Reagan’s response, if not fit for a prime-time address, was very much to the point. “You can get me to crap a pineapple,” he said. “But you can’t get me to crap a cactus.”
This is where both sides are today.
What one side is demanding — some cut or delay in the Affordable Care Act — the other side considers its baby. Reagan’s three-year cut in marginal tax rates was the heart of his economic doctrine. The ACA has Barack Obama’s name all over it.
Don’t expect either side to give in, or for President Obama or House Speaker John Boehner to say how to break this death grip.
The trick to breaking such deadlocks in the 1980s was for someone other than the leaders to propose a solution. Inevitably, it was a legislator with the experience, the staff and the will to find it. Usually, it was someone on the Senate Finance Committee or the House Ways and Means Committee, where people spend their careers studying such options and searching for coalitions to make them work.
In 1982, it was Bob Dole. The Republican senator proposed the
Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, known as TEFRA, which brought Reagan and O’Neill to the same side. It raised about $100 billion over three years through a potpourri of tax changes.
Getting it approved was the task of leaders. Not wanting his party to take all the heat, O’Neill demanded that a majority of House Republicans vote with him. He insisted that those on the other side of the aisle support their president. “Are you going to follow the leader that brought you here, or are you going to run? I ask you just to think of that,” he said on the House floor.
Reagan did his part right to the end. “All day I sat at my desk phoning congressmen on the tax bill, and tonight it passed with 103 Republican votes and more than half of the Democrats, 226 to 207,” he jotted in his diary that night. “Tip O’Neill made a speech to the Republicans telling them why they should support me. It seemed strange both of us being on the same side.”
The pattern repeated in 1983 with Social Security. To keep the system funded, both sides agreed to taxing half the benefits of higher-income retirees and a one-time delay in cost-of-living adjustments. A raise in the retirement age was added to the final bill.
Getting that deal took a hard push, once again, from Dole, this time joined by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat. It also required the constant pressure of Robert Ball, a veteran Social Security administrator; Alan Greenspan, who chaired the bipartisan commission on the matter; and a young aide in the speaker’s office named Jack Lew.