by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As much as biographers Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke admired their subject (Barnes is quick to point out that their book’s first sentence labels that subject “the most important politician of the 20th century who was not president”), it’s hard to finish the recent biography without seeing in Jack Kemp an overly mercurial figure destined to see many of his ideas fail — thanks to Kemp’s ego, lack of discipline and tact, and patience with the intricacies of political negotiation.
Still, Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America makes a compelling case that this pro football star turned back-bench congressman, later a presidential and vice presidential candidate and cabinet secretary, played a much more important role in American political life than any of those various roles should have warranted.
Barnes and Kondracke argue that, seven years after Kemp’s death, the American political culture would benefit from a reprise of his “model.”
The full Kemp model — “bleeding heart” and “conservative” — is what the nation needs. Politicians who are principled, dynamic, positive, cheerful, inclusive, bipartisan, optimistic, unorthodox, disposed to compromise, committed to courting minorities, urban oriented, pro-growth, and antibureaucratic — and interested in ideas and action, not political tactics or personal attack. Idealistic. Visionary. “The goal of achieving House majority was too small for Jack,” former representative Vin Weber said. “He wanted to transform the country.”
But the model, Barnes and Kondracke argue, is less significant than the contributions that make up “the heart of his historical legacy.”
[I]t was Kemp’s leadership of the supply-side revolution that changed America and the world and altered history. He was the nexus of a movement spawned largely outside the GOP and originally in defiance of senior Republicans. Kemp brought together a renegade band of free market economists in New York and Washington, the influential editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, widely read columnist Robert Novak, a group of relatively young Republicans in Congress, and Ronald Reagan, who adopted Kemp’s legislation, based on supply-side economics, as the policy of his new administration. …
… That the policy of deep tax rate cuts and sweeping tax reform sparked nearly a quarter century of economic growth and prosperity when all else had failed — that is what makes it Kemp’s greatest legacy.