Paul  Kengor

It was 1971, and Governor Reagan squared off with the speaker of the California legislature, a tough Democrat foe named Robert "Macho Bob" Moretti. California was on the verge of a major policy success—a historic welfare-reform package. First, Moretti and Reagan would need to sit down together, side by side, and hammer out specifics. Moretti made his way to Reagan’s office, walked in by himself, and announced: "Governor, I don't like you. And I know you don’t like me, but we don’t have to be in love to work together." Reagan replied simply, "Okay." He committed to a good-faith effort to work with Moretti.

The two endured a long, windy path of binary and plenary sessions, as well as much less formal settings, marked by battle after battle for six weeks—almost exactly the time since Obama walked out of his talks with Cantor. Moretti himself calculated that he sparred with Reagan for “seventeen days and nights," "line by line, statistic by statistic," and obscenity by obscenity. At times, Reagan burned with frustration—"that's it, I'm through with this"—but never gave up.

Grudgingly, Moretti came to respect Reagan, who he saw as hard on his principles but flexible in the details—an observation of Reagan shared by numerous aides over the decades. The governor surprised Moretti by yielding to fair and rational arguments, once even agreeing to renegotiate a point that the speaker had regretted conceding.

As Morris shows in his biography, Moretti was most impressed with Reagan’s honesty as a deal maker. He admired the fact that the governor never lied and honored every commitment he made. This was a character trait Reagan had learned in Hollywood as head of the Screen Actors Guild.

In the end, on August 13, 1971, the California Welfare Reform Act became law. Reagan rightly called it "probably the most comprehensive" such welfare initiative in U.S. history. It was way ahead of its time, predating what would happen in much of the rest of America in the 1990s, made possible by the decentralization, block granting of welfare by President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress—another bipartisan example of working together.

The negotiations between Reagan and Moretti were somewhat of a microcosm of the Reagan-Gorbachev talks. Then, too, the two men spent many intense hours, exchanging heated words and a few obscenities. For Reagan, there were non-negotiables then as well, of which SDI (at Reykjavik) was the most dramatic. There were items that Reagan insisted upon, such as addressing the USSR’s persecution of its own citizens (especially Russian Jews), and giving no quarter in his belief in the superiority of the American system. He and Gorbachev likewise were locked horn to horn. The results were historic changes in arms control. Like Moretti, Gorbachev learned to like and respect Reagan.

I'm not privy to the records on all of President Obama's negotiations with House Republicans like Eric Cantor and John Boehner. From what I'm reading, however, we're seeing a very different kind of chief executive. Barack Obama is not only no Ronald Reagan on economic policy. He’s also no Reagan when it comes to negotiating skills. Obama doesn’t understand Reagan at all, and that’s a loss for this nation.