Strassel: Bring Back the Jack Kemp GOP

Kim Strassel’s piece in the Wall Street Journal today is really good. Enjoy!

Bring Back the Jack Kemp GOP

Republican presidential candidates should embrace the anti-poverty initiatives championed by Kemp and Bob Woodson.

Some 30 years ago, an influential congressman named Jack Kemp gave a call to Bob Woodson, and in doing so became a Republican model for empowerment politics and minority outreach. A high-profile group of conservatives is staging a revival, looking to finally engage the modern left on the politics of the poor. Republican presidential candidates, pay attention.

As Hillary Clinton was rolling out her economic plan Monday—bashing Republicans as callous to the plight of struggling Americans—influential conservatives were taking to their own stage to respond. They know Democrats will make inequality a driving theme of the 2016 race, accusing the GOP of wanting to slash government funding for the needy, of driving policies that hurt the poor.

What they billed as an “anti-poverty summit” in Washington on Monday was a road map. Up on stage, three decades later, was none other than Mr. Woodson, a titan in conservatism on poverty issues. A veteran of the civil-rights fight, Mr. Woodson became disenchanted with the left’s devotion to failed government poverty programs. He started the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which transforms low-income areas from the inside out.

The philosophy is that low-income individuals and neighborhood organizations must play the central role in fixing their communities, and that these efforts benefit from free-market concepts like competition, entrepreneurship, efficiency and metrics. His first federal partner was Kemp, who embraced and evangelized the Woodson approach starting in the 1980s, using it to pass smart reforms, to champion innovations like “enterprise zones,” and to give his party a model for inspirational, anti-poverty politics. (A model his party quickly forgot.)

Joining Mr. Woodson on stage was (who else?) House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, a Kemp protégé who a few years ago became awed by CNE’s remarkable track record. The Wisconsin Republican worked the method into a new policy agenda, including his proposal last year to combine and transform federal poverty programs into “opportunity grants” that go to the states, and allow local administrators to get money to groups that actually work.

The message has meanwhile found a broader voice in a new conservative news site, Opportunity Lives, run by John Hart, a former staffer to retired Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. Its mission is to cover and hail conservative solutions, and it has already produced a high-quality, seven-part documentary called “Comeback” that features inspiring real-life stories out of the Woodson model. More than a half-million people have watched it.

Monday’s event featured all these players, as well as a celebrities such as NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, opinion-makers like National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, and scholars like the Manhattan Institute’s Fred Siegel. It follows a mid-June event at which House Speaker John Boehner offered a private screening of “Comeback,” attended by more than a dozen influential Republican leaders and members. Politicians nationally have requested briefings, and the concept is working its way into political discourse across the country.

The attraction is first and foremost great policy. Federal poverty programs fail because they are one-size-fits-all bureaucracies that keep recipients in dependency. As Mr. Woodson told me in an interview this week, this is because the left has created a poverty-industrial complex, in which most federal dollars go to “those providing the services—the social workers, the drug counselors. That entire structure is hostile to helping the poor, because these folks have their own financial interest.” The Woodson approach works because it is local, tailored, volunteer-oriented and gets money to the needy.

The Woodson approach will also resonate with most Americans, who live and serve in local communities, and understand the power of that over government handouts. It’s also a rebuttal to Democrats like Mrs. Clinton who claim Republicans don’t care. For the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios, orienting their campaigns around opportunity, this deserves central billing.

It’s even an inroad to minority voters, though Mr. Woodson warns that Republicans need to go beyond rhetoric. “I keep telling Republicans: Stop assuming the only way to appeal to blacks is through the race door. The untapped opportunity is the broken policies in these urban centers that are strangling the poor. Roll up your sleeves, go into your districts, meet the legitimate leaders, minister to their needs. Recruit the businesses that fund your campaigns to help. Democrats inherited these votes; Republicans have to earn them.”

Mr. Woodson points to politicians like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who drove reform making it easier for post-prison offenders to get their occupational licenses—and thus a job—and who won 25% of the black vote when re-elected in 2014.

The Kemp drive was influential in the GOP 1990s embrace of welfare reform, and the pity is the party retreated from that space. The 2016 race is a chance to re-embrace it, and give Mrs. Clinton a run for her own rhetoric.

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Filed under Op-Ed, paul ryan, Poverty

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