The USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and the Sol Price School of Public Policy hosted a conversation between MSNBC host and author Chris Matthews and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday evening in Doheny Memorial Library.
The talk focused on Matthew’s new book Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked about the relationship between former President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. In addition, the two discussed the intense partisanship that has become characteristic of national politics and stressed the need to return to the times of deal-making and compromise.
“When you go to a car dealer, for example, you don’t go there just to haggle,” Matthews said. “You haggle, but you’re there to make a deal.”
Matthews, drawing on content from his book, spoke about the close friendship between Reagan and O’Neill despite their differences in ideology, including their famous unspoken rule to not argue past 6 p.m. He said that the two “gave each other victories” and understood the need for compromise, an understanding which Matthews believes is absent from Washington today.
Matthews spoke about the sense of patriotism that led O’Neill to support Reagan’s foreign policy agenda, noting when, in 1985, Reagan sent O’Neill to Moscow to meet with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and O’Neill introduced himself as a member of the opposition.
“When Gorbachev asked O’Neill what it meant to be a part of the opposition he said, and I love this quote, ‘On some questions, we don’t agree on everything,’” Matthews said.
Schwarzenegger spoke about his efforts during his tenure as governor to cross party lines and achieve political reform despite opposition from both parties. He said his goal in creating his administration was to pick the best people regardless of party affiliation and talked about his decision to appoint a Democrat, Susan Kennedy, as his chief of staff, a move that was unpopular with the Republican Party. He recalled a meeting with Republican Party officials at a hotel near the capitol building during which they asked him to replace Kennedy.
“I looked around and said, ‘Did somebody rewrite the rules? Because last I checked the governor made appointments, not the party,’” Schwarzenegger said.
He spoke about the legislative feats he was able to accomplish with Democratic support including strong environmental protections and health care reform.
“During my administration, we didn’t care about whether something was a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” Schwarzenegger said. “We did it because it was good for the people.”
Both he and Matthews discussed the harms of gerrymandering that protects incumbents, and Schwarzenegger spoke about his efforts to achieve electoral reform in California, efforts that resulted in the adoption of open primaries and independent redistricting. He said that both parties were strongly against the reform and that it failed the first five times it was proposed.
“From my experience as a weight lifter, I know that you keep trying to lift a 500-pound weight until you do,” he said. “You don’t give up, and on the sixth time, we passed it.”
Both he and Matthews criticized the current Congress, noting the historically low approval ratings.
“Congress’ approval is down to 8 percent,” Schwarzenegger said. “Herpes is more popular than Congress.”
Matthews attributed the dysfunction in Washington in part to the absence of Washington social life, the decline of which began, according to Matthews, when former Speaker Newt Gingrich began encouraging freshman congressmen to keep their families in their home districts. He said the frequent socializing that used to be common among members of Congress helped increase bipartisanship.
“Everyone goes home [to their districts] on their jet planes these days,” Matthews said. “There are no buddies in Washington.”
Many students were impressed by Matthews’ and Schwarzenegger’s similar messages about bridging the gap between parties.
“I thought it was very insightful and I liked the optimism for bipartisanship,” said Nick Kosturos, a junior majoring in international relations. “I think some of the initiatives that Chris Matthews was talking about, like how congressmen should spend more time after work not going back to their home districts all the time, would be very useful.”
Most agreed that the policies Schwarzenegger and Matthews described would be beneficial.
“It was good to hear that you have to be human to survive in politics. It’s not this beast of professionalism, you really have to sit down and work things out,” said Gwen Holst, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law, neuroscience and political economy.
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