By Jerry Bowyer
May 4, 2009 for Forbes.com
We’re going to need another Jack Kemp. We’re in the same mess now as we were when he rose to prominence in the 1970s: rising taxes, energy rationing, and a misguided belief that we can counter all of that with the printing press. We’re going to need someone who can understand the fundamental truth of the Laffer Curve, and still has the charisma to lead men and women in the political sphere.
I owe Jack Kemp a lot–we all do. His supply-side optimism helped supplant the near-universal conservative pan-gloomism of the ’70s. George Gilder wrote the book, and Reagan won the White House, but before both of them, Kemp cracked the code. Kemp took the groundbreaking and brilliant work of Art Laffer and Robert Mundell and turned it into a real political movement and real-world legislation (and rescued it from becoming a Jude Wanniski cult). Kemp helped Reagan to convert from Goldwater-root-canal-high-tax-low-deficit economics and gave the GOP a new lease on life.
Kemp should have been the successor, but the Bush dynasty pulled their many strings and won the White House, and the party lost something. The Republicans have wandered in the economic wilderness, to some degree, ever since. Bush Sr. governed as a Keynesian. So did Clinton, in his first term. In his second term, Clinton governed as a supply-sider. Bush Jr. never really had it clear in his mind: demand-side tax cuts in 2001, supply-side tax cuts in 2003, Sarbanes-Oxley financial strangulation, car-crushing CAFE standards, mark-to-market, bailouts–a mixed supply-side legacy at best.
Now, as everybody and their brother tells us that the only way for the GOP to get back on top again is to stop all this tax-cutting and supply-side growth stuff, it is worth asking whether the Kemp/Reagan formula is obsolete.
I, for one, do not believe that it is.
The main thing about Kempism is that it actually worked. What the big-government conservatives can’t see from their perches at think tanks and newspapers is reality. Central planning doesn’t work. I don’t care about the emerging voting patterns of bo-bos (David Brooks’ “bohemian bourgeois”). I don’t care if the lawyers and nonprofit executives who live in their planned communities hate Sarah Palin and swoon at Barack Obama. I don’t care about any of that, because politics is not the final word; reality is. That’s what Kemp got, and so many in the party now do not.
The central planning political consensus was at least as strong in the 1970s as it is now. David Frum should know that: He wrote a fine history of that awful decade. I’m sure that if there had been blogs back then, Washington conservatives would have told us how out of touch Kemp (and Reagan) were with the political consensus, and they would have been right. But they would have been wrong, too, because in the end, the political consensus does not rule the land; reality does.
Foreign affairs and terror prevention were incredibly passé in the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. No one wanted to talk about that stuff. Books about it did not sell. Then, reality caught up with our Utopian illusion: Indifference didn’t work in defending us against the jihadists. More handcuffs on the CIA and the FBI than on the terrorists in the name of civil liberties didn’t work, either. Reality won again, and the political consensus lost.
This will happen again–in economics. Bushbamanomics, the new Washington consensus, will fail. Just as Nix-Carternomics did. They violate the iron laws of created human nature–and so, they must fail.
Where is the next Kemp to be found? Not from the big government right. Yes, they’ll keep their titles as the holders of the So and So Chair at the D.C. Institute for C-SPAN 2 Appearances, funded by some poor, deceased entrepreneur. They’ll still be The New York Times‘ favorite conservatives. They’ll still appear on PBS regularly; but they won’t lead the party.
He (or she) won’t come from the gloomy right, who love to drone in Spenglerian tones about the inevitable decline of the Republic. I didn’t sign on to Reagan/Kemp to “stand athwart history yelling stop.” That’s the left’s job. They were the ones who tried to stop history, to push it back into the bottle, to stifle the whirlwind of creative destruction. I signed up for the Reagan/Kemp program to stand behind history and kick it hard in the butt, yelling “get moving again.” “Create microchips and miracle drugs. Get the Soviets into the ash bin of history, quickly. Bring the slums of Calcutta and Soweto into the modern world.”
Our recent crop of GOP pretenders has been most un-Kempian. Kemp understood that reality has the power to bring people with very different agendas and concerns together. I remember one of the big media liberal pundits speaking about the GOP convention in 1984, I think, after Kemp spoke. It might have been Sam Donaldson. He said “These Republicans think they can take born-again Christians and combine them with high-tech entrepreneurs. It won’t work.”
But it did work. It worked because high-tech entrepreneurs needed lower taxes, and Reagan gave it to them. Born-again Christians were right, the sexual revolution didn’t liberate the culture; it degraded it. These two groups didn’t have a lot of personal chemistry between them, nor either with the foreign policy hawks who were the real “realists” of the cold war. Personal chemistry didn’t bring these people together–reality did. All reality needed was a guy who was willing to search for the truth about the way the world works, to disconnect his flinch reactions about how the political culture would react to the truth, and then explain the basic truths of things over and over again with joy. Jack Kemp was that guy.
Now, of course, smaller men divide up the coalition that Kemp conceived and Reagan created. Some of them talk at length about the sanctity of life but then lash out at the “Club for Greed.” Some will cut taxes to the bone, but are bored by dead babies. They believe in “divide and conquer,” but of their friends, not their opponents.
Let me offer some thoughts on where the next Kemp will (and will not) come from: probably not from the establishment. Washington doesn’t grow problem-solvers, it grows power-accumulators. I’m talking about the rightand the left. I’m talking about those in the network of think tanks, lobbying firms and advocacy groups, which constitute the government in exile. The first group crowds around the president; the second group crowds around the money. Neither actually face anything like economic reality. The next Kemp will really get economics, but will be an outsider to the profession. Economics is often best learned outside of a graduate school of economics. Kemp learned it while cooking breakfast for Art Laffer and peppering Art with questions. Of course, Kemp really learned his economics by growing up in an entrepreneurial household.
Laffer is still with us, and still a generous teacher. So are Kudlow and Forbes. My guess is that the next Kemp will be a reader of Laffer, a watcher of Kudlow and a subscriber of Forbes. This person will not have to try to remarry faith and entrepreneurship, because the two were never properly divorced. The conservative establishment will say, “who is that? I’ve never met them at any of our gatherings.” But he (or she) will have energy, and enthusiasm, and problem-solving ability, and more ambition for ideas than for power.
History is about to enter another ditch. Someone will need to stand behind it and give it a hard kick in the butt and yell “get moving again.” I can hardly wait.
Jerry Bowyer is chairman of Bowyer Media and a CNBC contributor.