Reagan's Quarterback

When discussing Reagan’s role in winning the Cold War without firing a bullet, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II are rightfully always mentioned.

When chronicling Reagan’s national political and electoral successes, William F. Buckley has to be mentioned.  Buckley advocated for “fusionism” that combined libertarians and social and traditional conservatives.  He built modern conservatism, purged nativists and anti-Semites from the conservative coalition, and laid the groundwork for a movement that working-class Catholics and Evangelicals would be comfortable joining.

There was another man, though, often unheralded but no less important, that was instrumental in helping Reagan achieve his domestic and international successes.

His name was Jack Kemp. And as HUMAN EVENTS editor-at-large Allan Ryskind wrote, “Without Jack Kemp, it has been rightly said, the Reagan revolution may never have taken place.”

As Ryskind wrote, “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, began to evangelize for a low-tax, pro-growth economy in the late 1970s, using his Kemp-Roth bill as a launching pad.”

HUMAN EVENTS was one of Reagan’s favorite newspapers.  It influenced Reagan greatly, particularly the writings of Kemp.

“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,” Ryskind wrote.

According to Ryskind, “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.)”

While Kemp was “initially known as a star football player,” Ryskind wrote, “he avidly read the conservative classics and sought out brilliant and knowledgeable men to hone his views on a variety of topics.”  Kemp’s congressional office and home were centers of vibrant intellectual creativity.

Reagan adopted many of Kemp’s ideas and shared his infectious optimism.

And, Ryskind insists, the lead that is often buried is how instrumental Kemp was in actually bringing down the Soviets.

“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.”

Ryskind also wrote about why Kemp was such a great evangelist and messenger of his ideas.

“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.”

Kemp certainly did not fit the stereotype of conservatives that liberals had.  While playing football, Kemp was exposed to people of all backgrounds and races, which was instrumental in shaping his world view.

Writing after Kemp’s death, liberal-minded Gregg Easterbrook wrote that Kemp was “unlike many conservatives” because he was “keenly concerned with the plight of the poor” and the “libertarian side of his personality viewed tolerance as crucial,” which was why “Kemp often broke with other Reagan supporters on women’s and minority issues, respect for labor, and an end to discrimination against homosexuality.  And though a devout Christian himself—prayer circles are a regular event at his home—he was disgusted by all forms of religion-based bias.” 

Having traveled the country playing professional football, Kemp saw the plight of America’s inner cities, and he was “dismayed by the decline of mostly minority inner cities” and “felt excessive regulations and legal liability discouraged businesses from investing in urban areas where jobs were needed,” Easterbrook wrote.  Kemp’s solution to this problem became his signature enterprise zones, which would provide extensive tax breaks for businesses that invested in urban areas.  He felt enterprise zones would attract investment, reinvigorate the economic bases of the inner cities, and start a cycle of self-reliance for those in America’s urban communities.

And while Kemp wasn’t successful in getting his enterprise zones widely adopted, he spent much of his political life and capital fighting for his idea.  His belief in enterprise zones—and his passion for creating opportunities for those in America’s urban communities—made Kemp one of the few Republicans who had “street cred” with urban Americans.

According to an account in the New YorkTimes, after the riots in South Central Los Angeles in 1991, Kemp “ventured into South Central Los Angeles (with shirtsleeves rolled) to calm the black residents of that community,” and he was embraced by a community that had every reason to distrust whites at that particular moment in time.  Kemp wanted more Republicans to feel comfortable in urban environments, and so he urged conservatives and Republicans to go beyond “country clubs and boardrooms” and reach out to those in the “ghettos and the barrios.”

And though Kemp passed away in May of 2009, his legacy remains, and must be embraced by conservatives who want to appeal to an America that is changing demographically without abandoning conservative principles.

For there to be more Reaganesque candidates, there first must be more modern Jack Kemps who can optimistically, hopefully, and inclusively be evangelists of conservative principles and can feel at ease around any group of people.

Such figures—even if they themselves do not rise to prominent political positions—can have a great influence on those who do, much in the same way Kemp influenced Reagan.