Title page for ETD etd-0710103-102938

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Brandt, Karl Gerard
Author's Email Address kbrand2@lsu.edu
URN etd-0710103-102938
Title Deficit Politics and Democratic Unity: The Saga of Tip O'Neill, Jim Wright, and the Conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives during the Reagan Era
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Department History
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
David H. Culbert Committee Chair
John B. Henderson Committee Member
John C. Rodrigue Committee Member
Leonard N. Moore Committee Member
Carolyn Ware Dean's Representative
  • house of representatives
  • deficit and national debt
  • ronald reagan
  • tip o'neill
  • democratic party
  • jim wright
  • conservative democrats
Date of Defense 2003-07-07
Availability unrestricted
The Reagan Era featured partisan clashes, controversy over fiscal policy, and a time of trial for the Democratic Party and its claim of diversity. This dissertation examines the efforts of the House Democratic Leadership to build party unity and to enhance its operating methods in battles with the Reagan administration over fiscal policy and the future of the United States.

The House Democratic Leadership was challenged by the conservative Democrats. In 1980, the conservatives formed the Conservative Democratic Forum (CDF). Acting as a quasi-third party, the CDF was instrumental in passage of Reagan's economic program in 1981. Afterwards, the CDF was unable to maintain its coalition with Reagan and the Republicans or to act as a quasi-third party. Many conservative Democrats became disillusioned with the large deficits produced by Reaganomics. Conservative Democrats had to decide whether to work within the Democratic Party, become Republicans, or isolate themselves from influence.

Meanwhile, the House Democratic Leadership was retooling its methods. The Caucus was revived. It was used to promote discussion and find consensus among the diverse array of liberals, moderates, and conservatives. The Leadership followed a moderate approach to building party unity that encouraged, but did not compel, party loyalty. The House Democrats worked to find budget policies that could satisfy all members while simultaneously confronting the worsening fiscal crisis.

By the late 1980s, important trends had appeared. The House Democrats enjoyed greater party unity, and conservatives had found opportunities to exercise influence within the Democratic Party. The Democrats had shown a willingness to reduce popular spending and to confront the growing national debt and debt service payments. On the other hand, Reagan failed to act upon his earlier rhetoric about the need for a balanced budget and the danger of deficit spending. He failed to act as a constructive participant in the budget process for much of his administration and created a political atmosphere that inhibited fiscal responsibility. The result was a virtual tripling of the national debt and a more partisan political environment.

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