WASHINGTON – Other than in its original application, most exercises in WWXD – “What would X do?” with X being, say, Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Churchill – are less than useless. Great leaders are employed as ventriloquist dummies for our own squeaky, projected voices.
But the question “What would Jack Kemp do?” is an exception, especially for those of us who knew him. Kemp’s voice – somehow both high pitched and gravelly – remains vivid and utterly predictable. And a new biography by Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America,” brilliantly captures and conveys that voice at a moment when it is badly needed.
I spent a few years working for Kemp, writing mostly undelivered speeches, during the period when he was considering a run for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. He begged off in the end. But I remember the excited call from Kemp saying he had been chosen as Bob Dole’s running mate. I played a small part in producing his convention speech, a process that included a surreal strategy session at an oceanfront, La Jolla, California, mansion with John Sears (an old Reagan hand) and Jude Wanniski (Kemp’s economic Svengali). Sears, as I dimly remember it, wanted to paint a sweeping rhetorical picture of human evolution from protoplasmic pond scum, to brave fish slithering onto dry land, to a hominid species reaching for the stars. Which proved a bit ambitious.
In the end, Kemp gave a version of the same speech he had been giving for decades, arguing for democratic capitalism and social inclusion, and democratic capitalism as the best source of social inclusion. “We’re going to ask for the support of every single American,” he said. “Our appeal of boundless opportunity crosses every barrier of geography, race and belief in America.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Kemp was an odd mixture of influences. His Christian Science background left him incapable of believing in evil (except when it came to Soviet leaders and White House budget director Dick Darman). He held an almost Marxist belief that economics drives history. He had lived a racially integrated life as a professional quarterback, which made him passionate about civil rights. He led the player’s union, which left him a champion of collective bargaining. After announcing his presidential run in 1987, he returned to Buffalo (which he had represented for many years in Congress) and was joined on the stage by the presidents of the local AFL-CIO and NAACP. Kemp viewed every opponent as a potential ally, if only he could sit down with them and explain the way the world works.
While skillfully recounting Kemp’s career and influence (particularly on tax policy), Kondracke and Barnes ruefully conclude that his “spirit barely survives in the mean politics of the present day.” Which is not just a pity but a tragedy.
Every Republican worth his salt knows that the party’s current coalition at the presidential level no longer works. Some propose to expand the GOP’s appeal among working- and middle-class whites by presenting immigration as an economic and social threat. Others hope to craft an economic message that appeals to working and middle-class whites along with newer Americans, rather than pitting them against each other. This is the most basic strategic choice Republicans will face in this presidential election and the next several.
The first option is the easiest for demagogues (as Donald Trump is demonstrating). It is harder to craft an inclusive agenda appropriate to current economic conditions, which are quite different from those Kemp faced.
The broad political choice, however, is not new. In 1994, California Gov. Pete Wilson (along with many other Republicans) supported Proposition 187, which denied public services to illegal immigrants, including schooling for their children. In one of his finest hours, Kemp came out strongly against the measure, which he said would imply “an ugly antipathy toward all immigrants.”
This stand probably hurt Kemp’s own presidential prospects. But the party eventually sided with another politician who had opposed Prop 187, George W. Bush. While Wilson helped marginalize the GOP in California, Republican primary voters picked a “compassionate conservative” who managed to beat a sitting vice president (Al Gore) in a time of prosperity. Bush then won re-election with an increased level of support among Hispanics.
What would Jack do in the time of Trump? There is no question; none. He would take the hopeful, unifying, generous path, which remains open, though not busy.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.