Chris Matthews, an important assistant to Tip O’Neill, was taking the offensive in my interview. “What kind of comparison is that?” he charged, when I told him I was writing about Charles Manatt and Tip O’Neill. “Manatt—he’s just a rich banking lawyer from Los Angeles. Couldn’t be any more different than the Speaker.”

Matthews admitted he wasn’t entirely accurate. Both, after all, are Democrats, and both sharply attack Ronald Reagan on a regular basis. But the dissimilarities are obvious enough: Manatt, nuts and bolts chairman of the Democratic National Committee, less a party spokesman than a fundraising technician whose slick California organizational abilities are supposed to help take the Democratic Party off the ropes; O’Neill, the old-shoe pol, torch-bearer for the New Deal, apostle of the age of constituency-group politics.

What interested me more was the symbolic value of the two men. In many ways, their respective careers and values say a lot more about the state of the Democratic Party than those of a half dozen presidential candidates. The two strains of Democrat they symbolize do not necessarily clash on ideological issues, nor, certainly, on how to make use of the political system. They do, however, differ in what might be called .a cultural way. More important, these two kinds of Democrat— the “Malibu liberal” (limousine liberal is too strong), and the old cover-your-constituencies liberal—each represent a little of what the Democratic Party needs as it looks beyond the Reagan disaster, and a lot of what it must avoid.

Manatt’s Metronome

There is general agreement among active Democrats that Chuck Manatt, the first man ever to launch a coast-to-coast campaign to head the DNC (he spent nearly $100,000 on it), has done a credible job in his nearly two years as chairman. The party looked like Krakatoa East of Java after Carter’s 1980 defeat. The Democrats had been out-financed and out-organized at every turn. In February of 1981, the DNC’s direct mail list consisted of a laughable 20,000 to 25,000 once-a-year-givers; the Republican list was 1.3 million, which meant that the average size of each gift to the Republicans was much less than that given the Democrats. This created the impression that the Democrats were the party of fat cats.

Worse, on Capitol Hill, all of the Republicans who took their seats in the 97th Congress could say they received some campaign help from the Republican National Committee, and none of the Democrats could say the same thing about the DNC. The consequences of this development have been profound but often overlooked. One important reason Carter didn’t get his way with Congress and Reagan (at least in his first year) did, is that Democrats were free agents and Republicans had been lashed to their party. Breaking with Reagan on his 1981 budget proposals would have meant losing lots of money and help from the RNC. This was one reason no Republicans did so, regardless of how liberal they were. The Democrats couldn’t say the same.

With a lot of help from Reagan and Paul Volcker, Manatt has made some progress in rebuilding the party. Direct mail lists have grown nine-fold to 220,000—still only a seventh of the Republicans, but growing fast. Manatt has started a strategy council to get elected officials together to think about the party—a welcome innovation. The new business and labor councils have raised lots of cash, even if the segregation of the two groups represents a lost opportunity for cooperation. Women and minorities have been generally satisfied with his leadership, and schools for candidates set up last year in imitation of the Republicans were moderately successful. Manatt is hardly bashful about copying the opposition. He repeatedly points to former RNC chairman Bill Brock as his model. Recently the Democrats began an organization for rich young party activists called the Lexington Group. For several years, the Republicans have had something similar called the Concord Group.

Manatt has a metronome style that is well suited to the organizational task he faces. “At 8:19 he’ll tell you where he’ll be at 2:21, and at 2:23 he’ll tell you what time he’ll take a piss—he’s that kind of guy,” says Larry Lawrence, a former Democratic national committeeman from California.

Lawrence and other beneficiaries of Manatt’s tireless, driven nature find it appealing. If many of the people who work for him at the DNC are inclined to disagree (several have already quit over it), few can be found to say it hurts the party. Manatt’s school-marmish shushing of the noisy crowd at the 1982 mid-term convention in Philadelphia annoyed many delegates, but he is nonetheless credited with at least convincing Democrats to show up and get along with one another.

