Two decades have passed since Jack Kemp earned national headlines as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1996, but his political legacy continues. A new book labels Kemp “the bleeding-heart conservative who changed America.” Co-author Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and political commentator for Fox News. Barnes discussed Kemp’s role in American political history with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: Why did you decide, along with Morton Kondracke, your co-writer, that Jack Kemp deserved to have this biography at this time?
Barnes: Well, as we say in the first line of the book, Mitch, Jack Kemp was the most important politician in the 20th century in America who wasn’t president. And Mort wanted to hedge on that a little, and so there’s a subordinate clause that also says “at least he was the most influential Republican.” So, in any case, Kemp was a member of the House, who in the 1970s was not in a major committee, was certainly not a committee chairman, was not in the Republican leadership, and yet, built up a movement behind supply-side economics and these sweeping and deep tax cuts that he then steered Reagan toward. …
In the House, they were known as the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, named after Kemp and Delaware Sen. Bill Roth. Reagan grabbed onto them, at Kemp’s urging, in his 1980 campaign, and then, when elected, proposed them to Congress. They were in a slightly trimmed-down form, 25 percent rather than 30 percent, across the board.
They were enacted, and what resulted? More than two decades of economic boom. None of this 2 percent growth that we are now told is the new normal, which I don’t believe. But, in any case, this was 4, 5, and 6 percent growth. Not entirely that, but certainly in the early years of the Reagan administration, after the tax cuts went into effect.
One of the things I certainly think, and I think my co-author Mort Kondracke agrees, that what we need now is a new attack on the economy by supply-side economics — in providing incentives for people to invest and start companies and work and save and so on. All the great things that happened in the 1980s and the 1990s, in particular, thanks to Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan.
Kokai: Now, some people in our audience will know exactly what we are talking about when we are talking about supply-side tax cuts, but for those who know the words but really don’t know what they mean, what are we talking about?
Barnes: When we are talking about supply-side tax cuts, we are talking about a particular kind. Ronald Reagan had always been for tax cuts of various kinds, and so he was not a difficult person to be convinced that these supply-side tax cuts were important. And what they do is they cut the individual income tax rates across the board, at every level.
When they were first enacted, the top rate was 70 percent. It came down to 50 percent. And then in tax reform, also based on supply-side economics, the top rate went from 50 percent down to 28 percent. This was in 1986.
Cutting the individual rates, not … special tax credits for this and that, but sweeping cuts across the board on individual income tax rates, the theory was they would provide incentives to people to invest and grow the economy and hire people and job creation and so on. The great thing about these supply-side tax cuts and the only reason we are talking about them today, Mitch, is because they worked.
Kokai: Before politics, he was a pro football star.
Barnes: He was a great pro football star. You know, the thing that saved him after being cut from five different National Football League teams was the beginning of the American Football League. … He retired in 1969 and, lo and behold, he was in Buffalo, N.Y., where he played for the Buffalo Bills, was asked by Republicans there to run for Congress, an open House seat, and he won in 1970.
[He] got to Congress and decided, “Gee, what do I need to focus on?” By then, the Rust Belt was becoming the Rust Belt, particularly in Buffalo, where factories were closing and the population was shrinking and the economy was narrowing. And so he landed on the idea of a couple of tax cuts that went nowhere. A job creation act, and so on, that went nowhere in Congress.
Remember, he was a backbencher. He was a nobody — except he did have two things. He had pretty good name ID because he had been a pro football player and a pretty good one, a quarterback, and he was a really dynamic figure and a great speaker. He finally in 1976 and ’77 became convinced that the supply-side tax cuts were the ones that would truly help the economy across the board. And that led to what we were talking about earlier.
They never passed the House, but once he had a famous meeting at Los Angeles International Airport in January of 1980, the Kemp people and the Reagan people — but particularly Kemp and Reagan — after that, Reagan agreed, and the rest is history.
Kokai: I have to ask you: We often hear “bleeding-heart” used with “liberal.” Your title calls him a bleeding-heart conservative. Why?
Barnes: The reason is, you know, Kemp always talked about, “We need to make the Republican party broader. We need to bring it back to being the party of Abraham Lincoln.” This was a constant comment of his. And he really tried to do that.
He thought that conservative principles and conservative ideas would work as well in a prosperous suburb and would work just that well in a poor community in a city, and wanted to take tax cuts and enterprise zones and school choice and all these things to African-American neighborhoods and Hispanic neighborhoods.
He really pressed for other Republicans to follow him and to go into these neighborhoods and campaign there. He didn’t think that African-Americans should be Democrats. He thought they were natural Republicans, which they had been, of course, after the Civil War for a long, long time. But they had become so strongly Democratic, and he wanted to change that. He wanted Hispanics and other immigrants to be Republicans because he thought that that’s where they belonged, that the conservative ideas were the ones [that] actually would serve them the best.
Kokai: … One way in which Jack Kemp’s legacy lives on is his influence on people like the new speaker of the U.S. House.
Barnes: Indeed. Paul Ryan was an acolyte. He worked for Jack Kemp. It was one of his first jobs in Washington, after graduating from college. He worked at what is a now defunct think tank called Empower America. I’ve talked to Paul Ryan about this many times, and he said it was the most thrilling job he could possibly have. All these famous conservative economists [came] to see Jack Kemp, whether it was Milton Friedman, Martin Feldstein, Murray Weidenbaum, or all these great economists, Alan Greenspan.
He just said he learned so much at Kemp’s footsteps and as a supply-side acolyte of Kemp. The other thing about Kemp that he reflects is that Kemp never spoke ill, personally, of anybody. Paul Ryan doesn’t, either. He may disagree on issues and principles with Democrats and liberals, but he never attacks them personally. That’s one of the reasons why he is so highly thought of.