Nine was a small enough number to allow absolute secrecy in negotiations, as well as an intimate setting, in the home of Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker. Most importantly, the hardliners on both sides, including Pepper, were simply excluded. The key participants in these discussions were Baker, speaking as the trusted envoy of President Reagan, and Robert Ball, longtime veteran of the Social Security Administration and, on the Commission, O’Neill’s most trusted point man. They proved capable of mutual respect and achieved a strong working relationship.
Why not just stick Reagan and O’Neill across the table from each other, then, perhaps flanked by their respective lieutenants? The devil is in the details, and each side’s top man might have missed subtleties just when they mattered most. In the event, the key breakthrough was discovering a provision that both sides could count as a win. Working privately, Ball and Baker discovered that Democrats would regard a move to tax benefits for high earners as a tax increase, while Republicans would regard it as a benefit reduction, which made the change an ideal keystone for a deal that balanced tax increases and budget cuts. Each side could feel it got a bit more than half of the pie. Whatever their golf course rapport may have been, it would have been difficult for Reagan and O’Neill to know how to accommodate each other’s sides in this way, even if their egos had allowed them to do so.