If the Democrats wanted a purely organizational man, that’s what they got. On policy issues, despite the repeated attacks on Reagan the “Great Prevaricator” (not his line), it is clear that Manatt would feel more comfortable discussing, say, bank tax avoidance schemes than the problems of welfare mothers. For the chairmanship of the DNC—which is, after all, essentially a fundraising job—perhaps this doesn’t much matter. Aside from chairman Paul Butler of Illinois, whom Manatt worked for while in law school in Washington during the early 1960s, every recent head of the DNC has largely left policy formulation to the politicians.

To chide friends, as Manatt does, for driving foreign cars—he drives a Buick—seems to him to have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that his law firm represents Nissan Motors. For Chuck Manatt and thousands of other wealthy Democrats, that’s just the way life is.

All the same, one can’t help wondering a little about the Democratic Party, the party of the people, when its chairman, had he not been elected to that post, was in line to become president of the American Bankers Association. That is not meant to suggest that bankers should all be forced to be Republicans, or that Manatt’s own background should somehow disqualify him from leadership in his party. It does, however, reflect on the ease with which people like Chuck Manatt can move up in Democratic politics—and the ease with which they can mix those politics with their conservative business interests.

Traditionally in American life, after the young immigrant or ambitious poor boy grew up and earned his fortune, he looked around, took stock of the system that made him rich, and became a Republican. The same thing did not necessarily happen to his descendants, which helps explain the Democratic noblesse oblige associated with the Roosevelts, Harrimans, and Stevensons. And it didn’t happen as often for Jews and Catholics, for whom the new-found wealth was tempered with continued exclusion. But it was otherwise a familiar pattern outside the South.

Then, in the post-war period, especially in California, the pattern began to change. Suddenly well-tanned lawyers and entertainment people began to drive their Mercedes to the polling place with the intention of voting Democratic. Civil rights, Vietnam, the farm workers—why wasn’t it possible to do good and do well at the same time? If Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart could work for Stevenson, if Pat Brown could beat Nixon for governor, then maybe you really were allowed to vote as you wanted without feeling like a hypocrite. There was no class to be a traitor to (in the famous anti-FDR formulation), because Goldwater and the new conservative populists had changed the rules. The rich were free to be Democrats if they so chose.

It was into this world that Chuck Manatt, farm boy from Iowa, thrust himself in 1962 when he left Washington, D.C. and his leadership in Young Democrats. After a year as an associate at O’Melvany and Myers, a large Los Angeles law firm, he suddenly moved over to the firm run by the late Eugene Wyman, a long-time state Democratic Party leader. A year after that, 28 years old and already bearing a banker’s mien, he set out on his own. Today the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg and Tunney employs more than 100 attorneys. It contains not just the chairman of the DNC and a former U.S. senator (John Tunney), but the brains behind the campaigns of Alan Cranston, Jerry Brown, and most of the state’s other important Democratic politicians—a man named Mickey Kantor. It is now the Democratic law firm in the state of California.

Manatt is a millionaire, with oil wells in Texas, thousands of acres of farmland, and a bank he recently sold to Italian investors. The way he became a millionaire, in addition to working extremely hard, was by finding a little niche within banking law just waiting to be exploited: the obtaining of charters for small, independent banks. Part of Manatt’s success—he obtained scores of charters in his early years—was lawyerly smarts, part was that both federal and state banking authorities were becoming less stodgy and more receptive to new independent banks, part was unorthodox aggressiveness (a former partner, Marshall Manley, told Steven Brill of Esquire in 1978 that the firm “had no qualms about stealing lawyers and clients from other firms”), and part was that Manatt’s political contacts, which he began to make shortly after arriving in California, helped him rustle up new business. Manatt was a joiner—UCLA activities, Boy Scout leadership—and his ambition was palpable.(To this day, some find him a “Methodist Sammy Glick.”) But it worked. Before long, Manatt Phelps developed a near-monopoly on representing groups of California investors seeking to start a bank. During the 1970s alone, the assets of independent banks in California grew six-fold, thanks in no small part to the efforts of this one law firm.

In a world of sharks, Tip O’Neill is the porpoise you want swimming at your side. He embodies the sense of justice and compassion that has always distinguished Democrats.

