The Downside of Outrageous

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There is no point in asking Donald Trump about his economists.  It hasn’t been that been that kind of a campaign.  In May the businessman reached out to Stephen Moore, of the Heritage Foundation, and CNBC television host Lawrence Kudlow, to help cut the $10 trillion cost of the tax cuts he had proposed. Last week Moore and attorney-turned-restaurateur Andy Puzder gave Trump a qualified endorsement in The Wall Street Journal: “A Trump Economy Beats Clinton’s.” Mark Skousen made the libertarian case against Trump here last spring.

If there is one man beside Trump himself whose spirit will inhabit the hall in Cleveland, at least metaphorically, it is Robert L. Bartley – not because Bartley himself approved of Trump – who knows if he did? – but because, as editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street  Journal,  Bartley spearheaded the creation of the say-anything, stop-at-nothing rules that ultimately led to Trump’s success in gaining the Republican Party’s nomination.

Bartley died in 2003. After taking over the editorial page in 1972, he became the most influential administrator of the rules of American public debate in the last third of the twentieth century. In that position, Bartley began the populist revolt that has since found its apotheosis in Trump.

Most influential journalistic umpire of an age?  How do you back a claim like that? Mainly be by comparison, naturally, in this case to the career of the most influential journalist of the middle third of the twentieth century, Walter Lippmann. As it happens, thanks to Craufurd Goodwin, of Duke University, dean of US historians of economics we have a first-rate biography of Lippmann that concentrates on his role as a defender of market economics (Walter Lippmann, Public Economist (Harvard, 2014), as opposed to Ronald Steel’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980).

Lippmann was the child of well-to-do German-Jewish parents, attended Harvard College, worked for Woodrow Wilson during World War I, was on friendly terms from then on with Franklin Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes and Felix Frankfurter.  Bartley was the son of a professor of veterinary medicine, attended Iowa State University, and, as editor of the WSJ (as the editorial page editor was and still is called), became the friend of Robert Mundell, of Columbia University; Albert Wohlstetter, of RAND Corp.; Edward Teller, of the University of California, at Berkeley; and President Ronald Reagan.

Bartley was 34 when he was appointed to the job. He had voted for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964, but by the time he spent a year in Washington, in 1971, he had become conservative, and, according to former WSJ reporter Robert Novak, by then a syndicated columnist, he was ostracized by liberal reporters there as a right-wing “kook.” Upon becoming editor he built a staff that eventually totaled fifty writers and editors, creating a universe of conservative opinion parallel to the news side of the paper.  Among those he hired was Jude Wanniski, a flamboyant reporter for the National Observer, a weekly newspaper published in those days by Dow Jones.

In a level-headed appreciation in Slate, in 2003,Jack Shafer described an experience that was widely-shared during the 1970s:

[W]hat attracted me to the page when I first started reading it in 1973, fishing it out of a trash can each night as I cleaned an office building, was Bartley’s allegiance to the classical liberal values of free markets and free speech. Back then, Bartley was a minority of one among editorial-page editors in hewing to those views, tilting against the neo-Swedish worldview of the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times editorial pages. So if Bartley overstated his case from time to time by shouting until his vocal chords hemorrhaged and his readers lost their hearing, well, that was OK by me.

As a small-government libertarian, I never subscribed to the Journal edit page’s supply-side orthodoxy as formulated by Jude Wanniski, which didn’t seem to care about the growth of government as long as taxes got cut. Today, nearly everybody recognizes that the marginal tax rate of 70 percent when Ronald Reagan took office was at least twice as high as it should be. Cutting it down to 28 percent proved to be both a utilitarian and an individual boon. As economist Bruce Bartlett notes, the world took notice of the American tax revolution, and many nations followed our example to excellent effect. But back in the ’70s, when Galbraithism and Heilbronerism ruled, Bartley and his scriveners were the true intellectual radicals.

Wanniski introduced Bartley to a pair of refugees from the University of Chicago, Arthur Laffer and Mundell.  By 1975, Mundell was teaching international economics at Columbia. Wanniski described a “Mundell-Laffer hypothesis,” as revolutionary and mysterious as the prescriptions of Keynes forty years before, all the more so for being confided in a series of restaurant lunches instead of conveyed as formal models in technical papers. The ideas eventually were encoded as WSJ  editorials and dubbed “supply-side” economics: massive tax cuts that would pay for themselves by spurring growth.

Reagan won the presidency in 1980, and Bartley won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The editorial page had become immensely powerful, and has remained so.  Bartley told an interviewer in 1981, about the time Wanniski was fired for train-station-electioneering for a supply-side insurgent candidate, “Jude had a tremendous influence over the tone and direction of the page. He taught me the power of the outrageous.” Wanniski struck out on his own as a political consultant but remained close to the page. By 1982, Vermont Royster had joined the critics. Novak later quoted him:   “‘When I was writing editorials,’ said Royster, ‘I was always a little bit conscious of the possibility that I might be wrong. Bartley . . . is not conscious of the possibility that he is wrong.’  Yet Bartley’s page “exerted more influence than Royster’s ever attempted,” wrote Novak.

By the end of the 1980s, Bartley had won. George H. W. Bush had succeeded Reagan as president, but the WSJ  editorial page refused to take yes for an answer.  Bartley vigorously opposed Bush’s decision to seek modest tax increases to pay for war in the Persian Gulf to expel Iraq from Kuwait.  And when Bill Clinton defeated Bush, in 1992, the editorial page began a series of attacks on Clinton and his wife that ultimately sought to overturn election results with an impeachment trial.

