If you have listened to Paul Ryan’s speeches since he was named Mitt Romney’s running mate, you may have picked up on a phrase that he often uses, “The American Idea.” This is the key to understanding him, where he comes from and what has made him the man he is today.
“The American Idea” is the title of a book that Jack Kemp put out in 1984. Ryan has spoken of Kemp in his speeches as his mentor, so this is yet another way that he is honoring him. One can not grasp the magnitude of the impact that Kemp had on someone unless you experienced it yourself. Fortunately, I did and was literally seated across from Ryan in a cubicle at Empower America back in ’93-’94 when he did as well.
Since becoming House Budget Committee Chairman, the media has characterized Paul Ryan as simply a budget-cutter. That misses the bulk of what Ryan is truly about.
Ryan’s brother was on Greta Van Susteren’s “On The Record” last night and he related how working for Kemp had a profound impact upon Paul. Kemp had such an infectious optimisim that spread to all those around him that sprung from his deep belief in “The American Idea.” The basis of this is every American should have an equal shot at success so they can strive to do their very best and reap the rewards for their efforts. That doesn’t mean everyone will meet with the same level of success, but everyone will have an opportunity to reach whatever heights their intellects and abilities will allow them to achieve.
The difference in philosophy between Ryan / Kemp / Reagan vs. Obama can be boiled down to these two quotes from this past weekend:
Ryan – We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes
Obama – a new vision of an America in which prosperity is shared
No one can argue the fact that Jack Kemp was someone who took his message to everyone regardless of their station in life because he believed in the indefatigable (one of his favorite words) nature of the human spirit. It didn’t matter whether someone was rich or poor, what the color of their skin was or any other arbitrary difference because he truly believed that every single life had purpose, meaning and potential. The key to unlocking that potential is opportunity.
It is easy to talk about equality of opportunity, but it is another thing to advance policies that strive towards making that a reality. As early as 1980 Kemp was working on strategies to create jobs in the inner city. Not government jobs, handouts or bailouts, but private sector jobs. His goal was to “greenline” urban America with what he initially called an “Enterprise Jobs Zone.” He wanted us to achieve an economy with full employment without inflation. He sought to bring together unions and management by highlighting for each the reasons they needed one another. Ryan caught this passion from Kemp to use economic growth not as an end in itself, but as a tool to lift up everyone willing to work and that is coming through clearly in these initial speeches he is giving as a vice presidential candidate.
People forget that Kemp was also concerned about mounting debt, not just in America, but worldwide. His answer to this was a two-pronged approach — economic growth and a stable monetary policy. Those are linchpins to Ryan’s thinking as well.
Ryan, like Kemp, represents a Democratic-leaning district with contituencies one would not normally associate with being supportive of Republicans let alone conservative Republicans. Yet Ryan routinely wins reelection by significant margins. How does he do it? He seeks to teach, not argue or demagogue. He uses examples that people can relate to in their everyday lives. When it comes to healthcare, he gives examples of why our system is broken — one hospital charges $3,000 for an MRI while another charges $5,000 and neither one can tell you how they arrived at the cost because it doesn’t matter anyway since insurance pays some other random amount anyway. People get the insanity of that.
Kemp inspired loyalty in people — loyalty not to him, but to ideas. It was never about self-aggrandizement, but advancing sound policy that could make a difference in people’s lives. That is what drew so many of us to Kemp nearly 20 years ago. Kemp was my first paying client as an attorney after I was admitted to the bar. I was offered the post of Deputy General Counsel for his 1996 presidential campaign which would have required that I move across the country to Sacramento, Calif. and was prepared to do it until he decided against running. The ideas he championed, however, lived on and two years later, in 1998, Paul Ryan brought them back to Congress. Now, 16 years after Kemp was the GOP vice presidential nominee and three years after his passing, one of his staffers holds that same honor.
While Vice President Joe Biden makes ridiculous statements such as Republicans want to re-enslave African Americans (“They’re going to put y’all back in chains“), Paul Ryan is speaking about ideas that will free everyone to achieve whatever heights we can dream.
The fundamental choice here is between President Obama who believes that prosperity is something to be shared and Paul Ryan’s belief that prosperity is something that is earned and only opportunity is what must be shared. The latter is what has always been “The American Idea.” The 2012 election will determine if that still holds true or whether we have lost our way as a nation and we are headed down a dark path from which there may be no return.