After helping John Tunney get elected to the U.S. Senate in 1970 and pushing the career of state assemblyman (later assembly speaker) Bob Moretti, Manatt won a hard fight to become state party chairman. Soon he had his sights set on bigger things. Jean Westwood, George McGovern’s choice for DNC chairman, was being forced out as too liberal and Manatt, only 36, thought he had a chance. He set up a boiler room operation before the DNC meeting and tried some deal-cutting on a national scale, but lost decisively to Bob Strauss, who got to run the party through the Watergate glory years.

At home, though, Manatt’s combined banking/ law/ political operation was bearing fruit. First Los Angeles Bank, founded by him in 1973 with $3 million in capital, was growing exponentially, reaching $285 million by the time he sold his share last year. And the law firm was exploding, adding sports, musical entertainment, and real estate among other specialties. The firm’s growth in so short a time wasn’t just unusual, it was remarkable—even by California standards.

How did he do it? A politically active senior partner at another Los Angeles firm tried to explain: “What you do is ‘parlay.’ You get Democratic Party contributions from people you do banking business with, who then do legal business with Manatt Phelps, who then give more money to Chuck’s state committee—pretty soon you’ve got a chain going. Then you work it in reverse. The wealthy people you meet through fund raising decide to start a bank and come to you.” Manatt himself scoffs at the description—”if you’re a Democrat in banking you really lead with your chin”—but he admits that business and politics often get tied up together.

The specific connections—the way all Manatt Phelps associates did their banking at First Los Angeles or the time the bank loaned $200,000 to the DNC—can’t really provide the flavor of how a synergistic effort like this works. It’s usually more informal than that, just as it is in the cities and towns across the country where the game is played every day (usually by Republicans).

To get a sense of these informal business and political connections and why they work so well, especially in California, it’s necessary to describe hypothetical but still highly plausible patterns of behavior. Say that as president of your state bankers association (which Manatt was) you know that the wife of a fellow banker gets her jollies meeting Hollywood people. As it happens, a partner in your law firm handles a lot of big stars (in the case of Manatt Phelps, it could be Barbra Streisand or Linda Ronstadt). You don’t use Barbra Streisand directly to raise money for the Democrats—that would be too obvious. But you can certainly throw a party where you introduce her to the banker’s wife, who can in turn impress upon her husband the importance of contributing to the Democrats. There are a dozen variations on this arrangement, all of them just as informal, even subconscious. Nobody really thinks about the interaction between Hollywood money and the Democrats, it just happens—with people like Chuck Manatt nudging the process along. Is it any wonder that the biggest Democratic fund-raiser in all of Los Angeles is Lew Wasserman, chairman of MCA (which is represented by Manatt Phelps among others), and that the biggest Democratic fund-raiser in all of Manhattan is Steven Ross, chairman of Warner Communications?

The young professionals cheered as Kennedy moved through the litany of liberal positions, but you could hear the hum of the air conditioner when Kennedy criticized tax breaks that create new work for lawyers.

These, then, are the subtle “parlay” skills that Manatt has brought to Washington. If he lacks Bob Strauss’s ability to turn the wheeler-dealer into a figure of rogue-like charm, he shares with him the strong desire to help the Democratic Party—and to help himself in the process.

Sleep Easy, Eagle Forgotten

Because Strauss could get away with it—could even brag about how the Washington office of his law firm tripled in size when he was at the DNC—Manatt no doubt feels he can get away with it too. That’s the explanation his friends give for why he did not sever his ties with his law firm and other business interests when he took over the DNC. Strauss didn’t do it. John White, chairman under Carter, didn’t do it. If Paul Butler and Stephen Mitchell and others from the old days of the party were more circumspect, well, the friends explained, times have changed. If you want a good DNC chairman, you have to let him keep making money.

“If clients ask if they’re getting Manatt’s services, the answer is ‘no,’ ” says James Corman, a former liberal Democratic congressman from California who now works as a lobbyist in the Washington office of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg and Tunney, which has grown from three attorneys to seven in the two years since Manatt came to Washington to head the DNC: Manatt is still a senior partner but he involves himself only in questions relating to the firm’s management; according to.Mickey Kantor, such as the decision to build a large new office building (which was originally contracted to non-union labor, causing a tiff at the DNC). Manatt told me that he “builds a big wall” between the party and his law practice, and that he does no lobbying himself.

