Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

January 2, 2011

THE TWO-WAY STREET.... Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, a former adviser to George W. Bush, has a worthwhile column in the New York Times today, effectively writing a letter to President Obama, trying to help him understand how Republicans think. Mankiw argues at the outset that the president "could use a few words of advice" on how to govern with the 112th Congress.

In a matter of days, Republicans will control the House of Representatives and have a larger voting bloc in the Senate. If economic policy is to make any progress over the next two years, you really will have to be bipartisan. To do so, you'll need to get inside the heads of the opposition.

I am here to help. As a sometime adviser to Republicans, I'd like to offer a few guidelines to understanding their approach to economic policy. Follow these rules of thumb and your job will be a lot easier.

The recommendations are about what one might expect. Mankiw, for example, urges Obama to "pivot and address the long-term fiscal problem," which allegedly is foremost on Republicans' minds. (This might be more plausible if Republicans hadn't just demanded an expensive tax-cut package, financed entirely with money we don't have, and proposed procedural budget rules that make deficit reduction extremely difficult.)

If he'll forgive a crude summary, Mankiw goes on to recommend the president stop focusing on trying to bolster the incomes of those who are struggling, fire bad school teachers, and "have a beer with a Republican at least once a week."

I didn't find the piece especially persuasive -- Mankiw sees an intellectual consistency and depth of policy understanding among Republicans that does not appear to exist in reality -- but I'm probably not the intended audience. That said, I'm inclined to at least give Mankiw credit for trying to outline the perspective of a political party that too often seems to be living in some kind of parallel universe.

What occurred to me reading the piece, though, is that the political world seems focused on these larger questions quite a bit. President Obama worked for two years with friendly congressional majorities, and got an enormous amount of work done. Now that the partisan makeup of Washington will change, what should Obama do? What can he do? How much should the White House expect to compromise and/or abandon previous positions if a complete breakdown of our political process is to be avoided?

Mankiw's piece notes this in passing, as if it's a basic truth: "If economic policy is to make any progress over the next two years, [Obama] really will have to be bipartisan."

This isn't to pick on Mankiw, but I can't help but notice there seems to be practically no related suggestions for the other side of the aisle. I can't think of any recent op-eds from anyone, for example, letting congressional Republicans know that if economic policy is to make any progress over the next two years, the GOP really will have to be bipartisan. There's no related talk about where Republicans should expect to compromise, or what promises they should expect to break as part of the give-and-take world of Washington policymaking in a time of divided government.

The reason for this, I suspect, has something to do with the fact that Republican leaders have already foresworn making concessions with anyone on anything, and everyone seems well aware of this. You'll recall, for example, that the incoming House Speaker proclaimed on "60 Minutes" last month that he "rejects the word" compromise.

But this is a flaw in the conventional wisdom that needs to be corrected. In a few days, we'll have a Democratic White House, a Democratic Senate, and a sizable House Republican majority. If the only question is "What can Democrats to make those Republicans happy?" the conversation will need a dramatic overhaul.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

"What can Democrats to make those Republicans happy?"
But that is the central point!
And the answer is bipartisanship in the form of absolute and total capitulation by the Democrats.
That's their idea of bipartisanship.
See?
Simple!

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 2, 2011 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, Makiw's column is a bit difficult to weigh through, but the upshot is a view of the Republican mind, set forth by the Republican mind!

Faithfully, Makiw can't see the one-way direction of his hold on present circumstances (how nice of him to offer us a real intrinsic view of the Republican mind by offering up so many trite homilies of how their view(s) need not be part of the observational phenomenon, but the given to begin with)!

The primary question for the next two years will be:

Can the Republicans govern through proposed policies that benefit the majority of our citizens, or will they continue to attack government, and be part of a ruinous effort to distribute wealth upward?

