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Chris Matthews Offers Lesson In Respectful Politics

Nathaniel Haas |
November 13, 2013 | 8:20 a.m. PST


President Ronald Reagan had two signs on his desk in the Oval Office.

Matthews comes to USC to discuss "when politics worked." (chetlyzarko, Creative Commons)
Matthews comes to USC to discuss "when politics worked." (chetlyzarko, Creative Commons)

For eight years, he never moved them. The first sign, a small square bronze colored medallion, bore the following inscription: 

“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” 

It is that sign that represented Reagan’s outlook not just on life, but also on politics. When news anchor and political commentator Chris Matthews decided to write about the success of politics during the 40th President’s administration, the sign on Reagan’s desk was not far from his mind.  

Nor were the six years he spent as chief of staff for legendary Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neil, a pivotal figure who worked with then-President Reagan to produce one of the most productive decades on Capitol Hill.

In those days, personal recognition came second to passing policies to help the people.

Matthews witnessed first-hand the most important political battles of the 1980’s, and chronicles their successes and lessons in his new book, titled “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.”

When Matthews began writing in the fall of 2011, the primary race for the GOP presidential ticket was in full swing, the Occupy movement had begun and the United States credit rating had been downgraded by Standard & Poor's in the wake of failed debt ceiling negotiations on the Hill. 

I interviewed Matthews in October about the success of “Tip and the Gipper,” and what it means for politicians in today’s gridlocked Congress. His message was clear: we have to understand how we got here and, once we do that, we have to understand that success in politics begins with something Reagan and O’Neil valued most: respect. 

So, how DID we get here? 

“There’s actually a very academic explanation,” Matthews told me. “In the 2012 election, 234 districts elected Republicans to Congress. On the other hand, the leadership must be responsive to the popular vote, and in the 2012 presidential election the majority of the country voted for Obama.” 

Matthews highlights what he calls a “constitutional conflict” that arises out of the way elections choose “winners” and “losers.” Though the Democrats won the popular vote in both the 2012 Presidential election and in the overall Congressional election (more voters selected a Democratic candidate than a Republican), Democrats really only “won” the presidential election, because the electoral college awards state electoral votes based on the winner of each state’s popular vote.

Democrats still “lost” the Congressional elections, however, because districts that elected Democrat Representatives did so by huge margins. In the majority of districts that elected a Republican representative, the margin of victory was much smaller. 

“Cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco are almost 85 percent Democrat, but then you go to the suburbs and it’s consistently a 55-45 split in favor of the Republicans,” Matthews said. 

This phenomena explains why Republicans were able to win a majority in the House of Representatives without winning the popular vote, much like it explains why George Bush was able to beat Al Gore in 2000 without winning the popular vote: the states Gore won were done by larger margins, but Bush won more states by closer margins.  

What can we learn?  

Matthews told me that he knew Reagan would have valuable lessons for today’s leaders when he first sat down to plan the book and began reading Reagan’s personal diary. The daily entries, now available on the Reagan Foundation’s website, offer remarkable insight into how Reagan would deal with politics on a daily basis. For Matthews, it’s often the little things that stick out. 

“Reagan never used the word ‘Democrat,’” Matthews said. 

For some reason, that resonated. 

For Reagan, even the words he used to have a conversation with the other side were important. Growing up around political debates where phrases like “death panels” are common, today’s generation isn’t used to a political environment where the opposing sides of the aisle treat each other with respect. 

For Tip and the Gipper, that was commonplace. These men knew that compromise begins with respecting each other as equals and worthy opponents, something rarely seen on the Hill these days. When I asked Matthews how Reagan would handle the messy situation in Congress, his answer was simple. 

“Read the book, and you tell me,” he said. “Reagan would fight like hell, but at the end of the day, you’d realize that he wasn’t a radical.” 

For Matthews, the entire Reagan presidency is a case study in being fiercely political, but fiercely non-partisan. From the 1983 Social Security compromise, to continued tax reforms, to a successful and unified opposition to the Soviet Union, Tip and the Gipper made things work because they respected each other as people. 

On the University of Southern California campus, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute has worked to bring attention to taking the politics out of policymaking. As part of that mission, Chris Matthews will speak at USC about his book and the importance of learning from Reagan and O’Neil. 

On Friday, November 15, Professor Kevin Starr, head of the USC Polymathic Institute, will moderate a conversation between Matthews and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has worked tirelessly since leaving office to encourage policymaking that transcends the boundaries of party lines. 

“I am glad Chris is putting the spotlight on the relationship between President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill,” said Governor Schwarzenegger in a press release. "They always found a way to put the American people above politics. His timing with this book couldn't be better, because Washington needs some inspiration right now to work across the aisle and get things done to move our country forward. I can't wait to welcome Chris to USC.”

After the audience has an opportunity to ask questions, there will be a book signing reception where guests will have an opportunity to have Matthews sign their books and mix and mingle with the other guests.

“Addressing how to get our leaders working together across party lines is a core mission to the Institute,” adds the USC Institute’s Global Director, Bonnie Reiss. “Without addressing this challenge, our government will never be successful to finding solutions to the major problems we face from the environment, education, health care and economic recovery.”   

Ultimately, Reagan and O’Neil were successful in solving major problems because they shared in the credit of success, just like the first sign on Reagan’s desk committed him to doing. 

What about the second sign? Opposite the bronze medallion, the second sign is much bigger and easily read from anywhere in the Oval Office. It offered encouragement for President Reagan, and for anyone who sat on the other side of the Resolute Desk with a problem to solve. Its message was straightforward:

“It CAN be done.” 


Reach Contributor Nathaniel Haas here.



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