the moment and the genius

the moment and the genius

When one thinks of our national politics today, often the first word that comes to mind is gridlock. It seems beyond impossible to get Congress to “do its job.” There is a massive battle taking place between two competing visions of American government, and it is a war of attrition. The result is that few things of substance ever get done. But has it always been this way? Are we today victims of a do-nothing political class? Are the Washington elite a greedy, status-hungry bastardization of what used to be a noble and principled class of the best and the brightest?

The short answer is a resounding “no.” Polarization has been a huge factor at other times in our history, and there is a lot to be learned from looking back at some of those times in which a polarized Congress was able to pass important legislation. Examples abound: The Great Compromise of the Constitutional Congress; the 31st Congress, and the Compromise of 1850; the vaunted “100 days” of the 73rd Congress are all excellent examples. Another example worthy of close study is the years of the 89th Congress and LBJ’s Great Society.

Out of a period of Congressional gridlock that stymied almost the entirety of John F. Kennedy’s agenda grew one of the most fertile and meaningful Congresses in American history. “The fabulous 89th” was the result of the crisis of JFK’s assassination, the crescendo of the civil rights movement and the ascension of the legislative genius Lyndon Johnson.

This story is on display in Julian E. Zelizer’s new book, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society. It is a story not just of LBJ and his role in bringing about the dizzying slew of legislation that was the Great Society, but of the environment in which these laws were passed, and the other men that played indispensable supporting roles. Rather than submitting to the American habit of making a story all about a single man on a personal crusade, Zelizer attempts to explain that the instrumental factor was the political environment in which these events took place and LBJ’s finely honed ability to seize it (as opposed to creating it) that made the difference. Thus, LBJ is one actor amongst many others: Martin Luther King, Jr., Everett Dirksen, JFK, Barry Goldwater, Howard Smith, Emanuel Celler, and Richard B. Russel to name a few.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 becomes law

This approach is instructive: Zelizer helps the reader to understand that when Congress does pass legislation, it is never the result of a single person’s competence, it is often the result of a whole host of factors that in their aggregate result in the passage of laws.

LBJ was the first to acknowledge this. Zelizer describes how, the very evening of the assassination of JFK, Johnson sat up late into the night with his advisers mapping out his legislative agenda, masterfully prioritizing each reform in a way that would maximize their chances of becoming law. A few months later, he explained to his adviser Bill Moyers:

“Bill, I’ve just been figuring out how much time we would have to do what we want to do. I really intend to finish Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution… let’s assume that we have to do it all in 1965 and 1966, and probably in 1966 we’ll lose our big margin in the Congress. That means in 1967 and 1968 there will be a hell of a fight.”

This was the first and primary element of his genius: realizing that the moment was right for a liberal revolution and seizing upon it. Johnson’s first action was to pass an essential tax cut bill that Southern lawmakers had been holding hostage in committee. Indeed, this would circumvent one of their primary strategies for stopping civil rights laws. Since they held many of the most important chairmanships in the House and the Senate, they were able to prevent consideration of any other bills by those committees until the proposed civil rights bill was removed from consideration by those who had brought it forth.

Prior to his death, Kennedy had decided against proposing civil rights legislation for fear of losing the South’s support for his reelection in 1964, in addition to the fact that if he proposed strong action on civil rights before achieving his other priorities, his legislative agenda would stall completely. Despite his caution, this is exactly what happened: the civil rights movement demanded action and forced his hand, to the detriment of his essential tax cut bill. This was where things stood in November 1963.

Johnson realized that it was absolutely essential to pass Kennedy’s tax bill before passage of any civil rights act. This would remove a vital weapon from the South’s arsenal. Once he had secured passage of the tax bill, Johnson was able to tell Congress that there was no other legislation on the agenda. They could debate the civil rights act of 1964 until kingdom come; there would be no essential legislation to hold hostage.

It worked. Following a 60 day filibuster, the votes for cloture were secured and the bill was subsequently passed.

Johnson quickly turned his attention to passing an anti-poverty bill. His Economic Opportunity Act would set up so-called Community Action Agencies that would administer locally-designed anti-poverty plans. The people in those neighborhoods that administered aid would have a say in how the program worked. The bill also established the Job Corps a job training program for young people and a domestic version of the Peace Corps.

Johnson knew that this was his chance to create an issue on which he could distinguish himself from both his predecessor and his opponent in the 1964 election. He was able to pass the bill by relying on the “strong-arm” tactics of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, and by convincing Southern lawmakers to vote for the bill. The latter task was achieved simply by virtue of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prior to the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act. This removed any concern that the bill may have threatened segregation policies. Many Southern lawmakers supported extra help for the rural poor in their districts so they voted for the bill.

With his own bill safely passed into law, Johnson could now rightly interpret the results of the 1964 election as either a rejection or an endorsement of his policies by the American public. His landslide victory, coupled with large new liberal Democratic majorities in the House and Senate ensured that his Great Society was to bear much more fruit.

Johnson realized that his moment had been extended, but knew that it wouldn’t last for long. He knew that “every day that I will be in office, I will be losing some of my ability to convert that victory into legislative reality.” Zelizer points out that “Johnson’s approach to legislating included far more than his famous Treatment.” He set himself to the task of near constant negotiation with everyone involved, offering deals and compromises all along the way. Large Democratic majorities would help him pass federal aid to education, and a national health insurance program would be possible if Southern conservative Democrats were allowed to take the lead in designing the program. Also, the civil rights movement would again provide the pressure to help him pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Thus the 89th Congress help LBJ to realize his dreams of creating a new New Deal. In total, some 20 pieces of major legislation were passed, many of which still are in effect to this day. However, as Johnson himself predicted, events would eventually catch up to stifle his agenda. Rioting in the Summer of 1965, widespread concern over the rising budget deficits associated with Great Society programs, and controversy over the Vietnam war were all working against him.

The 1966 election showed that the party was over. The result sent a clear message that voters were concerned about the war and inflation. Deficit reduction fever took hold across the political spectrum and Johnson realized he had no choice but to increase taxes and cut spending. After many months of exhausting negotiations, Johnson was forced to capitulate, and the Great Society’s great run of successes came to an end with the Revenue and Expenditure Control Act of 1968.

There are so many lessons to be learned here that can provide a better perspective from which to view today’s political arena. Johnson’s example shows that a President must seize the moment when he can to enact his agenda. No matter how vaunted his skills of personal persuasion may have been, Johnson knew that by 1966 his moment was all but over, regardless of how much Treatment he doled out. But he also had a sixth sense for exactly how far to demand and how much to compromise. Passing laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 require working across the aisle with an uncompromising fervor, while others require a willing to compromise with members of Congress within the party.

Dealing with intransigence in Congress often required direct negotiations with his opponents. Anyone who has visited the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas and listened to the phone conversations that LBJ held with his political opponents can attest to his skill in this area. Working with Congress is a process that must take place every day, and the weight of the President’s voice must be heard by all taking part in the process. Also, Johnson shows that making deals and offering quid pro quos is the business of politics, not corruption.

If anything else, the events described in Zelizer’s book show that it’s not just the people we have in Washington that can make things happen or not. It requires a genius like Johnson to be in the right position at the right moment.

While Zelizer’s book is not the most inspiring in terms of style, the message is so prescient for today’s environment. He says it best himself near the end of his book:

“Only if we understand how political landscapes change and can be changed will we ever have a chance of breaking the current gridlock in Washington.”

President Obama entered office with a mandate. The Great Recession was a sufficiently serious crisis that he could have worked with Congress to enact far-reaching bipartisan legislation. But he has consistently showed that he is no legislative genius. His failure to enact a “grand bargain” on entitlement reform and his refusal to take into account any Republican input in his efforts on health care reform show this to be the case.

Although it is often the case that the creation of a legislative “moment” requires a crisis, this is not always the case. Sometimes a movement, like the civil rights movement or the conservative movement of the 1980s, can create enough sentiment to make bipartisan action possible. But however it is created, the moment must be seized, and this requires a certain level of genius in the White House.

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