I can pinpoint the day the page lost me altogether. It was March 18, 1993, with a famous editorial, whose title, “No Guardrails,” has since become a WSJ battle cry. A physician who performed abortions in Florida had been ambushed and killed by a protester in Florida. The editorialist, Daniel Henninger, wrote,

[T]here really was a time in the United States when life seemed more settled, when emotions, both private and public, didn’t seem to run so continuously at breakneck speed, splattering one ungodly tragedy after another across the evening news. How did this happen to the United States? How, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, did so many become undone?

We think it is possible to identify the date when the U.S., or more precisely when many people within it, began to tip off the emotional tracks. A lot of people won’t like this date, because it makes their political culture culpable for what has happened. The date is August 1968, when the Democratic National Convention found itself sharing Chicago with the street fighters of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

The real blame here does not lie with the mobs who fought bloody battles with the hysterical Chicago police. The larger responsibility falls on the intellectuals–university professors, politicians and journalistic commentators–who said then that the acts committed by the protesters were justified or explainable. That was the beginning. After Chicago, the justifications never really stopped. America had a new culture, for political action and personal living.

With great rhetorical firepower, books, magazines, opinion columns and editorials defended each succeeding act of defiance–against the war, against university presidents, against corporate practices, against behavior codes, against dress codes, against virtually all agents of established authority.

There was something downright creepy about that editorial – like the moment in The Shining when a leering Jack Nicholson, peering over her shoulder, says to his wife, who has just discovered that his manuscript, on which he has been working obsessively, is repetitive nonsense, “How do you like it so far?”  Any relatively disinterested observer who lived through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s knew the extent to which those years had involved a calming down from the ’60s, of the restoration of rules of civility in the political realm, a process of equilibration,

From the short-lived administration of Gerald Ford to the zero-based budgeting and deregulation under Jimmy Carter, from disinflation under Paul Volcker to tax simplification and Social Security stabilization under Ronald Reagan, the signal events of those years constituted a retreat from the excesses of the Sixties and a celebration of traditional values of order, credibility, ambition, and achievement. The one sphere in which pressure had continued from the Left was expansion of civil rights — of women, minorities, immigrants, gays, and specifically the rights of women to obtain abortions.  Which was, of course, exactly what the writer had in mind.

Shafer described the scorched-earth policies of those years:

As many of Bartley’s ideas gained ascendancy, his page became shriller, unable to give Clinton proper credit for getting control of spending. There’s a thin line between hard-hitting opinion journalism and character assassination, a line that Bartley frequently erased. Instead of serving as a sophisticated and credible spokespage for classical liberalism—like the Economist—his page descended all too often into the dishonesty and hackery one associates with politicians.

By 2001, Bartley was ill.   He stepped down and began writing an occasional column.  The 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center temporarily forced the WSJ from its offices around the corner. The editorial page soon began a relentless campaign for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bartley died in December 2003, a week after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I hope that Bartley will find as wise and good-natured a biographer as did Lippmann in Goodwin.  The rise of paleo-conservatives has been the subject of at least one good book, George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (1976), and is soon to have another, a long-awaited biography of William F. Buckley, by Sam Tanenhaus.  Peter Steinfels and Jacob Heilbrunn, have chronicled the rise of the neoconservatives: The Neoconservatives: The Men who are Changing America’s Politics (1979) and They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (2008). Populist conservatives were the subject of Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in the Age of Diminished Expectations (1994), by Paul Krugman.  If paleo-con Buckley’s National Review provided the starting place for the careers of George Will and Garry Wills; if neo-con Irving Kristol’s influence extended to Allan Bloom, Francis Fukuyama, and Dinesh d’Souza (and influenced the views of broadcast journalists such as John McLaughlin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glen Beck; then Bartley can be said to have furthered the careers of Wanniski, Michael Novak, George Gilder, and Amity Shlaes. There’s plenty of material to work with there.

Is it fair to blame the chaos surrounding this year’s Republican nomination on Bob Bartley? Clearly I think so. No one in my lifetime systematically removed more of those guardrails, the norms governing good-faith political and economic discourse, than he. Trump is the downside of forty years of WSJ ed page comment too often just like his: outrageous, sulfurous, and, all too often, half-baked.  Bartley is dead; long live Bartley: in his absence, the page was completely unable to steer the nomination towards a more viable candidate this year. The best that can be said is that its editorialists helped keep it away from Sen. Ted Cruz.

Paul Gigot, who succeeded Bartley in 2001, has steered a steady course, admitting more diverse opinion to its op-ed pages, coping with increasing disunity among the -cons mainly by proliferating columnists. Lee Lescaze, whom the WSJ hired from The Washington Post in 1989 and who founded its Weekend section, laid the foundation for a humane and sophisticated new wing of the paper before he died, in 1996.

Rupert Murdoch bought the paper from Dow Jones heirs in 2007. His sons, James and Lachlan, have their work cut out for them. Sometime in the next few years they must replace Gigot, 61, with an editor capable of restoring credible focus to a page that has become alternately ideological and diffuse. The decision of the New York Times in March to replace Andrew Rosenthal with James Bennet, hired back from The Atlantic, can only increase the pressure.

Two great heroes of the Republican Party in living memory were Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. What are the chances their likenesses will be hanging from the rafters when the curtain goes up Monday night in Cleveland?  To lionize Reagan is not enough. Until the similarities of roles of both are understood, the Republican Party is not going to regain the White House.