What would LBJ do?
I am almost done with Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, his magnificent biography of the years Lyndon Baines Johnson served in the United States Senate. This is the third volume of his-yet unfinished biography of the life of LBJ. This work in progress is now approximately 2500 pages long and has not even covered the years where LBJ was Vice-President and President.
All three volumes focus on Johnson’s ambition for power and leadership. Master of the Senate begins with the history of the Senate and its role in our Constitutional structure as the place where dramatic political and social change goes to die – by design. Even after Senators were directly elected, the longer terms, the rules of the Senate, the role of seniority, committee chairmanships, the ease of filibuster, and the difficulty of cloture have made the Senate a unique institution.
Caro focuses mostly on two developments in the years between 1948 and 1960 before Johnson was elected Vice-President. First, was his meteoric rise as the first (and possibly last) Senate Majority Leader to wield true power. Second, was his burning ambition to be the first Southerner to be elected President since the Civil War.
These two developments combined in Johnson’ epic struggle to pass the Civil Rights of Act of 1957. Out of burning ambition, but also a complicated attitude toward race that was different than most Southern Senators, Johnson wanted, needed, some, any, civil rights legislation to lay the foundation for a run for the White House in 1960. Passing such legislation meant a weak enough bill so the Southern Bloc (his bloc as Caro makes clear in detail) wouldn’t filibuster, and yet enough of a bill that the Republicans, Northern liberals, and Western Democrats could support. To ensure passage, and no filibuster, Johnson had to stitch together a coalition that had never been successfully created on civil rights from the Jim Crow era on.
Caro lays out the cajoling, wheeling, dealing, strong arming, and compromising in the fight for the civil rights bill as well as the complicated linkages between the civil rights bill and other legislation to obtain LBJ’s winning coalition. Among other things, Johnson brokered a deal between Western Democrats who wanted public power and conservative Southern Democrats who wanted the most watered down civil rights bill possible. The Southerners voted for a public power bill they had previously opposed, but did not filibuster the emerging civil rights bills once key changes were made. The Southerners opposed the bill on the floor and voted against it, but would never used the one weapon which could have killed it entirely. The Western Democrats got their public power (at least in the Senate) and supported watering down the civil rights bill which would not hurt them politically back home in that era. Northern Democrats eventually were reconciled to the fact that some bill was better than nothing and Southern Democrats were reconciled to the fact that some bill was inevitable.
Does this remind you of anything currently going on in the Senate? We are seeing the same type of struggle now play out in the Senate over health care reform. Only a fraction of the sausage making is taking place in public, but the same issues of power, leadership, and strategy seems to be unfolding. Some bill, any bill, will probably ultimately pass. Obviously Harry Reid is no LBJ, but the demographics of the House, Senate, and White House are different enough that something is likely to emerge.
But the issues of power, leadership, and strategy remain. Is some bill better than no bill? Is this the first step to more comprehensive reform down the road? Is the watering down of the public option to build coalitions within the Democratic Party, and perhaps a couple of Republicans, leadership, weakness, or just rent seeking? While we will never know, what would LBJ have done on health care, and will we ever see the likes of him as a legislative leader again?
Thanks to Danielle, Dan, and the rest of Concurring Opinions for the chance to blog for the month of October. I look forward to the new group of guest commentators for November including my Loyola-Chicago colleague Mike Zimmer.