House Republicans were in the minority for the entire 38 years of Michel’s career, and in some people’s eyes his tenure was defined by it: Newt Gingrich, whose political maneuvers essentially forced Michel into retirement in 1994, saw his behavior as minority leader as too accommodating.
But that’s a facile dismissal of Michel’s performance. Given the state of the party and the the mood of the country during his tenure, no amount of obstinacy or aggression was going to deliver a GOP majority in Congress. Until Ronald Reagan won in 1980 the party’s nominees during Michel’s tenure consisted of Richard Nixon (three times), Barry Goldwater, and a wounded Gerald Ford. Combine these candidates with a somnolent party apparatus and a congressional map drawn by Democrats in most states, and the result was a virtually unassailable Democratic congressional majority.
When Michel became the minority leader in 1981, the Republicans in Congress managed to achieve several victories with Ronald Reagan, including passing the Kemp‐Roth tax cuts and ushering in a military build‐up that ultimately helped to bring down the Soviet Union.
Michel also played an understated but important role in the bipartisan tax reform of 1986. His close relationship with fellow Illinois representative Dan Rostenkowski — the two would carpool back and forth to their home state for congressional recesses — helped him get the Ways and Means chairman on board with Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Packwood’s tax plan.
The legislative achievements during the Reagan and early Bush administrations in the face of a House controlled by Democrats are difficult to comprehend in this day. While it’s true that things are much more partisan these days, Michel deserves credit for navigating through that environment with an understated deftness.
Michel probably left the political stage at the right time. He wasn’t the guy for a political environment that eschews bipartisan cooperation, and punching Democrats on the nightly news on a regular basis would have pained him.