The End of GOP Optimism
By: Rich Lowry, Politico
March 16, 2016
Marco Rubio’s speech suspending his campaign after his crushing loss in the Florida primary was a requiem for an entire style of Republican politics.
Rubio represented an upbeat, opportunity-oriented vein in the GOP that ran through George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism back to the late supply-sider Jack Kemp, who practically made a civic religion out of optimism and inclusivity.
Donald Trump has grabbed this Kempian tradition by the collar and frog-marched it from the room with all the delicacy of one of his security guards ejecting a troublesome protester from a rally.
Kemp, a former pro quarterback who was a congressman from Buffalo for years, then a presidential candidate in 1988 and Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996, was the chief proponent of the Reagan tax cuts. To read the recent biography of him by journalists Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke, “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America,” is to be struck by Kemp’s touching naïveté and impossible idealism by the standards of the 2016 GOP race.
Kemp eschewed personal attacks and opposed negative campaigning. He believed in ideas and in policy. “The purpose of politics,” he said, “is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas than the opposition.” And the central idea was, always and everywhere, tax cuts.
Kemp wanted the GOP to be another “natural home of African-Americans,” and it was said of him that thanks to his football career he’d “showered with more African-Americans than most Republicans had ever met.” He favored a liberal, openhanded posture on immigration. He cared deeply about the plight of the urban poor, and about what he called — long before Jeb Bush organized his super PAC — “the right to rise.”
In foreign policy, he was a friend of freedom and stalwart advocate of human rights.
When he ran for president in 1988, it was as the candidate of what he described, fulsomely, as “the progressive, conservative, radical, revolutionary Lincoln Emancipation wing of the Republican Party.”
Kemp influenced the debate and a generation of conservatives, but his own flaws as a highly undisciplined candidate and the monomania with which he hewed to his ideas — many of them quixotic, like a return to the gold standard — limited him as a candidate at the national level.
The gospel of optimism was also a bit much for Republican voters, even then. But Kempism lived on in George W. Bush, whose compassionate conservatism was latitudinarian on immigration and concerned with urban uplift, and hoped to win over minorities by softening conservatism’s edges.
Bush’s foremost domestic achievement was an enormous tax cut, and his Freedom Agenda was a Kemp-like advocacy of human rights on steroids.
This year, as Ross Douthat of The New York Times notes, Trump has crushed Bushism underfoot. It is true that Trump has his own large-scale supply-side tax cut, but it has been an afterthought compared with his main themes of immigration restriction, protectionism and a robustly nationalistic Jacksonian foreign policy.
Not only does Trump represent a substantive rebuke to Bushism, he has wielded a personal wrecking ball at the Bush family. While Jeb was still in the race, the guiding principle of Trump’s campaign was to insult him as much as possible, and his brother when he could.
When Jeb dropped out, Trump turned his attention to the destruction of Rubio, a candidate who was Kempian in tone and affect. Rubio talked about the 21st century economy as a challenge and an opportunity, whereas Trump voters tend to see it as a threat.
“I ask,” a visibly exhausted Rubio said in his Florida speech, “the American people do not give in to the fear, do not give in to the frustration.” Actually, if the Trumpian plurality in the Republican electorate has anything to say about it, fear and frustration will be high on the nation’s agenda in the fall.
Trump’s iteration of the Republican Party won’t have a bleeding heart; it will be out for blood. Far from eschewing negative campaigning, personal abuse — and threats — will be its calling card. It will care less about policy than attitude and shibboleths. Electorally, it will repel minorities and hope to run up the score with whites. It won’t have an open hand on immigration but will talk of mass deportation. It won’t care about human rights, and in fact will be happy to violate them — or threaten to — as the national interest and a desire for vengeance dictate.
The politics of Jack Kemp were flawed in many ways — he was wrong on immigration and too obsessed with reliving the glory days of the Reagan tax cuts — and the party was due for a populist refurbishing. Yet Kemp represented a belief in the future and the power of ideas that was admirable, and at its best, invigorating.
Today, the most prominent representative of Kempism is the supply-sider’s former protégé House Speaker Paul Ryan, an earnest policy wonk who has labored for Kempian ideas for decades. At this moment, it looks like his reward may well be presiding over a Republican convention that crowns Trump as the party’s nominee and most important national voice.