The Jack Kemp Legacy


Jack Kemp is dead, as you’ve probably read elsewhere. The most interesting part of Kemp’s legacy was his failed effort to get the Republican Party to make a serious effor to court African-American voters. To be the Party of Lincoln rather than the Part of Nixon. In retrospect, this looks quixotic. But to understand its appeal, recall that through the 1920s African-American voters strongly supported the GOP. This is sometimes glossed as a merely historic loyalty to the party of emancipation. But in fact civil rights issues were on the agenda during that period. It was under Woodrow Wilson that rights for America’s black citizens reached their nadir, and Warren Harding made an active, though ultimately failed, effort to secure an anti-lynching bill. The New Deal brought northern blacks into the Democratic Party coalition, and southern blacks generally couldn’t vote.

But in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower made meaningful efforts to court black voters and the distribution of black votes in 1952 and 1956 was not nearly as lopsided as it is today. Nixon and Kennedy, like Ike and Stevenson before them, both made efforts to simultaneously court southern whites and northrn blacks. And when Lyndon Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through congress, there were more “no” votes from Democratic members of congress than from Republicans. But by the time of Kemp’s prominence, the conservative movement had settled on a strategy of realigning conservative whites and indifference to the concerns of African-Americans, so Kemp’s ideas went nowhere.

On tax cuts, however, Kemp’s ideas went very far.

And looking back on the Reagan Era, during which Kemp had the most influence, it’s worth distinguishing between three different claims:

ONE: Extremely high marginal income tax rates are economically destruction because they encourage tons of tax-avoiding behavior.

TWO: The path to prosperity is an equilibrium of low taxes and low levels of government spending.

THREE: Tax cuts do so much to boost growth that they pay for themselves.

Of these three claims—all of which Kemp was associated with—the first is true, the second false, and the third ridiculous. And while they all kind of ran together to some extent in the context of the late-1970s, it’s worth noting that there’s actually considerable tension between these ideas. The first idea really does imply that something like a 70 percent top marginal tax rate should not be thought of as a sound scheme for generating revenues. On the other hand, it also does imply that raising taxes on the wealthy by curbing their deductions could raise significant revenues at little-to-no economic cost. But if you believe in (2) — that policymakers should be trying to make revenue as low as possible — then you’ll be unmoved by these considerations.

And if you believe in (3), which is nuts, then you’ll get what post-Kemp conservative rule has, in practice, brought us—namely large structural budget deficits.