Smart Politics vs. Sound Economics: The Battle for Mitt Romney's Soul

As president, would the GOP frontrunner follow his all-star economic advisers--or the promises he has made to the Republican base? 

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Reuters

Mitt Romney pitches himself as the sort of guy who surrounds himself with the smartest people he can find. He's the consummate corporate executive: He listens to smart people and puts their best ideas into play. Sure enough, in his presidential campaign, Romney has assembled a team of conservative economists whose smarts and star power, academically and politically, outshine that of any of his Republican rivals. Last year, Romney's economic advisers advocated policies that, if a candidate were to package them together, would amount to the most creative jobs plan in the GOP field.

Which brings us to how Romney's opponents like to portray him--like he's as malleable as Play-Doh. He's the consummate politician, the sort of guy who ignores his smart people and their best ideas, if that's what it takes to win votes. And guess what? When it comes to the mightiest issue in this year's elections--the economy--that's basically what he's done.

Romney issued a 59-point economic plan with fanfare last September. The platform contradicts landmark findings on monetary and housing policies published in 2011 by his top two economic advisers: Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia University's business school; and N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard University professor and the author of the nation's most widely used college economics textbook. Mankiw and a coauthor called last spring for the Federal Reserve Board to goose consumer demand by easing monetary policy--as the Fed did--in unconventional ways. Last fall, Hubbard and two collaborators argued for reducing the interest rates on 30 million home mortgages to strengthen the housing market, which economists increasingly see as the greatest drag on domestic economic growth.

But in both cases, Romney has vowed to pursue the opposite course. He has said he would replace Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke with someone who would tighten monetary policy, to guard against a supposed threat of inflation that few economists worry much about. And he has said he would let the housing market stabilize on its own instead of intervening. Romney stuffed his elaborate economic plan with tax cuts and a cap on federal spending, mimicking his Republican rivals and appealing to the limited-government conservatives who dominate the party's primary electorate.

This, then, is the Romney Conundrum--for conservatives, liberals, and everyone else. Even on the economy, Romney's signature issue, it's hard to know where his heart lies--and how he would govern in the White House. Would the former Massachusetts governor listen to his best and brightest? Or to his party base?

"Romney's got Glenn and Greg advising him, and they're both top-notch economists," said Keith Hennessey, who ran the National Economic Council for President George W. Bush. "But there's more to economic policy than just economics."

ADVISERS WHO THINK ALIKE

Tension between what presidential candidates say on the campaign trail and what their economic advisers say in their work is nothing new. Romney, if elected, would join a parade of recent presidents who struggled to reconcile campaign promises with political and economic reality. George H.W. Bush violated his "read-my-lips" vow not to raise taxes and lost reelection. Bill Clinton ran on a middle-class tax cut, then quietly dropped the idea as president to focus on deficit reduction. George W. Bush broke his pledge to concentrate his tax cuts on low- and middle-income Americans and to pay down the national debt. Barack Obama still hasn't renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, as he promised during his 2008 campaign.

Some of these promises were broken because, once a candidate entered the White House, his economic advisers disagreed among themselves about what to do or one of them gained clout over the rest. That seems less likely to happen with Romney, who has surrounded himself with an ideologically homogenous team. Hubbard, who ranks as the candidate's top economic adviser, and Mankiw, the only other economist advising Romney in an official capacity, are both mainstream conservatives highly regarded in academia and in Washington; they served successively as chairman of George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. The other two members of Romney's economic team have long experience as politicians--former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri and former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, neither of whom fits the tea party mold. The economic team has no intellectual counterweight to Mankiw's expansionary views on monetary policy or Hubbard's on housing.

What you get from piecing together the recent work of Romney's advisers is a coherent, data-driven story of what is wrong with the U.S. economy and how it ought to be fixed--a story that candidate Romney skirts. Here's how it reads: After the recession, the data suggest, a shortfall in demand has hampered the U.S. recovery; simply put, consumers and businesses are not spending enough. A pile of economic research shows that the housing slump bears much of the blame, as falling prices have robbed Americans of wealth, prompting them to spend less. The plunge in prices has also choked off a traditional source of credit for small-business owners: the ability to borrow against their homes to start or expand their firms.

The best way to rescue an economy from a demand shortfall, Mankiw and his Harvard colleague Matthew Weinzierl argued in a research paper last year, is by flooding the marketplace with liquidity: Cut interest rates all the way to zero to make borrowing cheap. If that isn't enough to reduce joblessness to what economists consider full employment, the central bank should take extraordinary steps, such as signaling that interest rates will stay low for years to come. "A sufficiently flexible and credible monetary policy is always sufficient to stabilize output following an adverse demand shock," Mankiw and Weinzierl wrote. They see no danger of rising inflation until the economy reaches full employment or any need for Keynesian-style government spending to bolster demand unless politics gets in the way of monetary easing.

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Jim Tankersley is a correspondent (economics) for National Journal.

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