If the former, I will be surprised. If the latter, the question for the American voter of the 2010 election cycle will be, Who the fool, fool? -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on January 2, 2011 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

I am not the economic genius that Mankiw is, but I think some of his analysis is deeply flawed, and much of his political optic way off. Mankiw wants Obama to focus on 5 topics to reach to Rs:

1. Focus on the long run... Where have you been, Mr. Mankiw? Part of the flaw of the stimulus program is that it has too little short run stuff. The long run stuff- energy based ideas, tax breaks, for exa., education reform, etc., won't pay off for 5-15 yrs.

2. Think at the Margins. R's obsess abount marginal tax rates, with the hypothesis that increasing marginal rates creates disincentives to growth and innovation. Again, we have been hearing some, and hopefully we will here much more, about fundamental tax reform; I bet a clear analysis of the distortions that tax breaks [tax expenditures, in the jargon], tax credits, etc would show that they create a much bigger drag on economic growth, and create perverse incentives [re: ethanol] than do marginal rates.

3. Stop trying to spread the wealth. Here, Mankiw wants Obama to stop being a Democrat altogether. While there is a long "intellectual tradition" of the libertarian/markets uber alles approach, this argument avoids the impacts that such a system ALWAYS creates - a permanent lower, disinfrancised class who will always struggle. At some point, humanity must take over, and we are left to find medical care, housing, etc., for people who will never get ahead. I guess you don't run into these folks on a daily basis at Harvard.

4. Spread opportunity. Agreed. Mankiw mentions ed reform. Again, Dr. Makiw - where have you been? Do you not know what the race to the top program is?

5. Don't make the oppoisition your enemy. If there is anyone else who could be anymore conciliatory to the mean-spirited, ignorant, obstiant, and oppositional tactics of the Rs than Obama, I have not seen them.

Steve B. is correct - where is the counter point to this from the D perspective? And, much of the recommendations avoid the big elephants: Distortive defense spending, lack of cost containment in Medicare and Medicaid, and other assorted issues, like long-term state liabilities for pensions, etc.

Posted by: bigtuna on January 2, 2011 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

Brilliant post, Steve, thank you for pointing out this discrepancy.

It also brings out a further point: even if we grant Mankiw the benefit of the doubt and assume his intentions are noble, he reveals not just the one-sided nature of calls for "bipartisanship", but the mindset that only one party is really invested in the economic recovery. In other words, the one who needs advice on bipartisanship is Obama, because he'll have plans and legislation he'll want to enact to help the recovery. Similar advice need not go to the Republicans because they won't have any plans they want to advance. If the economy does recover, it will be because the GOP was kind enough to allow some of Obama's plans to go through, after they've fixed them up of course (and will then try to take credit). And if the economy doesn't recover, then it's only Obama's problem and the GOP will benefit. Selfishness rules.

But the Republicans really need to start seeing that they have as much stake in getting the economy to recover as do the Dems and Obama. Is it possible to get that message out and into their skulls? Wouldn't exactly say I'm optimistic about that...

Posted by: E.Hatt-Swank on January 2, 2011 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

It's very simple: the Village expects that the Democrats act responsibly, and criticizes them heavily for even small lapses in this regard. But it has no such set of expectations for the Republicans, and pretty much ignores their failures in this regard.

There will be no calls from the Broderists for the Republicans in Congress to act in a bipartisan manner.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 2, 2011 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

Mankiw is being either stupid or duplicitous. The Republicans have two goals. The short-term goal is to destroy Obama so he can't be re-elected in 2012. The long-term goal is further destruction of the Federal government (other than the military and the security-state apparatus).

Posted by: Jose Padilla on January 2, 2011 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Virtually every sane economist acknowledges that the long-term solution to the deficit involves some combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Because Republicans absolutely will not accept any tax increase whatsoever, there is no chance of bipartisan compromise on the larger financial issues.

