Once upon a time there were two great men who were the most powerful people in our country.

One was Ronald Reagan, who surprised the Democrats by unseating incumbent Jimmy Carter and winning the 1980 Presidential election.  Reagan was a conservative Republican who tirelessly espoused the principles of smaller government, lower taxes and a powerful military.

The other was long-time Boston Congressman Tip O’Neill, who served as Speaker of the House from 1977-1987.  O’Neill was a liberal Democrat who saw government as a force to ease the burden on the poor and less fortunate.

They were an unlikely pair, yet they found a way to work together for the good of the country and, along the way, became friends.  Chris Matthews, who served as administrative assistant to O’Neill and wrote a book about Reagan and O’Neill,* said, “These fellows fought with each other the right way and made government work.”

That fighting sometimes got personal, but they had a running agreement that the quarreling stopped at six o’clock when, occasionally, they would have a drink together and enjoy each other’s company.

Together they achieved bi-partisan agreement on tax reform and immigration reform. They collaborated on the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. O’Neill met with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to begin laying the groundwork for his historic meetings with Reagan that brought about the end to the Cold War.

When Reagan was shot, O’Neill was one of the first people allowed to see him. Matthews reports that O’Neill knelt, held Reagan’s hands and together they recited the 23rd Psalm.

Fast forward to today. Would that kind of relationship even be possible?  The evidence suggests it would not.  Consider two of the most important pieces of legislation in recent years:

Democrats pushed though Obamacare with no Republican support, and then the GOP spent the subsequent years campaigning against it.  However, when the time came to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Republicans could not agree.

Now the Republicans are on the verge of passing comprehensive tax reform with no Democratic votes. No doubt Democrats will use the coming election cycles to decry the tax plan as a handout to the rich that punishes the rest of America.

The arguments between the two sides (and even among people of the same side) are often inflammatory and they are constant, thanks to social media and 24/7 news. There is no “after six” time when colleagues who have different opinions, but not necessarily disparate principles, can share a drink or good word.

Neither side’s base will allow that because it’s tantamount to conspiring with the enemy.   That’s tragic because bi-partisanship, particularly for controversial legislation, tamps down the rhetoric because both sides have skin in the game.

So I am wistful for bygone days… a time when convicted leaders understood that politics, while a rough and tumble sport, was also a necessary and appropriate means to an end.  It was a time when politics worked and the country was better for it.

(*Tip and The Gipper: When Politics Worked by Chris Matthews)

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