Paul Ryan: The Jack Kemp of His Generation

Jack Kemp persuaded Ronald Reagan to heartily embrace supply-side economics, helping to inspire him and the Reagan Revolution.  But if that is to be remembered as a true revolution and not as the “Reagan interruption,” during America’s march toward the left, Paul Ryan may have to be to his generation what Jack Kemp was to Reagan’s.

When Jack Kemp passed away two years ago, it was natural for many to see Paul Ryan as the Jack Kemp of his generation.

“Jack is the reason I ran for Congress,” Ryan said at the Kemp Foundation’s inaugural event in 2010.  “I was motivated by Ronald Reagan, but inspired by Jack Kemp.”

In hiring Ryan as a 23 year-old economic analyst for his Empower America think tank and later as a speechwriter, Kemp, according to Ryan, saw “something in me that I didn’t even know existed.  He taught me how to approach people with an infectious optimism, reminding us all that there is nothing more uplifting than the idea of America.”

HUMAN EVENTS wrote about Kemp soon after he arrived in Congress in 1971 and continued to publish Kemp’s speeches and many articles about him.  Because HUMAN EVENTS was Ronald Reagan’s favorite newspaper, those articles directly influenced Reagan’s thinking and helped Reagan embrace supply-side economics, which allowed the United States to outstrip the Soviet Union economically and win the Cold War without firing a bullet. 

While praising his mentor Kemp, Ryan noted that American politics is known for cycles that define generations, and that Kemp’s passing marked the end of the “Reagan Revolution” cycle.

“America has just completed such a cycle, dominated by the Republican Party from 1980 until last year,” Ryan said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives when he honored Kemp a few months after his passing in 2009.  “Ronald Reagan was the presiding figure of this era. But the great ‘idea formulator’ of that cycle–the political and intellectual entrepreneur whose ideas became the basis of its thinking and policies–was our friend Jack Kemp.”

Ryan also said that there would be a battle of ideas to define the next political cycle.

“The party that will dominate the coming cycle will do it by returning to the beginning–to the roots and founding principles that made America the greatest and freest country in the world,” Ryan said.  “It will recall those timeless principles and make them the foundation for the policies America needs now.  The elections that begin each new cycle are about the very meaning of America.  We re-fight the American Revolution… with ballots instead of bullets.”

Ryan said that when Reagan came into office, the top marginal tax rate was a confiscatory 70%, the deficit was measured in billions of dollars instead of trillions and entitlement spending had not soared.

“We need to return to the path of economic growth and self-government, but the policies we need are different,” Ryan said.  “The future of America at the ‘tipping point’ looks a lot like the social welfare states of Europe, where entrepreneurial risk-taking and job creation hardly exist.”

Ryan said then that because “the supply-side campaign to reduce marginal income tax rates succeeded so well, “the next generation of supply-siders confronts a new problem:  We must find a way to simplify the tax code and spread the tax base. All producers, both capital and labor, should bear a low but fair share of the tax burden.”

Added Ryan:  “If supply-siders don’t lead the fight to limit spending and to keep taxes low and broad-based, we will find more people becoming supplicants seeking government benefits … Fewer entrepreneurs will be taking risks for growth.  As the private sector joins in “partnerships” with bureaucrats, democratic capitalism will gradually become ‘crony capitalism.’  Freedom cannot outlast that transformation.”

And Ryan, like Kemp, linked strong families to a strong economy.

“We need to focus new attention on the health of the family, both the broken families in poor communities and disintegrating middle income families everywhere,” Ryan said.  “The family is the school of freedom, and we are challenged as never before to strengthen the traditional family as the key to a free and prosperous society.”

Two and a half years later, Ryan seems more prescient.  President Barack Obama has run up the country’s credit card bill on government programs, such as ObamaCare, that the country can not afford.  The Republican presidential candidates all have plans to simplify or flatten the tax code and opposition to big government “crony capitalism” is a major theme as well, exemplified by “green jobs” boondoggles such as Solyndra that the Obama Administration negligently mismanaged.

Ryan often concedes that he does not have Kemp’s charisma.  Just as Kemp could have been a better politician had he had Ryan’s discipline and wonkish attention to details and numbers, Ryan’s star on the national stage could get brighter if he were able to project more of the zestful, “happy warrior” side of Kemp.

“I wish I could say I had Jack’s natural charisma … his infectious enthusiasm … his quarterback’s skill at leading people … his gift for turning opponents into friends and sometimes even allies,” Ryan said while speaking at the Kemp Foundation.  “These were personal qualities to envy, but they probably don’t describe this Wisconsinite.”

When America’s morale was low in the 1970s, Kemp’s infectious optimism was a perfect antidote.

But in an age when entitlement reform, cutting government spending and flattening and simplifying the tax code are needed to restore America’s economic strength and greatness, Ryan’s surgical approach may be the perfect fit, putting the country’s fiscal house in order so that its economic pie can start expanding again and allow everyone, across all income levels, to get a bigger piece of it.