I was nine years old when I attended my first political convention. It was 1980, we were in Detroit, and I will never forget walking into the main auditorium and seeing sign after sign with my last name on it: “Reagan/Kemp!”
Suddenly I understood. As we later joked, Dad hadn’t been missing my soccer games just because he thought soccer was a socialist import. He really had been busy at work. Politics, and especially ideas, was Jack Kemp’s passion. And his distinctive politics of optimism, inclusion, freedom, and growth were already making a mark on the Republican party.
Fast forward 16 years. I was standing at the podium with my dad at my second Republican convention, looking out at the cheering crowd in San Diego, and trying to take in Senator Bob Dole’s unexpected decision to choose my dad as his vice-presidential running mate.
Last weekend, when I watched Paul and Janna Ryan with their three young children as Governor Romney announced his selection for VP, I was reminded of that heady moment in 1996 and the emotions my family now shares with theirs. But even more, I thought of 1980 in Detroit, and I knew exactly what Liza, Charlie, and Sam were thinking: Their dad has been doing some real work in Washington, D.C., every week he’s been gone from Wisconsin.
Thirty-two years after the first “Kemp” signs appeared at a Republican convention, the torch has been passed to the next generation of champions of the American Idea. For those who were skeptical of Mitt Romney’s leadership and vision for this great nation, his selection of Paul Ryan should remove any doubt.
The Kemp family has known Paul Ryan for nearly two decades. He worked for my dad, Bill Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Vin Weber from 1993 to 1995 at Empower America before going on to become a congressman at age 28. Seven terms in office later, Congressman Ryan has forged his own path serving his country.
Surveying the challenges of the day, Paul became chairman of the House Budget Committee, an often tedious and thankless job. In the face of national economic weakness and a climate of debt, doubt, and despair, he provided a blueprint for recovery and growth, drawing on America’s strength, not its fears. Paul offered up his ideas not because they were perfect but because he wanted his challengers to make them better. That is how great ideas grow greater and how true leaders lead.
Obama isn’t working. It’s not him; it’s his ideas. And unless he is willing to come forward with new and better ideas — and to debate Ryan on the merits of those ideas — he will lose in November.
The exchange of ideas is key to what my father stood for. Politics can and should be civil. But the debate must take place. You must stand in the arena and defend your ideas.
Paul Ryan has done that. Last October at the Kemp Leadership Award dinner, I introduced Paul as the middle linebacker of the House, and Washington Redskins all-pro middle linebacker London Fletcher gave the keynote speech. Middle linebacker is the most brutal position in football. Like London, Paul has bloodied his nose but hasn’t missed a game. Neither London nor Paul is out there looking for personal glory. They are lunch-pail guys: They put on their hard hats, go to work, and succeed.
And Mitt Romney has done that too. He knows how to look at a problem and find the right resources to fix it. In Paul Ryan, he has found just the right running mate, a leader who shares his vision for America and who understands the spirit of free enterprise that has made our country great, prosperous, and free.
More than ever, our country needs principled leaders, men and women who can translate the American Idea of optimism and hope into visionary policies of freedom and growth. This is the historic calling of the 2012 campaign. Hopefully, years from now, the children who stood at the podium during Romney’s announcement will look back at this election and say, Thank you.
— James Kemp, the son of former congressman Jack Kemp, is president of the Jack Kemp Foundation.