On Tuesday, the Jack Kemp Foundation held its annual dinner in honor of the late congressman, HUD secretary and 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee. The two featured speakers were Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of whom cite Kemp as a major influence on their thinking. Both are also thought to aspire to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
As someone who worked on Kemp’s congressional staff in the 1970s and who followed his thinking carefully until his untimely death in 2009, I agree that his philosophy is one that Republicans should embrace if they hope to ever win the White House again. This is especially the case with regard to the poor, minorities and working class – groups that Mitt Romney denigrated as part of the 47 percent of Americans who only want government to take care of them.
One of the things that Kemp always preached is that there is a difference between government giving people a handout and giving them a hand up. He understood that government had an essential role to play in leveling the playing field. He also understood that workers and minorities need government to intervene on their behalf because the pure free market cannot be depended upon to give them a fair deal.
Kemp always supported workers and labor unions, not surprising given that he was co-founder of a labor union, the American Football League Players Association. Indeed, the very thing that first set Kemp apart from every other Republicans when he was elected to Congress in 1970 was the fact that he actively sought – and received – labor support.
Then, as now, Republicans hated and feared labor unions, viewing them as their mortal enemies. That is why Republicans in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states are doing everything in their power to smash both private sector and public employee unions.
Kemp understood that an economic system that does not properly reward workers is not one that can survive. The goal of economic policy should be to raise real wages, he believed. Today, Republicans seem to think that only the well-being of the ultra-wealthy matters for economic progress.
Although Kemp pushed for a cut in tax rates for the wealthy, he was adamant that all workers must share in the benefits of lower taxes. He also focused heavily on the idea that saving, investment, technological advancement and capital formation were the essential goals of economic and tax policy, because they raised productivity, which would raise the wages of workers. Today, Republicans just blithely assume that tax cuts for the wealthy will automatically help the economy without ever explaining how or why.
I believe that Kemp would be truly appalled by the callousness that many Republicans today casually exhibit toward African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities. He believed that a great political party had to represent all Americans and not just one race, as Republicans essentially now do. I believe he would denounce, in the strongest possible terms, the idea promoted by some on the Republican right, such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of racists to discriminate in public accommodations.
I recently spoke with journalist Mort Kondracke, who is working on a biography of Kemp, about Kemp’s deep hatred of racism and any form of discrimination against minorities. He did many things that may appear commonplace today but were acts of courage in the pre-civil rights era of the early 1960s.
For example, Kemp was the first white player to ever room with a black player at the Buffalo Bills. While playing with the San Diego Chargers, Kemp objected when the white players were booked into a nice hotel in Dallas and the black players were relegated to a dumpy hotel far away. Because of his complaints, all the players stayed in a not-so-nice hotel together.
In 1965, Kemp supported a boycott of the AFL All Star game because the site, New Orleans, still enforced segregation in restaurants and other public accommodations. The game was moved to Houston as a result.
I also know that Kemp had a far different attitude toward immigrants than virtually all Republicans today. He welcomed them, seeing immigration as one of the economy’s lifebloods. He would be extremely critical of efforts to demagogue Latino immigrants who come here, legally or illegally, just looking to earn an honest living and enjoy the American way of life.
Kondracke also reminded me of a terrific passage in Kemp’s 1979 book, “An American Renaissance.” It’s hard to imagine any Republican politician of today writing these words:
When someone’s approach to politics is even slightly undemocratic, as the GOP has been as a party, his outlook becomes elitist and patronizing. For years I have been hearing fellow Republicans…talk about “broadening the party’s base.” This has a nice democratic sound to it. But the programs that flow from the idea are almost always patronizing….
Instead, as Kemp complained, Republicans tend to focus on marketing – PR, advertising, gimmicky slogans – to sell the same old policies that have failed time and again in the political marketplace. They strenuously resist reexamining their policies because they either believe such policies are perfect or fear admitting error in supporting those that have failed.
Thus we hear a lot from Republicans about finding ways of attracting the fast-growing Latino population or long-lost black voters, a third of whom voted Republican before 1964 Republican nominee voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after which it fell to 10 percent. But such efforts tend to focus almost exclusively on tokenism – nominating a Latino such as Sen. Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, for president or appointing African American Rep. Tim Scott to the Senate to replace the departing Jim DeMint.
Tokenism almost never sells and is patronizing to those at whom it is directed. Only a genuine recognition that many Republicans policies, such as slashing government aid to the poor to pay for tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy, are deeply unpopular in the nonwhite population will help. As long as Republicans have an us-versus-them mentality – with “them” being anyone who is not white – they don’t have a prayer of making inroads with minorities.
The first step toward renewal is for Republicans to adopt an attitude of genuine empathy and inclusion toward workers, minorities and the poor, as Kemp had. Better policies will automatically flow from it.