Let me describe a Republican presidential candidate who could win the general election in 2016. I'm envisioning an individual with these characteristics:
A strong bipartisan streak.
Supportive of tax cuts.
Possessing the forethought to have opposed the Iraq invasion.
Willing to oppose an effort to deny public services to illegal immigrants, including education to children.
Equally reverential of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Eager to seek votes in all neighborhoods and say things like: "We may not get every vote, but we're going to make it unambiguously clear . . . that we want to represent the whole American family, that no one will be left behind, that no one will be turned away."
Utterly incapable of launching a personal attack.
I know what you're thinking. Such a candidate could probably not emerge in the current incarnation of the GOP. No party that has mavericks like Donald Trump ("I like people who weren't captured"); Ben Carson ("I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation"); and Carly Fiorina (who said one of the Planned Parenthood videos shows "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking") as its leaders would be receptive to such a nuanced candidate.
True, mine is a Hollywood creation. Well, Melrose actually, one neighborhood over.
He was the "most important politician of the 20th century who was not elected president," according to Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke, who have just published a biography, Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America. (Full disclosure: I worked for Kemp as a regional administrator in the Department of Housing and Urban Development when he led the agency during the George H.W. Bush administration.) Kemp died of cancer in 2009. President Obama honored him with the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, three months after his passing.
Kemp was a big-tent Republican, the original compassionate conservative. He was a self-taught intellectual who became interested in politics while playing professional football.
"His Bills teammates called him 'The Senator' because he was always reading the Wall Street Journal and economic tomes on the plane," Kondracke told me.
During the offseason in 1967, he interned in the communications office of California Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1970, he was elected to Congress from Buffalo, and served nine terms in the House. In 1988, he ran for president, placing third in the New Hampshire primary. In 1992, Bush tapped him as his HUD secretary. And in 1996, Bob Dole selected him as his vice presidential running mate.
Barnes, a conservative friend of Kemp, and Kondracke, a supply-side skeptic, wrote the book together because they believe that America is in trouble and that Kemp's spirit is desperately needed in a political world savaged by polarization.
"After retiring from column-writing and having blondes replace me on Fox News, the Jack Kemp Foundation called and asked me to do an oral history of his life," said Kondracke. "It was then I realized no one ever wrote his biography." He spent three academic years at the Library of Congress, where Kemp's papers are housed. While doing research, Kondracke realized that Barnes had done more "quality writing" about Kemp than anyone, so he invited Barnes to join him in writing the book.
What would Kemp think of the current campaign for president?
"He would be totally disgusted with Trump," according to Kondracke. "The exact, diametric opposite on civility, immigration, and free trade. He would detest Trumpism."
"We have the same problems as the 1970s: glacial growth, demagogues trying to divide us. What you need is growth. Jack Kemp wanted to shake things up with breakthrough ideas like Kemp-Roth and tax reform, but mostly he wanted growth. Republicans have reduced themselves to being old, white Southerners, and you can't win elections that way when the electorate is increasingly minority and young," he added.
Barnes is more charitable.
"He would be the voice of the Republican Party, and the party would be better. Jack was not just a guy with ideas, he was a dynamic figure, and the Republican Party needs him now," Barnes said. "And, he'd have a message for Obama, too. We have a president who won't compromise. Kemp was always ready to compromise and things he succeeded in are now part of our fabric."
One thing the authors agree on is the identity of the true heir to Kemp's legacy: Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate. "He's the direct descendant," said Kondracke. "He wrote the brief for Jack on Prop 187" - arguing against the California ballot initiative that called for denying government services to illegal immigrants. "Kemp was in favor of border control, but when illegals had clean records, at the end of the day, he wanted to give them a path to citizenship."
Kemp was not without his faults. He suffered from a lack of discipline and impatience. Plus his penchant to deliver long speeches was an advance man's nightmare. ("There was a mayor in Iowa who waited for Kemp to finish speaking and said, 'Congressman, those were three of the best speeches I've ever heard,' " recalled Barnes.) But he had a sense of optimism that was contagious and he relished campaigns based on ideas, not vitriol.
The vice presidential debate in 1996 matched Kemp against Al Gore. Dole/Kemp were then trailing Clinton/Gore. Just before the debate, Dole's campaign manager (and Kemp's former HUD chief of staff), Scott Reed, delivered a message to Kemp:
"Ethics is going to be the top issue tonight. It's going to probably be the first question. . . . You gotta be tough. . . . You gotta be aggressive."
That night at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Fla., moderator Jim Lehrer did what Reed predicted, asking Kemp to draw personal and ethical differences between Dole and Clinton (in a way that Dole himself had refused to do).
"Jim, Bob Dole and myself do not see Bill Clinton and Al Gore as our enemy. We see them as our opponents." He then spoke of the need for civility, respect, decency, and integrity.
Clinton/Gore won by 8.5 points, but the GOP retained both houses of Congress. Jack Kemp never ran for office again.
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays