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The Kemp Legacy

(Reprinted from SOBRAN’S, September 1996, page 1)

Bob Dole has always been a hard-sell Republican, and in picking Jack Kemp as his running mate he has finally recognized the advantages of the soft sell. Kemp is a salesman of ideas, his chief one being supply-side economics, with such corollaries as enterprise zones.

The basic idea of supply-side economics is to cut a deal with the welfare state. Nobody denies that at some point tax rates may get so high that they actually take in lower revenues than lower rates would; during the 1980s the supply-siders, led by Kemp, contended that tax rates were already above the optimium point, so that tax cuts would bring in more money. The taxpayer and the government would both get richer, and Republicans would reap popularity for tax cuts without incurring unpopularity by cutting off people’s federal checks.

Ingenious. And after the Reagan administration sought, and got, tax cuts, federal revenues did increase. But this isn’t the simple vindication of supply-side economics that some conservatives assume. For one thing, the tax cuts were soon offset by tax increases, of which Bob Dole was a chief proponent, so it’s hard to say whether the cuts caused the jump in revenues.

Moreover, federal spending increases far outstripped the revenue gains, nearly doubling during the Reagan-Bush years (despite the myth, promulgated by both parties for opposite reasons, that Republicans were“slashing” federal spending).

Part of the supply-side vision was that Republicans wouldn’t have to fight against popular entitlement programs. As the private economy boomed, the welfare state would wither. So Kemp and his allied didn’t bestir themselves to control spending. They were taking the path of least resistance, while counting on an economic miracle to dispose of the hard task of resisting socialism.

It didn’t work. Congress spent and spent. The revenue gains only encouraged it in its worst habits. All we have to show for supply-side economics is a monstrous federal debt.

Meanwhile, conservatives forgot their real mission of repealing the growth of the federal government and restoring the constitutional limits transgressed by the New Deal and the Great Society. Kemp has never shown the slightest sense of constitutional principle. He gladly accepted appointment as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under George Bush and in that office pushed for record budgets.

If Republicans are willing to forget the Constitution, far be it from the Democrats to raise the subject. The Dole-Kemp conjunction is a guarantee that the Constitution won’t be heard from after its brief and perfunctory mention in next year’s oaths of office.

Kemp talks about“ideas” with a booster’s enthusiasm, but his own ideas lack the definition and proportion of serious thought. It’s almost impossible to imagine him reading Jefferson, Madison, or even Lincoln, let alone Aristotle — thinkers who understood the first principle of political philosophy, which is that you can’t have it both ways. The desire to have it both ways is as typical of Kemp as of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton himself.

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