Back in the day, few thought well of LBJ. He got waist deep in the big muddy of Vietnam, and his sonorous TV demeanor made Ed Sullivan look like Elvis Presley. On the other hand, when it came time to get Medicare passed in ’65, he had a great inside game. He sweet-talked some of the congressmen, and smacked the rest of them upside the head — the carrot, the stick, whatever it took.
That was LBJ at his best. Which is why some esteemed commentators are urging President Obama to channel the big fella in the health-care debate. The advice is understandable. Health-care reform is not just an issue; it’s a political metaphor that may well determine whether Obama succeeds or fails as president.
His quest to fix the dysfunctional system is grinding through five congressional committees, and it’s tough to tell who’s in charge. Obama has set broad goals (promote choice, cover the uninsured, control costs), but he has set no specifics on how to achieve those goals. Instead, he says he is waiting “to see what emerges from these committees,” few of which seem to agree on anything. Sometimes it seems as if we’re all hostage to the whims of a Montana senator named Baucus, whose entire state has half a million fewer people than the city of Philadelphia.
Hence, the call for Obama to seize his “Johnson moment.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the LBJ scholar, wants Obama “to take charge, to draw lines, to pressure, to threaten, to cajole,” to basically herd the cats on the Hill. Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist, has declared, “It’s time for a little LBJ,” with “some serious arm-twisting for good measure.” Dean Baker, who runs a liberal think tank, invokes LBJ and urges Obama to “get the list of every hardball nasty political ploy” that Johnson ever used.
These people are dreaming.
Johnson was a creature of Capitol Hill who had logged 23 years as a lawmaker, including a productive stint as Senate majority leader. He knew his colleagues well, he knew when to flatter or frighten. Many owed him favors; as president, he often called in his markers. Most important, Democratic lawmakers feared him. The current crop of Democrats do not fear Obama. He worked among them in the Senate for only four years and never gained any leverage, LBJ-style.
Lacking LBJ’s inside moves, Obama has gone with his outside game. His grassroots political arm, Organizing for America, has run TV ads targeting red-state Democratic senators — such as Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — urging them to support sweeping health-care reform. These Democrats aren’t exactly quaking in their boots. Conrad says, “It’s fine with me.” Landrieu says, “It really doesn’t matter to me literally one way or the other.”
Maybe LBJ could have knocked their heads together, and ordered them not to worry about deepening the deficit. But I wonder about that. In Obama’s defense, LBJ never had to deal with the kind of fiscal headaches that persist today. When Johnson was twisting arms for his Great Society agenda, the economy was booming, General Motors and other corporate behemoths were alive and well, and banks were banks. His budget issues weren’t nearly as dire as those currently afflicting Obama.
Johnson also had far stronger prevailing winds at his back; he had won a landslide election in the aftermath of the JFK assassination, and he enjoyed two-thirds majorities in both congressional chambers. And while playing his inside game — most commonly known as “the Johnson treatment,” he had a weapon that Obama dare not employ.
That’s a dirty word today; so is its synonym, the “earmark.” But back in LBJ’s heyday, that was a staple of doing business. That’s how he was able to cajole and threaten the lawmakers. When someone was dragging his feet on the Medicare bill, Johnson would promise to put a pork project in the congressman’s district; if someone crossed LBJ, he’d punish the person by canceling some pork.
There’s a great story about the time that Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho voted against one of Johnson’s bills. He told the president that he had been swayed by Walter Lippmann, an influential columnist who had attacked the bill in print. LBJ’s reply: “Frank, next time you want a dam in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it through.”
People seem to want Obama to act like LBJ, but Obama would be fried in the press if he tried anything like that. Pork is a symptom of the old Washington that Obama has vowed to change — which is fine, but let’s not forget that the tribal rituals of old Washington helped make Johnson the manipulative wheeler-dealer that he was.
With respect to health-care reform, perhaps the current congressional sausage-making would be more coherent, and perhaps the public would be more reassured, if Obama was drawing lines in the sand. Perhaps he’s being too passive and relying too much on his outside game. But even LBJ at his best would have a tough time corralling the conservative Democrats, the grassroots liberals, the doctors, the hospitals, the insurers, the lobbyists, the bloggers, the Tweeters, all the paraphernalia of contemporary politics.
The bottom line, often overlooked, is that health-care reform is now further in the pipeline than ever before. Obama may lack LBJ’s inside game, but he deserves some credit for that. And he knows that his window of opportunity won’t stay open for long, that “the aura and the halo” will inevitably “disappear.”
That was Lyndon Johnson, talking about himself in 1965. For any president, some of the basic political rhythms stay the same.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at email@example.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.
(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.