Enough, already, with the rose-colored invocations of LBJ. There is persistent myth afoot that if only Barack Obama could morph into arm-twisting Lyndon B. Johnson, we would dwell in a liberal nirvana and Obama would be ensconced in the pantheon of first-tier presidents.
Yeah, right. And if only frogs could fly, they wouldn’t have to hop.
The current LBJ campaign goes something like this: If only Obama had behaved this month as Johnson did back in the mid-1960s, when he wheeled and dealed and cracked congressional heads in pursuit of his Great Society agenda, then the gun reform crusade of 2013 would not have crashed and burned.
As The New York Times asserted yesterday, in a front-page story that cited LBJ, “After more than four years in the Oval Office, [Obama] has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers.” One paragraph later, LBJ biographer Robert Dallek championed his guy. He faulted Obama for not sharing Johnson’s belief that “what you need to do is back people up against a wall.”
But this nostalgia for LBJ’s inside game is fundamentally flawed, for this simple reason: Johnson had a strong wind at his back, due to unique political circumstances – and only for a very brief time. In fact, if Johnson had to operate in today’s hyper-polarized environment, he’d arguably find himself just as stymied as Obama.
During the narrow window from 1964 to 1966, Johnson cajoled his former Capitol Hill colleagues to enact some historic laws – most notably, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare – and the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s mega-biography is replete with details about the president’s hands-on approach. But Johnson was able to make the sale in part because lawmakers were anxious to fulfill the ambitions of the recently assassinated JFK. Republican lawmakers were particularly amenable, because in those days the GOP was heavily stocked with moderates who sought compromise in the national interest.
And after LBJ’s landslide election win in 1964, he enjoyed two-thirds Democratic majorities in both congressional chambers. That kind of math makes it even easier to twist arms and knock heads. Plus, he had a traditional Washington weapon that’s deemed a dirty word today: Pork.
When LBJ wanted to secure a lawmaker’s support for a bill, he’d promise to put a new federal project in the guy’s state or district; heck, he’d even ensure that the new pork was embedded somewhere in the bill. And when LBJ needed to rattle a lawmaker who seemed recalcitrant, he’d threaten to pull the plug on promised pork, or steer new pork somewhere else. One time, for instance, Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church crossed Johnson by voting against a bill that Johnson badly wanted. Church was summoned to explain himself. He told the president that he’d been influenced by Walter Lippmann, a prominent newspaper columnist who had attacked the bill. LBJ’s retort: “Frank, next time you want a dam in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it through.”
By the way, LBJ’s arm-twisting and pork-wielding didn’t work so well after 1966; Vietnam bled his clout, and he lost scores of Democrats in the ’66 midterms. And today, anyone who’s rooting for Obama to be LBJ needs to understand that if Obama tried to wield pork as a weapon, he would be mercilessly roasted in the Twitterblogcablesphere for being a king/dictator/commissar who had betrayed his promise to eradicate the old rituals of Washington. Conversely, if LBJ were around today, trying to muscle the ideologically right-wing Republicans into supporting stuff like gun reform, he’d get nowhere.
Granted, Obama hasn’t shown much interest in building strong relationships with key congressional players; he served on Capitol Hill for only four years, two of which were spent running for president, and his thinly veiled disdain is hardly a plus. But Republicans have been intransigent literally since day one – author Robert Draper has written that their decision to unanimously block Obama’s agenda was made at a dinner just hours after the first Inauguration – and Republicans have little wiggle room for cooperation, lest they be primaried on the right.
Indeed, anyone who thinks that gun reform would’ve cleared the Senate if Obama had played LBJ circa 1965 is woefully mistaken. As Robert Costa, a Washington reporter at the conservative National Review, rightly noted the other day, “I don’t think the president could have done a lot to win Republican votes” – because, thanks to the incessant pressure on the right, Republicans “have only so much room to roam.”
Even LBJ understood, at the peak of his clout in ’65, that what he called his “aura and halo” would be ephemeral. And that kind of aura is far tougher to sustain today, in a toxic environment that’s ill conducive to an inside game.
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