What ‘Tip and the Gipper’ says about Congress today

Updated

With the federal government at a standstill for the first time in 17 years, Hardball host Chris Matthews’ new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked could not come at a better time. The book recounts the battles and triumphs of Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’ Neill, from 1981 to 1986. The story is both a personal memoir of Matthews’ rise to become a top aide to Speaker O’ Neill, and an allegory for how our democratic system can function. While the issues they faced were similar to today’s: looming government shutdowns, battles over social spending, and debt ceiling showdowns, the solutions were entirely different. When it came to raising the debt ceiling, Matthews writes:

[Speaker O’Neill] made a simple request. He wanted [Reagan’s top congressional liaison] to relay back to his boss precisely what the deal would be, which was that he, Tip O’Neill, wanted a personal note from the president to each and every Democratic member of the House asking for his or her support in the matter of raising the debt ceiling. [Reagan’s aide] agreed on the spot and carried the message back to Reagan. The asked-for letters arrived the next day—all 243 of them. It was a small, telling episode. Here was the Democratic congressional leader proposing a wholly pragmatic cease-fire. The debt ceiling vote had offered each side a chance to discredit the other. O’Neil proposed avoiding harm to either party.

The relationship Matthews chronicles came at the end of a period of historic depolarization between the two parties. As the Brookings Institute charts, Reagan’s presidency coincided with the beginning of the ideological radicalization of the Republican Party. While the two parties had previously hovered close to the ideological center (according to House roll call votes), after 1980 they began to split. Tip and the Gipper’s relationship was not so much a feature of the Reagan presidency, as it was a vestige of the era immediately before he took office.

As many others have written, the new partisan era is not necessarily a bad thing. Polarization is partially the result of more citizen involvement in elections. Small donors, online petitions, and the nationalization of local campaigns–the same forces that lead to polarization–also lead to greater transparency. Grassroots participation means more ideological legislators, but it also means corporate lobbyists aren’t the only ones with access to politicians. It may mean fewer bipartisan agreements, but it also means more direct accountability.

The problem is we have an 18th century government to deal with a new 21st century politics. There may not be one policy solution, but Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have a whole book of possible ways to address the problem of political polarization. First, they suggest enacting laws to help expand the electorate, such as increasing early voting and changing the federal election day to the weekend. Second, they call for changing election rules like closed primaries and winner-take-all Congressional districts. Lastly, they call for changing campaign spending rules to remove the grip of money in politics. It may be a steep climb, they say, but it’s the only way to fix our democracy.

Matthews joined NOW Tuesday to discuss the book’s relevance today.

What 'Tip and the Gipper' says about Congress today

Updated