Without Jack Kemp, it has been rightly said, the Reagan revolution may never have taken place. I’m personally aware this is a correct appraisal, since I covered him as an editor and reporter for HUMAN EVENTS, starting with his arrival in Congress in 1971.
He was key to shaping the core of the Republican President’s economic program, which, along with Reagan’s own considerable massaging, meant the slashing of personal and business tax rates, blocking stealth tax hikes due to inflation (bracket indexation), an end to price controls and gasoline lines, deregulation of industry, a moderation of the Fed’s tight money policy and the enactment of plenty of other pro-growth proposals.
Reagan Read Kemp in HE
All of these measures resulted in a dramatic lowering of Jimmy Carter’s inflation and interest rates, higher wages for workers, more disposable income for families, and, at the end of Reagan’s presidency, 18 million new jobs and the longest peacetime economic expansion in history. Every income sector benefited, as did every race, color and creed, as late, great economics writer Warren Brookes chronicled in the pages of HE.
I knew Reagan’s thinking well enough to believe that he was not a committed supply-sider until Jack, stuffed with his own studying and brilliant insight and input from economists Art Laffer and Robert Mundell and the Wall Street Journal’s Jude Wanniski (my eccentric classmate at UCLA’s journalism school), began to evangelize for a low-tax, pro-growth economy in the late 1970s, using his Kemp-Roth bill as a launching pad. Candidate Reagan, I also know, was strengthened in his convictions about supply-side economics by reading Jack’s various speeches and articles explaining his views in the pages of HUMAN EVENTS.
Leading with Optimism
No one was more able, passionate or relentless in spreading the supply-side message. Jack’s view of the world persuaded Republicans to stress hope, optimism and economic growth in their campaigns, rather than the dreary — though sometimes necessary — message of the need to cut government benefits and rein in the federal deficit. (Jack always wanted to lead with optimism, which he possessed in exuberant and infectious abundance.)
Because of Jack’s vision, Republicans could comfortably go before any group, including college kids, minorities and working men and women (both union and non-union), and, with conviction, tell them that the GOP had a terrific strategy to lift wages, expand employment and fatten retirement accounts. Far better than the tax, spend, big-government mantra of the Democrats, Jack insisted. And, under Reagan, it all worked.
The economic revolution that Ronald Reagan wrought, which Jack was instrumental in devising, led to another critical event: the demise of the Soviet Union. With the American economy booming under Reagan, the country could fairly easily afford the vast military buildup needed to make the Soviets eventually cry uncle.
Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which Jack also eloquently crusaded for, was the straw that finally compelled Mikhail Gorbachev to retreat from empire. Simply put, the Soviets could no longer afford it.
There is another side of Jack Kemp that deserves to be mentioned. Though initially known as a star football player, he avidly read the conservative classics and sought out brilliant and knowledgeable men to hone his views on a variety of topics. Economist Richard Rahn writes that he and Laffer would occasionally meet with Jack at his home in Bethesda, Md. “There, Jack,” says Rahn, “dressed in his bathrobe, would cook breakfast for us, while peppering Art with questions and challenging his assertion.”
His congressional office was not only a beehive of activity, but a meeting place where conservatives, including journalists, could pick the brains of the bright and highly knowledgeable people he had on his staff. (John Mueller, Bill Schneider and Sven Kraemer come immediately to mind.)
His economic team of outsiders and his staff were on call so that Jack could always knowledgeably discuss or lecture on subjects ranging from economics to defense and foreign policy. With their input, he brought to issues an intellectual heft that seemed sorely lacking in so many other GOP spokesmen.
He was a remarkable man — a former star football player, a founder and five-term president of the AFL Players’ Association, a nine-term lawmaker from Buffalo, a former HUD secretary and a vice presidential candidate.
Though he never became President or Vice President, or even a senator or governor, he achieved something more valuable: He became an intellectual leader for the Republican Party on economics. As a result, he proved instrumental in transforming the party and the nation, and, indeed, noting the end of the Evil Empire, the entire world.