When politicians believe their own bluster

As the United States heads from a partial government shutdown last week to the almost unimaginable scenario of defaulting on the national debt, it is worth considering other political situations that were considered equally dire and how politicians ultimately worked out a solution.

The debate over the proper size and scope of government is worth having and the debate should be vigorous. The debate between the federalists and the anti-federalists in the 1780s is a prime example of spirited debate that ultimately produced better government. Likewise, the 1983 debates between President Ronald Reagan and Congressional Democrats, led by House Speaker Tip O’Neill was equally vigorous as they debated issues like tax reform and the future of Social Security.

The major players–Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill–were strong advocates for their respective ideological positions. Reagan often referred to O’Neill as a true “New Deal liberal” and O’Neill often complained about Reagan wanting welfare for the rich. In 1983, despite speeches taking strong stands for their respective positions on taxes and Social Security, both agreed to work together with O’Neill giving a speech to Republicans telling them why they should support Reagan’s position.

The two leaders had a similar philosophy–rivals during the day, but “friends after 6.” Today’s political climate is one in which Reagan and O’Neill would have never survived.  Leaders of both parties are so entrenched in their rhetorical and political positions that civility, much less compromise, seems impossible. The relationship between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seems irrevocably damaged as they openly mock each other. Despite beer summits and golf matches, the disdain shown by the two leaders is real. If this was a marriage, no amount of counseling would help the two sides develop empathy toward the other and work out the problems.

When Reagan and O’Neill were arguing by day and sharing a prayer and drink by night, there was a sense that the extreme statements made by the respective leaders was political posturing. Today not only is the rhetoric more extreme, but there is a sense that the leaders actually believe the statements they make. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) compared the fight to defund the Affordable Care Act to the American Revolution. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau stated “Obama will not — he cannot — negotiate with a roving band of anarchists who say, ‘Build our oil pipeline or the troops don’t get paid.'” While Obama and Boehner may lack of hyperbole of Lee and Favreau, their statements about the government shutdown have escalated over time and indicate that both have made their political differences personal.

It is hard to imagine Boehner backing down and it is unlikely that Obama will change his approach. This bodes poorly for the country and political system. During the last two years, Vice President Joe Biden has used his personal friendship with Senator Mitch McConnell to salvage deals at the last minute. It may be time for the two friends, who can engage in their own rhetorical partisanship with the best of them, to rescue the body politic one more time.


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