Benen's criticism of the Minkiw op-ed piece is right on point: the Obama administration has regularly shown its ability to compromise--from the stimulus bill (where Democrats crafted a comromise package containing more tax cuts than were ideal in order to attract Republican support) to the health care bill (where, again, Democrats crafted legislation designed to appeal to the traditional conservative wing of the Republican Party) to the recently-enacted tax bill. Why aren't we focusing instead on how the Republicans will compromise?

Posted by: DRF on January 2, 2011 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

If this is indicative of the thinking that we find from Harvard professors, I am very grateful for my public college education.

Posted by: Bucky on January 2, 2011 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

These are the voices of a spoiled, self-centered children who can only see things one way. When you grow older aren't you supposed to give up childish ways?

Posted by: Darsan54 on January 2, 2011 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

I suspect Mankiw realizes that Republicans are simply bonkers so it would be a waste of time advising them to even consider compromise. In effect, he's agrees with liberals who consider Republicans to be virtual terrorists who are holding the nation's interest hostage to their own political fortunes.

Because Obama doesn't fight them, Republicans are free to act as crazy as they like and not pay a price. Obama's capitulation may be admirably stoic but it only serves to enable this craziness. I know it's unfair in a way - Obama didn't create them - but you have to engage in battle or forfeit any reason for being in this arena. Politics is war and Obama wants to host seminars.

Posted by: walt on January 2, 2011 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Coach Obama wants to win the game. However, many of the players want to look good on film, for next year's NFL draft.

Posted by: DAY on January 2, 2011 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

One of the reoccurring themes in several recent articles seems to be how Obama fails in the wink wink, back slapping relationships that drive politics: i.e the beer with buddies syndrome. The business of governance should not turn on an individual’s petty likes or dislikes. It is reminiscent of Junior HS. Petulant, bullying, money grubbing behavior is the way of politics and adults like Obama, are derided for...well…acting like adults. President Obama will never be one of the Boehner-like, smarmy members of the boys club (read white boys club). Yikes, seeing the alien bug-eyed Mitch McConnell across from me at dinner might drive me to drink a whole 6 pack.

Seriousness of purpose doesn't negate compassion for individuals or an understanding of their problems. The President appears to have a strong circle of personal friends that do not include politicos. Sounds quite healthy and well adjusted to me.

Posted by: Diane Rodriguez on January 2, 2011 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

The state of the economy will almost-certainly determine the winner of the 2012 Presidential contest. The economy plus the popularity of the party nominee will influence many the House and Senate contests. Unfortunately, the incoherent barely-Keynesian economic policies (stimulus bill, bush tax package)and many bipartisan compromises to come of BHO stand a good chance by 1/12 of keeping us at best at 9-10% unemployment (actually 17-18%, if measured by criteria used for Hoover in '32) with little improvement if any by 11/ 2012 according to Keynesian analyses. Furthermore, BHO's Afghanistan policies in the Groucho Marx meme(Hello: I must be going) don't seem to be an exception to the rule that no foreign power going back three millennia has successfully occupied the place.

The result is that BHO by 1/12 stands a significantly greater-than-zero chance of looking like the Dems nightmare-combo-candidate of Hoover and LBJ (or Carter, if you prefer). Even if BHO were re-elected, he sure won't alter the dynamics of House/Senate races. The resulting four-year (2012-2016) disaster with a Repub House and Senate would get blamed on Dems and destroy any possibility of Progressive policies for a generation.

Many Dems see these problems. Most all shy away from any solution except to say to Progressives: Sit down, shut up, and allow BHO to propose to take us 50% further into our economic swamp because the Repubs want to take us 100% further. And be happy with his compromise to take us 75% further. More and more Progressives I know in red or blue states are saying "No Thanks" and doubt that BHO can be forcibly partisan and a strong leader.

