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Jack Kemp, Paul Ryan's Mentor, Fought For Social Security

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In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 1996 picture, then-Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp talks to the congregation at Templo Calvario church in Santa Ana, Calif. (Reed Saxon / AP)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 1996 picture, then-Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp talks to the congregation at Templo Calvario church in Santa Ana, Calif. (Reed Saxon / AP)

In January 1988, Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp, the former boss and mentor of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), employed a dirty campaign tactic: He sent out campaign mail to elderly citizens in plain brown envelopes that looked like they could have been sent by the Social Security Administration. Inside each envelope was a note warning seniors that Kemp's opponents, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and vice president George H.W. Bush, had voted against future benefit increases for Social Security recipients.

Some politicians, Kemp said in a 1987 address to the American Association of Retired Persons, were "seeking to scale back Social Security benefits for the family." But Kemp, a fiscal conservative and rising star in the Republican Party, said that the retirement program must remain "the bedrock of society."

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's newly tapped running mate, considers himself a disciple of Kemp. "I learned economics working for Jack Kemp," he said in 1999. The comparisons are obvious: Like Ryan, Kemp was a handsome, charismatic conservative, a voracious reader of libertarian author Ayn Rand and a fierce advocate of supply-side economics, the idea that slashing taxes for the wealthy is the best way to encourage investment and stimulate the economy. Ryan is an avid fitness buff and Kemp, before joining Congress in 1971, was a professional football player.

And the relationship between the two was real, as The New York Times pointed out this week: Ryan wrote speeches for Kemp as an employee at his economic think tank, Empower America, and later hired Kemp's granddaughter as an intern.

But if the mailer Kemp sent out about Dole and Bush was harsh, the one he could honestly put together against his protegé would be downright vicious.

Despite authoring a bill that slashed income taxes by 23 percent over three years, Kemp refused to balance the budget by cutting or freezing entitlements for the poor and elderly. He even opposed Bush and Dole's plan to means test Social Security recipients, arguing that it could reduce benefits for the middle class.

''The benefits are paid disproportionately by the middle class,'' he told AARP in 1987. ''And the middle class is entitled to what it receives."

Kemp was often criticized by conservatives for his expensive ideas and neglect of the federal deficit. He believed that there was no need to slash government benefits in order to pay for his tax cuts, because the cuts would stimulate the economy to such an extent that they would end up paying for themselves.

Paul Ryan, by contrast, has little interest in preserving entitlement programs for the poor. He wrote a federal budget in 2010 that would offset about $4.3 trillion in tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy by slashing programs that assist the poor. His plan significantly downsizes Medicaid, turns Medicare into a voucher program that would cost seniors about $6,000 more per year and slashes discretionary spending on programs like food stamps and housing assistance by nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

Ryan's 2010 budget would also significantly cut Social Security benefits in addition to partially privatizing the program. The initial benefits for a middle class earner in 2080 would be about 39 percent lower than the currently scheduled amount if the Ryan budget were adopted, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The cuts would affect about 70 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries, including everyone who earns above $22,000.

The late Kemp had little patience for politicians who ignored the plight of the poor and middle class with a myopic focus on the budget. He lambasted Bush Sr.'s White House budget director, Richard Darman, who repeatedly dismissed his anti-poverty ideas as too expensive.

"He didn't care about poverty," Kemp said in a 1993 interview about Darnan. "He cared about what the budget looked like."

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