The President as Pugilist
Robert Caro’s latest volume depicts Lyndon Johnson on the attack—and shows why his methods aren’t replicable today.
Johnson assumed the presidency in the waning years of a congressional era defined by the diffusion of power. On Capitol Hill, each party was divided between distinct ideological wings. The GOP fissured between the Old Guard conservative Republicans centered in the Midwest and the more moderate Republicans clustered along the coasts; Democrats split between their almost uniformly conservative Southern wing and the more moderate and liberal members from everywhere else. Presidents in these years could rely entirely on the allegiance of fewer members of Congress than they can today; but fewer were entirely beyond their reach on all issues. Everything that happened in Washington in this period—which stretched roughly from the defeat of FDR’s court-packing scheme through Johnson’s passage of the Great Society legislation in 1965 and 1966—required arduous negotiations among these disparate groups; that’s why, in my 2007 book The Second Civil War, I termed this period “the age of bargaining.”
Washington’s most powerful force over this quarter century was the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Old Guard Republicans; the Republicans helped the Dixiecrats block civil-rights legislation and the Dixiecrats helped the Republicans block almost any other domestic federal initiative. This informal alliance (Republican leader Robert Taft and Russell, as Johnson himself observed, ruled the Senate “with a wink and a nod”) was first among equals in Washington’s fractured political alignment and proved an impenetrable wall against Kennedy’s initiatives (just as it had against almost all of Harry Truman’s). But the conservative coalition was more effective at blocking liberal priorities than promoting its own; it could not uniformly impose its will. No single faction could.
What allowed Johnson to master this world (to borrow from the title of Caro’s incomparable previous volume) was his ability to combine and recombine elements from these four competing groups to construct legislative majorities. The victories that Caro recounts in this book, of course, are just the overture for Johnson’s extraordinary successes in 1965 and 1966 when he drove through Congress an agenda that included Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, education reform, environmental and auto-safety initiatives, and immigration reform that catalyzed the profound demographic change now reshaping America.
Johnson’s path, obviously, was smoothed by the huge Democratic House and Senate majorities that he swept into power with his 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater. But it is a key point that all of LBJ’s legislative triumphs, both in 1964 and 1965, attracted significant Republican support. As Caro reminds us, Johnson could not have broken the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act without the support of 27 Senate Republicans, who outvoted 23 Southern Democrats supporting it. Nearly half of both House and Senate Republicans voted to create Medicare—less than a year after Ronald Reagan, in his 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, decried it as a step toward socialism.
This is where Johnson’s relevance to our time becomes more questionable. It’s not clear that today any amount of persuasion and inducement could convince a congressional leader from the party opposite the president to do what Halleck did on the Civil Rights Act: help that president (even tacitly) advance his highest legislative priority. Today’s quasi-parliamentary congressional system features the highest level of party-line voting since the late nineteenth century and shrinking tolerance in each party (but especially in the GOP) for legislators who cross party lines.
That means any president pursuing bipartisan agreements must scale walls vastly higher than Johnson faced. Obama may not have Johnson’s talent for “reading” men (as Caro so memorably puts it), but he did defy great political pressure from his left to allow Senator Max Baucus three months in the summer of 2009 to try to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on health-care reform with Senate Finance Republicans led by Chuck Grassley; that effort cratered soon after a conservative Iowa state legislator suggested that Grassley would face a primary challenge if he compromised with Baucus. Ultimately, of course, health-care reform passed without support from a single Republican in either chamber—and even after its Supreme Court validation faces unstinting resistance not only from the congressional GOP but Republican governors and the party’s allied interest groups.
Against such ferocity, would even Johnson-level persuasion make much difference? Can anyone imagine “the treatment”—Johnson’s famous tactic of leaning his 6-foot-4-inch frame into his targets, as if to envelop them—converting Eric Cantor or Mitch McConnell? Politics today is steadily evolving into a team sport that reduces the latitude of any elected leader to set an independent course. Throughout American history, the great legislators like Johnson (or Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, Bob Dole, or Ted Kennedy) left their mark by assembling disparate coalitions that would not have existed without them. But that sort of personal initiative is almost extinct in our increasingly parliamentary system, which imposes enormous pressure on legislators to support their party’s consensus—and subjects them to an escalating series of sanctions (culminating in primary challenges) when they don’t. Today the two parties line up against each other in Congress with the lockstep regularity of nineteenth-century armies, and those who venture into the DMZ between them, precisely the landscape where Johnson worked his wizardry, can expect to be shot at rather than greeted as peacemakers.
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