Given that such change in BHO is extremly unlikely, BHO and 5-10 Senate DINOs need Progressive challengers asap. What good did it do the Repubs in '32 to rerun Hoover or the Dems Carter in 80?? Or wait too long to replace LBJ's Vietnam policies (RFK would probably have beaten RMN, as would have HHH if he had distanced himself sooner from LBJ’s Vietnam policies)? Hoover, LBJ, Carter (or Chamberlain in Britain) were all good men, meant well, but had inappropriate personalities and policies for the crises they faced. The Dems should listen to Santayana about learning the lessons of History and hope a challenger can do well in some early 2012 primaries (who would have predicted McCarthy’s support in 1966??).

Posted by: gdb on January 2, 2011 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

From the Unabridged Dictionary of RepublicanSpeak:

Compromise - When democrats give everything that the republicans want to them

Bipartisanship - When democrats give everything that the republicans want to them and apologize for not doing so sooner

Posted by: SadOldVet on January 2, 2011 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

"Coach Obama wants to win the game. However, many of the players want to look good on film, for next year's NFL draft."

That is awesome.

Posted by: Sam on January 2, 2011 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

Mankiw, for example, urges Obama to 'pivot and address the long-term fiscal problem'.

Great.

Then I assume he wants to reverse the numerous rounds of tax cuts for the Rich & Corporate that created the fiscal problem ?

Posted by: Joe Friday on January 2, 2011 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

gdb That gobbledygook was nothing but a straight criticism of Obama with no meat to anything you attempted to say.NO, we should not give up on Obama and immediately run progressive challenges. That is the most assinine thing that can be done.
Your stupid doubt is not going to help , and if you just attempt to destablize democrats, instead of working magnify destablized republicans, its over before we begin. Its already half stacked against us, yet you would have the entire package be given to republicans. Not too bright, but I better leave it right there, or you might get your fewings hurt.

Posted by: Michael on January 2, 2011 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Matt Yglesia has had a number of excellent posts recently in which he has been making the case that the US leaders are choosing not to grow the economy.

Yglesias: "I think what we see is that for unclear reasons leaders in developed countries have basically given up on trying to have economic growth. The US, the Eurozone, and Japan are so terrified that real growth might lead to growth-imperiling inflation that we’ve just decided to live without the growth in the first place."

Mankiw's recommendations illuminate the reasons that Yglesia finds unclear. We know what Republicans want; they want to defeat Obama in 2012. And the best way for Republicans to ensure Obama's defeat in 2012 is to insist on "addressing the long term fiscal problem" over growth. It has nothing to do with growth-imperiling inflation.

The reason we don't see editorials about how Republicans should compromise with Democrats is because plutocrats own the media. Republicans talk about limited government and lower taxes, but--remembering that up-is-down for them--what Republicans really want is a crippled federal government. They want government powerful enough to secure the interests of the plutocrats but too weak to serve the needs of the bottom 99%. We can assume that the plutocrats who run the media are actively trying to defeat Obama in 2012.

Posted by: PTate in MN on January 2, 2011 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

In spite of Republican blockage and Progressive whining the President got an awful lot done.
Why don't we assume he knows what he is doing and stop with all the free advice.
He knows the game and now has a perfect foil to play off. Watch and learn.

Posted by: hornblower on January 2, 2011 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Mankiu assumes that the current nihilistic republican party is interested in policy. It's not. They have no interest in governing at all as long they don't have the power and maybe not even if they do. They don't care if the economy goes to hell; they don't care if there are millions of people without jobs or without health care; they don't care if the nation's infrastructure is crumbling; they don't care if the planet is being destroyed by GW. Today's GOP has one goal and that is to destroy the Obama presidency along with the Democratic Party.

Posted by: CDW on January 2, 2011 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

hornblower,

In spite of Republican blockage and Progressive whining the President got an awful lot done. Why don't we assume he knows what he is doing and stop with all the free advice.

Ya, he got so much “done” that the base stayed home and the Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House.

If Obama keeps getting those kinds of things “done” he will be a one termer.


Posted by: Joe Friday on January 2, 2011 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

If the "base" stayed home it was because of the whining of some loud progressives.
You have proved my point.

