Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bargaining Like the Gipper: Reagan in Retrospect

In this retrospective, I’d like to compare Reagan to the current crop of Republican leaders.  My belief—not surprisingly—is that Boehner and company have quite a bit of growing to do before they’ll fill the shoes of Ronaldus Magnus.  Consider the following diary entry penned by Reagan in the midst of a budget fight with Congressional Democrats:
April 28, 1982

The big thing today was a meeting…the result of my call to Tip.  The “gang of 17” had come fairly close together on the budget and revenue package.

Their combination of cuts and revenue increases came to $60 billion on the Republican side to $35 billion on the Democrat side.  It should have been straight haggling especially since our original budget package called for $10 billion.  I didn’t try to start bargaining from that figure but started at the $60 billion.  Three hours later we’d gotten nowhere.  Finally I said I’ll split the difference with you and they refused that.  Meeting over.
Notwithstanding some fine freshman legislators (e.g., Rand Paul, Allen West, et al.) can you imagine anyone currently in the upper echelons of the Republican apparatus having the stones to actually walk away from the negotiating table?  America just handed the Republicans the most resounding mid-term victory sweep in generations, and we’re still running like we’re scared.  I’ve always liked Speaker Boehner, but I’m concerned that someone has gotten to him.  He seems to have bought into the line that in order to win (and maintain) public support, Republicans have to be more “nuanced” and “pragmatic.” 

The “need to appeal to independent voters” is an old canard, indeed.  Many of the same folks who are arguing for pragmatism today were lambasting Reagan for his supposed lack of it.  The real irony is that, aside from George W. Bush, all of our “pragmatic” Republican presidential candidates have either been defeated or served only one term.    

This is not to suggest, however, that sticking to one’s ideological guns is an easy thing.  It certainly was not easy for President Reagan.  Indeed, in the spring of 1982, it seemed as if he was taking a tremendous political risk by refusing to roll over for O’Neill.  Consider these words from The Milwaukee Journal:

Reagan says he is willing to “walk the extra mile”…but he warns in the same breath that the 1983 income tax cut is untouchable…He told the country it would lead to a noninflationary boom and that the positive impact would be noticeable by mid-1981.  Instead he got a sharp recession…
As I mentioned in a previous post, Reagan knew it’s always worth it to make a good faith effort; But having done that—if your opponent still wants to play hardball—you’ve got to sharpen your elbows and fight. 

As the diary proves, Reagan set out to get the maximum he possibly could.  But isn’t that what you want in a negotiator?  Does anyone think O’Neill didn’t come into the meeting pressing for the maximum he thought he could get?  The real difference between President Reagan’s negotiating style and that being exhibited by current Hill Leadership is that when Democrats proved intransigent, Reagan took to the airwaves to make his appeal directly to the voters. 

Yet despite Reagan’s appeal to the country, he lost in the short term.   

The media gleefully reported on the 1982 expansion of the Democratic House, and predicted an all-stop and reversal by President Reagan.  Fortunately, Reagan had more stones than the Roman Colosseum.  Eventually his tax cuts did work, and my entire generation benefitted from the prosperity that his policies unleashed. 

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