I’m not always in lockstep with MSNBC ‘Hardball’ Host Chris Matthews’ on-air commentaries, but I do think he’s that rare pundit-journalist with so much experience behind the political scene in Washington, D.C., that you can’t ignore what he has to say.
Matthews witnessed the democratic machine function time and again throughout a decades-long career that included stints as a Capitol Hill aide, presidential speechwriter and chief of staff to the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
On Tuesday, he spoke at a Town Hall Seattle event to promote his new book, “Tip and the Gipper.” I was struck by Matthews’ assessment of how the two-party political system used to be. Yes, there was a time when elected officials set aside their differences long enough to craft bipartisan budgets. None of this government shutdown stuff.
His basic argument is he wants our politicians to work together again. And I’m definitely on board with that view, whether we’re talking about Congress or Washington state’s Legislature. We can agree to disagree on a few issues— and still get the job done.
Though he was brought on to help O’Neill fight President Ronald Reagan’s small-government agenda, Matthews admits he admired Reagan’s unique ability to project his power to Congress.
“Reagan really respected Congress, and he spent a lot of time with them,” he said. “We’ve lost the ability to listen to each other and to keep the channels of communication open.”
(If you weren’t at the Tuesday talk, watch his “Charlie Rose” interview in the video below.)
During the Town Hall talk, Matthews recalled how President Ronald Reagan and O’Neill regularly “would go in the back and shout at each other,” but they never lost respect for their elected positions. Together, the political rivals managed to forge alliances to protect Social Security and a handful of other signature issues throughout the 1980s.
“They really were grown-ups,” he said, adding politicians are elected to reach deals, not to find compromise on everything.
Matthews is less kind about today’s political leaders, whom he blames for the “decline in decency.” The left is “intransigent” while the right is “crazy.” When Reagan first took office, O’Neill gave him a honeymoon period and ensured his bills were voted on by a set deadline. Contrast that with well-documented reports that Republican leaders were determined to debilitate Barack Obama’s presidency from the beginning.
The author and television host saved plenty of criticism for Democrats, too, over their failure so far to defend Obamacare.
“The sales pitch isn’t there,” Matthews said of Obama’s handling of the law’s roll-out and its problematic website. He questioned why the beneficiaries of reforms haven’t stepped up or marched in Washington in defense of the law. He also urged young people to sign up for insurance as a “personal responsibility” to keep the system afloat.
I want the president to hear that message. We need his leadership now more than ever to move health care reform in the right direction. It’s not too late.
In fact, I hope “Tip and The Gipper” is being read by both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
They could really use a friendly reminder that it’s possible for two ideologically opposed leaders to see the humanity in one another and to make this country a stronger one — together.