We have much still to learn from the lost hero of the modern Republican Party. He represented the best hope for the post-Cold War GOP. He gave us an opportunity to build the Party’s center-right posture into a post-racial juggernaut that could have dominated our politics for a generation. Intelligent, charismatic, and seemingly incapable of cynicism even when it would have served him, he didn’t know how to play to fear. He didn’t know how to ride a mob. And he lost, but I refuse to say that he failed because if the Party is ever going to recover any sort of broad credibility, we will do it by recasting ourselves in his mold.
My favorite Republican is Jack Kemp.
Kemp was an urban Republican from the Northeast, a combination of adjectives that in our time sounds like a punch-line. A former football star and a Congressman from New York, he was the last great Hamiltonian of the modern era.
A brutal optimist, he carried an infectious faith in the power of freedom to foster prosperity. As the author of Reagan’s 1981 tax cut (the Kemp-Roth Act) he was one of Reagan’s most reliable allies in Congress. But Kemp was not a prisoner of anyone’s dogma. He applied serious thought to a class of difficult problems that we don’t normally associate with Republicans.
Kemp actually wanted the position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Think about that for a second. Normally a throw-away position in a Republican Administration, he served in that role under Bush Senior and made it a platform. He relentlessly pressed to shift ownership and decision-making from Washington bureaucrats to the recipients of aid.
He fostered the trend away from failed housing projects toward ownership and voucher-based programs. He brought new emphasis to education issues and helped craft tax increment financing programs to attract new development to run-down areas. He brought passion, intelligence, and humanity to conservatives’ policies on race and poverty.
The legacy of his efforts can be seen right here in Chicago where the wasteland that once was Cabrini Green is a now evolving into an attractive mixed income private housing development. In Houston the long-awaited elimination of the miserable Allen Parkway project was inspired by his model. Former no-go areas of central cities all over the country have become showplaces in his wake.
At a time when hyper-partisanship was just beginning to rear its head, Kemp was always comfortable in a difficult crowd. He fostered strong relationships all over the spectrum; his friendship with Henry Cisneros being a prime example. Though there are areas in which I disagree with Kemp, particularly around tax policy and the merits of supply-side economics, I have to admit I wholly agreed with him on even those issues at the time. Only the experience of the last decade has changed my mind.
Becoming Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996 was the kiss of death, as it would have been for anyone, but he served because he was asked and went down fighting. By the late nineties the Pandora’s box of Birchers, Fundamentalists and Neo-Confederates cracked open by Reagan had begun to wreak its toll on the political landscape. Kemp was despised by the new extremists particularly for his candid posture on race. By then no Republican politician willing to defiantly embrace a hell-bound Democrat was going to be tolerated in a leadership role.
When in 2002 he began to say some sober, sensible, and entirely heretical things about Iraq and the War on Terror (“What is the evidence that should cause us to fear Iraq more than Pakistan or Iran”), he was summarily ushered to the margins of the conservative movement. He would continue to speak on the subject, but there was no one left to hear him. He turned out to be dead right, not that it did him or us any good.
Congressman Jack Kemp died of cancer in 2009. The tensely muted eulogies from the new far-right politainers for one of the chief architects of the Reagan Era told the sad tale of our time.
This excerpt from a particularly snarky 1989 New York Times piece on Kemp is how I prefer to remember the man I so admire:
“You know what’s interesting?” asks Jack Kemp, a nonstop talker who finds a great many things interesting, and who had to be dragged out of two interviews by an aide long accustomed to humoring her boss’ verbosity. ”The idealism is now on the conservative side of the spectrum, and the pessimism is on the left. And for a long time it was the left that was idealistic, and it was the right that was pessimistic. And it drives our friends on the left crazy that you can be both conservative and idealistic and progressive simultaneously.”
Those were good times. That was the atmosphere and attitude that made me a Republican. It’s a return to that naive love of America and all it stands for that will restore the GOP first to relevance, and then to greatness once again.