Could entitlement reform really happen? Before you dub me naïve, historically untethered, or simply off my rocker, consider a headline – from the mainstream media, US News and World Report, in 2009. “Bipartisan Reagan-O’Neill Social Security Deal in 1983 Showed It Can Be Done.” The accompanying picture was President Reagan and Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neill laughing, on the eve of what was almost The Compromise of the Century, permanently making Social Security solvent.
Of course, at the last minute, that historic deal collapsed – not on principle, but from what else? A touch of partisan wrangling. So, you ask, what is the point? Only this: The shape of that deal, desire for greater public accountability, urgency of rendering entitlements solvent, and the potential for bipartisanship – are all as alive today, as they were in 1983.
True, personalities have changed. The Republican President and Democrat House Speaker are not likely to laugh with each other, as often as they adopt a knowing snarl, even growl at each other. True, the level of public rancor would need to be turned down.
But here are counter-veiling facts: Average Americans are seeking responsible leadership – from both parties, staring in 2019. They are tired of incessant, irresponsible “can-kicking” on entitlements, even if they wish to preserve hard-earned benefits. They are tired of reflexive hostility to whatever “the other side” suggests, since both sides are American. They are ready for a bit more laughter, bit less nastiness.
Here are a few other encouraging signs. Just as AMAC has offered responsible legislative options that help seniors preserve what they have earned, protecting future generations and national solvency, we are at time when new congressional leaders seem to understand – Americans want action, not talk. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) even suggested – prior to midterms – that entitlements should be reexamined, options reconsidered, effort put into recrafting their solvent future.
Curiously, as I look backward to 1983, I am reminded of the cheerful spirit that attached to that near “Compromise of the Century.” In that year, I worked briefly in the Reagan White House. Although a junior staffer, I recall vividly excitement, a sense of incipient accomplishment, even shared optimism which surrounded that near – but cancelled – “Grand Compromise” ceremony.
Ground truth: It almost happened – it was that close. There was almost a Reagan-O’Neill Guaranteed Social Security Solvency compromise! A President viewed as historically conservative and House Speaker viewed as an inveterate liberal, actually almost pulled off what we would still be talking about today – a Compromise of the Century, assuring Social Security solvency ad infinitum.
Actually, even the chance of it was so historic – that we are talking about it today! If there had been such a compromise on entitlements, many older Americans – and many of us now older who were then younger – would be celebrating. We would have been eternally grateful, to those two leaders.
Of course, as history would have it, President Reagan gave us many other reasons to be grateful. And that optimist Reagan, with his fellow Irishman Tip O’Neill, found other reasons to celebrate life together – and reach worthy compromise.
But maybe that is the point: Americans would like to see a bit more of that old Reagan-O’Neill spirit in national politics. Where better to begin than with earnest discussion of how to restore intergenerational solvency to America’s historic entitlements, crafting and finalizing the long-overdue Grand Compromise of 1983 – that got away from The Gipper and Tip.
Wouldn’t that be a superb way to restore trust in American political leadership from the get-go, starting – or perhaps finishing – 2019? I think I hear a bipartisan murmur. Do you hear that too?
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