During this period of memorializing Ronald Reagan, it’s impossible not to lament anew the decline of political civility in Washington. Though he was a staunchly conservative Republican facing a Democratic House, Reagan was the last president to benefit from the historic tradition that partisan warfare ended at the close of the day. It’s been all downhill since then.
We can’t help but be struck by the difference in the amount of personal attention paid to Congress by Reagan and President George W. Bush. Reagan reached out to Congress, to Democrats and Republicans alike. Bush hasn’t done so, and this has to have contributed to the bitterness that infects American politics.
On Reagan’s very first day as president-elect in 1980, he met with then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Even before his inauguration, he spoke to the Senate Democratic Caucus in the Capitol, even though Democrats had lost their majority.
Reagan moved the White House’s Congressional-liaison office from the Old Executive Office Building to the East Wing to make the symbolic statement that he wanted to be closer to Congress. He personally visited Congress countless times, operating out of the vice president’s office off the Senate floor.
Reagan had a famously bittersweet relationship with O’Neill. During the first two years of Reagan’s presidency, he peeled away conservative and moderate Democrats to pass tax cut and budget measures that O’Neill abhorred. Yet, when Reagan visited the Speaker’s office once and O’Neill aide Chris Matthews commented, “This is where we plot strategy against you,” Reagan cracked back, “The Speaker told me that in Washington, we’re all friends after 6 o’clock.”
Nowadays, political combat never ends. In part — only in part — this has to be the result of President Bush’s failure to reach out to adversaries. Yes, he did so to pass his education reform package and did so warmly after the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. But House and Senate Democratic leaders have complained constantly that, other than at bipartisan leadership meetings at the White House, they rarely see or hear from Bush. Bush rarely visits the Hill. And when he did so late last month, it was only to address the House GOP Conference — and he took no questions.
We shouldn’t be too gauzy about Reagan-Congressional relations — and Reagan does deserve some blame for encouraging the decline in civility. Most Democrats fiercely fought his domestic and foreign policies and charged that the Iran-Contra arms trade amounted to a criminal offense on his part. Moreover, Reagan cheered on the GOP backbenchers, led by future Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who railed against — and ultimately toppled — the Democratic leadership, setting off the era of hyper-partisanship that we’re mired in. Reagan was a model of political civility, but his followers did it in.