'The aura and the halo'


Greetings from vacation. This is the latest Sunday print column, with minor tweakings and additions:


As a political junkie who got hooked in the late ‘60s, I never thought I’d see the day when people would resurrect Lyndon B. Johnson and cite him as a role model.

Back in the day, few thought well of LBJ. He got waste deep in the big muddy, and his sonorous TV demeanor made Ed Sullivan look like Elvis Presley. By the end of his tenure, he was popular only on military bases. His idea of spontaneity was to lift his shirt and show people his surgical scar. On the other hand, when it came time to get Medicare passed back in ‘65, LBJ 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 Barack 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 still 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 said the other night that 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 Max 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.” Newsweek's Eleanor Clift writes that "it's time for Obama to get in touch with his inner LBJ." Dean Baker, who runs a liberal think tank, urges Obama to “get the list of every hardball nasty political ploy” ever used by LBJ.

These people are dreaming.

Granted, one of Obama's top aides reportedly keeps an LBJ quote on her desk (the quote: "There is but one way for a president to deal with the Congress, and that is continually, incessantly, and without interruption.") But Obama and Johnson have few traits in common.

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 importantly, 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.

The historian Robert Dallek tells a great story about the time that Democratic Sen. Frank Church voted against one of Johnson’s bills. The Idaho senator 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 the 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 grassroots liberals, the doctors, the hospitals, the insurers, the lobbyists, the Blue Dogs, the bloggers, the Tweeters, the Republicans who seem more fixated on killing Obama politically than solving the health care mess...all the disputatious paraphernalia of contemporary politics.

The bottom line, often overlooked, is that health care reform is now farther in the pipeline than ever before. Obama deserves some credit for that, even though he lacks LBJ’s inside game. 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.