The omens for the apparent collapse of the Republican Party coalition are coming fast and furious. In less than a week, they went from the ridiculousness of moderate GOP Sen. Arlen Specter quitting the party on Tuesday to the sad sublimeness of Jack Kemp's passing on Saturday.
Even though Kemp announced earlier this year that he was battling cancer, news of his death shocked many in the political and media worlds. Why? Because he always seemed forever young. It just didn't seem right that Jack Kemp was the same age as John McCain. But, it's true, both were 73. Kemp always had a manic energy that belied his actual age, even with that helmet of gray hair, the former quarterback seemed to have a perpetual rush of exuberance about him. .
And, perhaps it's precisely his background in professional sports -- signal-caller for the two-time American Football League champion Buffalo Bills -- that gave him that boundless optimism.
Thus, it was sadly ironic that he died on a Saturday concluding a week of existential crises for his Republican Party. Could even the perpetual optimist have withstood these increasing signals?
After all, if there were any one individual who embodied the very same contradictions and controversies that are threatening to tear the party apart now it was Kemp. On the one hand, as a House of Representatives disciple of "supply-side" economist Arthur Laffer, he was the man who conceived and shepherded what became known as "the Reagan tax cuts" through Congress. The modern-day Republican Party -- at least its fiscal message -- was built on the foundation of Ronald Reagan embracing legislation drafted by Kemp in the House, and Delaware Senator William Roth in the Senate. Their bill would reduce income tax rates by 25 percent.
To use a gridiron metaphor, Reagan took that ball and ran with it: from the moment those tax cuts became law and were perceived as the end to Jimmy Carter stagflation, the GOP became the party of tax cutting.
On the other hand, as the representative of a blue-collar Northeast city and, again, a leader of an integrated pro sports team in the mid-'60s, Kemp never veered from his message that the Republican Party should be open to people of all backgrounds. Even Democratic Party admirers noted that he pushed a message of outreach all the time -- even before he got into politics, .
As George H. W. Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, his near-evangelical desire to see public housing residents manage to own their own homes and making poor neighborhoods "enterprise zones" so as to enhance business development and job creation eventually began eliciting criticism from conservatives: Many seemed to believe Kemp cared too much about the plight of minorities and the urban poor.
Thus, Kemp embraced the full spectrum of criticism -- attacked as by both mainstream media for being too much of "Reagan true believer" and then, years later, the self-described "bleeding-heart conservative" was derided by pretender heirs to Reagan as a "squishy" moderate.
Yet, he would be just the person the party needs today -- an exuberant optimistic individual from the Northeast, who could appeal to both economic and social conservatives as well as members of minority groups not traditionally comfortable with Republican policies.
But just when such an individual is needed the most, the one true original departs the huddle for the final time. .
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.