Doers and Dreamers: LBJ Versus Bernie Sanders

LBJ giving Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) “The Treatment.”

LBJ giving Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) “The Treatment.”

It is pretty easy to articulate a goal or a dream in a political speech and to call for a "political revolution." It is much harder to translate those goals and dreams into political reality. It takes a rare combination of intelligence, rhetorical skills, encyclopedic knowledge of the political process and the players in that process, and courage to get the job done. President Lyndon Baines Johnson came to the presidency in 1963 with all of those attributes, having learned how to manipulate the levers of power during the 1950s as the most effective Senate majority leader in American history. The result was the passage of a body of legislation in a four-year period of time that was revolutionary and simply breathtaking in its scope. As his special assistant to domestic affairs Joseph Califano once said, "By the numbers the legacy of Lyndon Johnson is monumental. It exceeds in domestic impact even the New Deal of his idol, Franklin Roosevelt. It sets him at the cutting edge of the progressive tradition."

In 1964, LBJ initiated a political revolution by embarking upon his "Great Society" program. The former teacher of poor Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas said to Congress: "It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them from all over this country. But now I do have that chance-- and I'll let you in on a secret-- I mean to use it."  And use it he did. When Johnson left the Oval Office in 1969, his cabinet gave him a desk blotter on which were listed the titles of 300 major laws passed under his administration, including the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Medicare in 1965. In addition, LBJ passed another 700 minor laws. The scope and sweep of this legislative action was stunning, particularly in light of our modern political landscape of obstructionism and gridlock. Major initiatives in health care, immigration, space exploration, education, and the environment all passed. Upon passage of the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King said to Johnson, "You have created a second emancipation." Congressman John Lewis has said, "I think Lyndon Johnson did more to free, to liberate Black America than anyone since Abraham Lincoln." The National Geographic Society has called him "our greatest conservation president."

A large and physically intimidating presence, President Johnson was a political genius who knew how to use power to build consensus even in the face of segregationist congressmen and senators from the South within his own party. Those reluctant to follow his lead were subjected to the "Johnson Treatment" as described by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak:

“The Treatment” could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself—wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made “The Treatment” an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.” (The photo above shows LBJ giving Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) “The Treatment.”)

Johnson’s biographer Robert Caro has said, "He was...the lawmaker for the poor and the downtrodden and the oppressed...the President who wrote mercy and justice into the statute books by which America was governed." LBJ knew that political capital gained from an election or from tragedies such as the assassinations of Kennedy and King could be quickly lost. Therefore, one of his frequent sayings to his aides and allies in Congress was, "Do it now. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Not later today. Now." As Joseph A. Califano stated in his beautiful remembrance of LBJ on the occasion of the centennial of Johnson's birth, "To LBJ government was a mighty wrench to open the fountain of opportunity so that everyone could bathe in the shower of our nation's blessings."

When LBJ called for a "political revolution" with his "Great Society" programs, he had the personal history and proven legislative skills to make that revolution credible and to translate that call for change into meaningful legislative action. In modern parlance, he had the "street cred" to get the job done. It is instructive, therefore, to examine the personal legislative history of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is calling for a "political revolution" to see if, like LBJ, he packs the gear to get the job done.

So far the means by which a Sanders political revolution will be effected is vague and uncertain. Will millennials descend on Washington D.C. with "Feel the Bern!" signs and expect Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to fall into line? Does anyone think that will work? The House of Representatives currently has a Republican majority of 247. Since numerous Republican state legislatures have gerrymandered their House districts to heavily favor Republicans, how will any of the expensive Sanders initiatives get off of the ground, as all spending bills must start in the House? It is a well-recognized fact that 96% of Congressional incumbents get re-elected. No one who handicaps the 2016 House elections sees the Republicans as losing their majority there. A similar situation exists in the Senate, though the retention of a Republican majority there is not quite as certain. What's the game plan for revolutionary change in the Sanders fantasy playbook?

Furthermore, a savvy politician running for President realizes that helping other candidates in your party get elected helps cement influence for you when you take office. The Clinton campaign has so far directed over $18 million toward the election of Democrats to Congress. The Sanders campaign? Zero. All Democratic members of Congress are designated "super-delegates" at the convention by long-standing party rules. They constitute about 20% of the convention delegates and can easily tip the balance in a close race. To whom will these super-delegates be more loyal? A candidate who has generously helped them with the finances in their campaigns or one who has given them nothing? Think about it. Is this naiveté on the part of the Sanders campaign or simple ignorance due to the fact that Bernie is a recent convert to the Democratic party? Do you think a savvy politician like LBJ would be ignorant of the need to court super-delegates? These are fair questions to ask a presidential candidate. So far the naiveté and ignorance of party rules by the Sanders campaign and the hard mathematical reality of a certain Republican majority in the House and a likely one in the Senate do not inspire confidence that he can pull off a political revolution.

Is there a documented "Sanders Treatment" similar to the "Johnson Treatment" that we don't know about? Does the-soon-to-be 75 –year-old senator from Vermont have the physical presence and rhetorical skills to cajole and persuade legislators to see things his way? He is apparently lacking here as well. He has authored 383 bills in over 25 years in Congress. Three of these became law-,two of which renamed post offices in Vermont.  (Danville and Fair Haven) Impressive? Sanders, like practically everyone in Congress, has proposed amendments to bills that have become laws, but a truer measure of legislative effectiveness is to author legislation and see it become law—that is what Presidents do!

Speaking about revolutionary change is one thing; effecting it is another. Were it not for the Vietnam War, Lyndon Baines Johnson would go down in history as one of the most accomplished Presidents of all time. He was the last Democrat to translate lofty, idealistic rhetoric for change into widespread meaningful action that has transformed society. He brought to the presidency a personal history of legislative accomplishment that was extraordinary; moreover, he possessed an array of personal skills and character traits that uniquely qualified him to effect a political revolution. As Americans we live with a constitutional system that the political scientist Richard Hofstadter once famously described as " a harmonious system of mutual frustration." Its system of checks and balances discourages rapid change, so to effect a political revolution as LBJ did is not easy to do at all and requires a special individual with a unique skill set to get the job done. Anyone running for President who is calling for a "political revolution" should explain to the voters just how he plans to effect such widespread change, given the political realities in Congress and the built-in institutional framework that blunts wholesale change. It should be obvious that just as ( in the words of Senator Lioyd Bentsen) Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy, Bernie Sanders is no Lyndon B. Johnson.

The issue of idealism versus reality has been beautifully summarized by Paul Krugman in a NYT op-ed piece entitled "How Change Happens" on January 22nd of this year: 

“The point is that while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like F.D.R., you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.
Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.”

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