Tip O'Neill and Reagan and Model for Breaking Partisan Gridlock

Some are looking to the O’Neill and Reagan model for guidance.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

Bipartisanship in Washington for the common good is never easy to find, even when the president has majorities in Congress as Barack Obama does. Just ask allies of Ronald Reagan, who arrived with an Obama-size agenda and a split Congress—a tiny Senate majority and a very Democratic House. There were fights galore. House Speaker Tip O'Neill made sure of that. But there were also a lot of successful deals because the friendship that the Gipper and Tip built trumped partisanship.

Now, as both sides grapple with a Grand Canyon-size political divide, some are looking to the O'Neill and Reagan model for guidance. "You have to develop the relationship before bipartisanship," says moderate Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, who was one of 54 Republicans swept into office with Reagan in 1980. "A lot of it was done after hours. They got together, they broke bread, they told stories, and they did things that I think helped us do things to make some accomplishments," says Wolf.

John Heubusch, who heads the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, says: "When Reagan came to Washington, it was a certainty that he could not get any of his bold ideas into action until or unless he had a bipartisan solution. That was a given. So his initiatives, his lobbying approach, and his communications strategy, and the personal relationships he built were with all this in mind." And Reagan gambled with his fellow Irishman sometimes to a draw. "He'd ask for more than he expected to get and was willing to settle for less than the whole loaf," Heubusch adds.

And instead of stiff-arming the opposition, the current name of the game on both sides in Washington, Reagan bear-hugged his foe. At one 1986 dinner, for example, Reagan said of O'Neill: "Our friendship is testimony to the political system that we're part of and the country we live in, a country which permits two not-so-shy and not-so-retiring Irishmen to have it out on the issues rather than on each other or their countrymen."

Could it happen today? O'Neill's biographer, John Aloysius Farrell, doesn't think so. "Reagan and O'Neill had so much in common," says Farrell, a U.S. News contributing editor. "Don't get me wrong," says Farrell. "Folks in Berkeley detested 'Ray-gun,' and folks in Orange County thought Tip was a clueless lump of what the Irish call blarney. But you didn't have the domination of the parties by their bases the way you do now." The model for today's regime, he says, is more like the dueling relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

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