Jack Kemp’s Life and Influence
Editor’s Note: “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America,” by Morton Kondracke, former executive editor for Roll Call, and Fred Barnes, co-founder of The Weekly Standard, tells the story of the Republican congressman from Buffalo, N.Y., whose views on the economy helped propel supply-side economics to the fore of American politics.
What follows are Kondracke’s lead-in comments about the influence of the former pro football quarterback, lawmaker, Housing and Urban Development secretary and GOP vice presidential nominee. Excerpts from the book, available now, are in italics.
Jack Kemp was the most important politician of the 20th century who was not president — certainly the most important Republican. And he became so primarily as a back-bencher in the House.
He was the leading political advocate of supply-side economics, the idea that lowering individual income tax rates would stimulate work, savings, investment, productivity and economic growth.
He converted his party, then Ronald Reagan — who adopted his legislation, the Kemp-Roth bill, as the basis of his 1980 campaign agenda and then, after being elected president, as the core of Reaganomics.
A mediocre student at Occidental College in California, then the star quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills, Kemp eventually got interested in economics and politics.
When Democratic Rep. Max McCarthy decided to give up his Buffalo-area seat to run for the Senate in 1970, Republicans asked Kemp to run. He won, partly because he was a union guy (president of the American Football League Players Association) in a working-class district. He would always be a different kind of Republican.
On the football field, Kemp was used to being the play caller and he brought his quarterback mentality to Washington. “He was a real take-charge guy,” said Al Bemiller, Kemp’s center for eight pro seasons. “You didn’t talk in his huddle. You listened.”
But Kemp learned that football and politics had different rules. “I’d call a play and expect everyone to carry out his assignment,” Kemp told an interviewer. “I quickly realized it wasn’t that way in government. Leadership here means finding out where people want to go and figuring out a way to take them there. That’s what democracy is all about. A football huddle is not a democracy.” If Kemp was to make changes in tax policy, he would have to persuade.
Irrepressible as always, Kemp became relentless in trying to win other over — fellow members, political audiences, the press, economic professionals, even liberals — to support his views.”
— Pages 32-33.
In 1976, Kemp was converted to supply-side economics by Jude Wanniski, an activist editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal who had been converted earlier by renegade economists Robert Mundell, later a Nobel Prize winner, and Arthur Laffer.
Kemp asked his economic aide, Bruce Bartlett, to model a tax bill on one proposed by John F. Kennedy in 1962 and enacted after his death, lowering the top rate from 90 percent to 70 percent.
Kemp’s bill provided for 30 percent across-the-board cuts over three years, dropping the top rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. Resisted at first by both by Democrats (who said it “favored the rich,” though they hadn’t made that argument against Kennedy) and by mainstream Republicans worried about deficits, it won support from Republican National Chairman Bill Brock, who got it adopted as GOP policy for the 1978 elections.
It also almost passed Congress, but was killed under threat of a veto by President Jimmy Carter. However, Kemp convinced Ronald Reagan to make it the basis of his 1980 campaign platform — and, when he beat Carter that year, of Reaganomics.
Ultimately, the most prominent member of Kemp’s backfield was future House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He was thirty-five when Kemp, then forty-three, spoke at a Georgia GOP convention where Gingrich was preparing for his third (and successful) bid for Congress, in 1978. At the conference, the two men spent an hour talking about ideas, and Gingrich adopted Kemp’s supply-side platform as the basis of his campaign. When he got to Washington, he immediately became one of Kemp’s key ball carriers, though they later had differences over both political style and policy substance.”
— Page 81 As a non-member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Kemp had little to do with legislative processing of Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, but as chairman of the House Republican Conference and supply-side evangelist, he used his influence to advance the bill and fight forces in Congress and in the administration to water down his bill. It was watered down — a 23 percent cut instead of 30 percent — and delayed, but Reagan got it passed in August 1983 by repeatedly appealing past Congress to the public on television and unleashing an avalanche of mail that astonished Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass.
Unlike Gingrich, Kemp had a strong bipartisan streak. And he had close Democratic friends. … Speaker Tip O’Neill clearly detested Kemp-Roth and Reganomics, but his press secretary, now MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, said he can’t think of O’Neill’s ever saying anything negative about Kemp himself.
— Page 142 Kemp’s other signal congressional achievement — also a stunning example of bipartisanship — was what became the 1986 tax reform bill, lowering the top rate to 28 percent and eliminating dozens of special interest loopholes.
It was originated by the ex-NBA basketball great, Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and adapted by Kemp, who teamed up with Bradley to push it. Reagan adopted it and — after nearly dying dozens of times — it passed.
When Kemp ran for president in 1988, he got little credit: It was Reagan’s achievement, and the political beneficiary of all Reagan’s successes was his vice president, George Bush.
When he ran, Kemp dropped his House leadership position and decided to leave Congress. When his national ambitions fell short for the ticket, he found a new space as well, although it was not embraced by the administration.
And after campaigning hard for Bush/Quayle and other Republicans, a new door did open and something Kemp considered good did happen. He got a chance to fight poverty — and remake the GOP into “the party of Lincoln” — as Bush’s secretary of housing and urban development. … In Bush’s four years in office, the president uttered the words “war on poverty” precisely three times in speeches. Kemp did so constantly, publicly and privately — including on the day Bush announced his appointment, December 19, in the White House briefing room. … The new interest in Kemp is not an accident or happenstance. It reflects the nation’s desire for a different kind of political leader, one with ideas for making the economy work again — for everyone. Kemp filled that role earlier when no one else could. Now the country awaits the arrival of a new leader. Surely that person is on the way.
— Pages 216, 220
“Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America” by Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes from Sentinel, is available in bookstores and online venues now.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.