Jack Kempís endorsement this afternoon of Steve Forbes in the GOP presidential contest was an act of political courage of a dimension that I have not seen before in my lifetime. At the very moment that the political universe was declaring Sen. Bob Dole the party nominee, based on his eight-state sweep in yesterdayís primaries, Jack came through. Make no mistake: this is not just an endorsement. It is Kemp -- the leader of the growth wing of the GOP -- telling the political Establishment that even though he knows he is absolutely alone, he believes Steve would make a better President than Dole. All his political friends, from Newt on down, told him he was making an enormous mistake. But then, political leadership is to be alone. We have to go back to Korea for a parallel, when every one of General Douglas MacArthurís military adjutants advised him to forget about a landing at Inchon. What Jack has done is revive the process of discussing and debating the nationís direction. Had he not done so, Steve would have become a political asterisk, taking the Reagan/Kemp supply-side revolution down the drain with him. The crucial national discussions we have in these presidential years would have been frozen at March 6. It would be Clinton versus Dole in November, with not a new idea between now and then.
Can Kempís involvement mean that much? If we remember that the objective is not to nominate someone to defeat President Clinton, but to have a national debate on where we should be going as a nation, it is clear the country owes a debt of gratitude to Jack for his decision today. If, at the end of the process, all that happens is that President Clinton is re-elected, we still can be sure that he will be a better President than he would be if the communication process between the people and their leaders were suspended today. The press corps is immediately asking: Who else will come aboard now that Jack has endorsed? They look for big names, when what they should be looking for is little names -- voters who are tempted to vote for Steve and his message, but who have been warned by their political leaders that he is unworthy. For Jack to say Steve is worthy is worth a dozen governors and senators saying so. Jackís myriad friends in business, journalism and politics who have already thrown in the towel on Steve, now will reassess, if only out of deep respect for Jackís gutsy move.
What can we expect from this point forward? We now have the opportunity for a serious debate between Dole and Forbes and Pat Buchanan -- those remaining in the race -- with a minimum of negative campaigning. The only real chance Steve Forbes has of winning the GOP nomination at this point is if the electorate will forgive him for the clumsy way he entered the race, blasting away at the competition. The fact that Jack Kemp knows that Steve is a better man than he has appeared thus far, and is willing to risk his own political capital on his behalf, will mean a great deal to the voters. Jackís move also reactivates the Buchanan candidacy, in the sense that there can once again be a three-way race. If Steve appeared to be mortally wounded, Doleís nomination would seem inevitable and Buchananís effort futile. The campaign thus gets a new lease on life.
Having said this, the Forbes campaign still has to bring aboard some fresh talent, or the Kemp endorsement will be a one-day news story. We must assume that such changes will be made, or Kemp still would have held back. The political chess board now looks just about impossible for Steve, but because he is the best man to be President, it would make it easier for world-class political chess players to help guide him in that direction. For the moment, though, it is enough to rejoice that our political process has not been prematurely frozen into a Clinton/Dole race. Whatever happens from here on in, Jack Kemp today has made an enormous contribution to all his countrymen.