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COLUMN RIGHT / MARC A. THIESSEN : The First Endorsement for 1996? : Ronald Reagan's convention speech sounded a lot like homage to Jack Kemp.

August 21, 1992|MARC A. THIESSEN | Marc A. Thiessen is a Republican speech writer and communications consultant in Washington. and

Former President Ronald Reagan gave a rousing endorsement of George Bush's reelection bid in his convention address this week. But did he make another, more subtle, endorsement as well?

In what many people viewed as his farewell address, Reagan laid out a parting vision for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. He described for us how the party that won the Cold War must now lead America into the next millennium. He outlined his vision of what our next challenges should be and how we should meet them.

All of it sounded very much like the vision that Jack Kemp, Bush's outspoken secretary of housing and urban development, has been advocating for four years.

Reagan challenged his party: "The kind of question we had to ask 12 years ago is the question we ask today: What change can we Republicans offer the American People?" The past year has seen the beginning of a debate among conservatives over what that change must be and how we must redefine conservatism to lead that change. Two competing visions have emerged in the wake of Reagan's departure from the political scene: the "empowerment" vision of Jack Kemp, and the "America First" agenda of Pat Buchanan. On Monday night, Ronald Reagan chose sides.

Buchanan's conservatism is one that would build barriers to immigration and fences between the United States and Mexico. It would ignore the realities of the new global economy and adopt an antiquated, exclusionary trade policy. And it would build isolationist barriers between America and the world at a time when we are in an unprecedented position to lead it.

In his speech, Reagan rejected Buchanan's vision. Where Buchanan spoke this year about the dangers of immigration, saying how it would be more difficult (and by implication, less desirable) to assimilate Zulus than Europeans, Reagan told us: "Whether we are Afro-American or Irish-American . . . we are equal in the eyes of God. . . . In America, our origins matter less than our destinations, and that is what democracy is all about." Reagan asked the Republicans to reject the "new isolationists," who "insist that our triumph . . . holds no lessons for the future."

Where Buchanan's conservatism appealed to fear--of evil Asian capitalists who want to take American jobs and lazy immigrants who want a piece of the American welfare pie--Reagan told us his was a different kind of conservatism: "Whatever history may say about me when I'm gone," he said, "I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts."

Reagan then went on to define just how conservatism must now appeal to America's hopes for the future. He called for conservatives to declare war on poverty the same way they declared war on Soviet communism: "With each sunrise we are reminded that millions of our citizens have yet to share in the abundance of American prosperity. Many languish in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and bereft of hope. Still others hesitate to venture out on the streets for fear of criminal violence. Let us pledge ourselves to a new beginning for them."

That sounds a lot like Jack Kemp. What other prominent Republican has made the enfranchisement of these forgotten Americans his very raison d'etre? Who else in the party has put the same missionary zeal into championing conservative solutions like school choice, tenant ownership of public housing, urban enterprise zones?

Here's what Reagan called for:

-- "Let us apply our ingenuity and remarkable spirit to revolutionize education in America, so that everyone of us will have the mental tools to build a better life." That sounds like Kemp's "school choice."

-- "Let us harness the competitive energy that built America into rebuilding our inner cities so that real jobs can be created for those who live there and real hope can rise out of despair." That sounds like a call for enterprise zones.

That's about as specific as Reagan could get in a speech intended to endorse President Bush for reelection in 1992. But who besides Kemp could he have been talking about? The challenge he issued to the Republican Party and the conservative movement is the same as Jack Kemp's: We won the Cold War--now let's take that same zeal and put it to use fighting poverty and expanding opportunity. Reagan's speech was a call for Republicans to take the battle won abroad to the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant and South Los Angeles. It was a call to adopt Jack Kemp's cause as our own.

One might even argue that it was the first endorsement of the 1996 campaign.

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