It is not unusual to hear those in the conservative movement openly crave the emergence of another Ronald Reagan. Many in our country today long for the strong leadership and clarity of vision of our 40th president, who inspired a nation mired in self-doubt to believe in its own greatness again. But another figure from the Reagan political era also serves an excellent model for contemporary conservative candidates to emulate, especially those who seek to balance principles with electability.
If Ronald Reagan was the Dwight Eisenhower of the “conservative revolution,” then Jack Kemp was the George Patton. The former Congressman, cabinet secretary and vice presidential nominee was the one who translated Reagan’s vision to legislative success by serving as the chief author of the Reagan tax cuts and the leading congressional champion for supply side economic principles.. Kemp knew how to both win with a broad-base of support and govern as a principled conservative.
The rise of the Tea Party movement over the past few months has presented the Republican Party with both an opportunity and a threat, as it has highlighted a schism between the party’s “establishment” and its own grassroots members over who can claim the mantle of true “conservative.”
The impetus for the Tea Party movement was based on the American people’s frustration with Democrat economic policies, especially as they related to taxes, spending and the role of government over private industry. In fact, the letters “T.E.A.” stand for “Taxed Enough Already.”
This is the proper message a unified Republican Party should hammer home in the closing days of the midterm elections—we are taxed enough and the government spends too much.
But the success of Tea Party-endorsed candidates in Republican primaries has raised concerns and drawn attention to the downside of turning congressional primaries into a litmus test for conservative purity. For conservatives to both win and govern, we need to attract independents and open-minded Democrats behind a positive and inclusive message, not an angry and divisive approach.
Time to channel our inner Jack Kemp.
He was bedrock conservative—a staunch cold warrior that supported the spread of freedom around the world, believed in the expansion of our national defense, tirelessly promoted the free market system, and was the most passionate crusader for tax cuts of his time.
Like his presidential mentor, Kemp also had an innate ability to communicate a fiercely conservative message in a way that appealed to non-traditional Republicans. He was reelected for almost two decades in an urban working-class congressional district in Upstate New York comprised largely of the swing voters of the time, “Reagan Democrats.”
More legendary was his commitment to delivering his optimistic and hopeful conservative message across every barrier of race, ethnicity and creed. This set the gold standard for a party that tended to be awkward and less adept in connecting with minority communities.
His enthusiasm for, and faith in his message, coupled with his unshakeable love for individual freedom, capitalism and liberty should endure in our contemporary conservative movement.
Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania stand as bright spots in a year when many qualified and more electable conservatives have fallen in primaries to unproven challengers whose most dominant virtue was being outside of the political establishment. This is not a long-term winning strategy for the conservative agenda or the Republican Party.
With public opinion more closely aligned with Republicans on the issues that matter to them most—jobs, the economy, taxes and spending—now is the time to unite around those concerns, not seek to divide the voters on the basis of ideological purity. The American people are angry at the direction the country is headed and rightfully so. Republican leaders and conservative candidates, however, need to be able to tap into that anger while pivoting it into a positive and optimistic message.
What the Republican Party needs right now is more “happy warriors” like Jack Kemp—candidates who remain faithful to their conservative principles but actively seek broader support. This is the real model for conservative victory in November. I can only hope that we don’t squander this historic opportunity.
Tony Sayegh, Jr. served as a press aide to Jack Kemp in the office of Vice Presidential Communications during the 1996 Dole/Kemp Presidential Campaign, when Kemp was the Republican nominee for Vice President. He is a Republican consultant who advises candidates at the local, state and federal level nationwide. Tony also appears regularly as a Republican analyst on the Fox News Channel and weekly on Fox News.com's "The Strategy Room." You can e-mail Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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