Reagan’s Supply-Side Warriors Blaze a Comeback Under Trump

Like perms, Members Only jackets and Duran Duran, their economic theories were big in the go-go 1980s. Now they’re back.

On a Tuesday evening earlier this month, several dozen Washingtonians gathered in a ballroom at the Trump International Hotel, ostensibly to enjoy an open bar and watch a new PBS documentary about money. In reality, the event also served as a rally for a small clique whose fierce devotion to supply-side economics made them influential figures in the 1980s, and has won them renewed clout and access under President Donald Trump.

Invitations listed the hosts as Stephen Moore, a habitué of conservative think tanks, and Art Laffer, the supply-side economist, who did not end up attending. Larry Kudlow, the director of Trump’s National Economic Council and one of the president’s closest advisers, showed up in a pinstriped suit. “Larry Kudlow is my best friend in the world,” gushed Moore in opening remarks, noting that Laffer and Kudlow served as co-best men at his wedding to his second wife, Anne, who sat in the front row. Taking the floor next, Kudlow gazed out at the room and offered a shoutout to Adele Malpass, a RealClearPolitics reporter and former chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party, whose husband, David, has just taken over as president of the World Bank on Trump’s say-so.

Those decades of free-market machinations are now paying off, as a quintet of Ronald Reagan administration alumni — Kudlow, Laffer, Forbes, Moore and David Malpass—united by undying affection for each other and for laissez-faire economics, have the run of Washington once more. Members of the tight-knit group have shaped Trump’s signature tax cut, helped install each other in posts with vast influence over the global economy, and are working to channel Trump’s mercantilist instincts into pro-trade policies. Blasted by their critics as charlatans and lauded by their acolytes as tireless champions of prosperity, there’s no denying that the quintet has had an enduring impact on decades of economic policy.

Most recently, in late March, and partly at Kudlow’s urging, Trump announced his intention to nominate Moore to one of two open seats on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the body that sets the tempo of the global financial system.

The announcement prompted protests from economists across the ideological spectrumGeorge W. Bush’s top economist, Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw, said Moore lacked the “intellectual gravitas” for the job—who warned that appointing Moore, a think-tanker with no Ph.D., would politicize the Fed. Soon, it emerged that Moore had made a mistake on a 2014 tax return that led the IRS to place a disputed $75,000 lien against him, and CNN dug up scathing comments Moore had made about Trump during the presidential primary.

Whether Moore can survive the scrutiny and pass muster with the Senate will be a test of the supply-siders’ renewed cachet. They believe they can pull it off.

“I understand there are imperfections,” Kudlow told POLITICO. “I think it can be worked out.”

Moore described some of his recent conversations with Trump, which often turn to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell.

“I think his criticism of Powell is excessive and could be counterproductive,” Moore said, because it could actually provoke Powell to prove his independence by defying Trump’s wishes. Generally speaking, Trump wants Powell to keep interest rates low to decrease the chances of any economic slump before the president faces voters again next November.

Moore also recounted how he and Laffer, who began advising Trump in 2016, helped place Kudlow in his current posting.

Roughly a year into Trump’s term, as Trump’s first NEC director, Gary Cohn, prepared to depart the post, the duo sprang into action. Moore said that during this period, whenever he and Laffer engaged in their semiregular consultations with Trump, they would have some version of the following exchange:

“You know, Mr. President, you’re missing one thing,” Laffer or Moore would say.

“What is that?” Trump would ask.

“Larry Kudlow,” Laffer or Moore would tell him.

We just drilled the message over and over,” Moore recalled. “‘Larry, Larry, Larry, Larry.’”

At the same time, Moore said, the pair worked the press. “We made a concerted effort to make it seem like a fait accompli that Larry would get the job.”

That included knifing a few of Kudlow’s rivals. “We had a campaign to say ‘this person’s completely unqualified,’” he said, though he declined to name their targets. “I think we took them down,” he added.

It proves that in Washington, appearance is reality, sometimes,” Moore continued. “So that was highly effective.

During that same period, following the 1974 midterms, Laffer first drewhis famous Laffer Curve — a representation of the idea that at a certain level of taxation, lowering taxes would theoretically spur enough growth that government revenue would actually rise—at a meeting near the White House with Wanniski, Dick Cheney, then an aide to President Gerald Ford, and Grace-Marie Arnett, another free marketeer active in Republican politics.

