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Remembering Jack Kemp

By Peter RoffFellow, Institute for Liberty/Former Senior Political Writer, United Press International

On Saturday Jack Kemp, one of the intellectual engines that propelled Reagan-era conservatism forward as a mainstream political idea, died after a long battle with cancer. Forever youthful, energetic into his 70s and JFK-like in his passion for ideas, Kemp helped reshape the Republican Party in ways that strengthened its appeal to middle- and working-class voters.

With an almost singled-minded devotion to the American ideal, in the 1970s Kemp became a most enthusiastic supporter of supply-side economics, a theory that essentially held that allowing people to keep more of what they earned by cutting tax rates would fuel growth in the economy.

History has proved him right. Today, throughout the world, the supply-side theory is a revealed truth to all those who value hard work, initiative and, above all, liberty.

It was quite an accomplishment for a son of southern California who once earned his living as a professional quarterback. As Jeffrey Lord, a former Kemp aide wrote several months ago in The American Spectator, "In a day and age when many members of Congress use their office for nothing grander than prying grandma's Social Security check out of the federal morass and issuing a press release telling the world, Kemp, elected in 1970, set about an entirely different task."

"He began schooling himself, and eventually his party, about the difference between bread slicing and bread baking economics," Lord wrote. Eventually the lessons took as former California Gov. Ronald Reagan embraced the theory, making the move to supply-side part of the GOP platform at the 1980 Republican convention and taking it as the basis for the game-changing tax cuts of his first years in office.

Kemp was equally passionate on the subject of race. The last time I saw him, almost five years ago at a meeting in New York City he was urging a group of potential congressional candidates to remember that they represented "the party of Lincoln." And that as Lincoln's heirs they had a responsibility to reach out to the poor, the disenfranchised and the nation's minority communities to show that the GOP had an agenda for them. That it wanted to help them rise up, to succeed, to acquire wealth and to be able to realize the "American Dream," a better life for their children than they themselves had.

He also helped to change the party in Congress. As a member of the Republican leadership, Kemp provided support and cover to a group of "young Turks" elected in the late 70s and alongside Ronald Reagan in 1980 who wanted to use conservative values to help restore America. And those young leaders, who included future House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his colleagues in what they called the Conservative Opportunity Society, used every avenue available to them to draw meaningful contrasts with the Democrats who at that time had controlled the House of Representatives for nearly 30 years.

It took a little bit longer to change things, but more than one of the ideas in the Contract with America that finally moved the Republicans into the majority in 1994 could be traced back to initiatives first taken up by Kemp during his years in Congress.

The Republican Party, and the nation, owes Jack Kemp a debt of thanks that can never be repaid. Today, wherever someone is working hard to make a success of himself or herself, they can thank Jack Kemp that they have the chance to do so, rather than turn over 70 percent of their income to the government in the form of taxes. He was the voice of the middle class in America, the strivers, the dreamers, those who believe in the infinite possibility of their own potential to achieve.

Kemp never made it to the White House. But he had a greater influence on America's future than many who did. He will be missed but he also will be remembered.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom, a group promoting consumer choice throughout the marketplace.