As they engage in soul-searching about their party’s future in the wake of a disappointing 2012 election, some younger Republicans are finding inspiration from the past.
Jack Kemp, the late pro football player, New York representative, presidential candidate, and vice presidential nominee, is making a comeback. His penchant for supply-side economic theory remains popular with the GOP, but it’s Kemp’s work to improve the quality of life for the inner-city poor that holds particular appeal now as a model for Republican outreach.
Two of the party’s rising stars, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, are leading the charge. Ryan, who once worked as a speechwriter at Kemp’s Empower America think tank, is a longtime devotee and cited the former politician as an influence while he campaigned for vice president with GOP nominee Mitt Romney. He was last year’s recipient of the Kemp Leadership Award, which went to Rubio this year.
The two men, among the top presidential prospects for 2016, must find ways to speak to a larger segment of the country than rural and suburban white voters. Rubio has become a Republican champion of immigration reform and wants to broaden his portfolio (a college football player, he also shares a love of the sport with Kemp, a professional quarterback who captained both the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills). Ryan, though best known for his budgets that slash spending and seek to rein in entitlement costs, has long wanted to expand the reach of Republican economic policies beyond the base.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who was the policy director at Empower America, said conservatives are increasingly realizing “there is a political potency” to Kemp’s antipoverty message. “When you address your concerns to the poor, that sends a signal to the nonpoor as well which is that you care about them and you think you have an agenda for them,” he said.
Both Ryan and Rubio are looking to Kemp, who spoke of waging a war on poverty throughout his career. As the Housing and Urban Development secretary under President George H.W. Bush, he made a push to increase tenant ownership in public housing and lure businesses into the inner cities through enterprise zones. His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but left a blueprint for today’s party.
“I would take a hard look at what Jack advocated and how he approached things and it may be a road map for us to start showing that we’re not only a conservative party but we’re also one that really cares about people who are having a difficult time,” retiring Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who served with Kemp in Congress, said by way of advice to younger members.
Ryan is largely at the helm of the Kemp comeback because of his prominence during the 2012 election. He made a last-ditch attempt on the campaign trail to draw attention to these issues with a speech focused on upward mobility at Cleveland State University in late October.
“We are speaking to all Americans in this campaign, because we believe, as Jack Kemp believed, that economic growth and equality of opportunity are the surest path to the pursuit of happiness,” he said in the speech, which he had pushed to give much earlier in the fall. A longtime aide said that had he become vice president, Ryan would have sought to expand on those ideas as he traveled the country.
But there will be a limit to Kemp’s influence on the economic front. While Republicans have embraced the tax cuts and supply-side economics Kemp advocated, they have also turned their attention to limiting the size and scope of government and reforming entitlements – decidedly un-Kempian policies.
“I think he had a much different message than the current Republican Party has,” said conservative analyst James Pinkerton, an aide in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and a longtime Kemp ally. “In 25 years of knowing Jack Kemp, I don’t think I ever heard him saying that balancing the budget was an important goal.”
The same goes for entitlement reform, which Pinkerton said Kemp would not have been talking about in the current climate. “He always talked about expanding the pie and he was visibly uncomfortable when it came to the idea of either cutting the size of government or limiting the size of government,” Pinkerton said.
For all the renewed prominence he has given Kemp’s political approach, Ryan is at the core of the movement to slash the federal government and restructure entitlements. Democrats have long tried to thwart Republican attempts to appear more compassionate by saying that Ryan’s budget and Medicare reforms come down the hardest on the poorest Americans.