It’s a good thing, too, because many of the clients and causes represented by the firm that bears his name do not do much justice to the Democratic Party principles he is called on to embrace. Much of the firm’s Washington work is in the area of obtaining tax breaks for large corporations. In 1981, Corman sought a tax break for the Northwest Alaska Pipeline Co., which at the time was planning to build a non-essential pipeline and let consumers bear the $8 billion in upfront costs in their utility bills. Then.there was Texas International’s unfriendly takeover bid for Continental Airlines, a battle that found its way to the California state capital and Congress, with Manatt Phelps representing the predator. More recently, the law firm lobbied on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, which is seeking legislation that would extend patents for enormously wealthy drug companies, thereby limiting the ability of consumers to purchase far cheaper generic alternatives. Corman was a prime sponsor of national health insurance when he was in the H ouse, and although his living room contains a sign “Please Don’t Smoke” (his wife is allergic), he and. Manatt Phelps now lobby for the Tobacco Institute on a tax matter.

The standard reaction to all of this among Democrats in Washington is mostly indifference. After all, Walter Mondale was among those pushing for the pipeline gouge, and the liberal former Senator Birch Bayh represents several less-than-savory corporate interests around town. The contradictions are so familiar–so much a part of doing business—that nobody loses any sleep. “When I was congressman I had the luxury to represent the public interest,” says Corman, who still considers himself a liberal Democrat. “But an attorney doesn’t do that, he represents his clients.”

Thus it is perfectly natural for Democrats like Manatt to decry, as he did on the day of his election as chairman, “the spectacle of $10,000 dresses and minks” at the Reagan inaugural, though he and hundreds of other liberal Democrats gravitate to even swankier parties in Malibu or Manhattan or the Georgetown home of Pamela Harriman. To chide friends, as Manatt does, for driving foreign cars—he drives a Buick—seems to him to have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that his law firm represents Nissan Motors. For Chuck Manatt and thousands of other wealthy Democrats, that’s just the way life is.

That is the way life is—and it’s not likely to change soon. But this doesn’t mean people who care about the Democratic party shouldn’t be a little more concerned that it now contains a whole class of people who can accept that reality with complete equanimity, who can mouth chic liberal ideas and then get up and go to the office every day to battle against them. When I asked Tom Hayden, who once ran for the U.S. Senate against Manatt’s law partner John Tunney, whether he ever thought about this, he seemed bored by the question. “Manatt’s no more guilty than any. He’s made his money from corporate clients there’s no story there.” I asked if he might have thought there was a story there 15 years ago. Wasn’t that the kind of liberalism his movement rejected? Hayden didn’t think so.

Welcome, Rise-Takers

What’s worrisome about Manatt is not that he is wealthy and knows a lot of wealthy people. Until that far-off day when an Archibald Cox has been elected president and money has less power in politics, the Democrats will need good fund raising. The question is, fund-raising and party-building by what breed of Democrat? What kind of Democrat does Chuck Manatt typify, and who does he attract to party activism? The issue is larger than Manatt himself.

One answer to that question lies in Manatt’s creation of the Lexington Group, the Potomac Group, and the Hudson Group, all dedicated to bringing “young professionals” into active participation in the party. Isn’t it possible that this segment is a tad overrepresented already? These are the people who cheered lustily as Edward Kennedy moved through the litany of liberal positions during his speech at the mid-term convention last June, but sat in silence—you could hear the hum of the air conditioner in the convention hall—when Kennedy criticized tax breaks that do nothing but create new work for lawyers. The reason for the silence was that Chuck Manatt and thousands of other Democrats in the room are the lawyers, MBAs, accountants, consultants, and other professionals who profit from the system the way it is. Only a few weeks before, Manatt and the DNC’s Business Council had sent a letter to Democratic congressmen essentially endorsing the most egregious of Reagan’s 1981 tax giveaways, the so-called “safe harbor leasing” provision, which allows profitable corporations to buy the tax losses of unprofitable ones, thus lessening their tax bills.

The Democrats who are involved in such matters are often nice, bright, interesting people, friends of yours and mine. They support the right causes, they attend the right parties, but in litigating, consulting, finagling, and endlessly rearranging the economy’s existing assets, they don’t do much to contribute to the productive growth of the country. It’s sometimes easy to forget that this growth is what allows the government to pay for the health and welfare programs these Democrats quite rightly believe we need.

