Charlie Wilson’s War and Big Time Politicians | | 03.21.11

Here is a story about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.  It applies to the upcoming contest for the Republican presidential nomination.  I heard it at a dinner party around the new year.

A few other guests and I were gathered in a side room.  A former senior U.S. national security official was telling Cold War tales.  He was a veteran of the intelligence community and the top policy-levels of the national security world, so his stories were good ones.  He turned to the nation’s various Afghan adventures and misadventures of the past few decades, in particular against the Soviets.

Charlie Wilson’s War was accurate up to a point,” he began.  You may remember that Charlie Wilson’s War was a 2003 best seller by veteran reporter George Crille and the basis for a 2007 movie starring Tom Hanks.  Charlie Wilson of the title was a real-life Texas congressman, a Democrat.  During the late 1980s, he proved instrumental in developing congressional support for CIA efforts to bolster the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency.  Both book and movie portrayed the womanizing, hard-partying Wilson as allying with the CIA in part by chance, in part through his own initiative.  But as told at that early January dinner, that part of the Wilson saga was simply wrong.

“Charlie was not acting on his own,” the former official said.  President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill usually met on Friday afternoons at the White House.  They’d share whiskeys, swap stories, and cut deals.  But after Iran-Contra broke a few weeks following the 1986 elections, it became clear that legislative deals were out of the question for much of the year ahead.

“They decided,” the one-time spook continued, ”that one area where they could make progress was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.”  So Reagan tasked the CIA to work with a House Democratic caucus member of O’Neill’s designation.  O’Neill picked Charlie Wilson.

The group listening to this story included political and national security veterans.  As the former official concluded, one said, “That’s what big time politicians do.  Even in the middle of a political hurricane like Iran-Contra, they look for areas where they can agree and find ways to get it done.”

Here is why I am telling this story now.  The process for picking a GOP nominee for the 2012 election is just getting underway.  Recalling that winter’s tale, it strikes me that, in addition to looking at legislative records and issue stances, we should be asking ourselves, who are the big time politicians in this field?  That is, which candidates have shown a capacity, directly or indirectly, to put legislative agreements together, even when political conditions have been tough.

We talk now about repealing Obamacare once we take the White House.  I believe repeal must be a high priority for the next president.  But that president will need at least some Senate Democrats to go along, if repeal is to overcome the inevitable filibuster of the non-financial parts of the legislation, the massive mandates and regulations.  Chances are that repeal of the act’s taxes and spending can be handled through the reconciliation process, where only a majority vote is required.  If Republicans score the kinds of pick ups in the 2012 Senate races that look likely at the moment, the Senate class of 2014 includes enough Democrats from bright red states to put a cloture vote over the top.  But traveling the last mile will require a president of high ability.  Which candidates have displayed that kind of skill?

The question occurred to me while watching a recent edition of the Hoover Institutions on-line television program, Uncommon Knowledge. To be upfront, the firm I manage works with Hoover on the show.  The host is Hoover fellow Peter Robinson, a Reagan White House colleague and a founding director of the firm.

Robinson recently interviewed Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a presumed presidential candidate.  For a variety of reasons, I have been lukewarm about Daniel’s candidacy.  But as Robinson questioned him, what Daniels is trying to do became clear.  By “time outs” and talking almost exclusively about one set of issues – cutting the budget – Daniels would turn the 2012 campaign into a referendum on spending and the scope of government.  He would box conservative Democrats out of all excuses for not going along with him, were he in charge.  Whatever else one thinks of the governor, this is the strategy of a big-time politician.

I am not promoting Daniels here.  It may be that all the candidates will display comparable insight and strength.  But as we look for candidates who know what to do, we should also ask, who knows how to do it?  That is the lesson of Charlie Wilson’s War and the president who made it happen.

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