The White House was lost. The Senate as well. The Democratic House speaker stood alone amid the wreckage.
Like John Boehner, Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. was a man of the House, more suited for cutting deals in the coziness of the cloakroom or at the 19th hole than in the role he now inherited: the leader of a great political party, defender of its constituency, and guardian of its faiths.
His foe—a telegenic president—had the bully pulpit, a staunch cadre of loyalists, and the power of political tides.
Yet somehow O’Neill fought Ronald Reagan to a standstill.
Reagan stemmed the growth of the U.S. welfare state—but O’Neill and his Democrats saved the core of the party’s New Deal and Great Society programs.
Are there lessons that Boehner can take from O’Neill as he confronts President Obama at the brink of a fiscal cliff?
The philosophical tables are turned, and not every comparison is applicable. But there are certain templates that Boehner may want to apply.
1. Embrace the role. O’Neill was insecure about his looks and felt outmatched by the former movie star Reagan. At first he ducked an open clash with the Great Communicator. But the speaker soon realized it was him or no one else. The House had become, as The Washington Post said at the time, “the national Democratic Party, to the extent that it exists,” and O’Neill was, as one aide advised him, “the only person in a position to continue representing the ideals of justness and compassion.”
So O’Neill took on the role. He hired new staff, dropped 40 pounds, improved his wardrobe, and learned to work TV-land like the Massachusetts statehouse. Americans responded favorably to his authenticity and his empathy. Boehner is trying—with televised press conferences and appearances on Sunday talk shows—but he still needs to master the outside game.
As with O’Neill and Reagan, “there is a charisma deficiency” that favors the White House, notes Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
2. Don’t delude yourself. O’Neill had great respect for the presidency, and he recognized Reagan’s mandate. As importantly, he knew that there were more than 50 conservative Democrats from the Sun Belt and northern ethnic communities where Reagan was incredibly popular.
O’Neill never stopped fighting the president, but he read the whip counts with a cold, clear eye, and adopted his tactics appropriately. He forsook parliamentary trickery, took his lumps on the House floor, and suffered huge defeats—but he framed the debate for victories down the road. “The pendulum swings,” O’Neill promised fellow Democrats.
Boehner is a realist, and he will cut the best deal he can. But can he wean his most ardent troops from their faith in “Republican math?” And if not, does he have a plan to transform gridlock into victory?
3. Be ruthless. It is a sturdy bit of political lore that, just because Reagan and O’Neill enjoyed swapping jokes and stories after hours, they arrived at compromise amiably. Columnist Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, waxed lovely about those halcyon days over the weekend.
It’s a fantasy. Any deals were reached after long, bare-knuckle political brawls, and the most noteworthy bargain—the great Social Security compromise of 1983—came only after O’Neill beat the GOP bloody with the issue in the 1982 midterms, persuading the White House that it needed to bury the matter before Reagan ran for reelection.
Boehner doesn’t need to be nice to Obama. He is the speaker of the House. Like O’Neill, he represents a set of values and beliefs shared by half of a divided country. The speaker has a duty to battle like a hungry wolverine for his principles. O’Neill, a ferocious political infighter, would expect no less.
4. Know your purpose. Tip O’Neill never wavered from his cause: to ensure that the aid and resources of government were there for the aged pensioner, the family of a sick kid, the college-age student looking for financial help, the single mom, or the jobless dad.
Boehner has his own deep-felt purpose. He speaks persuasively of how unfettered debt will cripple the economy and threaten the government’s ability to sustain programs like Social Security and Medicare for coming generations.
Boehner’s path to his goal may be far more difficult than that faced by O’Neill, whose primary task was to organize opposition to a common foe. In the cause of curbing debt, Boehner could have to organize cooperation with the enemy.
Is his cause the preservation of obsolete Bush-era tax breaks? Or is it to put the nation on a sound fiscal footing?
“At the end of the day, Tip knew that compromise was not a four-letter word and that ideological purity was not best for America,” says former Reagan White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein.
For Obama and Boehner, the path is the same.
“You have quiet consultations. You build up trust and confidence,” Duberstein says. “Even if you are not philosophical allies, you figure out ways to come together.”
This article appears in the Dec. 4, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily as Tip O’Neill’s Lessons For John Boehner.