What Kemp stood for

CASCADE, Mont. — Jack Kemp’s passing comes as a shock to those who knew him, because the man came across as a force of nature. His energy, enthusiasm and optimism were something to behold and affected even those with whom he did battle.

I got to know Kemp when he first came to Congress after a race in which his football background and refusal to ignore any prospective voter won him a seat that the Democrats thought was theirs. Jack valued individuals and was reaching out for voters other Republicans ignored before it was cool or even necessary.

I didn’t always agree with him, but like most of my fellow conservatives I liked and admired him. He was a friend and I, like all who knew him, will miss him and his apparent need to fit everything he knew into every speech he delivered.

The former quarterback was no intellectual, but had no fear of them or their ideas. Unlike many in Congress at the time, he actively sought out those who spent time pondering the application of conservative principles to the real-life problems of the day and was willing to think outside the box.

What’s more, once he embraced an idea and familiarized himself with it, he was willing to get out and sell it. He did this most successfully with what became known as “supply-side economics,” which he sold both to congressional colleagues and then, with the help of those who convinced him of the economic impact of reducing marginal tax rates, to Ronald Reagan.

Getting Republicans to change decades of thinking about budgets, tax cuts and deficits was quite an accomplishment. Prior to the supply-side revolution, Republicans took their cues from accountants rather than economists. Democrats spent the people’s money and Republicans imposed the taxes they believed were needed to pay for the new programs and balance the budget; they were then what President Obama likes to call them now: the party that would always say “no.”

Kemp and the supply-siders argued, quite correctly, that reducing marginal tax rates would lead to increased investment, economic activity and, ultimately, more rather than less revenue. By focusing on the economic impact of such cuts, Kemp helped fashion a new Republican Party, one focused on the ensuing era of unprecedented economic growth.

Though Kemp’s personal influence waned after he and Bob Dole went down in flames in the 1996 presidential election cycle, his impact on Republican thinking has been deep and lasting. One needs only look back to the presidency of George W. Bush, whose administration abandoned almost every aspect of Reagan conservatism, with one exception. Bush came into office promising tax cuts, delivered on that promise and never lost faith in Kemp and Reagan’s vision.

When ideas are reduced to slogans, those who take up the slogans without understanding can undermine the legitimacy of the ideas themselves. Thus, Bush and Republicans in Congress managed to convince themselves that they didn’t have to worry anymore about spending because no matter how much they spent, an economy spurred on by tax cuts could produce the revenues needed to pay the bills.

Conservatives knew better. They knew that Kemp was right about taxes, but watched as those who followed him used supply-side arguments to justify runaway spending and a metastasizing government. The resulting explosion in earmarks, new programs and a super-sized deficit helped end GOP control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

The new order in Washington rejects everything Kemp, Reagan and the conservatives of the ’80s and ’90s represented. Obama wants to impose new and higher taxes on the very taxpayers capable of fueling another surge of economic growth, but like Democrats of old has no problem with deficits, debt or spending. As Kemp put his faith in free men, Obama puts his in government.

Many conservatives find all this more than just discouraging, but they should remember that in the ’60s and early ’70s, Kemp was dismissed as a crackpot. Undeterred, he succeeded because he was right and an eternal optimist willing to argue, cajole and fight for the ideas in which he believed so strongly.

With the passing of Congressman, Cabinet member and statesman Kemp, we should remember that hard work, optimism, a willingness to reach out for nontraditional allies and a dedication to conservative principles in the marketplace of ideas can change the world. This remains Jack’s final, long-lasting contribution to the cause to which he dedicated himself.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.