This week’s distinguished pol — an unusual pick, I will agree — is the late congressman Jack Kemp. Two of the leading lights in the GOP, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), went to the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner last week to pay tribute to the effusive Republican who took conservatism to every neighborhood, college campus (including Berkeley in the 1980s, when I watched him win the admiration of a lecture hall of cynical, left-wing students), housing project and community in America, preaching the gospel of the free markets and the worth of every individual.
At a time when many Republicans have lost elections and lost their way his brand of conservatism, both wonky and ebullient, offers a path back from the political wilderness. His was an optimistic message that drew on the free-market capitalism, not as an avenue to personal fortune but as a means of giving dignity, independence and hope to all Americans.
In their speeches both Rubio and Ryan drew on this tradition, which is a far cry from the cold, abstract marginal tax rate arguments and eat-your-peas message of a Republican Party insufficiently concerned about inclusiveness, opportunity and social mobility.
Ronald Reagan remains the icon of modern conservatives, as slayer of the Evil Empire and restorer of American confidence and prosperity. But it is Kemp whose persona and message seem a better fit in an era in which voters want empathy, conservatives need some warm-bloodedness and fiscal conservatives need a reminder of why it is that we favor free markets. (Psst: It’s the freedom, which allows every individual to find fulfillment and personal expression according to his merit and character). Kemp was the ultimate big-tent man, making his case to anyone who would listen and devoted to broadening the reach of the Republican Party. As a passionate advocate for ending apartheid in South Africa, the defense of Israel and human rights everywhere, he understood the lamp of freedom should shine beyond the water’s edge.
In the Obama era, Kemp’s legacy is the perfect antidote to the grumpy, unimaginative and finger-wagging brand of conservatism and the scolds who want to purify the Republican Party. Kemp and his family who keeps his vision alive deserve our ongoing gratitude.