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Reagan, Kemp, and The Once and Future Politics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Barry Thumma

Why does politics more and more resemble a rebel without a cause?

Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp were among the last paladins of what could be called the Epic Era of politics. They were among the last of the major figures at the end of nearly a century of world war:  World War I and the Fall of Empires, World War II and the fall of Fascism, the “Cold” War (which, with the advent of nuclear weapons, threatened to be the hottest of them all) and the fall of Communism.


Thomas Jefferson, in a letter, portrayed the United States as the active agent in spreading what he called the Empire of Liberty. The process was epic. The 20th century – which opened with 80 percent of the world being governed by an emperor – China, Russia, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and British – ended with the establishment of something approaching classical liberal republicanism throughout most of the world. 

Conservative commentator, author of Mad Jones novels and political veteran Quin Hillyer writing at the Washington Examiner as the Kemp Foundation Tenth Anniversary Celebration approaches observed that Politics lack the virtues of Reagan and Kemp. Indeed world geopolitics has dwindled from the epic scale of the Iliad, the Aeneid and War and Peace.

With that descent of daily politics around the world from a century of epic war and grim privation we have entered an era more like farce or “Reality” TV. 

Hillyer powerfully reminds us of our lost political horizons, recalling an era of an "upbeat, aspirational, unifying message, free of anger and rancor?" He calls to mind the messages of Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan, whose "sunny, buoyant attitudes were elemental to both Reagan and Kemp, parts of their very essence and souls. They could be tough and firm, but they always were more comfortable welcoming others in rather than casting them out, finding things to praise rather than demonize."

True. And important. But wait. There’s more here than meets the eye.


The defining quality of Kemp and Reagan -- with both of whom I had the privilege of working (at the political equivalent of ‘second lieutenant’ level) -- was more than optimism. It was heroism. Other notable optimists have been reduced to a footnote in history. Kemp and Reagan's optimism was harnessed to grittily undertaking an “Impossible Dream” in the face of daunting odds.

Kemp rescued Capitalism from the dust bin of history.  Jack Kemp undertook the vanquishing of stagflation's hideous, economy-and-morale-killing, Misery Index. He did so by challenging the then-conventional wisdom of easy money + high tax rates with a demand for good money + low tax rates.

For this he was, and all the Supply-Side guerrillas were, ridiculed by the Establishment -- of both parties! -- as “Voodoo Economists.” We still are. Jack's courage and intellect, as much as his optimism, brought about an epic transformation of the US and world economy. 

The Dow rose from 814 to, eventually, 27,000+.  Some Voodoo!

Meanwhile, Reagan undertook to confront, rather than contain, the Soviet Union. He had the unique objective of “We win, they lose.” Notwithstanding his dismissal by the mandarins as an “amiable dunce” Reagan succeeded in winning the Cold War. America’s victory – a victory finally achieved without American battlefield casualties – was the most important event of the lifetime of anyone born before Christmas 1991.


Now, at this decade’s end, Hillyer unflinchingly calls the question: “When the public square is as toxic as today, how can it be altered into something broadly aspirational? And must the toxicity be purged, or can it just be transcended?”

The narratives that Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan embodied ... their world-transforming achievements ... earned them halos in history and in Heaven. Their defining characteristic was more than shining optimism.

It was epic heroism in the great twin causes of peace and prosperity.

Now it is up to the Millennials to resolve new existential threats. How? By, like Kemp and Reagan, challenging the conventional wisdom of our day, dreaming their own Impossible Dreams, and pushing onward to Golden Age of liberty and justice for all.

Ralph Benko is the chairman of The Capitalist League and the co-author of the forthcoming The Capitalist Manifesto.

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