Bipartisan Reagan-O'Neill Social Security Deal in 1983 Showed It Can Be Done

1983 Social Security deal showed that good politics can happen in the most unforgiving environments.


Students of Reagan have offered praise for this agreement. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon praised Reagan's Social Security commission as an example of "a compromise that did some things the Democrats wanted and some things the Republicans wanted," while even the former president's critics including author Will Bunch cited the Social Security deal as a "practical" and bipartisan reform that had a "lasting positive impact" on government and public policy.

So what does this deal say about Obama's plans to heal the rifts that divide Americans and achieve the promise of bipartisan compromise and reform? The 1983 compromise reminds that the political environment can swiftly change in ways that are almost impossible to anticipate; it's a reminder of the contingency of history, and the malleability of America's political process. 

Thus, while Obama and his critics are at partisan loggerheads on how to reform healthcare, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and lower the federal budget deficits, such rifts aren't unchangeable and immovable. Moreover, that Reagan-era compromise shows that mid-term elections (the GOP lost big in 1982) can alter the partisan calculus on critical topics. Reagan's agreement with Democrats further demonstrates that commissions—they often provide politicians with vehicles for kicking the can down the road—can also help to fuel bipartisan solutions and foster political support for getting some hard things done in Washington. Ultimately, whether the issue is immigration reform, providing universal access to healthcare, or strengthening Medicare and Social Security over the long term, Reagan's compromise highlights how politics can drive policies in some pretty unanticipated directions. For those who are critical of Obama and Congress for their failures to date to deliver on bipartisanship, Reagan's example suggests that they might just be surprised by what the future can hold in store for the country.

Corrected on : Matthew Dallek, a visiting fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.