A better place to raise money—and build the party—is from less elitist (though still wealthy) entrepreneurs and innovators. Isn’t the hardy entrepreneur committed to strong economic growth a Republican figure? Some think so. But in many ways the Republicans are even more the party of unproductive tax avoiders and asset rearrangers, of people more interested in protecting existing wealth than creating new wealth. Greater numbers of entrepreneurs could be convinced to become Democratic if the party better reflected some of the entrepreneur’s values: faith in the little guy fighting entrenched interests, faith in the business-like, competent delivery of what has been promised (which in politics translates into picking up the garbage on time rather than preserving a four-men-to-a-truck rule), and faith in risk, which means trying the unusual idea even if it means offending the status quo.

If these values sound familiar it is because they are traditional Democratic values, too, as is the economic growth that has historically brought prosperity under Democratic governments. And if the values have faded with time, it is because the Democrats, like the Republicans, have forgotten how important these values are to the country’s strength—and have been changed by their own success. Thus the early Chuck Manatt—the young man who helped bring independent banks to credit-starved small California towns—became the well-established, professional Chuck Manatt, whose law firm paws at the federal treasury on behalf of clients looking for hand-outs.

So the next time you go to a big Democratic fund-raiser, glance around and see how many of the assembled guests have helped build or have sustained a productive business, or have labored full-time in unglamorous positions inside or outside the government that show they are willing to work for some larger goal. Then take note of the people who care (during their free hours) about doing good—whether it’s ending the Vietnam War or supporting a nuclear freeze—but care even more about doing well, which could mean using politics to make money, or cutting a deal that does nothing but enrich lawyers, or simply meeting Linda Ronstadt.

If the Democrats are really to represent all the people, as their credo reads, then that first group is going to have to grow a lot bigger, and the second group a lot smaller. Otherwise, the bulk of the natural Democratic constituency—employers and employees who work hard every day and produce—may come to believe that the party is just a little too Malibu, and that Democratic leaders are no better in this regard than Republicans.

A Tip Off the Old Bloc

When it comes to making the Democrats the party of the people, Tip O’Neill would seem the model. Jimmy Breslin, for one, thought so after he spent the Watergate summer of 1974 with him. “He is most certainly one of those old-fashioned politicians that most people prefer to detest . . . but if you see O’Neill as he is, not as conformity forces us to see him, then there is coming into the room a lovely spring rain of a man.”

Breslin was mostly on target in How the Good Guys Finally Won. Tip is disliked largely for reasons of style, and those are the wrong reasons. According to all who know him, he is a man of his word, a loyal friend, a thoroughly good-natured Santa Claus of a human being. In a world of sharks, he is the porpoise you want swimming at your side. “It’s nice to be important, but it’s even more important to be nice,” is one of his mottos, and it is a good one.

These qualities are not to be brushed off. As a representation of what the American system can be, he is a positive symbol—not the big, fat, out of-control, “just like the federal government” symbol that (recently defeated) Representative John Le Boutillier and other conservative Republicans toss around. O’Neill embodies the sense of justice and compassion that has always distinguished Democrats, and he usually does so without being too cloying about it.

Republicans who have made it on their own wonder why everyone else can’t make it on their own too. Tip knows better—he knows that luck is a factor in life, and that the down-and-out genuinely need the help of their party and their government. As a child he watched his father, a neighborhood leader, sit at their kitchen table in Cambridge and help the widow short of money, the father who had lost his job, and all of the others Tip himself would help for 40 years as a state legislator, speaker of the Massachusetts House, and congressman. When O’Neill took John F. Kennedy’s seat in 1952 he began a House career that testifies to the ability of politics—old ward style politics—to give people a hand. “Confessional,” he calls it, as he sits, a look of concern on his face, and listens.

This appealing approach to politics is no less relevant now than it was when Tip O’Neill’s grandfather and other immigrants came to the big cities and first began to use government as an instrument of service. Tip’s problem—and that of the Democrats—is that they sometimes forget who it is they are listening to. That man standing with his arm on the speaker of the House’s shoulder at Mel Krupin’s restaurant is not a poor orphan seeking the help of a compassionate government. He is a lobbyist, and though there’s a chance the claims of his clients are consistent with the values of social justice Tip champions, there’s a better chance they aren’t.

