JACK Kemp, the irrepressible congressman from Buffalo, picked up a worn clipping and began reading what he sarcastically called his ``favorite quotation.'' It was by Charles Duell, director of the United States Patent Office, in 1898: ``Everything that can be invented, has been invented,'' Duell wrote with solemn finality.
Mr. Kemp leaned back with satisfaction, feeling he had scored his point at the expense of Duell and other traditional thinkers.
He said: ``You should not, like Duell, limit the mind and talent and potential of people by putting artificial restrictions.''
In those few words, Kemp summed up the central idea of the new conservatism that is sweeping much of America. Conservatives want to remove limits, especially government limits, on man's potential.
Kemp and his conservative allies would replace what they see as a myopic, Duellian view of the economy with their own. They argue that the potential of the world, and of man, is essentially boundless. Their vision is one of endless growth, opportunity, resources, and jobs. Men and women have incredible promise -- when they are free.
Freedom is the key.
The new conservatism ``trusts people and markets,'' says Kemp. ``It is more optimistic about the future. And it is activist. It isn't content with the status quo. The new conservatives . . . want to make change. It is a liberative idea.''
Kemp and his fellow modern-day conservatives are a new breed, anxious for power. And they apparently have come along at just the right moment, for the American public seems to moving in their direction.
A Louis Harris poll this month shows that for the first time since 1968, there are more Americans who call themselves ``conservatives'' than there are ``moderates'' -- 40 percent to 38 percent. ``Liberals'' make up only 18 percent. The conservative hour, nurtured by pioneers like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, appears to be at hand.
Economics, foreign policy, and social issues are all important to these new conservatives. But economics is the crucial, driving force.
Today's conservatives, however, are different from those 40 years ago, and that may explain some of their new-found popularity. Unlike earlier conservatives, they look away from the corporate boardrooms and Ivy League social circles that dominated thinking on the right for so many years. They are touched by radicalism. They believe the country's future depends on the up-and-coming firms, the risk-takers, the idea-men -- not the sprawling, international conglomerates with million-dollar-a-year executives. Their heroes: small, vibrant firms that are ``growth engines,'' pushing the US economy ahead by adding millions of new jobs.
Kemp, a former pro-football quarterback, personifies the kind of economic vitality the new conservatives espouse.
A popular after-dinner speaker, he waves his arms, thumps the rostrum, and delivers his message of hope with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader.
Though Kemp is one of the most prominent names among the new economic conservatives, there are many others who share in varying degrees a similar philosophy.
Among Kemp's original think-group in the 1970s were California economist Arthur Laffer, editorial writer Jude Wanniski of the Wall Street Journal (now president of Polyconomics, Inc., in Morristown, N.J.), Irving Kristol of the neoconservative magazine The Public Interest, and the now-famous David Stockman, who has moved away from the group.
Other names: Paul Craig Roberts, now at Georgetown University; Federal Reserve Board member Manuel H. Johnson; Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware of the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill; and economist Julian Simon, who favors higher immigration (freer movement of people) to spur US economic growth.
Dr. Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, says there's a strain of grassroots populism that runs through many of these new conservatives.
Sometimes, says Dr. Butler, they tend to be ``very anti-big business, big government, liberal intellectuals, all that type of thing.''
A number of elements blend together in the new economic conservatism. They include: supply-side economics (cut taxes, spur growth); deregulation of business (such as airlines and trucking); gold convertibility (to stabilize the dollar); lower government spending (returning power to the people); free trade (competition weeds out inefficient businesses); and monetarism (the rate of money growth can be crucial, especially for small, struggling businesses).
The new conservatives got Ronald Reagan's ear before he reached the White House, and have enjoyed the President's support for a number of their initiatives, especially the 1981 tax-cut package.
In the last decade, three issues have clearly illustrated the new conservative economic agenda -- the energy crisis, tax cuts, and tax reform.
The energy crisis now seems only a dim memory as gasoline prices fall through $1 a gallon. But a few years ago, many politicians were preaching about an ``era of limits,'' and the nation debated the need for gasoline rationing.
But not the new conservatives. As Americans fumed in gasoline lines, Kemp was denouncing the whole crisis as ``a massive fraud.''
In his book, ``An American Renaissance,'' Kemp wrote at the time: ``To put it bluntly, there is no energy crisis, no imminent exhaustion of oil and gas even within this country, much less throughout the world. The whole notion is a grand deception.''
The real problem, argued conservatives, was government price controls that artificially created shortages.
Since then, most price controls have been removed. And conservatives note that today's cheaper gasoline is just what they predicted once controls were gone.
Then there were the tax cuts. Despite federal deficits, these iconoclastic conservatives fought for, and won, lower taxes to stimulate the economy and ``grow our way out of the deficit.''
But deficits rose. And rose. Liberals crowed. Yet conservatives are unbowed.
``They haven't followed my total prescription,'' Kemp complains. If they had, it might have been different, he says. Even so, Kemp says proudly:
``We've had a 38-month recovery without inflation, something that many said could not happen. Unemployment has dropped from 11 to 7.3 [percent], which is astounding. It has created a burst of entrepreneurship that has created 673,000 new jobs steadily every year for the past three years.'' He adds: ``If we continue at that rate, unemployment will be at 4.5 percent by 1988.''
Finally, tax reform: a major item of unfinished business for conservatives.
Getting rates down, the new conservatives argue, is essential to spur the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States. Lower tax rates mean greater incentives to work harder, earn more, and strengthen the American economy.
Critics brand these tax cuts ``breaks for the wealthy.''
Conservatives reply that they want to make more Americans rich by nurturing new businesses, encouraging risk-taking, and creating more jobs with higher levels of investment.
In all of this, it is notable that the days are gone when conservatives beat their breasts about high deficits, a bloated social security system, and wasteful welfare. True, many conservatives still fret about all of these. But today's rhetoric is upbeat, and focuses on jobs.
Nor does conservatism today find its primary expression in the staid speeches and stuffy classism of Eastern bankers and big businessmen, as once was the case.
Today's conservatism has a frontier spirit, a Western-style, can-do enthusiasm found more often in Walla Walla than on Wall Street.
This isn't just good ecomonics, the new conservatives say. It's the kind of optimistic approach that also wins elections.