Mourning Jack Kemp, a Big Tent Republican and "Bleeding Heart Conservative"

The "bleeding heart conservative" had his politics in the right place.

By + More

By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

Months ago, I heard from a friend that Jack Kemp was dying of cancer and that his children had been called to his bedside to say goodbye. That was just after Christmas, and the fact that he fought until May is no surprise, knowing his feisty personality and love of life. But here's the surprise: I heard the news not from a former Kemp staffer or some connected conservative, but from an African-American woman who is an enthusiastic Democrat and good friend of the Kemp family. The fact that she knew before the Republican establishment knew says volumes about Jack Kemp.

Because, while the mainstream media's obituaries of Kemp talk about his 30-percent-across-the-board Kemp-Roth tax cuts of the early 1980s, it was his civil rights advocacy within the Republican Party—a good 10 years later—that really stands out in my mind. Among conservatives my age, Jack Kemp personified the "empowerment agenda," a bold mix of economic and civil rights policies that was an attempt—along with the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act of 1990—to move the GOP domestic agenda forward in the wake of the first Persian Gulf War. The empowerment agenda brought together proposals for affordable housing, safer streets, education reform, and enterprise zones in what he hoped would be a "domestic Desert Storm." From his earliest days in Buffalo until his campaigning for the GOP last fall, he was committed to economic opportunity for all Americans, and wrote this last year about the class warfare arguments we were hearing in the campaign:

In my opinion, people of all colors and income levels don't hate the rich. They want to get rich. They're more interested in generating wealth than they are in redistributing wealth. They want to own property, educate their children and build a nest egg that can be passed on to their heirs. Unfortunately, some aren't able to access the same ladder of opportunity that is so readily available to the majority. ...

By giving people access to capital and allowing them to take ownership of assets, entrepreneurship will be encouraged and the cycle of poverty can begin to be broken. All persons should have the opportunity to go as high as their merit and determination can carry them. My favorite quote is from Abraham Lincoln, who said, "I don't believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else."

Lincoln's definition of entrepreneurial capitalism is the best I have ever heard.

That raspy voice and that easy smile are what I'll miss most about him. Upon his death, the Wall Street Journal said he was "among the most important Congressmen in U.S. history," and the L.A. Times named him "an original pillar in the Republican 'big tent,' " which, of the two, I'm sure would have been the epithet he would have chosen for himself. His tone and temperament are already long gone from Washington, which is a shame. He was not an angry guy. He was a "rising tide lifts all boats" kind of guy, and many times he was that rising tide, with his exuberance and enthusiasm.

I remember him urging the "young turks," as he called us staffers, not to buy into zero-sum politics. Don't think of the economy as some folks having larger pieces of pie and others having smaller, he'd say; instead, let's work to bake a bigger pie for everybody. He loved to speak in football analogies, and I remember having to brush up on sports lingo by calling my boyfriend (now husband) before writing talking points for Kemp at various political events. I loved that he called himself a "bleeding heart conservative."

I wish more politicians, especially on the right, had his upbeat, inclusive demeanor. Jack Kemp was optimistic when there was little to be optimistic about, fought for hope when there was little to hope for—both in politics and in his own battle against cancer. Today's Wall Street Journal agrees: "The GOP ... needs a rhetoric and a demeanor that invite all Americans to its cause. The Kemp-Reagan message was rooted in ideas but it also appealed broadly across ages and incomes because of its buoyant temperament. Jack Kemp's admirable life shows that it is possible to be a populist intellectual and a capitalist for the common man." Jack Kemp will be sorely missed.

On Facebook? You can keep up with Thomas Jefferson Street blog postings through Facebook's Networked Blogs.