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How Jack Kemp Changed the World

Jack Kemp passed away this weekend, and the conservative movement has lost another giant.

No matter what political positions you hold or what party you belong to -- I'm guessing that (as you are interested enough to read this site) you have a few political idols. For liberals, there are the figures of FDR and Woodrow Wilson. For libertarians, there are thinkers like Ayn Rand. Conservatives, though, probably take the cake when it comes to their adoration of figures like Ronald Reagan (and before him, people like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater).

As much as I loved the man, Reagan worship can have the unfortunate side effect of obscuring the accomplishments of other conservative heroes who helped build the so-called "Reagan Revolution." One of those heroes is Jack Kemp. We talk a lot about the Reagan tax cuts, but it was really Kemp who fought for those cuts while in Congress -- battling against Bob Dole, who was more concerned with balancing the budget, even if it meant tax hikes. In fact Quinn Hillyer, a senior editorial writer at the Washington Times and senior editor of The American Spectator who has written extensively about Kemp and the conservative movement, has called him "the single most influential House Member, without official leadership position, since James Madison."

When it comes to the supply-side economics espoused by many of today's conservatives, no political figure has contributed more than Jack Kemp. Not only was he a key advocate of the idea, but as a Congressman, he was one of the first to implement it through legislation. In fact, the bill often labeled as the first of the "Reagan tax cuts" (the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981) could be more accurately labeled as the Kemp-Roth Tax Cut after the two primary sponsors of the bill (Congressman Kemp and Senator William Roth).

As Hillyer wrote,

It was Kemp who sold Ronald Reagan on supply-side theory, way back in the late summer of 1976. It was Kemp who sold most Republican House members on supply-side economics between 1976 and 1980, overcoming the party's static, green-eyeshade proclivities. It was Kemp who inspired Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Dan Lungren to form the "Conservative Opportunity Society" that pushed not just tax cuts but a whole host of economic growth and anti-poverty initiatives.

Of course, one cannot understate the impact this had on the success of Reagan electorally, as well as the success it had in revitalizing America's economy.

Later, Kemp would also become one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of the flat-tax plan.

It should also be noted that many conservatives believed that the Reagan Revolution was doomed to long-term failure once George H.W. Bush was selected as Reagan's running mate. Many of these movement conservatives were hoping for either then-Senator Paul Laxalt or Jack Kemp.

After the Reagan years, Kemp embarked on an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, but did land a job as George H.W. Bush's HUD secretary. Then, he went on to become the GOP's 1996 vice presidential nominee under - of all people - his long-time nemesis, Bob Dole. While the Dole-Kemp ticket handily lost that election, finally making it to a national ticket was a fitting cap on Kemp's long career in public office.

So, while we give a lot of credit to Reagan for regenerating conservatism -- and the U.S. economy -- in the 1980s, it is also fitting that we honor another colorful figure who played a major role during those year. While the old Hollywood actor dominated the White House, let us not forget the former quarterback who made many of Reagan's reforms possible.

Whether he was leading the Chargers and Bills to championships in the renegade AFL, or promoting a wild new economic theory in the halls of Congress, Jack Kemp was a creative and optimistic man who left an indelible mark on America. For that, he deserves induction into the conservative hall of fame along with Reagan, Buckley, Goldwater, and other titans of the movement.

Thanks for everything, Mr. Kemp. I only wish that we were able to retire jersey numbers in politics.

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