“Jack, I can’t believe you’re hooking up with Reagan.”
The year was 1980. The speaker was David Stockman, a Ronald Reagan skeptic who became his beleaguered budget director. The listener was Representative Jack Kemp, a Republican from New York, famous for his insistence that tax cuts were the perfect remedy to cure the stagnation of the 1970s.
Stockman saw Reagan as a cartoon character, the American fringe’s wacko-in-chief. “I considered him a cranky obscurantist whose political base was barnacled with every kook and fringe group that inhabited the vasty deep of American politics,” he wrote. He was afraid that Kemp, who wanted to train Reagan in the art and theory of tax cuts, was flirting with an “antediluvian.”
But Stockman was wrong: Kemp whipped Reagan in line. He introduced the California governor to supply-side economists, like Art Laffer. He determined that Reagan had a “feel for the Laffer curve,” the famous simple graph that attempted to show how cutting taxes would raise government revenue by growing the economy.
In the end, Kemp found the perfect vessel for supply-side economics. Reagan’s tax cuts provided the blueprint for the next 35 years of GOP policy.
History is rhyming. Paul Ryan is playing the role of his mentor and idol Jack Kemp, the sunny supply-side soldier wrangling an entertainment celebrity whose candidacy draws on the fringes of the Republican Party. Perhaps Ryan, whose budgets and image are fashioned after Kemp, justifies his embrace of Donald Trump by looking to his mentor’s success with Reagan. Perhaps he thinks an old story might arrive at a familiar conclusion: The tax wonk domesticates the charismatic celebrity-outsider and thus writes a policy blueprint for the party’s next generation.