Paul Ryan: Jack Kemp for a new generation?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Every week, it seems, brings speculation regarding whom Mitt Romney might pick as his running mate. The buzz right now seems to be about Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Speaking on “This Week” Sunday, ABC News’ Jon Karl said, “Romney really likes [Paul] Ryan. I think there’s a good chance he’s the pick.”

Should Ryan be sworn in as vice president, he will be standing on the shoulders of giants — or at least, a Bill.

I’m referring, of course, to former Buffalo Bills quarterback — and New York Rep. Jack Kemp — a man who is in many ways underrated, in terms of his long-term influence.

Not many leaders, living or dead, can claim to have mentored both Ronald Reagan and Paul Ryan. But Kemp did.

As Tony Lee reported,

“Jack is the reason I ran for Congress,” Ryan said at the Kemp Foundation’s inaugural event in 2010.  “I was motivated by Ronald Reagan, but inspired by Jack Kemp.”

In hiring Ryan as a 23 year-old economic analyst for his Empower America think tank and later as a speechwriter, Kemp, according to Ryan, saw “something in me that I didn’t even know existed.  He taught me how to approach people with an infectious optimism, reminding us all that there is nothing more uplifting than the idea of America.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Should he be selected, there will, of course, be comparisons — and not all of them flattering. Bob Dole, in an effort to appease the conservative wing of the GOP, selected Kemp as his running mate in 1996. For obvious reasons, that’s not a helpful analogy for Team Romney.

Like Ryan, Kemp was a mere denizen of the lower house, and yet became much more nationally significant than the vast majority of Members to have ever occupied a seat in the people’s house. (Still, the history of House members on a national ticket is not a terribly proud one.)

And like Kemp (and despite what his liberal opponent’s might say), Ryan’s emphasis on fiscal policy is only buttressed by compassion and interest in finding creative, if unorthodox, solutions for helping repair the social safety net.

As Lee notes,

Ryan, like Kemp, linked strong families to a strong economy.

“We need to focus new attention on the health of the family, both the broken families in poor communities and disintegrating middle income families everywhere,” Ryan said.  “The family is the school of freedom, and we are challenged as never before to strengthen the traditional family as the key to a free and prosperous society.”

Kemp’s political prime was in the 1970s, an era of malaise that is unfortunately similar to today. But the brilliance of Kemp was in finding an optimistic solution. It was his embrace of supply-side economics made Reagan’s message much more palatable to the general public.

As Quinn Hillyer explained,

 It was Kemp who sold Ronald Reagan on supply-side theory, way back in the late summer of 1976. It was Kemp who sold most Republican House members on supply-side economics between 1976 and 1980, overcoming the party’s static, green-eyeshade proclivities.

Ryan has some work to do in this regard. Most people associate Ryan’s plan with austerity. As Jon Karl noted, should he be selected as Romney’s running mate, “the Ryan budget will be attacked immediately by Democrats…” This is to be expected, but might occur regardless of who becomes Romney’s veep pick.

There is another interesting coincidence. Arguably, the harshest criticism of Ryan’s budget came from former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who called it “right wing social engineering.”  It was a line most likely borrowed from Kemp, who, in 1990, wrote: “Conservative social engineering is every bit as presumptuous as liberal social engineering.”

Matt K. Lewis