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What Donald and Nancy Can Learn from Tip and the Gipper on St. Patrick’s Day

A St. Paddy's Day miracle?
March 17, 2019
What Donald and Nancy Can Learn from Tip and the Gipper on St. Patrick’s Day
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Seeing President Trump don a green tie for the traditional St. Patrick’s lunch with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi evoked bittersweet memories of Ronald Reagan joining Tip O’Neill for what was one of both men’s favorite events.

As much as he loved celebrating the Fourth of July and Christmas, it was St. Patrick’s Day to which Reagan most looked forward and which gave him special joy. Probably because tiny Ballyporeen in County Tiperrary was the Irish ancestral home of the Reagan family, you could see the twinkle in the Gipper’s eye on the day in mid-March when the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) brought a bowl of shamrocks to the White House.

The other part of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day that always made Reagan happy was going to the Capitol for lunch with Tip. Both men knew that the lunch was an important symbol of bipartisanship, but they actually had fun. It was obvious to anyone present at, or seeing pictures of, those luncheons that Reagan and O’Neill genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. On those occasions (and many others) Reagan would tell an Irish joke, but never without failing to first point out that it was okay for him to do so because “I’m Irish.” Unlikely though their alliance may have been, those two old lrishmen found a commonality and formed a relationship that served the country well. They both came to Washington to get things done, and while they may have fought like cats and dogs during the day, once 6:00 p.m. came, they put politics aside and enjoyed a true friendship.

That is quite a contrast to where we are today. The awkwardness of the Trump-Pelosi relationship was evident when he joined her for lunch earlier this week. Clearly their relationship faces some headwinds.

We can’t go back to the Reagan-O’Neill days. Donald Trump is not anywhere near the president that Ronald Reagan was, but neither is Nancy Pelosi on the same level as Tip O’Neill. While Trump, like Reagan, came from the celebrity world, and Pelosi, like O’Neill, is a career politician, that’s where the similarities end. Neither is an old Irishman, and neither seems interested in putting politics aside when the day ends. So what’s the solution?

If there is to be any hope of having a relationship that allows the executive and legislative branches to work together and actually get things done, it is time for Speaker Pelosi to crack the whip and get her members in line. Pelosi must lead by being unambiguous about condemning hateful comments, and being willing to reward and, yes, punish members for their behavior when circumstances warrant.

One of the many traits that made Tip O’Neill a great speaker—one with whom deals could be made—was his ability to keep his caucus in line and on message. He understood better than anyone that all politics are local and did not demand that every Democrat march in lockstep on every issue. Yet everyone knew better than to steal the spotlight with divisive or distracting issues, especially freshmen. While the speaker’s job is not to muzzle members of the caucus, he or she must be able to get members on the same page when it matters. Media-dominating controversies caused by freshmen were simply unheard of. Mr. O’Neill earned the respect and loyalty of his caucus not because he was a tyrant, but because he respected their individual needs, yet was able to make everyone understand the “big picture.” And he could deliver votes, which, at the end of the day, is what being Speaker of the House is all about. Tip O’Neill did that and it resulted in historic bipartisan accomplishments, the most important of which may have been the 1983 Social Security Reform Bill. Whether Nancy Pelosi can do that is an open question.

Tip O’Neill would likely be appalled by what Pelosi has allowed Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib to do. They have put their personal agendas and insatiable quests for fame ahead of everything else, showing an unprecedented lack of respect for the speaker and her leadership team. Even worse, they have alienated key longstanding Democratic party constituencies, on whose support—financial and at the ballot box—their party depends, and they have derailed the party’s agenda that was so effectively presented in the midterm elections. They are hijackers, with their party and country being held hostage. That’s not good for anyone, Democrats, Republicans, or independents.

If Speaker Pelosi takes a page or two from Tip’s book, maybe next year’s St. Patrick’s lunch on Capitol Hill will be a little more comfortable for her and the president, and as the Irish prayer says, the road will rise up to meet them and the wind will be at their back.

Mark Weinberg

Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant, served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in Ronald Reagan’s White House and as director of public affairs in former President Reagan’s office, is the author of Movie Nights with the Reagans.