When Politics Worked – Reagan and O’Neill

A busload of politicians were being driven in the country when all of a sudden the vehicle ran off the road and crashed into a barn.  The farmer got off his tractor and went to investigate. Soon he dug a hole and buried every one of the elected officials. A few days later, the local sheriff came out, saw the crashed bus, and inquired of the farmer as to where all of the politicians had gone.  The old country fella responded that he had buried each and every one of them.  The sheriff said, “Were they all dead? and the farmer replied, “Well, some of them said they weren’t, but you know how all of them politicians lie.”  Today, opinions of politicians may be even lower than that of the farmer, especially south of the border.  But that’s not the way it used to be.  Let me explain.

He supported the biggest amnesty bill in history for illegal immigrants, advocated for some gun control, used Keynesian stimulus to jump-start the economy, favoured personal diplomacy even with the country’s sworn enemies, and instituted limited tax increases in six of the eight years of his presidency.  He was Ronald Reagan.  Yes, the core beliefs that got Reagan elected and re-elected were conservative: lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong military.  However, Reagan was also a pragmatist and able to improvise through negotiations to bring about his goals.  As he often said, anytime as a leader you can get 75% of what you want from a group of legislatures, you should take it.

Today, the current field of 2016 Republican presidential candidates love to invoke Ronald Reagan as their patron saint, but the characteristics that made him such a successful politician appear to be completely lost on them: with unbending extremism replacing moderate flexibility and dark pessimism instead of bright hope.  Then there are the debates; a reality show of insults hurled back and forth at each other, all openly defying Reagan’s 11th commandment – “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”  (Of course, Barak Obama and the Democrats are all themselves just as partisan.)

But here’s an example from the past..  When Republican Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, he had to deal with a Democratic liberal powerhouse, Thomas O’Neill, the majority speaker of the House.  “Tip” was from Massachusetts, the most progressive of the fifty states.  Reagan immediately set about working with and on O’Neill.  Every Friday, after a week of publicly going at each other’s policy positions, the two leaders (and their wives) would have supper at the White House.  There, in private, a deep friendship developed.  And when O’Neill’s alma mater, Boston College, was in dire financial trouble, the conservative Reagan came to the rescue, speaking  at a fund raiser there which raised over  a million dollars for the liberal institution.  Then when conservative Reagan was shot, it was the liberal O’Neill who was first at his bedside, getting down on his knees, holding the president’s hands, and reciting the Lord’s prayer together with him.  Try and imagine any such similar scenarios on either side taking place today.

And that’s how the conservative President got his agenda through a liberal Congress.  The two reached an agreement – O’Neill would oppose, but would not obstruct Reagan’s policies.  Oh, when politics worked.