Jude Wanniski might have been called the most important journalist of his time, except that the former reporter and editorial writer was never really a journalist. He was an advocate who changed the world. He fathered supply-side economics, which became the doctrine of the Republican Party and enabled it to be the nation’s ruling party most of the last half-century.
When Wanniski died of a heart attack Monday, he was at the low point of his political influence. The doors of the mighty that opened for him in the ’70s and ’80s long had been closed. In an introduction to the 1998 edition of his book “The Way the World Works,” I wrote that our friendship had endured for 20 years because I did not make the mistake of others in trying to change his mind. Alas, I was turned away by his recent accusations of neo-conservative war-mongering conspiracy and saw little of him the last two years. Jude was easy to love and hard to get along with.
Wanniski was a genius, the smartest man I ever met. While he made his living as an economic consultant, his real profession was changing the way the world worked. He had taught himself economics as he learned card counting while a young reporter in Las Vegas. He saw the world in intricate detail but also with a panoramic view from above. He knew the Reagan tax cuts would generate economic growth. He was certain a return to the gold standard would have sustained non-inflationary growth.
Jude was in search of a politician to become the perfect instrument of his policies, and the closest he ever came was Jack Kemp. Wanniski’s real choice for president in 1980 was Kemp, but he settled for Ronald Reagan. Supply-side principles that Wanniski enunciated in Wall Street Journal editorials were embodied in the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, which became Reagan’s tax cuts. At the 1980 and 1984 Republican national conventions, Kemp presided over strategy meetings that were orchestrated by Wanniski.
Wanniski talked about being a teen-age Democrat ringing doorbells for Adlai Stevenson before he became a Republican, but he never was much of a Republican. He always was looking for a Democratic supply-sider, preaching to Jerry Brown, Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, Charlie Rangel and Bill Clinton. He even had hope for John Kerry, whom he endorsed in 2004 because of his opposition to the Iraq war.
The presidential candidate who was the worst fit for Wanniski was Bob Dole in the 1996 campaign, based on a misunderstanding. Dole thought he was taking on an economic adviser to make him more acceptable to the supply-siders. He found in Wanniski a polymath who wanted to set policies on everything, and Dole was not buying that. It was Wanniski who fired Dole, not the other way around.
The professional campaign consultants wanted no part of Wanniski. He talked Steve Forbes into running for president in 1996 and then was barred from the premises. When Kemp became Dole’s running mate that year, Wanniski was kept out. It is hard to imagine a freethinking Wanniski in the buttoned-down regime of George W. Bush.
St. Jude is the patron of lost causes, and Jude Wanniski lived up to his name. He saw qualities others missed in Richard Nixon, Ngo Dinh Diem, Roberto D’Aubuisson, Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet, Fidel Castro and Raul Cedras. He tried hard to prove that Ferdinand Marcos really won the 1986 Philippine election after trying to steal it. He antagonized clients with his warm embrace of Louis Farrakhan.
The tragedy of Jude Wanniski was that all of his colleagues and friends ended up alienated or at least estranged from him: Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, Lawrence Hunter, even Jack Kemp. They were the losers. So was I. It was not Jude’s antiwar views (which I largely shared) but the ferocity of his attacks on the Bush administration that kept me away.
I missed hearing his brilliant and cogent theories and his overriding optimism. He appeared on the national scene with a political-economic strategy that convinced Americans they need not be content with double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation and high unemployment. That is a powerful legacy.