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The Life of His Party

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

On the very day last week that Jack Kemp, the former quarterback, congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate, succumbed to cancer, other Republicans were honoring the example of his life by launching a search for new ideas and broader constituencies.

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Eric Cantor, the young Virginian who may come closest to Kemp's level of intellectual ambition and political energy in the current Congress, played host at the first of a promised series of policy sessions, along with former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

Welcome as their enterprise is in a landscape notably barren of GOP ideas, they were a pale carbon copy of what Kemp provided an earlier generation of Republicans.

In the understandable nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, who restored Republicans to the White House and led the final, successful stages of the Cold War, it's been too easy to forget that for much of the 1970s and into the 1980s, it was the young Jack Kemp who fired up the grass roots on his weekend speaking forays and who gave a thoroughly beaten minority party the ammunition for its comeback -- even as he built cherished friendships across the aisle.

Kemp was, in my judgment and in the eyes of many other reporters, one of the most consequential and likable politicians of that era.

His signal contribution was proselytizing for supply-side economics, the belief that lowering marginal tax rates would spur economic growth, replenish revenue, overcome deficits and fuel a widely shared prosperity.

He made that the centerpiece of the Reagan economic program and -- as the ringleader of a talented group of backbenchers, including Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Dave Stockman and Vin Weber -- challenged the Old Guard congressional leadership and set the stage for more than a decade of Republican ascendancy.

Those are the things for which the Republican Party owes Jack Kemp. As one who was never persuaded that Kemp was right in his economic theories, I came to value him for something more basic in human terms and far rarer among Republicans. As much as any public figure I have ever known, Kemp burned with a passion to make the American dream real for everyone -- without regard to race, religion or national origin.

A product of a middle-class California upbringing, a success as an athlete and therefore well-to-do, Kemp often said that he learned in the locker rooms of the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills that teamwork was colorblind.

He carried that belief into politics and was outspoken in denouncing those "country-club" Republicans who opposed affirmative action and supported restrictive immigration laws. That's why he was campaigning for John McCain in South Carolina the last time I saw him.

Kemp was nothing if not conservative, but he believed that if those principles were valid, they must be tested and applied, not only in gated suburbia but in the inner cities. In Congress, he co-sponsored "enterprise zones" legislation with African American and Hispanic Democrats. And as secretary of housing and urban development under the first President Bush, he drove the White House crazy, lobbying for programs to revive blighted areas that were no part of Bush's constituency.

In an early profile of Kemp, I compared him to Hubert Humphrey -- "long-winded, gregarious, super-energetic, overscheduled, optimistic, in love with ideas and people, ranging unconfined from issue to issue, an outsider who became part of the political establishment almost despite himself, a partisan battler who hates to hurt anyone's feelings." He sent me a note thanking me for finding similarities to the Democrats' happy warrior.


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