Sitting in the room at the Jack Kemp Leadership Award dinner last week, listening to Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and of late the GOP vice presidential candidate, I sensed more than a generational shift in party leadership.
It was a “back to the future” moment as the mostly, but not exclusively, conservative gathering considered the optimism that defined Kemp, the late Buffalo congressman, former vice presidential candidate, HUD secretary and enterprise zone promoter. At my table were two African-American Republicans who answered the familiar question about how Republicans can win a larger percentage of the minority vote. “Just show up,” said one, who works as a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill. The other nodded in agreement.
Kemp showed up, visiting public housing and other places Republicans often refer to disparagingly. Shootings sometimes occur there, you know, and drugs. You hear about it on the local news.
When Rubio spoke about these forgotten (by Republicans) Americans, the waiters paused for a moment to listen. Rubio mentioned his parents who came to America with little and worked in the “service industry” so they could provide for their children, who have turned out well.
Rubio’s message was an appeal that goes beyond cable TV sound bites and white America. Kemp didn’t view America in categories. Neither did he identify them with hyphens. He saw the potential for one America in which race and class would be complementary, not divisive. If Republicans are looking for an example of how this works out practically, they can rewind to the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans where more black people attended a Kemp reception than were visible among delegates in the Superdome.
Republicans remain nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, perhaps the most optimistic president in Republican history. Even in his final “letter to the American people,” announcing he had Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan spoke of his great love for this country and his optimism for its future. That optimism was catchy. Reagan ignited faith in the American people that they, better than government, could improve their lives.
Zig Ziglar, who died last month at age 86, was one of the best motivational speakers in that genre. Ziglar could fire up an audience with his “Born to Win” seminars and “Success Rallies.” This Ziglar zinger is one that Republicans should adopt: “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help other people get what they want.”
Republican principles work, but they must be shown to work, not just talked about, if they are to be embraced by people who now reject them because Republicans don’t “show up” like Jack Kemp did. Too many Republicans are known for what they oppose, not for what they propose. For too many, the power of positive thinking has been turned into the weakness of negative thinking and opposition to the liberal agenda.
Jack Kemp once told me, “You don’t beat a thesis with an antithesis; you beat it with a better thesis.” That must be the “new” Republican theme if the party wants to secure future victories. Jack Kemp understood this. I sense Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan do, too. Kemp, after all, was Ryan’s mentor and inspiration.
Tribune Media Services