Posted by: hornblower on January 2, 2011 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, a former adviser to George W. Bush, has a worthwhile column [...] -- Steve Benen

Did you really find it so? Granted, it was late last night when I read it, and my two gray cells were somewhat tired by then, but all I took away from it was a big wave of nausea. He lost me right there, in the second para, with his: "I am here to help. As a sometime adviser to Republicans, I'd like to offer a few guidelines[...]". And, when I got to his advice about having a beer with the SOBs once a week, I actually had to go to the bathroom and rinse out my mouth.

It could be just me, but patronising pricks like this -- professors or no -- always make me wanna puke.

Posted by: exlibra on January 2, 2011 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

hornblower,

If the "base" stayed home it was because of the whining of some loud progressives. You have proved my point.

Hope you got a rise out of knocking down that fake Straw Man you self-servingly constructed.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.


Posted by: Joe Friday on January 2, 2011 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

More republican projection.

Posted by: ComradeAnon on January 2, 2011 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

If this is indicative of the thinking that we find from Harvard professors, I am very grateful for my public college education.

Posted by: Bucky on January 2, 2011 at 11:20 AM

Bingo!

Posted by: electrolite on January 2, 2011 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

Happy New Year JF.
I'm sorry but I think the Pres has done a fine job. If you don't think so feel free to stay home in 2012.

Posted by: hornblower on January 2, 2011 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

I think Mankiw is a right-wing shill.

Posted by: Steve J. on January 2, 2011 at 6:57 PM | PERMALINK

"fire bad school teachers"

Can we start with Mankiw?

Posted by: a on January 3, 2011 at 1:06 AM | PERMALINK

"I can't help but notice there seems to be practically no related suggestions for the other side of the aisle. [...] The reason for this, I suspect, has something to do with the fact that Republican leaders have already forsworn making concessions with anyone on anything, and everyone seems well aware of this."

Oh come on Benen. Things have been like this for awhile. It's getting harder and harder to see it as something that is just being overlooked, or everyone should just know that conservatives simply won't listen. When was the last time there was such a suggestion for Republicans, period? Or at least a time when suggestions of conciliation and compromise were roughly equal between the sides?

Just face it, conservatives won't listen because they don't have to. There is a stacked deck and it starts at the top. There are "no related suggestions for the other side" in the op-ed pages because it has been handed down from on high that none should be published. It's not fear of conservative backlash, it's agreement with the conservative agenda.

Posted by: Jon on January 3, 2011 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

Hornblower: "I'm sorry but I think the Pres has done a fine job. If you don't think so feel free to stay home in 2012."

That pervasive attitude didn't get the Dems very far last November, wake up!

Michael: "Its already half stacked against us, yet you would have the entire package be given to republicans. Not too bright, but I better leave it right there, or you might get your fewings hurt. "

If you Democrats can't even start with upholding the basic human dignity of potential voters then pompous and egotistical fools reign and there truly is no hope. A party with that kind of outlook will loose at the polls, and they absolutely deserve to!

Posted by: Dems Loose on January 3, 2011 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sorry loose Dem (huh?), but fools of the pompous and egotistical variety have a firm grip on the direction of the Democratic party, and nothing is going to slacken that grip any time soon.

Faced with so much apocalyptic rhetoric about the deficit and what do the clowns in Washington do? Increase it by 900 billion with tax cuts. With polls falling out like: "Democrats (83%), Republicans (82%), and Independents (78%) are opposed to cutting Social Security benefits", what are the clowns thinking about doing? Another "grand compromise" that cuts Social Security benefits so the Republicans will allow the federal debt ceiling to rise.

Entitlements are the problem only if you are ideologically opposed to their existence. We will be left with cat food for the old and infirm so the Dems don't have to fight for them. If Social Security cuts aren't a line in the sand for the rest of you Dems still clinging to the mistaken vision of "incremental change" then frankly there isn't one and current politics have wholly left behind everyone who believes in anything other then wealth and fame.

Posted by: Jon on January 3, 2011 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly