Once upon a time, bipartisanship reigned in our nation's corridors of power. If you were born much later than 1970, though, you may have little or no recollection of seeing in action what one professor had drummed into my head during an early-morning political-science class back around 1979: “The three principles of American governance are compromise, compromise and compromise.”

Our late President Ronald Reagan and the late Speaker of the House Thomas Phillip “Tip” O'Neill, Jr. (D-MA) already have secured a place in American history for the bipartisan deal-making they engaged in to hammer out a Social Security solution in 1983 that so far has solidly stood the test of time.

Of course, they weren't the first national leaders to make things happen via the fine art of compromise (not to mention in their case a surfeit of Irish wit that both brought ever smilingly to the negotiating table!).

In an opinion piece penned for U.S. News & World Report back in 2009, Matthew Dallek pointed out that Reagan and O'Neill demonstrated in 1983 that “bipartisan action can happen in swift and surprising terms on the thorniest and most insoluble of issues…the bipartisan compromise on Social Security stands in hindsight as about as striking a breakthrough imaginable in the deeply polarized political atmosphere of Reagan's first term.”

As Dallek put it, “Reagan's opposition to the capstone of the New Deal produced bitter fruit in his first year in office.” With a fiscal cloud over Social Security, the administration declared it wanted to cut benefits for people who had retired before 65. “Republicans and Democrats alike reacted to the White House plan with a combination of disdain and derision,” the columnist noted.

But Reagan rebounded, establishing a bipartisan commission to figure out how to extend the solvency of the Social Security trust fund. The commission came up with a compromise that Dallek said “cemented a new reigning political consensus on Social Security” — that it was politically untouchable going forward.

The 1983 Social Security Reform Act not only reversed Reagan's own ideological opposition to Social Security, the columnist contended, “but also identified the nation's leading conservative as a defender of liberalism's most cherished achievement.” According to Dallek, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon praised the bill as “a compromise that did some things the Democrats wanted and some things the Republicans wanted.”

Nearly three decades on, Reagan's and O'Neill's ability to work together across not only the political aisle, but the chasm between their own ideological positions for the good of the nation bodes well for positive developments as the new Congress takes its seats this month.

While Reagan had to deal with a large Democratic majority in the House, the results of the mid-term elections mean that to get anything meaningful done in the rest of his term, President Obama will have to work with a Republican majority in the House as well as a Senate controlled by a thin Democratic majority.

The good news so far is the President has clearly read the fresh cup of tea leaves correctly. He fiercely defended the tax-cut deal he forged with Congressional Republicans early last month against intense criticism from his own party, insisting it was “a good deal for the American people,” according to The New York Times.

Were they still around to offer counsel to Obama, I suspect Reagan and Tip would slap him on the back, smile broadly and perhaps remind him of what the great Irish wit Oscar Wilde said: “Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.”


David Cullen is Fleet Owner's excutive editor. He can be reached at dcullen@fleetowner.com