Man of the House

Thoughts after reading John A. Farrell’s Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century

They don’t make politicians like Tip O’Neill anymore. John Farrell brings the big character to life in this fascinating biography.

O’Neill was the face of the Democratic Party during the 1980s. A New Dealer all his life, he helped preserve the social safety net during the height of the Reagan Revolution. He stood for the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised. He took the Sermon on the Mount as his political philosophy.

His political career began as soon as he earned his Boston College diploma; riding on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s coattails, he captured a seat in the Massachusetts State House in November 1936.

O’Neill was an FDR Democrat: throughout his career, he championed government’s role in creating a more perfect union. He thought the state should plan society, government should regulate business, public investment should aid the economy and all Americans (regardless of race or religion) should be involved in civic life.

He spent sixteen years on Beacon Hill and became the first Irish Catholic Speaker of the Massachusetts House in 1949. Never a big legislator, he thought his job was to implement the party’s agenda. As Speaker he passed a record $229 million budget that built roads and refurbished the state’s crippling mental health facilities, doled out patronage jobs to Democratic supporters, hiked the minimum wage, expanded old-age assistance measures and increased public employee salaries.

John F. Kennedy left his House seat in 1952 to run for the Senate. Tip O’Neill won the vacant House contest (in his native Cambridge) and went to Washington in January 1953.

Mighty Massachusetts Congressman John McCormack (future House Speaker) took O’Neill under his wing and invited him to meet the Democratic leadership. O’Neill joined Speaker Sam Rayburn’s famous Board of Education, and established friendly relations with Democratic Party wheelers and dealers.

McCormack wanted O’Neill to sit on the Rules Committee, a body responsible for the flow of legislation onto the House floor. A liberal body was needed to curb the power of Committee Chairman, Howard Smith of Virginia. Like most of his Southern brethren, Smith was an ardent segregationist. He was best known for his name on the Smith Act, a bill that set criminal penalties for communists and required all non-citizen adults to register with the government.

O’Neill championed liberal causes throughout his time on the Rules Committee and provided the critical vote needed to get progressive legislation onto the House floor. He became a reliable vote for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and supported civil rights, Medicare, federal aid to education and immigration reform.

That didn’t stop O’Neill from standing up to LBJ when the administration’s policies threatened his district, however. All politics is local, after all. The Defense Department planned to close the Boston navy yard, costing jobs for O’Neill constituents.

The congressman retaliated by holding up Johnson’s War on Poverty in the Rules Committee for several weeks. Johnson gave him the treatment, to no avail. O’Neill insisted the naval yard stay open.  LBJ finally gave in to O’Neill’s demand; the Boston navy yard would remain open for another decade, until it was finally closed by Richard Nixon. O’Neill cast the deciding vote (8-7) that got the War on Poverty bill out of the Rules Committee.

O’Neill continued making his way up the House seniority system.Then in 1970, he got a golden opportunity. He became the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in charge of fundraising for Democrats heading into the 1972 election.

As Chair of the DCCC, O’Neill built up a national fundraising apparatus. He targeted his funds for incumbent Democrats in contested districts. Many more districts became contested that year as Richard Nixon destroyed George McGovern and won 49 states in the presidential election. Despite this political avalanche, House Democrats were able to weather the storm. Only 12 House seats were lost that year.

Shortly after taking over the DCCC, O’Neill also became the Democratic Whip (3rd in the Party leadership). There he served as a “transitional figure” whose reforms increased the power of the party leadership at the expense of the Southern committee chairman. He became Majority Leader a year later, when Rep. Hale Boggs died in a plane crash while campaigning in Alaska.

Many congressman, who owed their seats to O’Neill, back him in a tight Majority Leader vote. O’Neill earned more respect from his caucus when he led the charge against Richard Nixon during Watergate. That scandal took down Richard Nixon in the summer of 1974. Democrats won huge back-to-back victories in 1974 and 1976.

As the nation celebrated its bicentennial year, the Democrats had control of both congressional chambers, Jimmy Carter as its new president, and Tip O’Neill as the new House Speaker.This should have been a dream come true for Democrats. Unfortunately it turned into a nightmare. O’Neill and Carter feuded from day one. Carter wrote in his biography about his one week honeymoon with Congress. It probably didn’t last that long.

Carter thought O’Neill represented everything that was wrong with politics. He was a machine politician who relied on cronyism and patronage to maintain power. He was dirty, in other words. Carter saw himself as an outsider who was sent to the nation’s capital to clean up the swamp.

