Conservative writer D.R. Tucker has a great summary in Ripon Forum on the political career of Jack Kemp, the former GOP congressman from New York and 1988 Presidential candidate. Before “compassionate conservatism” was a catchphrase, Kemp embodied a Reaganesque conservatism, that was inclusive. Here’s how Kemp described what conservatism should be back in 1990 (with Tucker providing a good introduction):
First and foremost, Kemp was a conservative evangelist, taking the message of free markets and free people to every corner of the country. In his mind, conservatism was a philosophy that could be understood and embraced by virtually every American. Kemp was driven by his recognition that the welfare state sabotaged the American Dream. He noted in a 1990 Wall Street Journal piece that America:
“…is separated or divided into two economies. One economy—our mainstream economy—is democratic and capitalist, market-oriented and entrepreneurial…[But] there is another economy—a second economy that is similar in respects to the East European or Third World socialist economies. It functions in a fashion opposite to the mainstream capitalist economy. It predominates in the pockets of poverty throughout urban and rural America. This economy has barriers to productive human and social activity and a virtual absence of economic incentives and rewards. It denies black, Hispanic and other minority men and women entry into the mainstream. This economy works almost as effectively as did hiring notices 50 years ago that read ‘No Blacks—or Hispanics or Irish or whatever—Need Apply.’ The irony is that the second economy was born of [a] desire to help the poor, alleviate suffering, and provide a basic social safety net. The results were a counterproductive economy. Instead of independence, the second economy led to dependence. In an effort to minimize economic pain, it maximized welfare bureaucracy and social costs.”
The GOP doesn’t really have a voice like this anymore, though I think George W. Bush tried (and failed). It’s not that today’s GOP is the racist rump that some think it is, but they are not focused as much on how to help lift up minorities trapped in poverty as someone like a Jack Kemp was.
However, there is one thing that I am having trouble agreeing with. Writing after the 1998 midterm elections, Kemp wrote this about the troubling signs with the GOP’s stance on social issues (again, Tucker provides the intro):
While Kemp was a firm pro-lifer, he was conscious of the GOP’s need to avoid being perceived as the “theocon” party. In a November 1998 Washington Post column, Kemp noted:
“The [1998 midterms] demonstrated the limitations of a political campaign built around only cultural and social issues. It is impossible to separate the culture from the economy; a strong culture requires a strong economy. Those party intellectuals and opinion leaders who gambled this election on a cultural backlash are now licking their wounds and pondering their failures. There is absolutely a place for them in the party of Lincoln, but it can’t be in a dictatorial role. Conservative social engineering is every bit as presumptuous as liberal social engineering…Americans prefer to receive their spiritual fulfillment in churches, synagogues and mosques. They are conservative in their values but they want a progressive conservatism, not a reactionary conservatism… Reagan espoused a conservatism that was based on traditional values and morality without legislating personal behavior. He knew that economic growth, personal freedom and equality of opportunity will allow America’s faith-based institutions to thrive and provide a moral compass without government interference.”
I think that Kemp might be a little bit right and a little bit wrong here. For those of us on who don’t consider ourselves part of the Religious Right, this seems obvious. But something that I think Ronald Regan understood is that culture and the economy can and most often do go together. In fact, it’s hard to talk about putting bread on the table without talking about values. Ross Douthat wrote a good piece earlier this year on why the culture wars persist:
From election to election, politics is mostly about jobs and the economy and the state of the public purse — which is as it should be. But the arguments that we remember longest, that define what it means to be democratic and American, are often the debates over human life and human rights, public morals and religious freedom – culture war debates, that is, in all their many forms.
Thus Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, is more famous today than, say, the Panic of 1893. The slogan “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” is better remembered than any of Grover Cleveland’s economic policies. The debates over Prohibition and women’s suffrage loom larger than Warren Harding’s early-1920s tax cuts.
The fact of the matter is that we all have a culture and those issues bubble up to fore as much as bread and butter economic issues. Faith plays a critical role here as well. It’s silly to expect that our faith be limited to the church or synogogue or mosque, as if it were some kind of weekend hobby. Faith pervades our very lives and usually won’t be contained to a once-a-week devotion. Liberal and conservative persons of faith put their beliefs front and center even if they don’t say so, because faith is something that is lived out in daily life, not confined to homes and places of worship.
That said, the reason Rick Santorum is not going to win the GOP nomination is because his stance on social issues is so much out in front in proportion to his economic agenda. I don’t think social conservatism is going away, and I don’t think the GOP is going to return to the socially liberal days of George Romney. But such a loud social conservatism ala Santorum or Michelle Bachmann is not going to grow the GOP either.
Which is why I miss Jack Kemp and why we need someone like him today. Social conservatives might always be with us, but they don’t have to be firebrands like Santorum, they could have the finesse of a Kemp who showed a more excellent conservatism.