Congress

09.20.12

Sorry Folks, LBJ Isn't Coming Back

Ron Brownstein questions whether any president will ever soon again emulate Lyndon Johnson's legislative success:

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.