It's true that Reagan did not engage as much in the day-to-day bargaining. The big bipartisan agreements of the Reagan years were mostly cobbled together by O'Neill's forces and moderate Republican leaders such as Sens. Howard Baker of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas, and Rep. Barber Conable of New York.
Still, Reagan and O'Neill clearly liked each other and enjoyed socializing. Although House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, played golf with Obama and had tried for a "grand bargain" compromise with him, their relationship does not seem to be anywhere near at the same comfort level as that between Reagan and O'Neill, two gregarious Irish-Americans.
That may have become clear late Friday, when the talks collapsed, with each side blaming the other.
Looking back to the 1980s, with the exception of a few major deals like on Social Security, the day-to-day dealings between the Reagan administration and O'Neill were largely contentious and partisan.
Yet that Social Security agreement remains a model for those who yearn for less-partisan times now.
Threats of approaching economic chaos were as much in the air in early 1983 as they are now, as Social Security was fast running out of money and benefit checks were at risk.
The eventual deal that rescued the program involved changing Social Security tax-rate schedules, imposing income taxes on the benefits of higher-income individuals, and raising the retirement age in steps to 67 for those born after 1960. It was put in play by a bipartisan commission headed by Republican economist Alan Greenspan, later to become chairman of the Federal Reserve.
It was fine-tuned by a high-level group of nine House and Senate members.
That bipartisan group met in secret locations for weeks to hammer out the final details, remembers Paul Light, who at the time was a congressional fellow with Conable, the senior Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the negotiators.
The talks coincided with the Washington Redskins' march to the team's Super Bowl victory over the Miami Dolphins in January 1983.
"The Gang of Nine could actually sit around the table and say, 'Go Redskins.' That just created camaraderie that I don't see now," said Light, now a public policy professor at New York University. "And the compromise lasted 30 years, which isn't bad."
So in the end, how can Reagan be both a hero to Republicans for arguing against tax increases — and to Democrats for agreeing to them?
"That's what made him such an incredibly good politician," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Reagan was a master of blurring distinctions with compelling rhetoric, Hess suggested.
"People often see in him what they want to see, or what they are looking for. And that has been certainly true of other great politicians in their time as well."
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