Growing uneasiness about a possible slowdown in our economy has raised the question of how a divided government will respond to bad news. A recent historical precedent offers both encouragement and discouragement.
In 2008, constructive cooperation between Republican President George W. Bush and a Democratic Congress kept a bad situation from getting much worse. Discussions about partisanship today call to mind the description of a form of amnesia in which the sufferers forget everything except their grudges. Memories of partisan battles stay fresh, while examples of the parties working together are ignored.
Exhibit A is Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reputation. She was demonized throughout the 2018 campaign as hyperpartisan, despite leading the Democratic majority to come to the aid of Bush in 2008. Notably, that was a presidential-election year, when the motivation for congressional leaders opposed to the President to sit by and benefit from his troubles is strong. But that January, Pelosi not only responded to the Administration’s plea for an antirecession program but, in deference to the White House’s antispending obsession, agreed to rely on tax rebates for the short-term stimulus. Then, less than two months before the election, Bush officials came to Congress seeking billions to prevent the impending collapse of the global economy. Again Democratic leaders agreed to help. Senator Mitch McConnell would later reciprocate by announcing that the defeat of President Obama in 2012 was his No. 1 priority.
Despite this rebuff, I believe congressional Democrats would still work with the Administration to avert an economic downturn if it were possible for them to do so. The issue is that our ability to work in a cooperative manner in 2008 was based on the existence of a coherent, unified, rational approach from the President and his chief economic officials. The sad reality is that none of these adjectives are likely to apply later this year or next. Steven Mnuchin vs. Mick Mulvaney vs. Larry Kudlow vs. Jerome Powell vs. Peter Navarro multiplied by random tweets adds up to an incoherence that will have Democrats shaking our heads, not Administration officials’ hands.
In 2008, when it came to working with Bush’s economic team, we said yes when asked if we could go there. Sadly, the answer to that question if it’s posed again comes from Gertrude Stein: “There is no there there.”
Frank, a Democrat, is the former chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services
This appears in the September 02, 2019 issue of TIME.