MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews is hitting the airwaves to promote his new book, Tip and The Gipper: When Politics Worked. Mathews sees the O’Neill-Reagan relationship as a perfect counter-model to the current dysfunction in Congress. But the truth of the two men's dealing was far from positive, particularly for Democrats and progressives. In 1981, Reagan proposed a tax and spending plan that decimated key programs for the poor and dramatically increased income inequality. It also offered the greatest economic incentives for short term real estate speculation in the history of the United States. As the Speaker of the House, O’Neill could have used his influence to stop Reagan’s outrageous agenda. But he did not. What Matthews praises as “two men coming together in the backroom” resulted in a colossal sellout of Democratic Party and progressive interests. And that would happen time and time again during the Reagan years.

While Democrats justifiably denounce Congressional Republican extremism, there is something to be said for not compromising on core principles. For example, while Democrats could have used the filibuster to deny Supreme Court seats to Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alioto, they chose not to do so; meanwhile, the GOP has stopped much of Obama’s agenda, including his judicial appointments, through such obstructionism.

President Obama is among those looking back fondly to past Congresses when well- meaning people from both parties allegedly sat down and worked together for the common good. Examples exist to support such memories, but they pale in comparison to the many issues---from legal segregation to the current Government shutdown---in which the conservative side refused to bend.

The Real Reagan Years

Matthews’ perception of the Reagan years is strongly influenced by his working for O’Neill during this period. He has a son-like reverence for Tip, which translates into a desire to protect and promote his mentor’s reputation.

Consider this excerpt from Mathews’ book:

The outsider and the insider: these two moved together in a remarkable, if sometimes rough, tandem. They argued mightily, each man belting out his separate, deeply cherished political philosophy—but then they would, both together, bow to the country’s judgment. Decisions were made, action taken, outcomes achieved. They honored the voters, respected the other’s role. Each liked to beat the other guy, not sabotage him.

During this period, government met its deadlines. Members of Congress listened and acted. Debates led to solutions. Shutdowns were averted. What needed to proceed did, and America’s citizens were the beneficiaries.


“America’s citizens were the beneficiaries.” Really? That’s certainly not how those illegally thrown off federal disability rolls during the Reagan years saw it. Nor was this the feeling of those who lost Section 8 housing vouchers, or were otherwise plunged into homelessness because the Reagan-O’Neil budget deal decimated HUD funding.

Millions of Americans suffered terribly from Reagan budget cuts and trickle-down economic policies, while the chief beneficiaries were the very rich. The Community Development Block Grant budget is among many once vital domestic programs that have not regained their actual dollar pre-1981 spending levels to this day. Billions in spending cuts could have been averted had Democratic Speaker O’ Neill held the line.

So while Chris Matthews promotes the O’Neill-Reagan relationship as a model, it instead offers a cautionary tale: Democrats should not trade off the interests of their constituents in exchange for fostering friendships with political adversaries. Matthews likes to describe O’Neill as a tough Irish politician, but the genuinely nice Boston backroom dealer proved no match for a former Hollywood actor who was only sincere when helping the wealthy and demonizing the poor.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. He discusses political deal making in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century