Reagan would go on to fully embrace supply-side theory, a shift from the party’s traditional emphasis on fiscal discipline, appointing Laffer to his Economic Policy Advisory Board.

Then as now, supply-side economics was criticized for favoring the rich and derided by critics as unrealistic “Voodoo Economics.” The critics got an early boost from a 1981 Atlantic cover story in which Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, aired his doubts that this novel theory was working in practice.

The piece ruined Stockman’s standing with Reagan—Laffer calls him “the traitor of all traitors”—but Stockman’s young aide, Kudlow, now 71, remained a loyal supply-sider and struck up a relationship with Laffer.

Reagan would go on to appoint Forbes as the head of the Board of International Broadcasting, which oversaw Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, and Moore worked as the research director for Reagan’s privatization commission. Malpass, meanwhile, worked in Reagan’s Treasury department. Representatives for Forbes and Malpass said they were not available for interviews.

In the 1988 presidential primary, another supply-sider, the late New York congressman Jack Kemp, lost out to George H.W. Bush, curtailing the crew’s influence within the party.

But they stuck together. Moore, now 59, first became close with Laffer and Kudlow in 1991, after he recruited them to participate in an event celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Reagan’s first tax cuts for the libertarian Cato Institute.

In 1993, Kudlow and Forbes teamed up to craft a tax cut plan for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Christine Todd Whitman, who went on to unseat incumbent Democrat James Florio.

Meanwhile, Kudlow hired Malpass to work for him at Bear Stearns, where he had been flying high as the investment bank’s chief economist.

The next year, Kudlow crashed to earth—he left the bank and entered rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction. Laffer stuck by Kudlow, hiring the investment banker to work for his consulting firm in California when he emerged.

In 1996, Forbes, backed by Moore, entered the Republican primary and lost out to Bob Dole, but the group takes credit for getting Kemp picked for the bottom half of that year’s ticket, which lost to incumbent Bill Clinton.

At some point, Forbes, Kudlow, Moore and Laffer became inseparable in the eyes of their peers.

You could call them the Four Musketeers of the supply-side movement,” said Avik Roy, an editor at Forbes involved in some of the group’s advocacy. Or you could call them the “the supply-side Beatles,” as Moore does—or “the four amigos,” as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist does. “There’s a fourness to them,” observed Jack Fowler, vice president of the conservative National Review.

Malpass, 63, who has maintained a lower public profile over the years, qualifies as something of a fifth musketeer.

“They’re a little rat pack. There’s no doubt about that,” said one New York financial world player who keeps in touch with the group. “They’re all pretty straight guys. They’re not criminals. They don’t do anything weird, outwardly. You know what I’m saying? They like talking about supply-side economics. They get hard talking about tax cuts.”

Whatever you call them, there’s no denying their impact on American society. The group has argued that the best way to manage the economy is to make life easier for the producers of goods and services—by limiting taxes and regulations—so that producers are incentivized to supply more of these goods and services to the market, and that taming deficits is less important than spurring growth.

Before Reagan took office and empowered the supply-siders, the top marginal federal income tax rate in the U.S. had remained somewhere north of 60 percent since the Great Depression. Under their influence, Reagan briefly pushed the top rate below 30 percent, and it has not returned to anything near the pre-Reagan status quo since then.

Before Reagan, the national debt-to-GDP ratio had been declining since World War II, thanks in large part to the old Republican school of fiscal discipline. Since Reagan, the debt ratio has been climbing back toward its wartime peak. Trade and migration barriers have also come down. American society has become both wealthier in real GPD terms and more unequal. These trends have persisted thanks to a post-Cold War, bipartisan free market consensus, and to the bipartisan Keynesian response to the last financial crisis—but it was the supply-siders who really got the party started.

And they have not stopped partying since. Members of the group have continued to actively socialize with each other over the decades, with some spending New Year’s eves together. At one birthday party for Laffer in New York, they presented the aging economist with a signed poster of the Jedi master Yoda. “I’m short, a little bit fat. I’ve got big, green ears,” Laffer explained. “I look sort of like Yoda.”

In 2015, Forbes, Laffer, Kudlow and Moore created the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, a group intended in part to counter the emergence of the “Reformicons,” a rival gang of Republican eggheads who felt the party had gone too far in the direction of laissez-faire policies favoring the rich.

