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Jack Kemp and the Failed Republican Urban Agenda

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When I sat down with him last summer, Frank Jackson, the soft-spoken mayor of Cleveland, looked puzzled when I asked if the Republican Party could ever formulate an urban agenda. Republicans know very well, he finally responded, that urban issues are important. But stating them "is not part of the Republican agenda." After all, he wondered, how could a party so supportive of a destructive war in Iraq talk about rebuilding urban centers?

Jackson and I were talking during the final stretch of the presidential campaign. Barack Obama was about to energize urbanists throughout the country with his "Metropolitan Strategy for Urban America", unveiled at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In his speech, Obama referred to cities as engines of prosperity, rather than warrens of poverty and homelessness, and soon complemented the speech with an "urban agenda" that has now been adopted, complete with an executive Office of Urban Affairs, as administration policy.

Meanwhile, Senator McCain was silent about urban issues. When he was finally asked a question about inner-city crime, the Christian Science Monitor noted that the candidate "expressed sympathy" and then "gave a long, winding answer that touched on the international reach of gangs and drugs and the need to seal the borders." McCain thus faltered even when asked about inner-city crime, the favorite conservative "urban ailment".

Against this backdrop, Jack Kemp should be remembered as the lone conservative voice to speak about the importance of cities at least since Nixon's New Federalism turned the federal government's back on urban areas. As George H.W. Bush's Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Kemp advocated a federal urban policy that encouraged homeownership for low- and moderate-income families and used tax breaks to reinvigorate depressed urban areas through Enterprise Zones. Bush largely silenced his HUD Secretary, while critics protested Kemp's overemphasis on homeownership.

During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Kemp saw an opportunity to put cities back on the national agenda of a Republican president, which would have been a transformative event in conservative politics. The Houston Chronicle described the atmosphere with lyrical flourish:

For one fleeting moment, it was as if a window had flown wide open after being frozen shut for years. Political leaders dusted off the hoary notion of an urban agenda...Many Americans hoped that, somehow, the stubborn dilemmas of crime and poverty that so dehumanize urban life would be tackled with a renewed public will.

But even the 1992 riots could not induce action from Bush and the president vetoed urban policy legislation, which included the Enterprise Zones that Secretary Kemp had fervently advocated. Conservatives chose, instead, to blame urban ills on the welfare system. As Stuart Butler of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote, "Today's welfare system, and the irresponsibility it demands as the price for government aid, is perhaps the leading cause of the destructive social and economic environment in America's inner cities - the environment that made the Los Angeles riots a possibility."

Yet, for all the praise showered on Kemp for bucking conservative orthodoxy and focusing the federal government's attention on cities, his proposals, far from moderate, espoused the very "benign neglect" theory of urban governance that has hindered relationships between the federal government and cities since Ronald Reagan. The Enterprise Zones Kemp was so fond of, which provided extensive tax breaks in targeted areas to attract investment, were first hatched during the Reagan Administration with the justification that "cities are not mentioned in the Constitution."

While superficially part of an urban strategy, such zones are antithetical to the idea of federal planning for the needs of urban areas: suspension of regulations - government inaction - was the mechanism by which EZs were to revitalize cities. Indeed, policymakers at the time associated Kemp with the orthodox conservative conception of urban areas. Democratic Representative Bruce Vento of Minnesota complained that Kemp had "HUD on an autopilot with Heritage Foundation software..."

It is certainly true that Kemp stood for more than a "party of no". Michael Kinsley, writing in The New Republic in 1990, distinguished Kemp from conservative do-nothings. In reference to the idea leadership of Kemp and Newt Gingrich, he wrote:

[W]hat has blocked [their] ideas for the past decade has been far less the liberal establishment than conservative opposition to any major national initiative (other than vacuous volunteerism) to address any social problem (other than drugs).

But praising Kemp's thought leadership because it represents the only Republican attempt to talk about cities (beyond the Heritage Foundation's tiresome attacks on the welfare state) is unjustified. A real federal urban policy seeks to maximize federal investment in the places where most people work and most economic activity occurs - that is, in cities - through partnerships between federal officials, state governments, and city officials.

Despite his welcome advocacy of cities and his support for a more inclusionary conservative movement, Kemp was still consumed by an ideological predilection for tax cuts and deregulation that could never meet the demands of urban policy.

Thus, when asked about President George W. Bush's urban agenda, Kemp replied:

Enterprise zones, along with school choice, personal retirement accounts and other pro-family initiatives supported by Bush, represent a complete urban agenda.

A complete urban agenda, perhaps, but one that forgot cities.