Ideas! Optimism! Compassion!

Ideas! Optimism! Compassion!

Ideas! Optimism! Compassion!

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 17 1996 3:30 AM

Ideas! Optimism! Compassion!

The philosophy of Jack Kemp.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Jack Kemp is a man of ideas. Jack Kemp is compassionate, a self-described "bleeding-heart conservative." Jack Kemp is optimistic. These are the three great strengths Kemp is said to bring to the Republican ticket. And the downside? Judging from the media coverage, Kemp's only problem is that he may be too good for the job: too reasonable for his extreme-conservative party, too idealistic to get along with the world-weary Bob Dole, too boyishly bumptious to sit quietly in second place.


Kemp is neither a phony nor a cynic. He is sincere, well-meaning, and impossible not to like. But he has gotten an amazing free pass, since Dole chose him last week, on his three alleged strengths.

Take his so-called ideas. Kemp does, indeed, love ideas. But he loves them the way a rare-book collector loves his leather volumes. He loves to acquire them, own them, fondle them, display them--everything but open them up and read them. Similarly, Kemp adds "ideas" to his collection--supply-side economics, the gold standard, enterprise zones, school vouchers--then immediately puts them behind glass. A real man of ideas loves to play with ideas. Kemp just loves to repeat them.

It's laughably easy to get a reputation as a thinker in Washington. At least Kemp, unlike the last man of ideas in American politics, Gary Hart, does not posture as the chin-pulling philosopher. Indeed his self-deprecating I'm-just-a-dumb-jock routine inoculates him against charges of intellectual pretension. But Kemp will, for example, ostentatiously throw out the full name of a 19th-century French economist--"Jean Baptiste Say"--as a way of implying, incorrectly, that he has more than the vaguest notion of what Say's Law ("supply creates its own demand") is about--other than knowing that it includes the magic word "supply." Reporters are impressed. And if they aren't completely buffaloed, they still give Kemp points for effort and obvious sincerity. Even an empty enthusiasm for ideas is appealing in a party whose other leaders (Dole, Speaker Newt Gingrich, Chairman Haley Barbour) claim not to have read their own platform.

Like the first names of dead economists, the blizzard of statistics that blows through Kemp's oeuvre of op-eds gives an impression of learning. But Jack Kemp is a propagandist, not a thinker. One small example. In the New York Times last February, arguing (surprise, surprise) that tax cuts will increase tax revenues, Kemp wrote: "In the 1980s, taxes were lowered from a top marginal rate of 70 percent to 28 percent. By the end of the decade, America's real gross domestic product surged by 32 percent." A little math reveals that this "surge" implies average annual GDP growth of 2.8 percent--not too different from the 2.5 percent growth of recent years that Kemp claims is woefully inadequate. (And the difference, as Jodie Allen pointed out in Slate a while back can be fully accounted for by the ironic fact that government spending--which is part of GDP--grew in the Reaganite '80s and is shrinking in the Clintonite '90s.) Kemp's writings have no more inaccuracies, misleading statistics, and fallacious arguments than those of most other politicians. But a glaring internal contradiction is especially telling for a would-be man of ideas: It suggests that you are not subjecting your own "ideas" to even the minimal test of logical consistency.


What's usually missing from Kemp's "ideas" is the intellectual discipline of acknowledging that more of this means less of that. Regarding abortion, Kemp says, "My premise is that both the mother--the woman--and the child--the unborn--should have constitutional protections for life and freedom." It would be lovely if a woman's freedom to choose didn't conflict with a fetus' claim on life. But the notion that this can be arranged is a magic wish, not an idea.

The same defect mars Kemp's "compassion." Journalists seem to regard "bleeding-heart conservative" as a charming anomaly, or a welcome melding of extremes into moderation, rather than as a mathematical conundrum. Kemp is in favor of expensive programs for the poor. He also favors giant tax cuts for the rich. And he opposes any cuts in middle-class entitlements. It is a remarkable coincidence that none of Kemp's "ideas" for helping the poor--which get him so much credit for being "compassionate"--involves any effort or sacrifice by the affluent and the middle class. Quite the contrary: They almost invariably involve tax breaks for these groups. No doubt Kemp sincerely believes in the supply-side alchemy. And no doubt his personal compassion for society's downtrodden is real. But as public policy, cost-free compassion is worth about what it costs.

Which brings us to "optimism." I, too, would be optimistic if I thought most of our social problems could be solved by lower taxes for everyone, even lower taxes for rich people, no taxes at all for residents of Washington, D.C. (yes, Kemp has proposed a zero tax rate for K Street lawyers and Georgetown socialites), and that the more you cut people's taxes, the more money will flood into the federal treasury. But believing that requires more than a leap of faith: It requires a leap of reason.

It's easy to be optimistic if you believe in the tooth fairy. Kemp seems to think that those who refuse to leap with him actually prefer pain, sacrifice, and "root-canal economics." And it's probably true that psychological predisposition, as much as reason and intellect, leads dour characters like Paul Tsongas (and--until the other day--Bob Dole) to be preachers of sacrifice, while sunny characters like Jack Kemp become apologists for alchemy. But it's silly to prize optimism for its own sake in a public figure, irrespective of whether that optimism is justified. Indeed, unjustified optimism is more dangerous than unjustified pessimism. Unless that is just a dour predisposition talking.

The main reason the media have greeted Jack Kemp so rapturously isn't his ideas, his optimism, or his compassion. It is simple, dog-like gratitude for a reason to declare the presidential race more interesting. And credit for that compassionate, optimistic idea goes to cruel, brain-dead sourpuss Bob Dole. So, credit given. Now, let's give Kemp the going-over he deserves.

Michael Kinsley is editor of Slate.