This weekend, House Republican leader John Boehner played out the role of Jude Wanniski on NBC's "Meet The Press."
Odds are you've never heard of Jude, but without him Reagan never would have become a "successful" president, Republicans never would have taken control of the House or Senate, Bill Clinton never would have been impeached, and neither George Bush would have been president.
When Barry Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat in 1964, most Republicans felt doomed (among them the then-28-year-old Wanniski). Goldwater himself, although uncomfortable with the rising religious right within his own party and the calls for more intrusion in people's bedrooms, was a diehard fan of Herbert Hoover's economic worldview.
In Hoover's world (and virtually all the Republicans since reconstruction with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt), market fundamentalism was a virtual religion. Economists from Ludwig von Mises to Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman had preached that government could only make a mess of things economic, and the world of finance should be left to the Big Boys – the Masters of the Universe, as they sometimes called themselves – who ruled Wall Street and international finance.
Hoover enthusiastically followed the advice of his Treasury Secretary, multimillionaire Andrew Mellon, who said in 1931: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. Purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down... enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people."
Thus, the Republican mantra was: "Lower taxes, reduce the size of government, and balance the budget."
The only problem with this ideology from the Hooverite perspective was that the Democrats always seemed like the bestowers of gifts, while the Republicans were seen by the American people as the stingy Scrooges, bent on making the lives of working people harder all the while making richer the very richest. This, Republican strategists since 1930 knew, was no way to win elections.
Which was why the most successful Republican of the 20th century up to that time, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been quite happy with a top income tax rate on millionaires of 91 percent. As he wrote to his brother Edgar Eisenhower in a personal letter on November 8, 1954:
"[T]o attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything--even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon 'moderation' in government.
"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt [you possibly know his background], a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
Goldwater, however, rejected the "liberalism" of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, and other "moderates" within his own party. Extremism in defense of liberty was no vice, he famously told the 1964 nominating convention, and moderation was no virtue. And it doomed him and his party.
And so after Goldwater's defeat, the Republicans were again lost in the wilderness just as after Hoover's disastrous presidency. Even four years later when Richard Nixon beat LBJ in 1968, Nixon wasn't willing to embrace the economic conservatism of Goldwater and the economic true believers in the Republican Party. And Jerry Ford wasn't, in their opinions, much better. If Nixon and Ford believed in economic conservatism, they were afraid to practice it for fear of dooming their party to another forty years in the electoral wilderness.
By 1974, Jude Wanniski had had enough. The Democrats got to play Santa Claus when they passed out Social Security and Unemployment checks – both programs of the New Deal – as well as when their "big government" projects like roads, bridges, and highways were built giving a healthy union paycheck to construction workers. They kept raising taxes on businesses and rich people to pay for things, which didn't seem to have much effect at all on working people (wages were steadily going up, in fact), and that made them seem like a party of Robin Hoods, taking from the rich to fund programs for the poor and the working class. Americans loved it. And every time Republicans railed against these programs, they lost elections.
Everybody understood at the time that economies are driven by demand. People with good jobs have money in their pockets, and want to use it to buy things. The job of the business community is to either determine or drive that demand to their particular goods, and when they're successful at meeting the demand then factories get built, more people become employed to make more products, and those newly-employed people have a paycheck that further increases demand.
Wanniski decided to turn the classical world of economics – which had operated on this simple demand-driven equation for seven thousand years – on its head. In 1974 he invented a new phrase – "supply side economics" – and suggested that the reason economies grew wasn't because people had money and wanted to buy things with it but, instead, because things were available for sale, thus tantalizing people to part with their money. The more things there were, the faster the economy would grow.
At the same time, Arthur Laffer was taking that equation a step further. Not only was supply-side a rational concept, Laffer suggested, but as taxes went down, revenue to the government would go up!