Among the other 29 committee members listed in a press release were both Malpasses, Kevin Hassett, now chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Andy Puzder, who was Trump’s initial pick for labor secretary until allegations of domestic abuse unearthed by POLITICO derailed his nomination.

The group sought, with considerable success, to vet Republican presidential candidates for their supply-side credentials and to influence their platforms, holding large private dinners at Manhattan venues such as the Four Seasons and the 21 Club, so that committee members and other notable invitees—like Rudy Giuliani and Roger Ailes—could feel out the candidates.

Before meeting with the larger group, candidates would huddle with the committee’s founders to receive economic tutorials. Or in the case of Ohio Governor John Kasich, to give one. “We were all sitting there, and he would talk for an hour,” Moore recalled. “We’re like, ‘No, we’re supposed to be talking to you,’ and he’s talking to us.” Moore called the episode “Classic John Kasich.”

Though the events were supposed to be off the record, journalists often attended, and an otherwise lackluster February 2015 dinner for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made headlines when Giuliani barged in, proclaimed he did not believe that President Barack Obama “loves America,” and insisted a POLITICO reporter could print the quote.

Almost every serious Republican candidate participated in the dinners—but when Trump’s campaign first came calling early in the mogul’s bid, Moore said the committee passed.

It just seemed like a joke to me that he was even running. I was like, ‘No, we’re a serious organization,’” he recalled. In hindsight, Moore said, “That was stupid.”

Meanwhile, Trump defied the committee’s free market orthodoxy on issues like trade and immigration, drawing public criticism from both Moore and Kudlow, and feuded with the laissez-faire Club for Growth, which Moore had co-founded in the late ’90s.

At the same time, Kudlow—who spent two decades in media as a National Review editor and CNBC host—was also eyeing a 2016 Senate run in Connecticut, but he did not jump in.

As the voting started, it became clear that Trump was emerging as the likely nominee, but he continued to have trouble attracting experienced advisers. In March 2016, then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski invited Kudlow and Moore to meet with Trump at the candidate’s midtown office. (Laffer—who moved from California to Tennessee in 2006 for tax reasons—had already met with Trump and begun advising the campaign on a tax plan.)

The duo hit it off with the apparent nominee, and Trump asked them to help refine his tax proposal, which he had first unveiled in September 2015. According to “Reagonomics,” Trump wanted the pair to make his plan “bigger and more beautiful” than Reagan’s tax cut, but he also needed to trim the projected cost of his original proposal, which was about $9 trillion. The populist Steve Bannon, the book says, pushed Trump to trim the cost by jacking up his original plan’s top income tax rate. The supply-siders fought back, making charts for Trump that showed when Reagan slashed taxes on the wealthy, the share of tax revenue paid by the top 1 percent actually went up. Ultimately, Trump’s new proposal reflected a compromise position between the two camps, with a top tax rate that was higher than the original plan’s, but lower than the current effective rate.

At the March meeting, Trump also mentioned he was planning a trip to Capitol Hill to confer with congressional Republicans. Moore had heard a similar recent meeting with lawmakers had gone badly—they complained Trump was “arrogant”—and suggested that he and Kudlow, who personally knew much of the caucus, accompany the candidate to help “break the ice.”

Apart from a confrontation between Trump and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, Moore said the approach “worked like a charm.”

After Trump won, the trio continued to advise on the tax plan. Kudlow and Moore pushed the plan on Capitol Hill, drawing on the same relationships with Senate Republicans that they hope will ensure a smooth nomination process for Moore. Malpass, who had begun advising Trump during the campaign and then went into the Treasury Department, also helped craft the plan.

After the tax bill’s passage in December 2017, Laffer and Moore turned their attention to their campaign to install Kudlow in the White House, which succeeded last March. (Two other members of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, the grocery and real estate billionaires John and Margo Catsimatidis, were dining with Kudlow and his wife at the Italian restaurant Cipriani when Trump called to formally offer Kudlow the job.)

Once inside, Kudlow returned the favor, ensuring that Moore’s and Laffer’s writings regularly made their way to Trump’s desk.

The supply-siders began pushing Trump on trade, advising him to encourage a lowering of trade barriers on all sides, rather than raising them. Last June, Kudlow persuaded Trump to float the idea of the world governments eliminating all tariffs at a G-7 summit in Quebec.

