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Kemp/Powell 1996: The Lost Ticket

Campaign finance laws prevented it from happening, and we're still paying the price.

by James Leroy Wilson
September 4, 2008

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Kemp/Powell 1996: The Lost Ticket

In the mid-1990's, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes wanted his friend, supply-side crusader and former Congressman Jack Kemp, to run for President. Kemp refused, mainly because of the fund-raising he would have had to do. Forbes would have gladly bankrolled Kemp's campaign, but our insane campaign-finance laws prohibited it. Because individuals were allowed to spend on their own campaigns, however, Forbes decided to run for President himself. Kemp endorsed Forbes as the Republcian nominee, angering front-runner Bob Dole. Although Dole did get the nomination, in the end the Forbes' campaign was a success, because Dole chose Kemp as his running mate, and Dole agreed to campaign on a platform of tax cuts, which was the primary issue for Forbes, Kemp, and the Republican base.

Bob Dole had some similarities to the 2008 nominee John McCain. They are both war heroes. They both were from the "moderate" wing of the GOP, more concerned about the budget than taxes. Each fought a bitter primary battle with someone named "George Bush" eight years before winning the nomination themselves. Each were divorced and remarried in the party of "family values." Each were in their 70's when they did get the nomination, and seemed to triumph primarily because

a) of weak, unpopular, or uncharismatic rivals, and

b) GOP loyalists paid their debt of gratitude to them: Dole for being an effective "leader of the opposition" in Bill Clinton's first term; McCain for his extreme pro-war position, which is now the defining characteristic of the Republican Party.

Of course, there are key differences. Dole was the typical "Main Street" or "mainstream" Republican of the 1960's-90's, defending the party line without being too closely aligned with the Northeastern Establishment, Supply-Siders, the Religous Right, or any other faction. McCain, in contrast, gained fame as a "maverick" by often telling a liberal media what it wanted to hear.

As candidates and nominees, both Dole and McCain had to run "to the Right" to appease some factions. But Dole's main problem was with "Supply Siders" who cared more for reduced tax rates than for balanced budgets, and in Kemp he chose the most prominent author of Reagan's first tax-cut bill.

It was a solid choice. One could disagree with Jack Kemp, but not with his intelligence, experience, or credentials, or the ways he could balance the ticket geographically and ideologically.

Of course, Colin Powell, the former National security Advisor under Ronald Reagan and commander of the Persian Gulf War under George H.W. Bush, would have been a more historic choice. To white America's eyes, the African-American Powell was the antithesis of the resentment-filled antics of a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. But Powell was still too liberal on abortion and affirmative action to satisfy "middle America."  Dole, who in his long tenure as Senate Republican leader accommodated all bases, was already perceived as too moderate, and he was forced to run to the Right to energize the Republican base, and this disqualifed Powell. Not because Powell was black, but because he was too liberal.

Had Kemp himself campaigned for the nomination, he would not have needed to accommadate the social or anti-tax conservatives; they would have enthusiastically voted for him, and Kemp could have had the political capital to appeal to Republican Left-Moderates, something Dole did not have. If Kemp won the nomination, a Kemp-Powell ticket may still have lost, but it would have been a more historic campaign. If there was a Kemp-Powell ticket in 1996, there would not have been four white men on the ticket in 2000. There would not have been four white men on the ticket in 2004.
 
Dole didn't really stand a chance in 1996. The country seemed to be running fairly well under Bill Clinton, whose worst scandal (Lewinsky) and greatest crime against the country, Constitution, and humanity (bombing Serbia for no reason) were yet to come. The race may have been closer had Ross Perot not run, but Clinton's margin over Dole was greater than the total Perot vote. And Kemp himself, had he chosen to go to the fundraisers and mount the campaign, probably would have lost to Dole in the 1996 primaries anyway, because the bigwigs owed more favors to Dole. In that sense, not much would have changed.

But here is the frustrating thing about our election process. Multi-millionaires like Steve Forbes and billionaires like Ross Perot were effectively prevented by campaign finance laws from funding anyone but themselves. Certainly, there own egos played a role, but they were not definitive. The campaign finance deception is that if big-funder A (such as Steve Forbes) supports candidate B (like Jack Kemp) because of agreement on the issues, and if candidate B wins the election by campaigning on those issues, then the candidate will then go against the wishes of voters to cater to the big-funder.

This just isn't credible. Votes determine election results, not money. Elected office-holders owe their jobs to the voters, not to moneyed interests. Money can only be used to make arguments for or against an issue or candidate. But other people's money can not force a voter to vote for a candidate pledged to oppose the voter's own interests. In the long run the "special interest money" tends to reflect the personal interests of voters in a district, which in turn determines the Representative's vote. Rural congresspersons vote for gun rights not because the gun lobbyists favor them, but because their own voters favor them.

Likewise, if Jack Kemp, in personality and platform, better reflected the values of Republican Party primary voters in 1996, he would have won the nomination by catering to these voters, not by catering to the needs of his financiers. But because of the campaign contribution limits laws, he would have had to raise money through an exhausting nickel-and-dime process where Dole had the advantage from the outset. No sane person would have gone through that, and Kemp did not.

Yes, "special interest money" can corrupt a politician who works for the few and against the wishes of the majority of his constituents. But if he's re-elected, how is that the money's fault? If the politician really worked against the people's interests, what other reason would they have for not removing him?

I won't judge the past, but these days there's no excuse to blame "money" for high incumbency re-election rates. The actions and votes of polticians can easily be found on the Internet. The problem with "corrupt" elections is not special interest money, but voter apathy. And this is not a criticism of non-voters, but rather of voters who view it as their "patriotic obligation" to vote for one candidate or the other, without seriously examining their positions and, especially, their actions.

If we want to pinpoint what's wrong with America's political system, don't blame the non-voters, and don't blame the money. The root of the problem lies in those who vote for certain candidates because of likeability or party identification, without actually investigating their preferred candidat's record.

If we had real freedom in our elections, we may have had a Kemp-Powell ticket in 1996. As a result, we would probably have had much better choices in 2000 and 2004. And the results of those contests would probably have resulted in better tickets today.

That said, I am more or less glad that the Democrats have selected an African-American and the Republicans have selected a woman this year. Even if the selections themselves may be dubious, perhaps they will bode well for the future. And if we liberated our campaign finance laws, the better future will come to us even sooner.

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