Jack Kemp — The Original “Bleeding-Heart Conservative”

There is a striking fact about important American political leaders who never became president. Men such as Benjamin Franklin, Joe Cannon, William Jennings Bryan, or Ted Kennedy are remembered for their various forms of outstanding character, leadership, or political acumen. However, none of these men are remembered for a single policy area. Hence, reading any but the most in-depth biographies of these most distinguished of gentlemen might leave more policy-minded readers feeling a bit dissatisfied. The excellent new biography “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America” may be an antidote, for it focuses most prominently on Jack Kemp’s efforts to leave his permanent mark on tax policy in a way that would benefit all Americans.

Jack Kemp was a crusader for conservative principles. He was perhaps the primary driving force behind so-called “Reagonomics,” a term for the supply-side economic revolution that helped end Carter-era stagflation and helped the American economy grow at an incredible rate through the late 1980s and 1990s. He was among the first and the most prominent of believers in the idea that the best way to solve budget deficits and fiscal problems was through tax cuts for all Americans, which he believed would induce growth at such a rate that the cuts would pay for themselves through increased revenue. He went head-to-head with the orthodox balance-the-budget-at-all-costs conservatives of his time (led by Bob Dole), relentlessly battling to keep Congress and the Reagan administration focused on keeping taxes low despite the massive increases in military spending that Reagan heralded.

But Jack Kemp was also a crusader in another, and for me, probably more important sense. He spent his young adult years as a professional football player, witnessing firsthand the challenges that poor minorities face. He rightly believed that conservative principles were the more efficacious alternative to the outdated New Deal-esque policies that liberals were advocating then (as now). He wanted to build a big tent Republican Party — a party in which conservative principles should be the guiding light in crafting policies to allow every American to take part in the blessings of the American Dream. Among the most iconic images for Republicans in the early 1990s was Jack Kemp walking the streets of Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King riots, demonstrating leadership for disaffected African Americans that perhaps no other Republican at the time could have offered. As Housing Secretary during George H.W. Bush’s term, he attempted to put urban housing and poverty issues at the forefront of Bush’s agenda. He failed to convince the President to do so until less than a year before the 1992 election, which almost certainly played a role in Bush’s failed re-election bid.

There is little doubt that Jack Kemp is one of the luminaries of the late 20th century Republican party. But what does the life of this man have to tell us about where we are today and where we are going? With the recent rise of Paul D. Ryan to the Speakership of the House, and presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio pushing pro-growth tax reform, this question is as important as ever.


Kemp’s conversion to supply-side orthodoxy officially began with his introduction in 1976 to Jude Wanniski, an ardent proponent of supply-side economics and friend of Arthur Laffer, originator of the famous “Laffer Curve.” These men believed (and convinced Kemp) that a decrease in marginal tax rates would actually lead to an increase in tax revenue, thus paying for themselves.

In 1977, Kemp and Senator William Roth introduced a bill that enshrined the principles that Kemp would fight for for the rest of his life: across-the-board tax cuts. After the bill became accepted as part of the Republican platform and years of wrangling with the Carter administration, Kemp was able to pass a form of this bill in 1981. The bill cut the top marginal rate from 70 to 50 percent and the bottom rate from 14 to 11 percent.

Kemp also became a fierce advocate of the Reagan’s bid for tax reform in 1986. In its final form, the bill simplified the tax code into four brackets: 15%, 28%, 33%, and 28%. It closed many corporate tax loopholes and raised taxes on capital gains, mandating that they be taxed as normal income. It also provided for a $2,000 personal exemption. After more than a year of fierce political wrangling, and with more than a little help along the way from Jack Kemp, the bill passed. The political wrangling along the way is brilliantly portrayed by authors Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes. The bill is still considered an example of what can be accomplished with a heavy dose of hard legislating — an assertion that others have pointed out.

There is obviously a lot of debate about what exactly the laffer curve tells us, given the fact that it is obviously a gross oversimplification. But there is little doubt that raw tax revenues grew steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s due to the rapid growth rates the economy experienced. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but the continual growth experienced into the 1990s should at least entice one to take a closer look. You could start here.

After a failed run for the presidency (due in large part to his reluctance to engage in negative campaigning) and a very serious flirtation with the vice presidency, Kemp was selected as George H.W. Bush’s housing secretary. Kemp came into the job with a strong commitment to his policy agenda, which included “free-enterprise zones” (tax-free areas where entrepreneurship would spur development), as well as “urban homesteading” programs designed to encourage home ownership for those living in public housing units. He also wanted the government to provide housing vouchers so that recipients could choose where they lived, allowing them greater social mobility. Tax reform was in his sights as well: he advocated for a decrease in the capital gains tax to entice investment in underprivileged communities as well as tax incentives for single mothers and married fathers who returned to work. Kemp had become a conservative anti-poverty warrior.

However, his record in actually reducing poverty during the elder Bush’s administration was a complete failure. As Kondracke and Barnes point out, the number of Americans living below the poverty line rose from 31.7 million to 38 million during the Bush administration. However, this was more due to the president’s reluctance in investing political capital in Kemp’s ideas (they were largely ignored until after the 1992 Los Angeles riots) than any defect in the policies themselves. Bush’s interest in inner-city policies less than a year before the election did little to earn him credibility with black voters; his support among blacks remained largely unchanged from 1988 to 1992.

But there was more to the story. The Los Angeles riot of 1992 was one of the seminal events of Kemp’s public life. It was cited by Paul Ryan in his book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, as an inspirational moment for the new Speaker. It also sets an example for future Republicans in their efforts at reaching out to minorities. Kondracke and Barnes describe the scene:

In LA, white House aides watched in wonder as a group of black Democratic mayors, awaiting a meeting with the president, swarmed around Kemp. “Jack Kemp is a beacon of light,” one of them said. Bush’s aides grumbled anew when the entourage visited a burned-out shopping center and Kemp alone took off his coat and chatted with residents…”

Kemp’s dedication to, credibility with, and advocacy for blacks gave him a special status in the GOP, one that probably hasn’t been replicated since.

Image courtesy of politico.com

It is an example that needs to be followed. Our tax system and our social safety net is failing under its own weight, but seemingly all conservatives do is call for cuts to federal spending, which is viewed as robbing the poor to give to the rich. Conservatives must start by building credibility with those who rely on these programs by making them more efficacious. Then, and only then, will we be able to reform the non-discretionary side of the budget, simply by virtue of the fact that fewer Americans will even be applying for benefits. The programs won’t be needed anymore.

Right now, many poorer Americans don’t know they have a choice- they think the only way is the Democratic way, because Republicans aren’t communicating, or are focusing on the wrong problems. Jack Kemp isn’t here anymore, and even while he was alive, many in the establishment weren’t following his lead. There are heartening signs, though. Many reform-minded conservatives are taking on this most pressing of problems. Unfortunately, it’s not happening with enough of the Party’s elected leaders.

Aside from the fact that Kemp’s example would help ensure Republican victories in future statewide and national elections, refocusing on conservative solutions to the tax code and antipoverty programs is the right thing to do. Perhaps this is Jack Kemp’s greatest legacy- he reminds even to this day that even though politics is a dirty business, in the end it should be about doing the right thing.

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