Jack Kemp never became president, but the country desperately needs a leader like him now. When Kemp died in 2009, two themes dominated tributes to his career as a star quarterback, congressman, cabinet secretary and candidate for vice president and president. Conservatives called him one of the most influential politicians of the 20th century who never made it to the White House. He was “among the most important Congressmen in U.S. history,” as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it. Liberals declared that the Republican Party needed, but didn’t have, a Kemp: a leader who cared about the poor, who wanted to make the GOP attractive to minorities and working-class voters, who never went negative and regularly worked across party lines.
Both evaluations were accurate. And both are relevant as the GOP struggles to find its 2016 presidential candidate. Republican voters—Democrats and independents, too—are looking for someone who, instead of raging at the status quo, will shake up Washington, make the economy grow again and restore hope in America’s future. A candidate working from the Kemp model could do all of that.
Kemp was a pivotal political leader because, as the foremost exponent of supply-side economics, he persuaded his party and later Ronald Reagan to adopt his tax-cut plan, known as “Kemp-Roth.” The top tax rate on individual income dropped in 1981 to 50% from 70%. Then Kemp helped pioneer tax reform, and the top rate fell in 1986 to 28%. Middle-income taxpayers enjoyed similar cuts.
After an era of “stagflation” and malaise in the 1970s, Reaganomics produced more than two decades of prosperity, restored American morale, undermined the Soviet empire and converted much of the world, for a time at least, to democratic capitalism. Kemp deserves a significant amount of credit.
Kemp first got into tax policy to help his suffering Rust Belt constituents in Buffalo, N.Y. He was all about economic growth, and believed in government policy to encourage work, savings, investment and productivity. Kemp insisted growth was the key to economic strength and national unity. Robust growth would help everyone rise—rich, middle class and poor. In a stagnant or contracting economy, he said, “politics becomes the art of pitting class against class: rich against poor, white against black, capital against labor, Sunbelt against Snowbelt, old against young.”
The present era resembles the miserable 1970s. Growth is glacial. Incomes are stagnant. The country’s mood is sour. Divisions are widening. In 1979 only 12% of Americans thought the nation was headed in the right direction. Now it’s around 30%. And politicians are pitting class against class: the “1%” against the “47%”; white workers against Mexican immigrants. The public is furious with Washington, and no wonder. Polarized Republicans and Democrats do nothing for them.
Jack Kemp shook things up—but with dramatic ideas about policy, not by pitting outsiders against insiders. The Republican establishment resented the gall of a backbencher’s butting into tax policy. Democrats hated tax-cutting, even though Kemp kept reminding them that President John F. Kennedy first proposed lowering the top rate to 70% from 90%. Special interests were furious when Kemp proposed reducing their tax breaks. He once wrote Reagan’s deficit-hawk budget director, David Stockman,demanding to know why Mr. Stockman wanted to raise taxes on working people and cut food stamps, Medicaid and Head Start, but keep subsidies and tax breaks in place forBoeing,Exxon and Gulf Oil.
What Republicans need today, following the Kemp model, is big ideas, not demagoguery. They ought to be debating the best way to restore growth, prosperity and hope—what voters care about most—not insulting one another over appearances and poll standings.
Some candidates are trying. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio have put forward interesting economic plans. Even Donald Trump says he will have a tax plan shortly. Mr. Bush’s tax reform initiative, with its top rate of 28%, is especially Kemp-like. Unlike Kemp, today’s Republicans can’t ignore deficits, debt and the need for entitlement reform, all drags on growth. But if they followed Kemp, they’d cut farm subsidies, ethanol requirements, sugar quotas, carried interest and other corporate welfare at the same time as they trim Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Kemp also shook things up for the reasons liberals extolled him. He infuriated Republicans when he opposed California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, and he always favored, besides border control, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with clean records. He was the polar opposite of Donald Trump, while sharing Mr. Trump’s high energy. Kemp never disparaged opponents, even when they deserved it—as Bill Clinton did on political ethics in 1996, when Kemp ran for vice president and refused to be Bob Dole’s attack dog.
Many Republicans thought he was too fixated on the plight of the poor. What he advocated was a war on poverty by conservative means: education choice, and lower taxes and fewer regulations to attract investment to blighted neighborhoods. He wanted welfare policies to be, as he said, “a trampoline, not a trap.” But most of all, he demonstrated that he cared about the poor. Some 2016 candidates do, too. More should.
Kemp thought that the GOP should, and could, once again be the “party of Lincoln.” Being pro-civil rights was only part of it. It was famously said that Kemp, as a football player, had showered with more African-Americans than most Republicans had ever met. But Kemp also shared Lincoln’s other big idea, that the essence of America was the “right to rise”—for everybody—through talent and effort. Neither Lincoln nor Kemp favored income redistribution, but they both thought government had a role in helping people climb the ladder. Lincoln favored public investment in infrastructure and education. Kemp wanted lower tax rates.
The Republican Party and the country do need another Jack Kemp. The GOP debates and primaries ought to be about finding one.
Messrs. Kondracke and Barnes are co-authors of “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America,” out on Tuesday from Sentinel.