Kemp broadens message

Mona Charen

August 25, 1993|By Mona Charen

AS PRESIDENT Clinton cavorts on Martha's Vineyard, and most of official Washington is operating on a slow August idle, thoughts turn to 1996. Who among the Republican hopefuls most fully represents the conservative critique of liberal Democratic rule?

The traditional rap on Jack Kemp was that he is a little too comfortable with the welfare state and a bit too unwilling to address social and moral issues for fear of being seen as "preachy." While there is no one more inspiring on economic or foreign policy issues, Mr. Kemp's discomfort with social and cultural questions, it has been argued (at times by yours truly), might keep him from engaging with most voters.

Jobs and the economy are critical, but a successful Republican candidate must also speak to crime, our inadequate schools and the breakdown of the family if he or she is to resonate with voters.

There is evidence that Jack Kemp is starting to do just that -- broadening his traditional free-enterprise message to include social issues.

In a recent speech to a conference of religious groups in New York City, Mr. Kemp came at the moral question by citing one of his heroes, Adam Smith. More than an economist, Smith was a moral philosopher, Mr. Kemp argued.

His most famous book was "The Wealth of Nations," but his other masterpiece was "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," in which he argued that a free market can operate only when society is composed of responsible, moral actors who obey the rule of law.

Some have wondered whether Mr. Kemp's critique of the welfare state was limited to its perverse incentives. His most frequent criticism of welfare programs, for example, is of the rule that forbids welfare recipients to save for their own future. But what about the incentives to unwed motherhood? And what of the incentives to idleness?

In his New York speech, Mr. Kemp addressed those as well, by warning first that "Even the noblest and best-intentioned [government] plans can go astray by encouraging dependency and weakening families. . . . Government must not become what Margaret Thatcher has called the 'nanny state.' " Mr. Kemp then endorsed the kind of reform Gov. Tommy Thompson has instituted in Wisconsin, limiting welfare eligibility to two years.

Mr. Kemp praised the 1964 Civil Rights Act but lamented the history of the Great Society.

"After $3.5 trillion of spending on anti-poverty programs at all levels of government," Mr. Kemp said, "poverty, joblessness, crime, drug abuse and many other social pathologies are worse today than when the War on Poverty began. Indeed, poverty is winning the war."

Mr. Kemp's outline for reform begins with the "recognition that true economic and social regeneration requires the strengthening of our most important value-shaping institutions: the family, churches and neighborhood groups."

Next, Mr. Kemp would commit the nation to allowing poor people to make the crucial decisions of their lives: where they will live, where they send their kids to school, and how they save and plan for the future.

On education, Mr. Kemp endorses higher standards, merit pay, alternative certification (to break the stranglehold of the National Education Association), a core curriculum and, most important, parental choice among schools -- including religious schools.

Finally, on crime, Mr. Kemp expressed the view that "people obey the law for one of two reasons: Either they love God or fear punishment. When both of these break down, the result is an environment that breeds violence, poverty and anarchy." He argues for more prisons, judges and prosecutors, as well as (another?) anti-drug strategy.

There are many people in this country who believe that America has been in decline domestically for roughly 30 years. The figures Bill Bennett cites in his Index of Cultural Indicators -- a 560 percent increase in violent crime, a 400 percent increase in unwed births, a quadrupling of the divorce rate -- tell the story.

Mr. Kemp is not among the pessimists. And arguably, optimism and energy are critical ingredients in a successful political candidate. If Mr. Kemp's balloon remains ballasted with a recognition of the serious moral challenges our country faces, it may carry him all the way.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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