Personal Engagement: Reagan Then, Us Now

Transpartisan Note #77

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

We have often written about how personal engagement provides the path to transpartisan collaboration in all major political venues.  It is true in state and national policy-making as well as in local, self-governing organizations such as schools and housing projects.

In reviewing celebrated, successful social service organizations serving the most ‘difficult’ populations, all operate around the same principle.  All promote shared ‘ownership’ of public spaces, which engages even diverse populations to engage each other in common purpose.

Although personal engagement is widely understood to be essential to a positive, productive political environment, it is all but invisible in the current political debate.  The current debate sees every issue as a mechanistic challenge. Governments work in ‘the magic business’ of producing different visions of ‘machines’.  Our politics argues about giant anti-personal, mechanistic system governments of markets that will solve everything.  All, public government agencies and private corporate business, lack any subjective personal engagement.

It was not always this way.  Ronald Reagan, both as Governor of California (1967-1975) and as President facing legislatures controlled by Democrats, understood that progress would depend on promoting joint action, with credit shared by both parties.  As Governor, Reagan and House Speaker Bob Moretti planned the major reforms of both the state’s public medical program and its welfare system.  When they passed with strong bi-partisan support, Reagan and Moretti stood together on the steps of the state capitol and held their joined hands in the air in celebration.

An anecdote from that period reveals the spirit of trust that made this collaboration possible.  In negotiations on the MediCal reform, Moretti and Health Secretary Earl Bryan were struggling on a single, final issue that seemed beyond agreement two dollar co-pay for every doctor visit.  After endless hours of talking, Moretti came up with a solution.  He proposed that he and Bryan engage in an arm-wrestling context, and the winner could decide the unresolved issue.  (Moretti was confident he would win because he was a fitness buff, and Bryan seemed out of shape.  What he didn’t know was that Bryan was an accomplished tennis player.  Bryan won, and the Republicans got their way on that issue.  But everyone shared in the glory of overall major reform.

As President, Reagan worked out the great tax reform bills (in 1981 and 1986) in active cooperation with Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House.  Reagan could never have accomplished these major tax reforms without active Democratic support.

What happened then?  A symbol of the parties’ movement apart was that Republicans started taking all the credit for the ‘Reagan tax revolution’ and reforms that were NOT a success of Reagan and Republicans alone.  They were TRANSPARTISAN actions supported by both parties.  By the end of Reagan’s second term, the two parties were at war over Iran-Contra and other issues.  When Bill Clinton won the Presidential election in 1992, Newt Gingrich swept the mid-term Congressional elections with his Contract with America, and a war was raging.

Personal contact played an important role in Reagan’s successes working with Democrats, who controlled legislatures most of Reagan’s years in office.  Major political, technological, and social changes fueled the loss of contact.  We will review in future Notes the story of these influences, including active support from both political leaders and the mass media, which live off of conflict while pretending to abhor it.  Understanding how the spirit of cooperation and trust was lost is important to find a path toward a more cooperative politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *