Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tax Cut Quarterback

Jack Kemp, to me one of the most interesting politicians of late-20th-century America, died yesterday at the age of 73.

In some ways Kemp could be seen as an orthodox Republican politician of his period. But perhaps that was because he defined a new Republican orthodoxy by putting tax cuts at the center of our party's platform, even if that meant abandoning the traditional Republican priority of budget balancing.

But Kemp did not blend into the background of Republican politics. The politician to whom he is perhaps most often compared is that arch-Democrat Hubert Humphrey. In this PBS interview regarding his debate with Al Gore when the two were running for vice president in 1996, Kemp said of himself, "it was a very formal setting, and looking back at it, that's not my style. I'm more of a preacher, an evangelist, a - you know, I'm the Hubert Humphrey of the Republican party."

Aside from their shared loquacious speaking style, Kemp, like Humphrey, was fond of offering new policy ideas. It was said of Humphrey that he had more solutions than there were problems. But many of us in the Republican Party thought Kemp had appropriate solutions.

On the policy front, Kemp is best known for the tax-cut plan that bore the names of himself and Senator William Roth, Republican of Delaware. That formed the basis of the tax cut that was signed into law by President Reagan in 1981. But, as HUD Secretary in George H.W. Bush's administration, Kemp was also an evangelist for enterprise zones, a plan to promote urban development by cutting back on taxation and regulation in distressed areas.

Having been a professional athlete, it was said that Kemp had showered with more African Americans than many Republicans have ever met. However, his efforts to increase black support for his party, largely fell flat.

As noted in the New York Times obituary to which I've linked above, Kemp was largely self-taught in politics and economics. Having already compared him to one Minnesotan, Humphrey, I can now compare him to another: Jesse Ventura. Although Ventura was a different type of "athlete" than Kemp, they both did a lot of serious reading on plane flights, and during other down time. That's how they both were able to emulate the Hollywood actor who signed Kemp's tax bill, by belying the low expectations that greeted their entry into the political arena.


Anonymous said...

I felt the Mr. Kemp was a logical successor to President Reagan based on his tax cutting credentials. However, Mr. Kemp was no where near as elequent as was "the great communicator". That his in-elequence was his downfall tells you much about our political system.

At the time, I found Mr. Kemp's informative and not inspirational. The ability to inspire (Churchill, Reagan, Obama) seems to always trump reason. And, inspiration + good policy = an unbeatable candidate.

In the long-run of American political history, Mr. Kemp will always be remembered for what could have been rather than for what he actually accomplished.

schiller1979 said...

In the long-run of American political history, Mr. Kemp will always be remembered for what could have been rather than for what he actually accomplished.In terms of personal ambition, he did quite a bit but, of course, never got all the way to the top.

In terms of his policy impact, there is the 1981 tax cut. I'm sure he was proud of his role in that, but I think he would have wanted it to be part of a wider conception that was only partly accomplished, i.e., applying free-market economics to transform the lives of many people in need of transformation. In other words, a more complete application of the "rising tide lifts all boats" concept.

When Republicans held their highest level of control of the federal government, from 2003 to 2006, they seemed more interested in serving their favorite special interests, instead of the Democrats' favorite special interests.

I assumed Kemp must have paid sufficient attention to special interests, although I have no specific evidence to cite. I don't think anyone can survive for 18 years in Congress without at least some of that. But I suspect he would have wanted our party to come quite a bit closer to serving the national interest, than I would argue was the case during that 2003-6 period.

That his in-elequence was his downfall tells you much about our political system.As I see it, eloquence is necessary but not sufficient to do good things in politics. Eloquence can certainly be applied to evil purposes (e.g., Hitler) but Reagan was able to accomplish more than, for example, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and the Bushes, because of his "great communicator" skills. That that is important is simply a fact of life. And that's something Republicans need to keep in mind when considering which new leaders can lead the party where it ought to go. My early favorite for 2012, Tim Pawlenty, in my opinion fits that bill.