Morton Kondracke is the author, with Fred Barnes, of the new biography Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America. He also has written the book Saving Milly. Kondracke has been executive editor and columnist for Roll Call, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, and a senior editor of The New Republic.
Q: You write, “Jack Kemp was the most important politician of the twentieth century who was not president, certainly the most influential Republican.” Why do you think that’s the case, and what do you think were his greatest accomplishments?
A: People need to remember what the 1970s were like--and how everything turned around beginning in 1983. Kemp was instrumental in catalyzing two decades of prosperity and more. The '70s were the era of "stagflation"--high unemployment (averaging 7 percent from 1975-80) and soaring inflation (average, 9 percent, 13.5 in 1980).
Keynesian economists, dominant in academia and government, admitted they had no explanation or cure for such a high "misery index." Neither did Presidents Nixon, Ford or Carter.
Kemp had an answer, derived from Supply Side economists Arthur Laffer and future Nobelist Robert Mundell: cut individual tax rates across the board (to promote growth) and hold down money supply (to contain inflation). The formula actually had worked in the late Kennedy-early Johnson era, but was forgotten.
Kemp's greatness results from his being the original and leading political advocate of Supply Side economics. He converted Ronald Reagan, who made it the basis of his economic program.
The 1981 Reagan tax cuts, modeled on Kemp's 1978 Kemp-Roth bill, plus his 1986 tax reform, pioneered by Kemp, lowered the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent, then to 28 percent.
After a deep recession, 1981-83, engineered by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to crush inflation, Reaganomics caused the economy to boom through the 1990s (it was not substantially altered by Bill Clinton). America's economic success, along with Reagan's defense buildup (made affordable by prosperity) stressed the Soviet Union to the breaking point.
The percentage of Americans believing the country was headed in the right direction went from 13 percent in 1979 to 69 percent in 1986. And, all around the world, democratic capitalism was deemed to be "the end of history." Reagan was the president who instituted the turnaround, but Kemp deserves partial credit for catalyzing it.
Q: You note in the book that “we have written this book because we believe that America is in trouble, perhaps more deeply in trouble than in the 1970s. And we think that Jack Kemp’s spirit—and his policy ideas—could again help the country turn around.” Can you say more about that?
A: Kemp's answer to almost every problem [involved] economic growth. In a stagnant or shrinking economy, he said, politics becomes a process of pitting one group against another--black against white, rich against poor, Sun Belt against Rust Belt.
America is again in a period of glacial growth, stagnant median incomes and rising costs for health care and college, causing a long-term decline in disposable incomes. Only 25 percent of voters think the country is headed in the right direction. A majority believes the next generation of Americans will be worse off than their parents.
And politicians are indulging in divisive politics, blaming "the one percent" or "the 47 percent" for profiting at others' expense. Donald Trump and others blame Mexican immigrants. The American Dream is in question.
How to re-ignite growth? I believe tax reform is imperative--lowering rates and eliminating special interest loopholes (and subsidies) that make the economy inefficient.
Also, public investment in infrastructure and scientific and medical research. More parental choice in the schools their children attend. (Kemp never did because the need was not clear in his time, but I'd add quality early-childhood education.) And entitlement reform which tames the growth of benefits (and U.S. debt) while also curbing farm subsidies, ethanol requirements and other corporate welfare.
Kemp was not a "redistributionist," taxing the rich to "give" to the poor (or middle class). He wanted to create opportunities for all to rise, and thought efforts to raise taxes to equalize would make everyone poorer. (This does not mean he'd oppose efforts to eliminate special breaks--"rents"--obtained by lobbyists for their clients.)
Kemp's spirit was optimistic, idealistic, inclusive and compassionate. He believed there were no limits to America's growth potential and, with John F. Kennedy, that "a rising tide lifts all boats." Though also, that "some boats are stuck on the bottom"--poor people who need special help to succeed: education choice and low-tax enterprise zones to attract investment to poverty areas.
Q: What would Kemp think of the current Republican presidential field? Do you think if he were alive today and running for president that he would have much support?
A: Kemp would be appalled by the tone--and much of the content--of the Republican campaign. He deplored (and never indulged in) negative campaigning and personal attacks.
He favored comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with clean records. He also opposed "austerity" (or "Herbert Hoover," "green eye-shade," "root canal") economics--the Republican tendency to exalt balanced budgets over growth.
Deficits and debt were not the problem that they are today, but he always opposed proposals for a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets, which many of the GOP candidates favor--even Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich, ostensible "growth" candidates.
(In a recession, with revenues down and unemployment benefits increased, the amendment would require tax increases or slashed spending, deepening the downturn.)
I suspect Kemp would have difficulty if he were running today. He'd be dismissed as a RINO by the Tea Party for his views on immigration and the balanced budget amendment. He was criticized in his own time for being too concerned with poverty and minorities.
On the other hand, he'd advance his positions with conviction and energy--more than displayed so far by Bush, Kasich or Rubio.
Q: What would he think of the current way Congress is operating, and the problems facing the House Republican leadership?
A: He'd be appalled by the willingness of the Freedom Caucus to shut down the government or let the Treasury go into default in order to force policy changes. He was uncomfortable with Newt Gingrich and his Conservative Opportunity Society's attacks on the Democratic leadership of his era. He'd certainly oppose the toppling of GOP leaders by a small minority of GOP members.
House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan was once Kemp's assistant and is now his truest disciple--a growth-oriented conservative who spends time with poor people....
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've been working on the Kemp Oral History Project (interviews with 100 fellow football players, congresspersons, staff, family and friends sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation), researching and writing the book for nearly four years. Now I'm book-promoting.
I still blog for Roll Call and I will certainly keep sounding off. But at age 76, I think I want to do something different--help poor kids get into college. I'm on the boards of Dartmouth College, the Parkinson's Action Network and Folio, a membership library in Seattle. I don't see another book in my future.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Besides having historically important impact, Kemp lived an interesting life. He was raised in a Christian Scientist home and absorbed for life some of its tenets--or at least their corollaries.
The tenet that all reality is spiritual leads to a belief that one can do whatever one believes he or she can, and an optimism that when one door closes, another opens.
So, Kemp wanted at age 5 to be a professional quarterback. He was too small to play at a major college and, even at Occidental College, he only started in his junior year. He was drafted No. 523 in the National Football League, but was cut by five teams in three years.
He never gave up and the door that opened was the American Football League, where he became a star. He was also president of the American Football League Players Association and believed that collective bargaining is a basic human right.
In Congress, his taking up tax-writing offended senior Republicans (he was never on the House Ways and Means Committee), but he was indefatigable in pushing Supply Side, eventually converting Reagan and changing America.
He was a natural leader. And a "bleeding heart" who genuinely (if fancifully) believed that the GOP could again be "the party of Lincoln," the natural home of African-Americans (by producing growth and jobs).
--Interview with Deborah Kalb