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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Jack Kemp: Last of the Big Tent Republicans

I note the passing of Republican Jack Kemp with some ambivalence about his legacy. On the one hand the Kemp-Roth tax cut arguably did more damage to America than any other piece of post-war legislation this side of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. On the other hand, Jack Kemp was a sincere advocate of interracial justice and goodwill, the last of the big tent Republicans in that regard.
Coming so soon after Senator Specter’s defection, Kemp’s passing brings yet another reminder of GOP shrinkage. There are no living Republicans I could name who are anywhere near as passionate as was Kemp about bringing people of color into their party. As Kemp is quoted after the drubbing of the GOP in 2008, in Adam Clymer’s New York Times report on his death ,”The party of Lincoln needs to rethink and revisit its historic roots as a party of emancipation, liberation, civil rights and equality of opportunity for all.”
Kemp, a former GOP VP nominee, HUD Secretary and congressman from Buffalo, earned his creds in race relations early on, as an all-pro quarterback who supported Black players’ boycott of New Orleans in 1965 because of segregated cabs and nightclubs in that city. He was a vocal supporter of civil rights, affirmative action and rights for illegal immigrants and called himself a “bleeding-heart conservative.” What has not been reported in the obits in the major rags is that Kemp also provided pivotal, perhaps decisive support for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday legislation, twisting the arms of GOP moderates and even some conservatives to support the bill. He remained a friend of Black leaders, including Coretta Scott King, even while she lobbied against the Kemp-Roth legislation.
Kemp was a wonkish conservative ideologue on economic issues. He differed from many Republicans in that he actually believed that massive tax cuts were good for the poor and working people, as welll as the rich. Although he supported many programs that benefited the disadvantaged, Kemp-Roth has lead to billions of dollars in funding cuts for a host of needed social programs. Kemp is also credited with influencing Reagan to push for even deeper cuts in social spending. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein, said, “I think there is no doubt that he had a greater impact on conservative and Republican economic philosophy than anybody else. More than Laffer, more than Reagan.”
Kemp was also the leading political advocate for “enterprise zones,” tax carrots for businesses to invest in decaying neighborhoods, an idea first proposed by Senator Robert Kennedy shortly before he was assassinated. I’ve always thought the basic idea has merit for job-creation, but so far urban enterprise zones have produced mixed results at best in delivering stable jobs that pay a living wage.
As Democrats, we tend to celebrate the weakening of the Republican Party because it usually adds to our numbers. But having a weakened adversary is not such a great thing in terms of keeping us honest, sharp and focused on creative policy solutions. Better in this sense to be challenged by a strong opponent.
With Kemp’s passing and Specter’s departure, however, the GOP looks even less like a Party that offers strong opposition based on reasoned alternatives — and more like a demolition derby.

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