After the assassination attempt in March and his historic address to a joint session of Congress on April 28, 1981, the president’s popularity was soaring. At one point during the speech, Speaker O’Neill leaned over to Vice President Bush and said, “There’s your 40 votes.” After the speech, Washington was flooded with telegrams and phone calls in support of Reagan.
“That reception was almost worth getting shot for,” mused the president.
By July, Reagan was ready to close the deal. He invited 15 Boll Weevils to Camp David and got commitments to support his tax bill from 12 of them. To the Oval Office, he invited another 58 House members, mostly Democrats, garnering pledges of support from 17.
On July 27, days before the vote, Reagan once more relied on the confidence of the American people to get to the finish line. “I urge you again to contact your senators and congressman,” he asked over national television, “to tell them of your support for this bipartisan proposal … help return America to prosperity and make government again the servant of the people.”
These televised appeals were tremendously effective. “The dam broke — it just fell apart,” recalled Missouri Democrat Richard Gephardt. And O’Neill, who had reminded the president that he was in the big leagues, was defeated. “We are experiencing a telephone blitz like this nation has never seen,” O’Neill lamented. “It’s had a devastating effect.”
With opinion polls showing that 95 percent of the American people supported the spending cuts and almost that many supporting the 25 percent, three-year tax cut, the 97th Congress passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. In the House? The vote was 238-195 with 48 House Democrats supporting the president.
Signing the historic legislation on August 13, 1981 at his ranch, the president celebrated. “These bills … represent a turnaround of almost a half a century of a course this country’s been on and mark an end to the excessive growth in government bureaucracy, government spending, and government taxing.” Wise words from a man who said, “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
He thanked Congress. He thanked his administration. And he thanked the Democrats who supported him.
And this week, on the anniversary of the congressional vote, we thank the guy who wore cowboy boots and brown suits, who respected his adversaries, who listened to Americans and who didn’t mind if someone else got the credit.
John Heubusch is the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @JHeubusch.