Jack Kemp’s death over the weekend has produced a flood of news stories about his life and political career. From a purely political standpoint, though, one lesson from Kemp’s career stands out: It really matters who a presidential candidate picks for a running mate.
Yes, vice presidents are a heartbeat away from the presidency, so of course the choice matters. But just consider how differently history might have played out if Ronald Reagan had simply gone with his instinct when, in the summer of 1980, it came time to pick a running mate.
Reagan, then 69 years old, arrived in Detroit for the G.O.P.’s mid-July convention with the presidential nomination sewn up. His aides and supporters were putting the finishing touches on a platform that would move the Republicans sharply to the right—abandoning, for instance, decades of support for the Equal Rights Amendment. In his heart, the former California governor had one clear favorite for his No. 2 spot: Kemp, then a 45-year-old congressman from upstate New York and a 10-year veteran of the House.
Kemp was the most prominent and persistent voice for tax cuts on Capitol Hill. Along with Delaware Senator William Roth, he had been pushing legislation that would phase in dramatic rate reductions over a three-year period. Kemp pitched tax cuts as a prescription for the stagflation that gripped the economy in the late-1970s, a way to spur growth, curb unemployment, expand wealth and arrest rising prices. Even among his own party’s establishment, though, his views were considered fringe.
But Reagan was a fellow believer and made Kemp-Roth a cornerstone of his ’80 campaign. Over the objections of old-guard Republican economic leaders like Herbert Stein and George Schultz, he etched it into the ’80 platform. Kemp-Roth was also a hit with the burgeoning network of conservative activists and interest group leaders who had rallied behind Reagan. Kemp had limited national name recognition (despite his fairly successful professional football career), but to what was then called “the New Right,” he was a folk hero.
So it was that Reagan, who had been friends and political allies with Kemp since the mid-’60s, regarded the ex-quarterback as his sentimental favorite for the VP slot. And the New Right forces saw in a Reagan-Kemp ticket an opportunity to vanquish the more moderate G.O.P. establishment once and for all, and to cement their party as a purely conservative entity.
With the VP matter unresolved as the convention opened, individual state delegations began conducting their own votes and publicizing the results. Louisiana, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Washington state all endorsed Kemp. And NBC survey of about three-quarters of all convention delegates found that 35 percent wanted Kemp as Reagan’s running mate—second only to George H. W. Bush, who netted 47 percent (thanks, in part, to the fact that, as Reagan’s closest primary competitor, he had brought more than 100 delegates who had originally been pledged to him).
Also working in Kemp’s favor was Reagan’s nonexistent relationship with Bush, who very much wanted the VP slot and whose candidacy was being pushed by many moderates. Bush had run against Reagan from the left in the primaries, deriding Reagan’s (and, by extension, Kemp’s) tax cut plan as “voodoo economics” and voicing his support for abortion rights, and had nearly derailed his candidacy with an upset win in the Iowa caucuses. If it was between Bush and Kemp, the choice for Reagan was an easy one on personal and philosophical grounds.
But as the week progressed, Reagan’s pragmatic aides bombarded him with warnings that Kemp would be an unwise pick. The party was sharply divided into conservative and moderate camps (this was the era when the term “New England Republican” wasn’t an oxymoron), and the moderates were already deeply uneasy with the party platform.
And with John Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman who (after a failed G.O.P. primary bid) had bolted the party, running as an independent, these moderates would have another option in November if they felt abused by their party. Picking Kemp, Reagan was told, would do nothing to appease them. Bush, meanwhile, would help unite the party and, with his extensive resume and national name recognition, help assuage voter doubts about entrusting the White House to Reagan. It’s important to remember just how radical, even within some corners of the G.O.P., Reagan was perceived to be in 1980.
So, after a last-minute effort to coax Gerald Ford onto the ticket (teaming up with a former president, Reagan believed, would make the G.O.P. ticket virtually unbeatable) failed on the third night of the convention, Reagan settled on Bush and then, with the television networks all broadcasting live, went to the convention hall to announce his choice personally.
