Issue #26, Fall 2012

The President as Pugilist

Robert Caro’s latest volume depicts Lyndon Johnson on the attack—and shows why his methods aren’t replicable today.

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.

Even presidents are not immune to this pressure for partisan conformity. Though Obama and George W. Bush each broke from his party at times, neither man challenged his base as systematically as did Bill Clinton (with NAFTA, welfare reform, and his crime bill) or even George H.W. Bush (with the 1990 budget agreement raising taxes). That suggests the parliamentary nature of congressional debate is driving presidents to behave more like prime ministers who must focus on unifying their own party to an extent that severely constrains their freedom to court the other. Needing virtually uniform loyalty from their caucus to overcome ferocious opposition from the other, presidents also are finding it more difficult to disappoint their party by rejecting its dominant view on almost any big issue. For Exhibit A, consider Obama on gay marriage, or Mitt Romney on almost any subject on which he has expressed an opinion since leaving the Massachusetts governorship in 2006. Obama—on issues from the public option in health care, to deportation of illegal immigrants, to trimming entitlements in a budget deal—has demonstrated more willingness than Romney to challenge his core coalition and respond to views beyond it. (It would be hard to demonstrate less.) But Obama’s heavy reliance in his re-election campaign on wedge issues aimed at his key constituencies (like access to contraception, student-loan rates, and legalization of young illegal immigrants), rather than a broad national message, hints that, however reluctantly, he too may have concluded that in this deeply divided time it is no longer possible to be president of much more than half of America.

The fluid legislative tactics that Caro recounts so vividly in The Passage of Power probably would not have availed Johnson much in this calcified new era. But LBJ was such an intuitive political animal that he surely would have formulated new tactics for these times. And therein may lie the real lesson in Caro’s latest volume for Obama and his successors. The most important message from LBJ’s experience may be the sheer persistence and depth of his engagement in the greasy process of passing legislation. Johnson certainly had flaws as outsized as his talents. (Caro makes clear in this book’s final pages that his portrait of LBJ, so scathing at times in the earlier volumes, won’t be pretty in his final book either.) And if the groaning shelves of biographies on presidents great and obscure teach us anything, it is that there is no single blueprint for presidential effectiveness, no set of personal qualities or suite of strategies that ensures success. But what emerges from Caro’s compelling account of Johnson’s whirlwind assumption of power is that the will to win, the determination that borders on obsession, is an indispensable quality for any president hoping to impose his authority on Congress. Few presidents can expect to match Johnson’s legislative instincts. All can learn from his resolve to find a path around, or through, every legislative obstacle he encountered. What Caro’s Johnson shows us, above all, is that even presidents don’t get what they want without getting mud on their shoes.


Issue #26, Fall 2012

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