Last month, Kudlow showed Trump an op-ed co-authored by Moore in the Wall Street Journal that criticized Powell. The op-ed reportedly pleased Trump so much that it prompted him to offer Moore the Fed job.

Kudlow also championed his former Bear Stearns protege’s World Bank ascension. “For Malpass, I worked very, very hard,” he said.

Moore has predicted that Malpass will gradually bring the supply-side gospel to the World Bank, which influences the economic policies of governments around the world.

To their friends, the prospect of the rat pack getting back at the economic levers is wonderful. “The economy is the best it’s been in a long time!” John Catsimatidis exclaimed.

Sometimes, Aides Save a President From Himself

Trump-McGahn incident detailed in Mueller report shows presidents need staff around them who won’t just blindly do their bidding

When the history of the Trump administration is written, one moment in mid-2017 may be seen as decisive—a moment when a staff member saved the president from himself.

On June 17, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller released last week, the president called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home and ordered him to tell the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, just as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was getting under way. Mr. McGahn declined to carry out the order.

Then, about six months later, when word of the president’s attempt to fire the special counsel leaked out, Mr. Trump met with Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him to deny the account publicly. Again, Mr. McGahn refused.

Had Mr. McGahn agreed to do what Mr. Trump wanted—to have Mr. Mueller fired and later create a false narrative about the effort—the case that the president had attempted to obstruct justice would have been much stronger. As it is, Mr. Mueller declined to say whether the president had or hadn’t obstructed justice; the Justice Department has decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show he did so; and Democratic leaders in Congress, much as they are under pressure from activists in the party to impeach Mr. Trump, are skeptical they have a case for doing so.

The Trump-McGahn exchanges point to an important, larger truth: Presidents need people around them who aren’t simply yes-men and yes-women who will blindly do their bidding. They need aides willing to take the tough step of challenging the leader of the free world. One key question is whether Mr. Trump still has enough of them around him.

Anybody who manages an organization recognizes—or should recognize—the need to have subordinates who can walk the fine line between being loyal and being willing to tell the president he or she is making a mistake. Playing that role as a staff member is particularly tough in the rarified air of the White House—and especially in this White House, where the boss has shown a penchant for lashing out at anyone seen as disloyal.

Yet history is replete with examples of the need to have White House aides willing to stand up to the boss. “That lesson cries out” from the Mueller report, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

President Richard Nixon, a mercurial man, was self-aware enough to recognize his need for such staff work. When he was preparing to take office, he wrote a memo to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, specifically authorizing him to ignore orders that seemed impetuous or ordered in anger. “There may be times when you or others may determine that the action I have requested should not be taken,” Nixon wrote, according to a definitive biography by John A. Farrell. “I will accept such decisions but I must know about them.”

Mr. Haldeman and others acted accordingly, a practice that proved crucial as Nixon descended into depression amidst the Watergate crisis that ended his presidency. One Nixon aide recalled years later that the president, apparently drunk, encountered him in a White House hallway late at night during the opening phases of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and seemed to order him to unleash an American bombing attack on Syria. The order was ignored, and apparently forgotten by the president the next day.

Aides to President Ronald Reagan were frequently excoriated by conservatives for failing to “let Reagan be Reagan” when they pushed back against presidential instincts. Yet Mr. Reagan always defended his staff’s right to do so, and disputed the idea that he was being badly served by strong aides.

In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts a bitter argument with President Obama over implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that compelled military commanders to discharge or separate gays and lesbians from other troops if their sexual orientation became known. That policy was being disputed in the courts, and there was a movement in Congress to change the law. Mr. Obama wanted his defense chief to suspend implementation of the policy in the meantime.

Though he supported changing the law, Mr. Gates refused, arguing that existing law couldn’t simply be disregarded. Congress soon passed legislation changing the practice, which included a period to certify that a new policy could be implemented smoothly. It’s likely the change went down better with commanders because Mr. Gates had shown the need to abide strictly by law.

Mr. Trump also needs aides who will challenge him, as they have when he sought to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria, fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and blow up existing trade treaties. In the wake of the departure of Mr. McGahn last fall, as well as the exits of Chief of Staff John Kelly, economic adviser Gary Cohn, staff secretary Rob Porter, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, the question is whether he has enough of them.

What Ronald Reagan actually said about border security — according to history, not President Trump

The year was 1980, the location was Houston and the question came from the crowd at a presidential primary debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — two bellwether conservatives who would eventually serve together as president and vice president.

