CLEVELAND – This isn’t Jack Kemp’s Republican Party anymore, if it ever was. It’s Donald Trump’s. And it’s more riven with tension than any episode of “The Apprentice.”
Proof of that came in the chaos on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena on Monday, as “Never Trump” delegates revolted over convention rules that aim to ease the Manhattan money man’s path to the nomination.
And further proof came in conversations with Kemp’s son Jimmy and others who believed in Kemp’s Republicanism of small government, low taxes and opportunity for everyone, regardless of race or class.
Asked if he would vote for Trump, Jimmy Kemp said: “I’m not there yet. But it’s probably where I’ll end up.”
That echoes the ambivalence of Kemp’s most successful protégé, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who faces the unenviable task of addressing the convention Tuesday night after a weeks-long and very public struggle with the idea of endorsing Trump.
Jimmy Kemp, who now promotes his father’s legacy as president of the Washington-based Jack Kemp Foundation, seems to be enduring a similar struggle. Like so many of Jack Kemp’s friends and colleagues, he acknowledges “mixed feelings” about Trump, who is on track to accept the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday.
Those mixed feelings are no surprise, given that Kemp – the longtime Hamburg congressman who died in 2009 – was in many ways Trump’s opposite.
Kemp smiled while Trump scowls. Kemp loved to listen as much as he loved to talk, and Trump talks and talks, mainly about himself. And perhaps most definitively, Kemp built bridges to minority communities, whereas Trump wants to build a wall at the Mexican border and bar Muslims from immigrating to America.
Not surprisingly, the younger Kemp prefers his father’s “happy warrior” style of politics, and feels put off by Trump’s divisiveness.
“I certainly dislike the rhetoric of calling out a religious group or speaking so negatively,” Kemp said. “It’s disappointing, but the voters have spoken.”
Kemp said he’s encouraged that Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, show signs that they’re willing to take on issues – and that he doesn’t think the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, offers better solutions.
And he understands why voters were attracted to a candidate with a message far harsher than anything that ever came out of his father’s mouth.
“When you have a lackluster recovery from the recession, you get people who are angry and don’t believe the solutions the politicians are pitching,” Kemp said. “So Mr. Trump has a broad appeal, and it’s not as narrow as people think.”
Larry Kudlow, an economist, Trump adviser and CNBC host who spoke to the New York delegation breakfast on Monday, cited Kemp’s influence in his speech, as he often does.
And afterwards, he told The Buffalo News that he believes Kemp would have embraced much – but not all – of Trump’s agenda.
“Jack would approve of the tax cut package and rolling back regulations,” he said. “Jack would question some of his trade comments, which I have too. But now he’s improving on that.”
Kudlow defended Trump as “no protectionist.” Like Kemp, he said, he just wants a “good deal” in the government’s negotiated trade agreements.
But Kudlow said Kemp would have some sharp differences with Trump.
“Jack would not be for this immigration stuff, I’ll be honest with you,” Kudlow said. “He would acknowledge the war and the risk of al-Qaeda and ISIS getting in here,” he said, “but not [excluding Muslims] on the whole.”
Meantime, Russ Gugino of Hamburg, a former Kemp adviser, said his old boss would have objected to Trump’s tone.
“Jack would not have been comfortable with the ad hominem attacks of Donald Trump,” Gugino said. “Jack was about ideas and his mantra was that ideas have consequences. I often think of his 1980 speech to the convention in Detroit when he said we can’t always be telling the American people what we’re against, but what we’re for – which is freedom, hope, opportunity and growth.”
Still, Gugino also is appalled by the decision of many prominent Republicans – including two ex-presidents and two former presidential nominees – to avoid the Cleveland convention.
“I am totally convinced Jack would not boycott this convention,” Gugino said. “Forget about the candidate, you don’t turn your back on the party. And he (Trump) won the party fair and square. You can make the case it’s a Trump party at this point.”
And that fact puts Ryan, who seems to never stop talking about how much Kemp influenced him, in a tough spot Tuesday night.
“I have talked to Paul, and told him to help Trump and not hurt him,” Kudlow said. “Where you disagree, try to push him in the right direction. Where you agree, try to encourage him. I think Jack would agree.”
Then again, perhaps Ryan will do something very unusual in the Trump era and adhere to what seemed to be an unstated Kemp philosophy: If you can’t say something good about a Republican, don’t say anything at all.
Perhaps a hint of that came in a fundraising email that Ryan sent to his supporters on Monday.
“This week’s convention is a time for us to unite behind our core values of limited government, free enterprise, low taxes, and a strong national defense,” Ryan said before asking conservatives to pour money into House races.
Ryan never mentioned the cash-poor Trump campaign. In fact, in the email, Ryan never mentioned Donald Trump at all.