Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Jack Kemp

Former Congressman Jack Kemp was the Republican party's top cheerleader for tax cuts for nearly a generation. Handsome, energetic and almost heroically optimistic, Kemp was a man that many tax-cutting conservatives believed was the only proper legatee to Ronald Reagan.

But in an increasingly partisan era in Washington, Kemp was also notable for being willing to work alongside Democrats if it helped advance his ideas. He was also one of the few Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s who spoke publicly about the GOP's weakness among African American voters and tried to take steps to address it.

More than anyone else it was Kemp, starting in the late 1970s as a congressman from Buffalo, who led the crusade for a series of specific proposals to cut income tax rates that formed the basis of measures that were both adopted by candidate Reagan in the 1980 race and then enacted during the Reagan presidency that followed. Kemp's tax rate cutting crusade culminated in a massive reform of the tax code in 1986 that members of both parties supported.

Kemp and the economic theorists who backed him were called "supply-siders" because of their belief that the more money the government returned to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts, the more economic activity — and, eventually, tax revenue — those cuts would engender. It was a theory one longtime Kemp rival, George Herbert Walker Bush, had described as "voodoo economics" when he first ran for president in 1980.

By the mid 1980s, the supply-siders had emerged as an outspoken, influential, if not always dominant, voice in the GOP coalition and Kemp's legislative victories on tax policy positioned Kemp as the their favorite son in the 1988 Republican primary. But Kemp was never able to turn the support he enjoyed among economic conservatives into a governing majority inside a GOP that was becoming increasingly dominated by cultural and religious conservatives. In 1988, Bush rolled past Kemp to capture the nomination and was threatened only in his march by televangelist Pat Robertson.

Kemp would not seek the presidency again. But the first President Bush tapped Kemp to be his secretary of housing and urban development, a position from which Kemp tried to make inroads for the GOP with African American voters, to little avail.

In 1996, another longtime rival, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, tapped Kemp to be his running mate in his quest for the White House against incumbent President Bill Clinton. Dole was hoping to unify his divided party by choosing the supply sider to round out the ticket. "Get me the quarterback," Dole told his campaign manager, Scott Reed, in a move that surprised many in the party.

The former Buffalo Bills quarterback was never an easy political partner. Unusually candid at times, he was more willing than other politicians to acknowledge his party's weaknesses. And during the Dole campaign, Kemp sometimes performed as if he was at the top of the ticket.

It was one position he never got to play.

—Michael Duffy