• Politics

Lessons from the Age of Ron and Tip

5 minute read
Chris Matthews

American politics was not always this toxic. There was a time not long ago when partisanship actually helped get things done. I know. I was there. When my boss, Tip O’Neill, went to meet Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, he was carrying with him a letter from the President. Ronald Reagan wanted to meet the new Soviet leader. He was happy to have the country’s top Democrat delivering the message. O’Neill told Gorbachev that the American people were behind Reagan 100% in the talks that the countries were holding in Geneva on nuclear arms reduction.

Reagan and Tip needed each other and behaved accordingly. Both sides wanted to get something done. Presidents had real political honeymoons. The government’s budget was debated and agreed to each year. There were no government shutdowns, no threats of debt defaults. The two men from different parties saved Social Security for a generation and passed a historic tax-reform bill that cut rates and plugged loopholes. And O’Neill made sure that Reagan had a free hand in those meetings with Gorbachev.

Politics worked. Thirty years later, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner could still find a way to keep the government running and get things done too. A few lessons from their forebears might help:

1. Both Reagan and O’Neill had real respect for voters.

The judgment of the people mattered to both men. Tip understood that Reagan had won big in 1980 and that voters wanted a new approach. So Tip promised House votes on the new President’s budget, spending and tax cuts all by Aug. 1 of Reagan’s first year. Reagan showed the same respect in return. When his party lost more than two dozen House seats in 1982, Reagan agreed largely to O’Neill’s terms for saving Social Security. He also wanted the issue behind him in 1984.

2. Each had respect for the other.

“Reagan took Congress very seriously,” Tip observed. His chief of staff James Baker would stop by and meet O’Neill in his back office, far from the press, just to give him a friendly heads-up on what was coming from the White House. And as brutal as Tip could be on policy differences, he would always refer to Reagan as “the President of the United States.” He meant it sincerely. That mission to Moscow proved it: he knew deep down in his Democratic soul that only Reagan could speak for the country on matters of strategic security. He made sure Gorbachev knew it. In advance of both Geneva in 1985 and Reykjavík in 1986, he quietly made sure his own Democrats did too.

3. Both men believed in compromise.

Just as they came together to fix Social Security in 1983, they did so with the historic tax-reform bill of 1986. Reagan got the top tax rate cut to 28%. Tip got the corporate loopholes plugged to pay for it. Better yet, Reagan agreed that capital gains would be taxed at the same rate as earned income. O’Neill would later write, “I was struck by how much could be accomplished” when he and the President worked together. It was his match for the sign that Reagan kept on his Oval Office desk: “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

4. They were unafraid to agree.

In 1984, Tip asked Reagan to lean on his friendship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to make progress in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. The result was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which declared that any change in Northern Ireland’s status would be decided by the ballot.

The two parties are more divided now than they were in 1985. But there are ways to keep the government from crashing to a halt or, worse yet, going into default. The President would be better off if he spoke of the Affordable Care Act as a Democratic achievement. The party has been promising it and fighting for it for decades. If he wants the Democrats to fight all out (and to let the Republicans know they will), he needs to sew it on their jerseys. His own clout will increase as well.

And here’s one for the Speaker. He cannot let his party be driven until Christmas by the 30 members on the Tea Party right. At that moment of truth, he may consider doing what Tip O’Neill did in similar circumstances. He told the Reagan people he would try to deliver all the Democrats he could to vote to raise the debt ceiling. All he wanted in return was a letter from Ronald Reagan asking them to do just that. The votes followed. Now let’s see if John Boehner can arrange something like that.

Matthews is the host of MSNBC’s Hardball and the author of Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, which will be published Oct. 1

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