Susceptibility to the blandishments of friends (everyone is Tip’s friend) is mostly just the result of staying in the capital too long. O’Neill is now more Washington than Watertown. His own son “Kip” O’Neill lobbies for the Saudis, the Marriot Corp., and an insurance company defending itself against claims by asbestos victims. His former chief aide, Gary Hymel, works for Robert K. Gray, the corporate lobbyist and Reaganite. Tip isn’t pushing for house reforms on PAC lobbying, even though such reforms could give him some control over disobedient Democrats by making them more dependent for campaign support on traditional party sources.

Why is O’Neill unable to be more like Sam Rayburn, who lacked Tip’s convivial nature, but also lacked his rapport with lobbyists? One suspects that O’Neill gives so much himself that he assumes other people do so out of the same generous spirit. Recall Tongsun Park, the Korean rice dealer who spent $7,000 on lavish birthday parties for O’Neill in the mid-1970s. On an NBC feature in 1978, Tandy Dickinson, Park’s “hostess”, displayed many photographs of the two men together, confirming their friendship. When Park was later found to be working for the Korean government, O’Neill seemed genuinely oblivious to the implications.

Isn’t putting people back to work Tip O’Neill’s major priority? Apparently not. When it comes to trading high union wages or more jobs, O’Neill won’t do it. Nor will most of his fellow Democrats.

A Piece of the Rock

In 1960, Tip’s wife, Millie, who stayed home in Cambridge for all the years before her husband became speaker (O’Neill roomed in Washington with fellow congressman Eddie Boland), urged him not to run for governor of Massachusetts. According to a recent biography of O’Neill, she feared he would be taken advantage of by hungry office-seekers. “Tom (she is one of the few who can call him this) could never say no to anybody.”

Mrs. O’Neill no doubt meant this verdict in a positive way, which is how a lot of Democrats over the years have viewed it. They often translate “never say no” into a more elegant phrase that resonates of the New Deal: the politics of inclusion. Inclusiveness is one of the things that separate Democrats from Republicans. It offers all groups a chance to participate in the bounty of American life. So why haven’t , the Democrats wiped out .the opposition?,Because, as a concept, inclusiveness is a lot wider than it is deep; the electorate sometimes realizes that when groups are included that don’t really need the government’s help, everyone else can suffer. In the years since Franklin Roosevelt,’these groups have come to believe not just that they would be included in the Democratic Party, but that they owned part of it. There is a big difference.

A case can be made that Tip O’Neill and the Democrats have carried the politics of inclusion so far that the speaker has been left in the peculiar position of resembling a man he would not like to be thought resembling—a man who is also a nice warm person, but also largely wrong in the way he translates his instincts into solutions: Ronald Reagan.

The problem is not; as some might imagine, that O’Neill by self-description is “one of the biggest spenders of all time.” Tax and tax, spend and spend, as the phrase goes, is nothing to worry about as long as the taxing and spending are for the right things. But listen to this recent answer to a reporter’s question , about the Democratic jobs bill:

Question: “Mr. Speaker, are you saying that you will promise so many things to so many people that the Republicans will have to go along?” (laughter)

O’Neill: “Maybe that’s part of our strategy. . . . The media built the 1980 election as a philosophical or fiscal change. It wasn’t that at all. The election was the unpopularity of Jimmy Carter, the Iranian situation, and the aftermath of the energy crisis. . . “

One could chalk that comment up to rhetorical excess but for the fact that no one in the crowded briefing room even blinked when he said it. It was as-if the sour experience of Reagan’s economic policy meant that the Democrats could just pick up where they left off before 1980. When asked specifically about this, Democratic congressmen (and O’Neill too) tend to answer that of course times have changed, with the deficit problem and so forth, but that the Democratic approach of the past has been largely vindicated by the dreary economic news of the last two years, and by the 1982 election returns. ‘”After 1980, the thumbsuckers ran for the bushes and started rethinking,” says O’Neill aide Chris Matthews, spitting out the last word. “Well, there’s. no time for it.”

