At the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, I had the unpleasant responsibility of telling Jack Kemp that he could not sit beside Jude Wanniski in the special area reserved for President George H. W. Bush’s cabinet. Wanniski, mentor to all supply-siders, had already begun his long descent into crackpottery; his efforts to oppose the the first Gulf War with his buddy Louis Farrakhan made him persona-non-grata in Republican loyalist circles. While I understood the Kemp-Wanniski friendship, as the special assistant to the president for cabinet affairs in the White House, I had to enforce the party line in Houston.
As I now recall, much of my time in the first Bush White House was spent saying “no” to Kemp. But I did so with little enthusiasm. Kemp was a troublemaker, yet it was hard not admire the effort. Ever since Bush had broken his no-new-taxes pledge, Kemp enjoyed grumbling about budget director Dick Darman and everyone else inside the White House whom he assumed was his enemy.
Like Wanniski, Kemp grew crankier and less politically reliable with age. Understandably, most of his obituaries focus on his glory days, linking his leadership in football to his eventual leadership in Congress. But the truth is, Kemp’s real contribution to Republican politics was his ability to create factions within his own party. That made him more exciting and interesting than most pols.
Look at his career. Kemp was more often a lone wolf, a dissenter, and a constant source of internecine warfare. The Kemp-Roth tax cuts, the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, were really intended as a Molotov cocktail thrown toward the Nixon-era GOP establishment. By the time Reagan came to town, Kemp was bad mouthing his former friend David Stockman. His entire “empowerment” agenda in the early 1990s was a burr beneath Bush White House chief of staff John Sununu’s saddle. When he was forced to be a team player as VP nominee to his former enemy Bob Dole, the charm, the clever arguments, and odd-ball alliance-building disappeared.
I think that today’s GOP doldrums are due to the fact that it doesn’t have enough renegades like Kemp who buck the party line. The Republican Party has always been at its most exciting when the establishment powers are thrown off their game (think Goldwater, Reagan, the early Gingrich, McCain in 2000). Today I see a handful of earnest opposition leaders who all agree with one another. No wonder no one is listening. Until Republicans start fighting with one another again, the party will have trouble finding the road back to popularity.