In hindsight, Reagan probably would have beaten Jimmy Carter that fall no matter whom he chose as a running mate; his masterful debate performance a week before the election saw to that. But the long-term consequences of picking Bush over Kemp were profound.
First, Bush became the clear front-runner for the 1988 G.O.P. nomination the minute he and Reagan were elected. He used his status as VP to stay in the news, win over crucial allies within the party, and to help build a top-notch fund-raising and campaign operation. As Reagan’s No. 2, his name became the knee-jerk response when most casual Republican voters were asked who they’d like as their party’s next nominee.
But had Bush not been on the ’80 ticket, he probably wouldn’t have been much of a factor in the ’88 election. Sure, he finished second in the ’80 primaries, but with Reagan at the top, the party moved further and further to the right in the ’80s. By ’88, Bush’s moderate ’80 platform had become political poison for Republican office-seekers. As Reagan’s VP, Bush had the cover he needed to artfully shed his liberal reputation and to rebrand himself as a Reagan Republican. He couldn’t have credibly pulled this off otherwise.
This meant that, even though he was the natural heir to the Reagan mantle, Kemp was shut out in ’88. Once Reagan was reelected in 1984, Kemp began his 1988 campaign, making hundreds of speeches to groups of all size across the country. The same activists who’d championed him in ’80 were still with him, but among the broader G.O.P. electorate, he was largely unknown. An April 1986 poll found that 58 percent of Republican voters wanted Bush as their next nominee. Second place was Howard Baker, who had just stepped down as the Senate G.O.P. leader. Kemp finished sixth with just 4 percent.
Kemp ran anyway in ’88, but, predictably, his bid went nowhere, and he was out of the race after dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bush lost only one primary and caucus—finishing third, behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in Iowa—and won the White House in the fall.
But the reverberations of Reagan’s ’80 decision could still be felt after that. Bush lost his presidency after one term, when, as a recession took hold, voters decided that he was hopelessly out of touch on the economic issues. But Kemp, who’d been tapped by Bush for the previously low-profile job of HUD secretary, actually emerged as one of the few stars of the Bush administration, celebrated by the media for his deep interest in improving inner-city life and the innovative solutions (“enterprise zones”) that he’d thought up. Kemp’s ability to show precisely the kind of concern and engagement that Bush failed to show raised an obvious question: Would the G.O.P. have lost the White House in ’92 if Kemp—and not Bush—had been the candidate in ’88?
Kemp’s performance in the Bush years turned him into the initial favorite for the G.O.P.’s 1996 nomination. A December 1992 poll put him in first place among the potential field, at 20 percent. (Dole was second at 19 percent and Jim Baker was third, at 12 percent.)
In 1993 and 1994, Kemp aggressively positioned himself for the race. His moment, it seemed, might finally arrive. But then, weeks before the ’94 election, he traveled to California to oppose Proposition 187, a referendum that called for illegal immigrants and their children to be denied all state services. The initiative was massively popular with the G.O.P. base, which greeted Kemp’s high-profile move with scorn and contempt. (John McCain received roughly the same treatment this decade when he pushed his immigration reform plan.)
In January ’95, Kemp announced that he wouldn’t run in ’96. The party was changing; supply-side evangelism alone wouldn’t be enough for the new Republican base. Dole ended up winning the nomination and making Kemp his running mate, but the duo was doomed to defeat from the get-go. And after ’96, Kemp’s days as a serious national political player were over.
On the day that he died, three top Republicans—Mitt Romney, Eric Cantor and Jeb Bush—kicked off a drive to make the Republican Party appealing to the masses once again. But more than a decade ago, when he spoke out against Proposition 187, Kemp recognized the self-destructive path on which the G.O.P. was embarking. Had his party listened to him then, Republicans might not now be in such an awful predicament. And they might have listened to him back then had he been their president, and not just a former congressman and HUD secretary. And he might have been their president if only Reagan had gone with his gut in July of 1980.