still would have been only 65) it evanesced in that moment.

Yet Kemp’s ideas did influence the 2000 race. George W. Bush delivered Kemp-style tax cuts in 2001 and 2003—not the pure version (Kemp would have had little use for Bush’s child tax credits) but close enough. But this time, unlike the 1980s, the economic results were disappointing by any measure. The Bush administration ended in a devastating financial crisis and the furthest ideological pendulum swing to the left since the election of 1964. The Obama administration has raised taxes on the wealthiest and complicated the tax codes with phaseouts of deductions. The United States now has six tax brackets, surmounted by the Obamacare surtaxes, up from just two in 1987—with an Alternative Minimum Tax hovering in the background. As Kondracke and Barnes lament, Kemp lived to see his revolution undone.

Kemp’s biographers make clear that they deplore this undoing. Yet they don’t see it as their job to do the economic analysis necessary to support a revival of Kemp-style policies. Why did polices that seemed to work in the 1980s so conspicuously fail in the 2000s? Why is a program written for the world of the 1970s relevant to the radically different world of the 2010s? What reason is there to think that it’s high taxes rather than any other factor that is weighing down the U.S. and global economy at this juncture? What lessons can be learned, what changes should be made, what reason is there to hope that Kemp-style initiatives would work better after 2017 than they did after 2001?

Kondracke and Barnes don’t offer answers, because they don’t acknowledge the questions. They write:

The explanation for supply side’s disappearance [after the mid-2000s] is simple: government leaders prefer Keynesianism, which relies on government spending often coupled with politically “targeted” tax cuts to revive a bad economy. It gives them control. It is the default position of the governing class. Government decides how much is spent, what it’s spent on, and who benefits. With supply-side cuts, government yields control. Thus there is widespread antipathy to supply-side economics among governing elites.

This explanation is indeed simple. It is not, however, true. Supply-side economics never disappeared: It remains potent to this day. It faded, however, because it ceased to work. And its proponents lost credibility because they showed so little interest in the question of what worked and what didn’t. Kondracke and Barnes happily quote the famously complimentary words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan back in 1981 that the Republicans had suddenly become the party of ideas. An idea, however, is subject to proof and disproof. Once you jettison that discipline, you have vacated the contest of ideas for the domain of dogma.

Kemp was a true believer. He was a generous spirit, but not an inquiring mind. The lesson conservatives should take from his life is to emulate the former, not the latter. The message of this lively, knowledgeable, but uncritical biography, unfortunately, is just the opposite.