May 02, 2009
Comes news this evening that Jack Kemp has died.
Although the news services note that Kemp was a one-time vice presidential nominee and HUD secretary, in my mind, he will always be the Reagan-era congressman who pushed for liberation of Americans, and friendly foreigners, from government. In the USA, Kemp was instrumental in persuading Ronald Reagan to adopt a Lafferite income tax reduction program as part of his 1980 platform; once Reagan won election, Kemp served as House sponsor of the Kemp-Roth tax cuts that put Laffer’s famous Laffer Curve to the test.
Kemp also advocated enterprise zones and privatization of public housing. Here he won substantial support from liberal intellectuals—that is, from those of that persuasion whose real interest lay in improving the lives of people who found themselves stuck in deteriorating inner cities such as those of Detroit and Newark or who relied on public housing. For Kemp, the answer to most economic problems was to find a way to lessen government control over people’s lives. He never ceased to work for, to advocate, empowerment of the poor and the rich.
And Kemp was not shy about saying that the rich, the “entrepreneurs” (a favorite Kemp word), benefited everyone through their efforts. His public appearances frequently found Kemp celebrating great and small American businessmen of both past and present, to whom he gave the credit for American prosperity.
This is not to say that Kemp’s economic positions were ideal. In time, his opposition to budget cutting (which he dubbed “root-canal economics”) became a matter of faith among his acolytes, self-described “pro-growth Republicans.” In the years before the recent economic debacle, viewers of TV and listeners of radio might hear Kemp friend Lawrence Kudlow criticize nearly any Fed announcement not reducing interest rates. Kudlow ritually resonded to such decisions by asking why Greenspan or Bernanke did not like “free-market capitalism.” Kemp, too, seems to have thought that the Fed’s heedless expansion of the money supply was a “free market” activity. We’ve seen what that was worth.
In foreign affairs, Jack Kemp was a steadfast opponent of the Soviet Union. More, he pushed the Reagan Doctrine, as in his leadership of congressional support for the UNITA rebels of Angola. Ultimately, his and other Reaganites’ belief that the Soviet Union could be brought down was resoundingly vindicated; here too, however, we see a mixed legacy, as Iranian anti-Americanism, Latin American anger toward the Yankee, and the rise of Islamism each in its own way represented the general phenomenon of blowback. Perhaps that is a price worth paying for Cold War victory, perhaps not, but it is at least a price that must be noted.
Kemp and those around him liked to explain his political outlook in part by reference to his encounters with racial segregation while a professional football player. Kemp found it stomach-turning that his black teammates were denied whites’ accommodations in the South simply on account of their race. In this, as in much else about him, there is a great deal to admire. It helps to account for the fact that in the 1980s, many were happy to consider ourselves Kemp supporters—and thought him far the best candidate for president in 1988.
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