Jack Kemp, former Republican Congressman from New York and who also served as first President Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the GOP vice presidential nominee in 1996, died over the weekend at the age of 73. Before serving in the Congress, Kemp was a top pro football quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
A few days before Kemp’s death, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, also a Republican, left the GOP and declared himself a Democrat. While Specter’s loss to the GOP was headline news across the country, Kemp’s passing barely rated notice among the national media. Yet, Kemp’s loss is more revealing of the state of the national Republican Party than is Specter’s symbolic defection.
Jack Kemp’s passing signals the loss of one of the best of the young, energetic conservative leaders who cut their teeth on the Goldwater-Reagan movement that truly was the birth of what had been, until the presidency of Bush II, the modern Republican Party – a movement that culminated in the Reagan presidency of 1980-88. Whether one liked or disliked Kemp as a candidate or Republican leader, it is undisputed that he conveyed a sense of energy, charisma, and strong conservstism that was both broadly based and clear. His was a brand of politics rarely seen or heard in the Republican Party of this early 21st Century. Precious few Republican leaders on the national scene today are able to match those qualities as exhibited by Kemp during and after his congressional career.
Instead, the Republican Party today is administered by tired functionaries, most of who, like Specter, cannot bear to give up their hold on power no matter how unworthy they might be in terms of exercising that power. The messages they deliver are vague, garbled and inconsistent. Specter, one of the GOP’s more tired and long-serving members, left his party with a meaningless statement that the “Republican philosophy” was less to his liking than that of the Democratic Party. Even now, Specter obviously fails to grasp the reality that the Republican Party arguably no longer even has a “philosophy,” and is little different in the size and power of government it champions than is the party Specter now embraces. It has all been reduced to the lowest of the lowest common denominators — which of the two major political parties that jointly enjoy a virtual monopoly on power offers the best chance for one’s electoral win. “Philosophy” has precious little to do with it.
Although he never won the hignest office to which he aspired, Jack Kemp’s years in politics were characterized by developing and implementing a broad conservative philosophy of governance that allowed also for significant diversity. The fact that the GOP eschewed that philosophy and energy in favor of what they have today, explains in large measure what they are today.