Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Remembering Jack Kemp

My earliest memory of Jack Kemp (and considering that I'm only pushing twenty-four, it's surprising that I actually have one) is from the 1996 presidential campaign. At the time my knowledge of politics came predominantly through what I read in children's books on American history and what I was taught by my parents. I was enough of a nascent liberal even at that time to realize that Bill Clinton was the man I wanted to win, yet I was enough of a child to feel sorry for his opponent, Republican Senator Robert "Bob" Dole, to feel sorry for him since it was obvious that he was destined to lose. Incidentally, I was also an avid football fan at the time, and my sympathy for Bob Dole increased exponentially when he chose former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp to be his running mate.  Imagine a former football player as vice president, I excitedly thought (it wasn't until later in life that I learned about Gerald Ford's distinguished collegiate football career and Richard Nixon's more humiliating one). 

This introduced me to my first version of political turmoil, albeit of the sort very specific to naive eleven-year-old boys. I was precocious enough to have a reasonably sound understanding of domestic and foreign policies and to see that Clinton's views were far superior to Dole's, yet I was filled with enough child-like innocence to feel badly for Bob Dole because it was obvious to me that he didn't have a chance, as well as to think it would be wicked cool for a football hero to be our vice president. At the end of the day, I was happy when Clinton won, but a little sad that poor Bob Dole and Jack Kemp had never been given their chance in the sun. Ironically, I also regretted that the outcome of the election had not been more uncertain, since it took a lot of the excitement out of it; sadly, my wish for more electoral drama would be granted in the next three contests.

Thirteen years later, I am of course quite happy that Dole and Kemp were never elected. Despite the scandals that plagued his second term, Clinton was at least liberal enough to forestall the calamities in foreign and economic policy that would wrack the nation during the Bush years and eventually put us where we are today. It is quite likely that Dole and Kemp (who essentially shared the ideology of Bush and Cheney) would have brought those same ideas into effect, only four years earlier. Imagine how history would be now if Dole and Kemp had pulled off an upset in 1996, and then been reelected in 2000 by riding on the coattails of the economic prosperity brought about by Clinton's successful policies! On September 11th it would have been Bob Dole who would have been viewed as heroic for leading the nation through great trial, and in 2004 it would have been Jack Kemp benefiting from the "Don't switch horses in mid-stream" mentality enough to receive election in his own right. Indeed, in that hypothetical (albeit implausible) alternate history, Jack Kemp would have been President of the United States right now... or he would have been, until a few days ago.

Hence in a very real sense Jack Kemp is a man who could have been. Sadly his main legacy lies in having brought about a revival of the intellectually absurd and morally bankrupt economic policies of Herbert Hoover, which made the rich excessively powerful, decimated the middle class, and plunged the poor into the most dire straits ever known in the 1930s, and which had been rightfully discredited not only by their own failures, but by the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal immediately thereafter. The best final thoughts on the subject were summed up in a recent op-ed piece by Bob Herbert of The New York Times.

Jack Kemp’s Futile Quest

I remember Jack Kemp from way back, from his football days. He was the all-star quarterback for the Buffalo Bills in the game in 1965 in which Joe Namath made his first start for the New York Jets. The United States was at war and Lyndon Johnson was drafting every young man he could get his hands on for his buildup of forces in Vietnam, but neither Kemp nor Namath had to worry about that. Football injuries made them unfit for service.

Kemp and the Bills beat Namath and the Jets on that September afternoon in Buffalo, 33-21.

Kemp, who died on Saturday from cancer, would later be much better known for his long career as a conservative Republican politician. He had two very big ideas for his party. One was terrific, spot on. The other couldn’t have been more boneheaded. The G.O.P. being the G.O.P. rejected the good idea and went hog wild for the boneheaded one.

Kemp’s good idea was that the Republicans should vastly expand their tent, get past their narrow-mindedness and begin actively seeking the support of blacks and other ethnic minorities.

The G.O.P. would have none of it. It was, after all, the party of the southern strategy, and there was precious little that was racially enlightened about its conservative wing. One of the writers who influenced Kemp’s thinking about politics, William F. Buckley, was at the opposite pole of Kemp’s progressive thinking about race. Buckley took a scurrilous stand in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated the nation’s public schools.

Whites, being superior, were well within their rights to discriminate against blacks, according to Buckley. “The White community is so entitled,” he wrote, “because, for the time being, it is the advanced race ...”

Kemp was whistling in a hurricane.

The bad idea, advanced by Kemp with fanatical energy and devotion, was supply-side economics — “voodoo economics,” as George H.W. Bush so famously and rightly derided it. Supply-siders saw tax cuts as the answer to every prayer. Cut taxes, they argued, and watch the economy take off like a rocket.

What they never spelled out for the electorate was that most of the tax cuts would go to the rich, that the rich would harvest most of the money from the increased economic activity, and that the radically reduced tax revenue would send government budget deficits streaking toward the moon.

Kemp professed not to be worried about the deficits. He seemed to have believed that somehow everything would work out. The ultramilitants to his right, people even further out in their orthodoxy than Kemp, were delighted by the deficits. They wanted to “starve the beast,” reduce the government’s revenues to the point where elected officials would have no choice but to cut programs and services that benefited people who were not rich. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were primary targets.

“Our goal,” said Grover Norquist, “is to shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Norquist, a driving force behind the George W. Bush tax cuts, once called John McCain a “tax-increasing Bolshevik.” We are talking about weirdness of a very high order here, and that weirdness dominated the economic policies of the United States for years.

Working people were told they should sign onto this craziness because the economic benefits of supply-side tax policies would ultimately benefit everyone. As every scheme imaginable was developed to bolster the fortunes of the rich, ordinary people were left in the humiliating position of waiting for some of the goodies to trickle down to them.

We’ve seen how it all worked out.

The way to look at the endless theoretical and intellectual posturing of the right is to look at who actually does well when the so-called conservative policies are implemented, and who doesn’t. Inevitably it’s the rich who benefit.

Jack Kemp meant well, but the great irony that cloaked his entire career was that it was not possible to achieve the ends he sought using the means he pushed with such zeal. He wanted to help the middle class and the poor. He wanted the nation’s inner cities to thrive, and he wanted America’s prosperity to be broadly shared.

But he chose as his vehicle the party of the rich. The changes he advocated and helped shepherd into law went far beyond correcting excesses in the tax code. They radically transformed the economic system in ways that proved a boon to those who were already wealthy, were harmful to the very people he wanted to help and eventually left the overall economy in ruins.

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