Many of us are searching, desperately, for a way out of this mess in Washington. That's why Chris Matthews' new book about the surprisingly productive relationship between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill is drawing attention. (The title, "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked," captures what we need to remember.)
Let me throw in another relevant precedent: The way George H.W. Bush staked his presidency on getting out of a budget deficit 23 years ago this month. The example that Bush 41 provided is one that President Barack Obama especially should lock in on.
Obama has largely taken to his "I'm-better-than-you" mode. He prefers to show Republicans the error of their ways rather than getting into the down-and-dirty of negotiating.
But down-and-dirty is what Washington needs in order to move the nation past the current budget impasse, impending debt ceiling vote and long-term entitlement expenses that threaten to drain the nation's wallet. Here is where the Bush example comes in.
As we know, the Republican agreed to raise taxes as part of the final budget agreement back in October 1990. Breaking his "read-my-lips: no new taxes" pledge is seen by the observer class as the sacrificing of his presidency.
But let's take a step back from that gutsy call and recall the process. Bush didn't sit back and wait for an agreement to come to him. For months, he engaged Democrats on Capitol Hill, where they controlled both chambers.
With a budget deadline approaching, Bush could have hunkered down and simply lectured the Hill. But he got ahead of the deadline and negotiated with House and Senate Democrats.
Fred McClure, Bush's liaison to Capitol Hill at the time, recalled over the phone last week how the talks took place over a two-month period. "We had teams out at Andrews Air Force Base," he reminded me.
The political climate wasn't easy in the summer and fall of 1990, either. Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait. Newt Gingrich was on the ascendancy as a hard-line GOP House member, contrasting himself with establishment Republicans like Bush. And Democratic congressional leaders like George Mitchell and Dick Gephardt didn't exactly see it as their duty to make life easy for the president.
Nor did the solution appear automatically. "It was hard, and we had to stay on it," McClure described the tense negotiations.
For one thing, Gingrich killed one proposal his own president put together. Democrats opposed him at every turn, too, even though a government shutdown was on the horizon.
But Bush and his team persisted. He especially drew upon his longstanding relationship with Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois. Rostenkowski and Bush had served in the House together in the 1960s. Their relationship was important given that Bush was president and Rostenkowski led the pivotal House Ways and Means Committee.
Eventually, a second deal was struck in late October 1990. Democrats got the tax hikes they wanted and Republicans got caps put on discretionary spending. Those caps would become crucial to controlling spending and finally balancing the budget under President Bill Clinton.
For his part, Bush summed up the tough back-and-forth this way: "Sometimes a president has to make a tough call. This is one of them."
We can only hope Obama remembers those words. Sure, he has opponents. But he's not the first president with them, so he needs to start dealing.
Since Republicans control the House, Obama should get ready to offer up some part of his health plan. He doesn't want to do that any more than Bush wanted to raise taxes.
But agreeing to, say, lift the requirement that employers with 50 or more employees provide insurance for those who work 30 hours or more would give negotiators something to work with. The president would not be defunding his health care bill, just changing an element of it. And he could help part-time workers whose companies are cutting their work hours to less than 30 to avoid the insurance requirement.
At this point, Obama is giving little. A previous president's example shows how he can do far more and save the country.
William McKenzie, Dallas Morning News; email@example.com.