Should “illegal aliens,” the crowd member asked, be allowed to attend U.S. public schools?

Bush said immigration policy needed to be “sensitive” and “understanding” toward the “really honorable, decent, family-loving people” that had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation.

Reagan echoed that sentiment.

Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit,” he said. “And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back.”

.. Reagan’s words that night, and his stance in countless other public and private statements as president, contrast starkly with the false history lesson President Trump offered Friday in an early-morning tweet, hours before a potential government shutdown over funding for the president’s border wall.

.. In fact, Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law in 1986, which made any immigrant who entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty.

.. “The memorable thing about Reagan is that he was a Californian,” Meissner said. “He was not anti-immigration.”

.. “God made Mexico and the United States neighbors, but it is our duty and the duty of generations yet to come to make sure that we remain friends,” Reagan said during a 1981 welcoming ceremony for Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo. “Our very proximity is an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how two nations, talking together as equals, as partners, as friends, can solve their problems and deepen their mutual respect.”

.. U.S. Border Control didn’t begin building physical barriers on the southern border until 1990, the year after Reagan left office, in which a 14-mile long “primary fence” was erected in San Diego. It wasn’t completed until 1993.

The Weekly Standard is gone. But the future of conservatism is bright.

With the closing of the Weekly Standard, an influential publication that many considered a respectable, center-right, alternative to more pro-Trump outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News, and the continued ostracization of “Never-Trump conservatives” from the Republican Party, many wonder who, if anyone, will carry the torch of prudential conservatism while President Trump occupies the White House.

Just last week, a group of prominent intellectuals and political figures including Maryland Gov.

  • Larry Hogan,
  • Bill Kristol and
  • David Frum

gathered for a conference at Washington’s Niskanen Center titled “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump.” The underlying assumption of the conference: It’s time for moderate conservatives to regroup and reconsider their relationship to a Republican Party that has been overrun by populists, nationalists and demagogues.

As someone who runs an organization founded at the time of the Iraq War with the aim of changing the direction of American conservatism, I can sympathize with their efforts, but I fundamentally disagree on their diagnosis of the problem. In the long run, both the conservative movement and Republican Party will be better off for having had Donald Trump shatter the combination of neoconservatism and Reaganism that held the political right captive and blinded since the end of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was the statesman that America needed for his time, but the clock had run out on many of his policy prescriptions and it took a “hurricane,” as the Niskanen Center conference described it, like Trump to wake up conservatism — and America.

.. I need not provide an exhaustive list, as Time magazine’s October cover story by Sam Tanenhaus, “How Trumpism Will Outlast Trump,” did a good job surveying the landscape that includes thinkers such as

  1. Julius Krein at American Affairs,
  2. Daniel McCarthy at Modern Age,
  3. Yuval Levin at National Affairs,
  4. Michael Anton at Hillsdale College and
  5. David Azerrad at the Heritage Foundation.

.. What does this new program for the right entail if not a return to the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush years? It’s time for Republicans to embrace a “Main Street” conservatism that prizes solidarity over individualism and culture over efficiency. America needs a foreign policy that serves our vital national interests by securing the safety and happiness of the American people. This means putting an end to the regime-change and nation-building experiments that have devastated Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya; ending U.S. support for the Saudis’ involvement in the Yemeni civil war; reclaiming our national sovereignty; and prioritizing diplomacy over intervention

..  On domestic issues, especially when our country is bitterly divided along partisan lines, we must decentralize both political and economic power to bring it closer to the people. This would allow local and state governments greater flexibility to address their unique problems, letting California be California and Texas be Texas.

.. Regarding the problem of economic concentration, conservatives should stand up to the crony capitalism that has protected big banks and defense contractors, and revisit antitrust enforcement to prevent corporate monopolies from stamping out competition and entrepreneurship. And finally, conservatives should adopt a cultural platform with a renewed focus on civic education; implementing economic and social policies that strengthen families, such as paid family leave and an increase in the child tax credit; promoting vocational training as a dignified alternative to traditional universities; and working toward an immigration policy that better balances economic and cultural concerns.

.. When searching for a prudential conservatism today, it’s best to ignore the advice of those who brought us the Iraq War, the hollowing out of our industrial base and our broken immigration system. The future belongs to conservatives who take Middle America seriously and actually care about the systemic problems that drove the Rust Belt into the arms of then-candidate Trump.