Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but the authors of a new book on Jack Kemp, a self-declared “bleeding heart conservative,” cite his ideas on reaching out to minority communities, ramping up supply-side economics with a flat tax, and embracing immigration reform as the basis for a “Kemp revival” in the years since his death in 2009.
But Kemp, the influential conservative congressman who became HUD secretary and was the 1996 GOP vice presidential candidate, wouldn’t be welcomed in today’s Republican Party any more than he was in the ’80s and ’90s when he challenged GOP orthodoxy.
With the exception of the tax cuts that he always championed, Kemp would find himself the odd man out with most of his fellow Republicans, especially on immigration.
“He would not have agreed with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or any of the restrictionists,” says Fred Barnes, co-author with Morton Kondracke of Jack Kemp, The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America. “No question he’d be appalled at what Donald Trump said, both in criticizing immigrants for who they were and favoring deportation.”
The subtitle of the book by these two highly regarded journalists would be more accurate if it said Kemp “tried” to change America. A trove of richly reported back stories shows the hurdles he faced as HUD Secretary in the first Bush administration trying to get funding and attention for pet projects like enterprise zones and tenant ownership of public housing—policies that weren’t priorities for a Republican administration.
Budget Director Richard Darman resented Kemp’s star power as a former NFL quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, and routinely dismissed Kemp’s ideas as too costly. Kemp called Darman a “pencilneck” who “dropped poison on new ideas.” In the Bush White House, there was little tolerance for Kemp’s enthusiasm and his disregard for bureaucratic lanes of authority. They mocked him as someone “who has his fork in everyone else’s plate” and “the only HUD secretary with a foreign policy.”
After three years of being on the outs with the White House, Kemp was suddenly in demand after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992. President Bush, desperate to show he had policies relevant to the explosive situation, traveled to the riot area with Kemp at his side and put White House muscle behind “enterprise zones,” Kemp’s signature idea, which he hoped would turn economically depressed areas into hotbeds of entrepreneurship via tax cuts and deregulation.
Kemp had first introduced it a dozen years earlier as a congressman representing upstate New York. The legislation cleared the House by a big margin but fell apart in the Senate, and that was that.
Everybody moved on though Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, revealed in his memoir that Bush was urged by President Gerald Ford to replace Dan Quayle on the ’92 ticket with Jack Kemp. “I could never take Kemp,” Bush responded, according to Fitzwater. “Can you imagine how out of control he would be?”
Four years later, Republican nominee Bob Dole, trailing President Bill Clinton by double digits, made Kemp his running mate, a move characterized as a Hail Mary pass. The two men had widely differing views but the 73-year-old Dole knew he needed to shake things up, and that was Kemp’s specialty.
Though dubious about the supply-side economics that Kemp lived and breathed, Dole agreed to support a 15 percent flat tax rate. In return and to show he was a team player, Kemp reversed his opposition to Proposition 187, a punitive measure that denied public services to illegal immigrants, and to Proposition 200, which called for the end of all affirmative programs, and which was on the ballot.
“You’re watching a metamorphosis,” Kemp gamely told an interviewer, trying to explain his turnaround as compromises. He was hammered by the media, and it didn’t take long before he was on the campaign trail in California distancing himself from Prop 200, which Dole was counting on to help him carry the state. Kemp dropped all pretense of support for Prop 187, which Republican Gov. Pete Wilson had used to shore up his re-election in ’94.
“Kemp was trying to make nice with Dole and the party, but he couldn’t stand it,” says Mort Kondracke.
If there’s a resemblance between then and now on immigration, it can be traced to the draconian nature of Prop 187, which would have pulled children from public school if they were in the country illegally, and would have denied a whole class of people non-emergency services, including health care.
It was known as the Save Our State (SOS) initiative, and it passed handily, 59 percent to 41 percent. Republicans and Independents voted in large numbers affirmatively; Democratic voters opposed the measure by 64 percent. It was mired in lawsuits and never enacted.
Any short-term benefits the GOP experienced politically turned to ashes as the Hispanic population in California grew and the state became firmly Democratic in the wake of Prop 187.
“Kemp would be going nuts” watching his party self-destruct on immigration. “He said over and over that half of all Latinos and a quarter of African-Americans ought to be voting Republican,” says Kondracke. He cites as “Kemp’s finest hour” an op-ed he co-authored with Bill Bennett for The Wall Street Journal in 1994 opposing Prop 187 when Newt Gingrich and other conservative leaders were all in for the measure. A 23-year-old staffer, Paul Ryan, working for Kemp’s Empower America, did all the research and wrote the eight-page memo that became the op-ed.
“It caused a furious storm, Kemp got demonized, and people sent back copies of Bennett’s Book of Virtues,” Kondracke recalls.
The op-ed denounced the voter initiative as “fundamentally flawed, constitutionally questionable” and said it would hurt the GOP by suggesting “an ugly antipathy toward all immigrants,” notably Latinos and Asians. The party that represented optimism, confidence, and opportunity under Ronald Regan “will be replaced by an isolated fortress with the drawbridge up.”
The same language could be applied to Trump’s proposed deportation of 11 million immigrants. Everyone has a role to play in this recurring drama, but Kemp’s replacement, if there is one, has not yet taken the stage.