Last week, the New York Times published an interesting op-ed from a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, Joseph Califano, who presents Johnson’s ability to bully and cajole Congress into supporting his agenda as a possible template for President Obama:
In other words, Johnson won because he knew Capitol Hill’s pressure points. Like a great general, he understood the difference between tactics (the private promise, the discreet promise) and strategy (the order of bills, his legislative goals) and he understood how to make them work together.
Today the White House confronts a similar need to raise the debt limit and eventually increase taxes, alongside demands that domestic spending be sharply reduced. True, Mr. Obama faces a more divided Congress and an unemployment rate more than double that of 1967, but not the kinds of divisions over race and war that prompted Johnson not to seek re-election.
Mr. Obama would be wise to look to the fiscal battles of 1967 and 1968 for inspiration. To slay his own political Cerberus without savaging social programs will take a similar measure of commitment, political wiliness and courage.
This doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Johnson managed to get a tremendous portion of his agenda through Congress, but that has less to do with powers of persuasion, and more to do with the structure of Congress and the party system writ large. In 1964, the parties were loosely organized and ideologically diverse, with a noticeable absence of party discipline. Southern conservative Democrats stood against Northern liberal Democrats, who often built alliances with Northern liberal Republicans. Likewise, those conservative Democrats were willing to make common cause with Western libertarian Republicans and others on the opposite side of the aisle.
What’s more, certain Congressional rules that we now take for granted—the routine supermajority requirement for legislation—simply didn’t exist in the 1960s. Filibusters were rare, and most legislation (with the notable exception of civil rights legislation) passed with simple majorities. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the political circumstances of Johnson’s presidency; the early part of his agenda was presented as the legacy of an assassinated president, and while this didn’t guarantee passage, it certainly didn’t hurt.
It’s undoubtedly true that Johnson’s political persona was useful to guiding particular pieces of legislation through Congress. But for the whole of his agenda, we have to look to the circumstances of his presidency—and the institutional norms he worked within—if we want to explain his success. Put another way, if the institutional norms of 2009 matched those of 1967, then Barack Obama would be hailed as one of the country’s great liberal presidents. With those norms in place, the Obama administration could have passed an extremely robust stimulus, a strong public option for healthcare (or even single-payer) and legislation to address climate change. Raising the debt limit wouldn’t be a problem, at all, if simple majorities were the rule, and the parties were both ideologically diverse and willing to cooperate.
One last thing: Johnson’s bullying was not cost-free. As a result of his tactics, Johnson was virtually shunned from Washington in his short post-presidency. Johnson alienated Congressional allies, and had he served a second term, his administration would have suffered for it. If anything, Obama should look to Lyndon Johnson for example of what not to do in pursuing an agenda.