Ronald Reagan: the great coalition builder

John Heubusch Executive Director, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation
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“You’re in the big leagues, now.”

So the speaker of the House said to the 40th president of the United States just days after his inauguration.

It was 1981. The 97th Congress was a mixed bag, with a Democratic-controlled House, led by Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, and a Senate held by Republicans who, for the first time since 1953, controlled a chamber of Congress.

But Ronald Reagan didn’t think “eight years as governor of one of the largest states in the union had exactly been the minor leagues.” Sacramento had been Reagan’s beta-site where nothing was accomplished until strong coalitions were formed. “It was important to develop an effective working relationship with my opponents in the legislature,” Reagan wrote, “our political disagreements notwithstanding.”

What did this adversarial relationship with O’Neill and Democrats produce in the next two years? Caustic gamesmanship? A stand-off? On July 29, 1981, less than six months after Reagan took office, a strong bipartisan coalition in the House passed one of the largest tax cuts in American history, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. Two days later, the Senate followed suit.

How in the world did Reagan do it? Experience.

Matching wits with Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers) as head of the actors’ union and Jesse Unruh (speaker of the California State Assembly) as governor taught Reagan to come to the bargaining table prepared. “I’d learned while negotiating union contracts,” Reagan wrote, “that you seldom get everything you ask for.” (Years later, the press asked him about negotiating with Gorbachev. “It was easier than dealing with Jack Warner,” Reagan shot back.)

Although the Democrats were in a tough position after the Carter years, their big trump card was that nothing would get done unless Reagan won over a substantial number of them in the House. It’s no wonder that O’Neill was so full of braggadocio.

Somehow Reagan had to build a coalition.

The strategy to get the Economic Recovery Act passed by a conflicted Congress had two major parts.

First, Reagan would use his tremendous skills as a communicator by making repeated televised appeals to Congress and the American people. “Every time he spoke,” Reagan Chief of Staff Jim Baker recalled, “the needle moved.”

Second, the Legislative Strategy Group led by Baker and Ed Meese “did the grunt work” of inviting Democrats to the White House, while the president worked the phones. “I spent a lot of time in the spring and early summer of 1981 on the telephone and in meetings trying to build a coalition to get the nation’s recovery under way,” Reagan wrote. At the time, he even noted in his diary, “These Dems are with us on the budget and it’s interesting to hear some who’ve been here ten years or more say that it is their first time to ever be in the Oval Office. We really seem to be putting a coalition together.”

These “Dems” — the Boll Weevils — were Southern conservative Democrats who became key players in Reagan’s economic recovery strategy. It helped Reagan’s purpose that many represented districts that the president had carried in 1980. If they voted against a popular president, it could cost them their seats in 1982.

“To encourage the Boll Weevils to cross party lines,” journalist Lou Cannon wrote, “Reagan accepted a suggestion by James Baker and promised that he could not campaign in 1982 against any Democratic members of Congress who voted for both his tax and budget bills.” It was a shrewd and effective move.

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.