When Jack Kemp ran for president in 1988, I directed the Missouri Taxpayers Watchdog Association. Like most anti-tax activists, I idolized him for his role in passing Ronald Reagan’s marginal rate reductions: the “Kemp-Roth” tax cuts. Jack was the major Congressional spokesman for supply-side economics, which replaced a funnel-minded focus on the federal budget with a broader consideration of individual incentives to work, save, and invest.
Kemp’s capitalism was evangelical. He felt that something as good as economic freedom should be accessible to all. His determination to extend it was manifest in his initiatives for enterprise zones and tenant ownership of public housing. No Republican politician of his generation campaigned more determinedly to win conservative support from African Americans and Hispanics.
When Jack Kemp and William Bennett announced their opposition to California Proposition 187 in 1994, they generated a firestorm within the conservative movement. That proposition was designed to do two things: deny public benefits to border jumpers, apart from emergency medical services; and force cooperation between local, state, and federal authorities in identifying illegals.
Neither Kemp nor Bennett supported welfare for illegals. They contended, rather, that the proposal 1) would not withstand federal court scrutiny; 2) would therefore offend Latinos to no purpose; and 3) would brand the Republican Party as anti-immigrant.
Proponents of 187 observed that Kemp, as HUD Secretary, had in fact supported some welfare benefits for illegals.
On Nov. 8, 1994, Proposition 187 passed with 59% support. The only demographic blocks opposed were Hispanics and Jews. On Nov. 11, a federal court issued a restraining order — the first in a long series of court actions that killed it, as Kemp had predicted.
But the debate raged on. On November 24, 1994, two National Review luminaries weighed in. John O’Sullivan’s “America’s identity crisis — on the importance of immigration” laid out a detailed cultural case for immigration restriction, based on the importance of assimilation. And William F. Buckley wrote a much shorter piece: “Kemp/Bennett vs. the Right.”
Bill’s column was notable for its conciseness, courtesy, and accuracy. In disagreeing with the renegades, he defended their integrity. Proposition 187 would not withstand court scrutiny. “What the Supreme Court has held (1982),” he wrote, “is that it is unconstitutional to deny any child access to public schooling. And that Court ruling would presumably be invoked the day after 187 was passed, in effect making it a dead letter.”
He summarized the reasoning against 187 thus:
The Kemp-Bennet position says: “Look, there shouldn’t be illegal immigrants in California, but it is the business of the Federal Government to keep them away. To pass such a measure as 187 situates the GOP with a strain of xenophobia which will very quickly (California will be more than 50 per cent Asian/Hispanic at the turn of the century whatever happens to illegals) evolve into anti-GOP resentments by the majority of Californians. That could lead to such electoral catastrophes as pursued many GOP candidates who were slow in boarding the civil-rights crusade.
Bill did not agree with Kemp’s position. He concluded his column by saying that a majority of conservatives will doubtless support 187 as a means of telling the federal government to, quote, “Get off your bureaucratic arse and do something . . . Because the burden of immigration is greater than our ability to cope with it.”
At the time, I agreed with Bill Buckley. I now think we were wrong. Bill’s hopes proved vain — the federal government did not act to secure the border. But his fears proved prophetic — California turned deep blue, and frustrated supporters of border security reacted by radicalizing their demands in ways that have indeed tainted the G.O.P. with xenophobia, while delaying needed border reforms.
The attacks Jack Kemp sustained from nativist groups in 1994 are the polar opposite of what those groups advocate today. Then, Kemp and Bennett were accused (though not by Buckley) of supporting the welfare state. Today, across the nation, advocates for the removal of 12 million illegals campaign not for welfare reduction, but for welfare reduction to illegals, who are taking “our” welfare benefits. They campaign not for school choice, but for reduction of school benefits to illegals, who are taking “our” public-school funds. They campaign not for privatization of social security and health-care taxes, but for the elimination of these benefits to illegals, who are taking “our” social security and medicare.
Our large points are thus made small.