President Ronald Reagan often compared leaders of the Soviet Union to the movie producers against whom he bargained when he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

It was through that experience during his Hollywood years, the late Republican president once told biographer Lou Cannon, that he “learned to negotiate.”

“The purpose of a negotiation,” Reagan added, “is to get an agreement.”

The conversation, recounted by Cannon during a recent forum sponsored by UCSB’s American Presidency Project, shed some light on fierce, partisan political battles now being waged from Washington to Wisconsin and Sacramento.

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As president and as governor of California, Reagan not only remained unfailingly committed to conservative principles but also was a political pragmatist who cut deals with Democrats in Congress and the Legislature on partisan issues ranging from taxes to abortion — not to mention historic pacts on nuclear arms reduction forged with Mikhail Gorbachev. That approach to governance contrasts in important ways with the Tea Party-tinged political style of millennial Republicans, many of whom consider negotiation to be a waste of time and compromise a sign of weakness in pursuing an agenda of dismantling government programs.

“And on nearly all issues, Reagan was simultaneously an ideologue and a pragmatist,” Cannon wrote in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, his seminal biography. “He complained to aides that true believers on the Republican right … preferred to ‘go off the cliff with all flags flying,’ rather than take half a loaf and come back for more, as Reagan believed liberals had been doing since the days of the New Deal.”

Intriguingly, the twin strains of GOP politicking have both been displayed in Sacramento recently, in the persons of the two Republicans who collectively represent Santa Barbara County in the State Senate. As Democratic Governor Jerry Brown seeks the handful of Republican votes he needs to put a crucial tax measure on a special election ballot, Tony Strickland, who represents the South Coast in his 19th Senate District, and Sam Blakeslee, whose 15th District includes North County, both have emerged as key players in the state budget battle.

Strickland (R-Moorpark) leads a newly formed “Taxpayers Caucus,” a group of 30 Republicans who vow they will not even consider giving Brown the procedural votes he needs to put his plan to extend $12 billion in temporary tax increases before voters. Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), meanwhile, is one of only five GOP lawmakers who have been negotiating privately with Brown in a bid to win concessions on key conservative issues, including pension reform, business regulation, and a state spending cap, in exchange for help in moving his tax plan to the ballot.

Although Brown had set a deadline of today (Thu., Mar. 10) for a deal, no agreement was in sight. While Strickland’s group staunchly maintained their no-compromise stance, Blakeslee and his colleagues announced that they had reached a negotiating impasse with the governor, whom they said would not bend enough on their key issues.

It is unclear whether the “impasse” message from Blakeslee’s group was a signal that compromise efforts have totally failed, or a negotiating tactic leaving open the possibility that talks could resume. As a political matter, one key factor is that prominent anti-tax organizations and state party apparatchiks have strongly pressured the more moderate Republicans not to cut a deal, under threat of being attacked or even censured at the upcoming California Republican Party convention, which convenes March 25.

Without voter approval of the tax-extension plan, which Brown has matched with an equal amount of proposed cost reductions, he has said he will submit a cuts-only plan to erase the $25-billion deficit.

After this week, the electoral calendar makes it steadily more difficult, although not impossible, for Brown to get a statewide vote scheduled before the temporary tax increases expire on July 1. Without voter approval of the tax-extension plan, which Brown has matched with an equal amount of proposed cost reductions, he has said he will submit a cuts-only plan to erase the $25-billion deficit. This would mean, among other changes, sweeping decreases in money for K-12 schools and higher education from current levels in the $85-billion budget.

Amid such high stakes, whether Brown and legislative Republicans can breach their differences in time will test their political abilities at compromise as once defined by Ronald Reagan. As Cannon wrote:

“Reagan did not fit the neat ideological stereotype that was presented in alternative forms by movement conservatives and liberal activists … ‘He liked to see the people around him work toward an acceptable compromise,’ said White House cabinet secretary Craig Fuller. ‘Both words are important. Acceptable in a sense that it met his criteria, narrow as they might be. Compromise in that nobody got exactly what they wanted, but nobody lost.’”


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