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.