Pondering Reagan-Kemp In 1980
June 1, 2009
By Bruce Walker
1980 is yesterday for some of us, a long time ago for others of us, and the misty realm of medieval history for others of us. But history and the list of decision that history represents is our future. In 1980, Congressman Jack Kemp was one of the major front-runners to be Ronald Reagan's running mate. James Roberts, President of Radio America and Executive Director of the American Conservative Union from 1974 to 1977, has written a wonderful "insider" article in the May 20 issue of Human Events which explains why Jack Kemp was not Ronald Reagan's running mate. As luck would have it, I had just finished this article on the impact of Jack Kemp as Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1980.
How would history have changed if Reagan picked - insisted, really - that Jack Kemp be his running mate? Congressman Kemp at this time had just celebrated his 41st Birthday: he was young, handsome, energetic, articulate, and friendly. Jack Kemp, like Ronald Reagan, had been a union president. Kemp, like Reagan, was a famous and popular success long before entering politics, a quarterback who led his team to championships. His congressional district, a traditional Democrat stronghold, re-elected him easily time after time. In a way unlike any other Republican except for Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp had a close and natural connection with ordinary Americans.
But there was much more to Kemp than that, just like there was much more to Reagan than the Left ever imagined. Both men were voracious readers, serious thinkers, students of history, and masters of language. It was a mark of their genius that so many Americans viewed them as ordinary, average Americans.
Would the ticket have won in 1980? Both these strong, pleasant conservatives were bulletproof on personal issues, clear in their message, articulate in its presentation, and natural talents before the television camera. As that election went, Carter only carried five states. Kemp was a much better debater and campaigner than George H. Bush. Yes, the Reagan Landslide, if anything, would have been greater.
The Reagan Presidency would also have been at least as successful under Vice President Kemp as under Vice President Bush. Could Kemp have won the White House in 1988? George H. Bush, a mediocre campaigner, won 40 of the 50 states and a huge electoral landslide. One of the ten stated Dukakis carried was New York, Jack Kemp's home state, but he carried it in a squeaker. Not only would Kemp have crushed Dukakis, but this very popular New York congressman probably would have won by a huger landslide, carrying New York as well.
A Kemp Presidency would have been much different from a Bush Presidency. Jack Kemp, already young and handsome, would have chosen someone besides Dan Quayle as his running mate. Howard Baker would never have been mocked like Quayle was. If either Governor Deukmajian or Senator Wilson from California had been Kemp's running mater, Kemp would have not only won in 1988 but 1992 as well.
What would Kemp have done? He would have continued, for eight more years, the Reagan Revolution. There would have been no tax increases, which cost Bush the support of Perot voters and many conservative Republicans, as well as economic prosperity in the 1992 election season. The Reagan Boom would have continued for at least sixteen years.
Kemp would never have nominated David Souter to the Supreme Court. He would have nominated good men and women until a true conservative was on the bench. Jack Kemp, as president from 1993 to 1997, would not have nominated Stephen Breyer or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Supreme Court today would have seven strong conservatives, one wobbly moderate, and John Paul Stevens. How different would American social history have been with that sort of Supreme Court?
Kemp was more concerned with economic and domestic policy than Bush, but he was a strong anti-communist. The Berlin Wall fell because of Reagan, not Bush. The Soviet Empire collapsed because of Reagan, not Bush. What Kemp might have done, and which Bush did not, is use the Tiananmen Square popular revolt against the rulers of China and transform that into a genuine and unstoppable freedom movement. How different would the world be today, if China was a pro-Western democracy like the Czech Republic?
The economy, the Supreme Court, and our national security would all have been much better off in 1997 under sixteen years of the Reagan Revolution than under four years of Bush I and then four years of Clinton. Perhaps, though, the greatest victory would have been for conservatism itself. Jack Kemp would not have purged the Executive Branch of true conservatives like Bush did. He would have elevated them, given them experience and exposure. He would have groomed them to lead the conservative movement after he left the White House. In this happy, friendly man, Americans would have seen much of what they loved in Reagan. If Kemp had been picked in 1980, the Reagan Revolution starting in 1981 would probably have ended in total victory twelve years ago.