For the last two years, Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan has been referred to as the “Ideological Leader” of the GOP, giving voice to the core principles for which the party stands. Judging by his passive tone, talk of austerity, and diminutive stature in the 2012 vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan has a long way to go to live up to such lofty expectations.
Leading conservative pundits have prematurely hailed Ryan as the “next Jack Kemp” and the “natural heir” to Kemp’s legacy. The comparison is largely based on Ryan’s ties to former New York Congressman and 1996 Republican vice presidential candidate, the late Jack Kemp, who helped author Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in the 1980s, and was a beloved figure in both political parties.
After watching Rep. Ryan’s utterly feckless presentation of pro-growth supply-side economic principles and the virtual abandonment of Jack Kemp’s inclusive “big tent” GOP ideals, true ideological conservative voters would be forgiven for thinking they have been sold yet another fraudulent candidate by the right-wing punditocracy.
Comparing Paul Ryan to Jack Kemp – much less Ronald Reagan – is not only a bridge too far, but shows that so many breathless members of the commentariat are simply whistling in the dark by predicting they have successfully concluded the long quest to discover the true heir to the Reagan Legacy. Bestowing such an honor on Paul Ryan, based on his debate performance against Vice President Joe Biden, would be like awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the President of the United States after less than nine months in office.
It was not only Paul Ryan’s unconvincing recitation of well-rehearsed talking points and worn out bromides that failed to live up to the hype and fanfare of conservative opinion-makers, but the congressman’s uninspiring tone that fell flat. Ryan failed to evoke the passion and positive vision of a brighter future, that were the hallmark of Jack Kemp’s ideology. Ryan displayed no power of conviction in his answers, and seemed overly deferential to the comparatively condescending and overwrought tirades of the bombastic Joe Biden. While it was clear Biden relished a fight over issues, it seemed as though Ryan was running away from the principles he claimed to believe in before he became Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Ryan seemed to signal that Romney is now the leader of the conservative movement, and he is now falling in line behind the former Massachusetts governor’s vision – whatever that might be on any given day. Nowhere in Ryan’s presentation did one get the sense that an America under Romney/Ryan leadership would be a level playing field with widespread private-sector prosperity, devoid of bailouts and government stimulus funds flowing to the well-connected.
At its core, Jack Kemp’s vision of America was profoundly aspirational, accentuated by his timely anecdotes about real people who realized successful lives after humble origins and years of struggle. Kemp often told stories about small business owners he knew in Harlem, as well as other predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods, and spoke of how conservative initiatives improved their livelihoods and the lives of their families.
Much of Kemp’s worldview was formed by growing up in Los Angeles and playing professional football as an NFL quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. In both instances, Kemp fundamentally understood the important roles of diversity and teamwork, and how the combination could lead to success – both in athletics and growing a world-class city. Kemp’s childhood in Los Angeles allowed him the opportunity to interact with people from many different cultures and backgrounds, and develop a respect for how differences can be overcome by working toward a common goal. Playing in the NFL reinforced this principle by relying on African-American teammates that Kemp counted on every bit as much as they were depending on him to perform at the highest level in crunch-time.
This Examiner had the honor of meeting Jack Kemp, and the most noticeable quality about him was that he was a true leader. He projected the sense that he was a quarterback who led other strong-willed athletes into the challenges of blood and guts competition on frozen gridirons, and a man who was respected by teammates and opponents alike. He was more a champion of ideals than a fighter of political battles. He often spoke of the importance of putting country ahead of party, and setting an example for the rest of the world of how our democratic republic is worthy of emulation.
Jack Kemp was a hearty man, his handshake was strong and dignified, his demeanor that of a “happy warrior”. By contrast, Paul Ryan seems to be a vigorous man, whose ambitions supersede the ideals he purports to cherish, and whose allegiances are suspect.
Kemp often spoke about poverty in terms of how conservative ideals could help eliminate and lift people out of it, and he would never have allowed himself to be associated with the “47 percent” comments of Mitt Romney.
That Ryan chose to conflate those odious and divisive “47 percent” comments into a tale about Romney’s personal charity was something the affable Kemp would have no stomach for even attempting. For Ryan to evoke a family’s tragedy of two children in an automobile accident while sitting directly in front of Joe Biden – who tragically lost his wife and daughter in an auto accident – was an act of political brinksmanship and moral bankruptcy that a gentleman like Jack Kemp would have never dreamed of engaging in. Clearly, Ryan and Romney’s debate advisers had to know of Biden’s very well-known personal connection to such a tragedy, and prepared to tell the story of a similar event in an effort to rattle the nerves of the vice president.
When Kemp spoke of those less fortunate, he often said the word “poor”, but with the context that a person’s current condition will be improved in the future to become a “high income earner”. When Ryan and Romney speak of such people, it is in language such as, “I’m not concerned about the very poor”; or using the term “middle class”. The context is what sets Kemp apart from the 2012 Republican ticket. Kemp believed no one was doomed to live in poverty, while Romney and Ryan use language that implies it is a permanent condition, like some sort of modern caste system.
While Kemp was obsessed with pro-growth conservative ideas, it is clear Ryan is motivated by imposing austerity. Kemp believed a strong, growing economy would solve budget deficits over the long-run, while Ryan spoke in the debate about how “we have to tackle the debt crisis before it tackles us”. Kemp would have advocated solving unemployment as the best way to pay for Medicare through FICA taxes, while Ryan wants to turn it into a voucher system.
After his vice presidential debate performance, saying Paul Ryan is the next Jack Kemp would be as preposterous as comparing Herbert Hoover to Ronald Reagan. In the pantheon of GOP presidents, and with respect to Rep. Ryan, the most precise analogy would be comparing George H.W. Bush to Calvin Coolidge.