O’Neill considers it a victory that the mid-term election campaign was conducted on his issues: unemployment and Social Security. And, indeed, these issues were crowd pleasers at the polls. But for the long-term good of the party and country, the current Democratic attitudes toward labor and entitlement programs can only be considered disastrous.

Whose Bacon?

In the Irish precincts of Boston, Chicago, and other cities, there’s an old expression that helps explain what now imprisons theDemocrats. “You dance with the one who brought ya,” the saying goes, and it’s a code that is not broken lightly. Among the suitors who brought Tip O’Neill to the dance was the American labor movement. On the very day Tip was born 70 years ago, his father, then a bricklayer, was walking a picket line around Harvard Yard, protesting that Harvard wasn’t willing to bargain collectively with the construction unions.

There is a lot to cherish in that heritage: Tip O’Neill’s Cambridge is not Harvard’s Cambridge, and through most of the labor struggles of this century, the O’Neill side was very much the right side. In recent years, however, the lines have grown a lot less clear. Bricklayers, for instance, are no longer chafing under oppression. In Boston, their prevailing wage is now $16.50 an hour, an impressive wage when there’s work to be found.

Finding work—or creating it—is what Tip O’Neill is now directing his attention to. The Democrats have proposed a whole series of much needed public works/jobs bills to help get the country back on its feet again, and the speaker is leading the charge.

Unfortunately, the labor heritage and the pressing national need for jobs are at some odds with each other, a point that Democrats like O’Neill are loath to admit. Imagine that the Boston bricklayers were paid, say $8.25 an hour—still a good wage—instead of $16.50. If that idea were applied throughout the public jobs programs (to both the skilled and unskilled), wouldn’t it be possible to create hundreds of thousands of additional jobs for the same money? And isn’t putting people back to work really Tip O’Neill’s major priority?

Apparently not, because when I asked him whether there was any chance of those extra jobs being created, he was emphatic. “There will be no challenge to Davis-Bacon in this Congress. Absolutely none.” The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 requires that the “prevailing wage” be paid on all government-sponsored projects, which means that Boston bricklayers must get $16.50 an hour, even if paying them a little less could mean taking their brethren off the unemployment line. (The prevailing wage in many other jobs reaches into the $20-an-hour range.)

I asked Chris Matthews if he could think of any case where this speaker of the House of Representatives had departed from the interests of organized labor. As the big clock in the corner ticked away, Matthews furrowed his brow like a stumped game show contestant. Except for a proposal that government workers should be required, like everyone else, to be part of the Social Security system, an idea opposed by federal employee unions, Matthews could think of no occasions when O’Neill had stood against this interest group, a group whose positions no longer automatically coincide with the interests of American working people.

What’s disturbing is not just that Tip O’Neill is old school, not just that he likes wasteful water projects and other pork (the Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, Jr. Federal Office Building will go up soon in downtown Boston). The real problem is that these old ways of doing things are not just quaint holdovers from a glorious past, but what continues to be the ruling orthodoxy of the Democratic Party. When I took an informal survey of a few Democratic congressmen to see what they thought about waiving Davis-Bacon so as to employ more people, none went into vigorous defense of the unions. They tended, instead, simply to sigh and say something like, “Well, that’s an idea whose time hasn’t come yet,” or “Don’t you understand? Labor is part of the Democratic constituency.”

What’s sad is that the Democratic Party needn’t be so imprisoned. The Democrat beholden to no interests can respond to the larger interests of everyone. If that sounds impossibly idealistic, think back to the Depression, when thousands of workplaces hung blue eagles in their windows proclaiming, “We Do Our Part.” Employers and employees were loyal not to their own wages, but to the good of their company and country.

Democrats can embrace that larger interest now—or let a crisis impose it. So far, it looks like they’ll let the latter happen.

Demogogic Party

The Democrats’ worst sell-out has to be Social Security. Reagan’s proposal to make crude across-the-board cuts in benefits gave the Democrats a political opening; it did not give them an excuse for the (let’s call it what it is) demagoguery displayed during the 1982 campaign.

