When Good Sense Ruled in the Capital

'Hardball' host Chris Matthews details a time when Washington actually worked.

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Washington has been careening from crisis to crisis, but that doesn't reflect business as usual, according to the host of MSNBC's "Hardball," Chris Matthews. In "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked," Matthews describes how Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan got past their gaping differences to find common ground. Matthews, a former top aide to O'Neill, provides an insider's view into an ideologically divided but more cordial Washington. He recently spoke to U.S. News about how today's political divide differs from the past, who's responsible, and how to restore civility again. Excerpts:

Why did you decide to write this book now?

I proposed the book two years ago. Things are getting worse in politics, and there's an inability to reach agreement across the aisle, and it's become very hostile. There was a debt fight back in 2011, and you could see this coming, a more ferocious fight this time. It's coincidence that the [book's] publication date, Oct. 1, was the same exact day as the government shutdown [started], but it certainly makes the book even more relevant to solving our problems.

What was Tip O'Neill's reaction to Ronald Reagan's election?

He was overwhelmed. The fact that 44 states or so, and Massachusetts, went Republican was a shocker [as was] the fact that the country really liked Reagan. For a while [O'Neill] would dismiss that as anti-[Jimmy] Carter, that they just wanted to get a new president, but I think it became very clear to him that Reagan was enormously popular with people that he had grown up with. Middle class Irish, Italians, Catholics – people that had normally voted Democratic. They were very much for Reagan, and I think that's what impressed him most. The nuns, for example, would stop him and say, "Be nice to President Reagan."

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

What was their relationship like?

The relationship was friendly in the beginning. As long as it wasn't about ideology or philosophy, they got along swimmingly. And then Reagan would go after those domestic programs, which helped poor people and sick people and old people. The speaker was very upset about the cuts in those programs, but he always made sure Reagan had his vote. He made sure he had his honeymoon, where he was allowed to have the votes up or down, all by Aug. 1 of the first year. I mean, the idea of a honeymoon was normal in politics till recently. People wanted to give a new president a chance to do what he promised to do. Now you see people moving against Obama the first day he was president, to bring him down. So I think that's one of the things that's missing today, is respect for the voters' decision.

What advice would O'Neill give to House Speaker John Boehner?

I think he would have advised him not to go after the one thing that the president would not give on, which is the health care law. That's one thing that Obama will fight to the death for. And Reagan had the same approach to his tax cut program of 1981. He was not willing at all to give up on it; he really believed that was the reason he was president, to cut down on taxes.

What did Reagan compromise on?

Well, on things that weren't central to him. He was always skeptical of Social Security, but he agreed to finance it. And then he voted to raise taxes, the biggest tax raise in history in 1982. In each case, he compromised, and so did the speaker. You have to compromise when there's a divided government; that's the only alternative.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

If political combat is good for democracy, is the new partisan era really a bad thing?

Yeah, because it doesn't lead to anything. People are posturing now, where they used to take a position and negotiate and then reach a solution. So we're not getting there.

Does one party bear most of the blame?

Well, in this case you have to make your own judgment, but there is one party, the Republican Party, that is asking Obama to give up health care – either delay it or take it apart – as their bottom line. Most people would say that's operating in a different way than Congress has operated before. I can't think of a time in history when Congress has used a debt ceiling to eliminate a federal program.