The Democrats in Washington—beset by indecision, incohesiveness and incredible amounts of corporate campaign finance slush funds arrayed against them—have a more immediate problem. It is Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the portly speaker of the House.
“Tip” can be as amiable as Ronald Reagan. The difference between the two politicians starts there. While Reagan specializes in mastering the media, O’Neill stays away from them. Recently, all three Sunday network interview shows wanted O’Neill. He turned them all down. The weekday morning shows “Today” and “Good Morning, America” also have been politely turned down.
It is not that he has nothing to say. He believes that Reagan’s choice of budget cuts would have a “disastrous” impact on many vital services and programs ranging from those helping poor infants, the elderly and workers’ health to medical research, scientific training, solar energy and conservation. He has suggested other budget cuts which, in marked contrast to Reagan’s, would help get the rich and powerful off their big brand of Washington welfare.
But O’Neill cannot seem to get his act together. He is known to be overly sensitive to a television image of the backroom politician making deals. So, instead of cultivating the image of what he could be, based on his record and votes—that of a wise grandfather—he abandons the reaching of millions of Americans through TV and the press to Ronald Reagan. Even Sen. Robert Byrd, though now in a minority Senate position, receives more attention through his Saturday morning news conferences.
O’Neill’s problem is no small one for the Democrats. He is, after all, the only Democrat in Washington who heads a majority. He is the logical Democratic spokesman to respond to Ronald Reagan.
Instead of leading, O’Neill has been fretting. He seems paralyzed by a group of nearly 40 House Democrats who have formed a conservative caucus and have given him a pro-Reagan ultimatum. These members are really right-wing Republicans in Democratic clothing. The genial speaker seems not to know how to build influence, notwithstanding the “reforms” that have weakened the speaker’s power in the House of Representatives, to keep his party together on such fundamental matters as the federal budget.
During the Easter recess on Capitol Hill, the Reaganites continued to lobby fiercely for their budget package. Reagan made numerous phone calls which O’Neill conceded had a “tremendous impact.” Where was Speaker O’Neill during this period? On a two-week trip to Australia and New Zealand.
Upon returning, O’Neill looked over the House of Representatives and told the press that he did not think the Democrats had the votes to approve Rep. James Jones’ alternative budget, which actually contained less of a deficit than the Reagan version. O’Neill, in words that sank the spirits of even the strongest House Democrats, said: “I can read Congress…They go with the will of the people, and the will of the people is to go along with the president.”
“Tip’ is guileless,” said an aide to O’Neill when I called for an explanation of this legislative surrender. The aide rapidly added that O’Neill also believed that most of the people did not know the specifics of the Reagan budget cuts and how cruel they were, such as cutting a program for vaccinating children against disease. “The president of the United States doesn’t know what’s in his own bill,” O’Neill had just told reporters.
“We can only work with what America sends here,” bemoans O’Neill’s aide, by way of rationalizing O’Neill’s performance.
What a gap in leadership! The Democrats appear frightened and stampeded because they are worried about the money and media that can be amassed to defeat them in the next election. One House Democrat remarked: “The facts, the merits, the arguments about federal policy mean nothing out there; it’s how many slick television ads can be played to trick the people.”
The concrete case against both the Reagan budget increases and cuts is overwhelming. Reaganites are slashing programs that work—like auto safety, antimonopoly enforcement, non-subsidized loans for self-help co-ops legal services for millions of poor people, programs trying to cut down on waste in the health care industry. But they are pouring billions more into the crumbling atomic power industry and the Pentagon at a time when even the pro-Pentagon magazine, U.S. News and World Report, headlines a cover story exposing massive Pentagon waste.
It is bad enough when the leader of the Democrats in Washington is consciously avoiding invitations by the media to tell that story to the American people. It is markedly worse when he undermines his own party’s efforts to prevail. By conceding defeat he only helps assure it.