Now that the election is over, some Democrats will admit that Social Security is in need of basic reform; some will even admit that “Save Social Security. Vote Democratic” was a bit of a reach. But most, like Tip O’Neill, are happy with the way the issue has been handled. They recall that day in April of last year when Reagan went up to Capitol Hill to try to get the Democratic leadership to agree to a three-month freeze in Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), a sensible enough proposal during a recession. Tip’s lieutenants still see red when they recall the meeting. O’Neill believed Reagan was just trying to tar the Democrats with some responsibility for cutting Social Security, a ploy he quickly rejected.

The opportunities for political advantage by leaving Reagan responsible were immense. Shortly before the election, O’Neill’s people gleefully received what they call their “manna from the Republicans.” On October 28—the exact date is still well-remembered in the speaker’s office—somebody leaked a letter to Republican contributors from Representative Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The letter was about how the Democrats had used Social Security as a “political football” and how it was time to think about serious reform proposals. In order to sample opinion on the subject, Vander Jagt enclosed three ballot cards with various reform options and a place to check the best one. One card said, “Split off the welfare aspects of Social Security into a separate fund.” A second said, “Adjust the financing of Social Security without making any fundamental changes in its structure.” And a third card said, “Make Social Security voluntary.”

That was all Tip O’Neill needed. “The president needs to assure America’s senior citizens that the administration is not even thinking about making Social Security voluntary,” he told the press that day, displaying a huge blowup of the nefarious ballot card. “Voluntary,” he said, was a code word for destruction. His own position, he hardly needed to add, was in code too: Democrats had better not think too boldly about how to get the nation’s retirement system out of its mess.

Voluntary Social Security is hardly a very good idea, and Ronald Reagan can hardly be trusted to fashion the most sensible reforms. He doesn’t seem to know the difference between cutting benefits for the poor—which some of his proposals, the TV ads notwithstanding, would have done—and cutting them for the rich. But the Democrats who reject all attempts to cut benefits don’t seem to know the difference either, or to ask with any frequency the basic question: Why should people get Social Security if they don’t need it? (The answer, by the way, is not because they’ve paid in, because what workers contribute during the working years doesn’t even begin to cover what they receive after retirement.) The basic Democratic position, even after the recent commission deliberations, is that the system needs only a little tinkering in the form of tax increases, not the fundamental reform that the evidence indicates.

The obvious reason the Democrats have taken such a dishonest position is that the elderly, and not just the needy elderly, are part of what they see as their constituency. Like labor, the “entitlement” constituencies have developed a hold on the party, even though many Democrats admit privately that the interests of those constituencies differ from the interests of the country as a whole. The acts of contortion required for Democrats to meet such demands are most extreme in the case of military spending. Tip O’Neill can’t oppose the Navy’s F-I8 airplane because its engines are built in Massachusetts. The same trap holds another liberal, Senator Alan Cranston, who is unable to come out against the B- I bomber because it is built in California.

Our Better Selves

The disadvantages of going against constituency groups are obvious. In the short run, you lose votes, money, and support. Democrats too often see those factors as so decisive that they fail to see potential advantages to kissing off the special interests that are always laying claim to them.

The biggest advantage is that by starting to realize the dangers of brokering themselves, Democrats can shape the outlines of a new, more successful party. This new structure would include all of those old elements, but it would lie subservient to none of them. It would be a coalition in the best sense of the word. To coalesce really means to give up some of what you’ve got for the interests of the whole. It means confronting not just the other party’s special interests, bad as they are, but your own. It means overpaid union members, un-needy elderly, and all of the other Democratic constituencies symbolized by Tip O’Neill must be convinced to give up some of what they’ve got. And it means the professional class personified by Charles Manatt—the people who think that voting Democratic and giving to good causes is enough—must be convinced to check their elitism, and to work more productively, not just for themselves, but for everyone.

Whatever the theological or Freudian abstractions, one can’t help believing that at bottom every person contains two selves, and that this applies to political outlook as well. The first part—the one that comes to the surface most quickly—is selfish and insistent that its “own best interests” be well-represented. The second part wants to believe in something larger—community, party, country. This large-spiritedness is something Democrats once talked about frequently in speeches, and once really meant—in the days before such appeals became little more than embroidery for ticking off sops to constituencies. The idea can still work, not just to win a crowd or an election, but to build a new party ideology—and to change the country so that it reflects this better angel of our nature.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.