The two-way street

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.