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Jack Kemp’s ‘Great-Souled Conservatism’

Jack Kemp's 'Great-Souled Conservatism'
Jack Kemp never became President.  But whether you learn about his life in politics from this revealing biography, or you were privileged to work for him as I was, you can’t help thinking of Kemp as a statesman of the order of Jefferson, Lincoln, Churchill, and Reagan—each of whom Kemp looked to as heroic.  Each had a unique and different temperament, but all of them—Kemp included—shared in the high and uncommon virtue of magnanimity.  To a greater or lesser degree, they also shared a political outlook we might call great-souled conservatism: a confidence rooted in their knowledge of human nature that the people as a whole have the right and capability of governing themselves better than any bureaucracy of social scientists lacking popular consent.
 
Without ever becoming President, Jack Kemp’s tireless crusade for economic growth through broad-based tax cuts changed this nation more than some Presidents did.  Drawing on the words and deeds of his political heroes, Kemp embraced the enduring principles of equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence and applied those changeless truths to the ever changing social problems of his time.
 
With good reason, the authors of  Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America quote Kemp associates who describe him as a “supply-side evangelist.”  Kemp often spoke of the “Good Shepherd” who goes in search of strays and leaves no one behind.  In a society that increasingly tends toward small-souled individualism, Kemp kept reminding all, especially in the conservative movement, about the common good and the care that everyone must have toward minorities, the poor and the marginalized.  His “bleeding-heart conservatism” resembled the social culture of America in the Founding age, a fact that he believed too many on the right had forgotten or ignored.
 
The authors remind us that the Republican Party of the 1970s had been the party of Nixon and Watergate and of “root-canal” economic austerity.  Budget balancing was number one, even if it meant raising taxes, shredding the social safety net, and losing election after election.  Kemp had long concluded that the top priority, instead, should be across the board income tax rate reductions which would incentivize robust economic growth and major increases in federal revenues.  Prosperity, well paying jobs, reduced welfare costs, and deficit reduction would be the happy result.The book describes how Kemp would relentlessly buttonhole his colleagues with his supply-side gospel, to the point where some would duck into their offices when they saw him coming.  
 
His most successful “convert” turned out to be Ronald Reagan, then preparing to run for President in 1980 during the Carter economy of “stagflation,” double digit inflation and rising unemployment.  Kondracke and Barnes give a detailed account of this ongoing dialogue, but the bottom line was that Reagan’s adoption of Kemp’s tax rate reduction proposal won the White House for Reagan.  And as President, Reagan appealed to the voters in order to persuade, force, or cajole Congress—with a Democratic House majority but a Republican Senate—into enacting, and even improving upon, the proposal then known as Kemp-Roth.  
 
So successful was the supply-side tax cut plan—reinforced by the later, 1986 tax reform backed by Kemp and some Democrats—that the US economy grew at four percent rates by the later 1980s, while inflation dropped dramatically (thanks to Fed Director Volcker’s tight monetary policy).  The rush of new revenue enabled President Reagan to build up America’s military defense posture and simultaneously push hard against Soviet political and military adventurism.  The ultimate consequence was the economic and social collapse of the Marxist “Evil Empire” and the end of the Cold War.  Without Kemp’s supply-side solution to the economic stagnation of the late 1970s which produced the financial resources needed to surpass the Soviet economy, it is doubtful that President Reagan could have pursued his ultimate objective to completion.
 
In Jack Kemp’s magnanimous politics, there were political adversaries but no political enemies.  The common good includes every American, and Kemp taught Republicans how to preach a positive economic vision to audiences known to favor Democrats, such as labor union workers, African-Americans, low-income and poor families in decayed urban centers.  To see him energizing minority residents of public housing projects when he promoted their empowerment as resident managers and potential owners of their apartment homes was dazzling in itself but also a lesson Republicans had to learn in order to win in the future.
 
Kemp saw every adversary as a potential ally.  He took pleasure in giving credit to Democrats such as President Kennedy for showing that the supply-side idea was not partisan.  In Congress, Kemp reached out to Democrats such as Representatives Bob Garcia, Bill Gray, Charles Rangel, and Senator Bill Bradley to cosponsor or support his economic growth policies.  Kemp was undoubtedly a committed Republican, but he had no problem reaching across the aisle to advance the common good.
 
The book does not avoid the less successful aspects of Kemp’s career and their causes.  Kemp did a fantastic job of cleaning up scandals at HUD and rebuilding the shattered morale of HUD’s staff, but ran into constant frustration in the George H.W. Bush administration where jealous or small-souled staffers blocked the urban enterprise zone and public housing homeownership initiatives he desperately wanted to get on the books to help the poor.  His thwarted attempts to stop the President from agreeing with Democratic leaders to raise taxes—breaking his “read my lips” campaign promise—nearly lead to his resignation from HUD.  
 
In addition, the book describes how old disagreements between Kemp and Senator Robert Dole over Kemp’s ideas were overcome when Dole chose Kemp as his vice-presidential running mate in 1996.  You can’t avoid being touched by the transformation of their adversarial relationship into genuine respect and warm friendship.
 
There are Republicans who ask, can we find another Lincoln, or Reagan, or Jack Kemp?  Each was unique and unrepeatable.  Yet what made Kemp and other statesmen great is the virtue of “great-souledness” or magnanimity.  It shows itself  in its desire to advance the well-being of every person, especially those stuck at the bottom, as Kemp used to say.  America was blessed in the career of Jack Kemp, football player turned statesman.  We take comfort knowing that we live in a free nation designed to call magnanimous statesmen to the fore when we desperately need them.
 
 
Mr. Teti was on Jack Kemp’s Congressional staff from 1983 to 1986 and worked on communications and policy initiatives when Kemp was Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1989 to 1993. More recently, Teti served as Senior Adviser to Rep. Paul Ryan during his term as Chairman of the Budget Committee.


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