The two men’s personalities were night and day. Carter was a workaholic and a micromanager. O’Neill liked the good life. Before he joined the House leadership, he was famous for taking long weekends and missing plenty of votes on get-away days. He liked a good drink, enjoyed a card game, loved to shoot the bull with the boys, watch a ballgame or play golf.

This schism between O’Neill and Carter took place as the Democratic coalition was coming unglued. The Party was out of ideas. It had helped build the middle class, enacted civil rights, shaped and strengthened the social compact. But the FDR coalition had begun to splinter. There was “no unifying Democratic consensus, no program, no set of principles on which a majority of Democrats agreed.” Carter advisor Landon Butler said

Rights-based groups fractured the different party interest groups as internecine battles were fought over wedge issues. Abortion, the environment, affirmative action and taxes alienated many working class voters. This group famously became Reagan Democrats in the 1980s.

The Carter years were a nightmare for the country. Economic decline, stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, gas lines, and a crisis of confidence afflicted the country. The country was in a malaise. Everyone felt it. Voters sent the president back to Plains and elected Ronald Reagan to get the country back on track.

Pundits in 1981 talked about a Reagan Revolution. Conservatives had their first man in the White House since Calvin Coolidge. Republicans retook the Senate. They picked up 33 House seats.  It looked like they could re-align the country and fulfill a hypothesis Kevin Phillips had written about in the 1960s: the emerging Republican majority.

O’Neill wasn’t sad to see Carter go. But he was incensed when the 39th president conceded to Reagan before the polls out West closed, costing the Democrats additional congressional seats. Those Georgians “came in like a bunch of pricks” and went out the same way, O’Neill remarked.

The Speaker let Reagan have his honeymoon. He believed that given enough rope, the president would hang himself. Reagan had a remarkable 1981: he got his tax cuts through, boosted defense spending, and told Fed chairman Paul Volcker to use monetary policy to squeeze inflation from the economy.

Many wondered if the Speaker had lost his mind. Reagan was getting everything he wanted. O’Neill looked impotent. Many wondered if he should step aside and let a new generation of Democrats battle the charismatic president. But the Speaker would have the last laugh.

Reagan now owned the economy. His tax cuts, his budget and his monetary policy were all in place. Democrats had warned that enacting the Reagan agenda would produce huge deficits.

Sure enough, those budget deficits materialized. The administration tried to get rid of that red ink by touching the third rail of American politics: social security. The program cost $200 billion a year, a third of the non-defense budget. Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman (presaging Rick Perry) called the program “a giant ponzi scheme.”

Stockman went after the program to reduce the deficit. He proposed reducing benefits for those who sought early retirement. The program wasn’t designed to subsidize people playing golf in Florida, the thinking went.

The administration stumbled on the roll out. The announcement came without proper warning, and seniors panicked. Calls flooded O’Neill’s office. And just like that, the Democrats had their campaign issue.

The Speaker called the change “despicable” and the administration “callous.” He promised Democrats would protect Social Security and drove that message home during press conferences, while denouncing the Reagan administration from the House floor and on the Sunday morning talk shows.

The strategy worked. Democrats picked up 27 seats in the 1982 midterm elections. It wounded Reagan, whose Chief of Staff Jim Baker was determined to take the issue off the table before the 1984 presidential election. Baker went to O’Neill and began working on a social security reform measure.

The entitlement was on the brink of insolvency. Conservatives were gleeful. They thought the program would go broke. Liberals feared losing it would eliminate the old age pension Americans had relied upon for fifty years.

O’Neill and Baker—two wise men—worked together from 1981-1983 to fix the problem. Both sides ultimately bit the bullet. The administration agreed to raise taxes while Congress raised the retirement age. As the Brookings Institution notes: “The 168 billion package eased the program through a turbulent period.”

The president signed the bill into law on April 20, 1983.With that, as biographer John Farrell writes, the Reagan Revolution came to an end. Reagan was unable to roll back the welfare state. He couldn’t even close the Department of Education.

O’Neill remained Speaker until his retirement in January 1987. He, along with Ronald Reagan, governed while America recovered from its malaise. The 1980s truly offered Morning in America. O’Neill made sure that prosperity the country enjoyed during that decade was shared by all Americans. He stood athwart the zeitgeist, protected the welfare-state and checked the power of conservative governance.

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