A number of conservatives and Republicans are approvingly citing the late Jack Kemp, the GOP’s 1996 vice presidential candidate, as a major influence and model for Rep. Paul Ryan, the new VP candidate. That’s not a surprise; Ryan has often cited Kemp as one of his mentors. At his appearance with Mitt Romney in Manassas, Virginia Saturday afternoon, Ryan prominently mentioned Kemp as a mentor and also recognized the presence of Kemp’s widow, Joanne, at the event.
Many conservatives remember Kemp fondly. His advocacy of economic empowerment, tax cuts, and his description of himself as a “bleeding heart conservative” helped change the direction of the Republican party. And Kemp, like Ryan today, got a chance to advance his ideas on a national stage when Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, chose Kemp as his vice presidential candidate.
But whatever his other virtues, Kemp was, by nearly all accounts, a terrible candidate. Not only did he do a memorably bad job in his one debate with then-Vice President Al Gore, he showed a remarkable indiscipline on the campaign trail. He did nothing to help Dole, whose candidacy was awful in its own way. From George Will’s angry and entirely accurate account published a couple of days before the 1996 voting:
Dole has cried out to the country, “Where’s the outrage?” Well, there are overflowing reservoirs of it in Republican ranks regarding Dole’s running mate, whose campaign was a prolonged dance of narcissism. Like the Cheshire cat’s grin, nothing lingers from Jack Kemp’s campaign but the image of him preening about being too virtuous to be “divisive” by making a sustained, principled attack on the people who, by enforcing racial preferences, are dividing the country with a racial spoils system. Kemp, who scolded some Republicans for not being loyal team players, said, shortly before Dole belatedly took up the issue of racial preferences, that Dole, too, was too pure to do that.
Kemp’s traducing of conservatism and common sense was wide-ranging. Evidently prompted by a crackpot adviser (Jude Wanniski, who thinks the Second World War was caused by Germany’s tax and monetary policies), Kemp praised the “wonderful” message of the lunatic Farrakhan. Kemp attacked Clinton’s foreign policy from the left (“Don’t bomb before breakfast”), by criticizing Clinton for asserting American power without seeking the permission of allies. Republicans should apologize to the country for proposing to put Kemp near the presidency.
Ryan, whose tribute to Kemp is based on personal gratitude as well as philosophical debt, is a very different man. And there is no reason to believe he will be anything like Kemp as a vice presidential candidate. To be clear: Ryan will be vastly better. So why should Republicans cite Kemp as a model for what their candidate should be today?