With the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, there’s a danger pundits are going to resume a tired complaint: Why can't President Barack Obama twist arms the way Lyndon Baines Johnson did?
Fortunately, there’s some pre-emptive pushback. Paul Waldman points out that today’s circumstances are different; Clay Risen argues that Senator Hubert Humphrey and many others had more important roles than Johnson in the Civil Rights Act; and Ryan Lizza makes the case that presidential persuasion, including Johnson’s, is usually overrated (see more here).
These are excellent and necessary corrections. My favorite is from Andrew Sprung: “When I hear nostalgia (at O's expense) for LBJ's `cross me & you die' ways, I think of Christie.”
Once we get past the fairy tales and look at the limited effects of Johnson’s bullying style, we understand that intimidation might work in the short run, but has important long-term costs. For one thing, presidents need information, and intimidation isn’t always the best way to get it. Even the most careful presidents find it hard to get people to tell them bad news. Wouldn't it be harder if bullying and humiliation are added to the price?
It’s also true that humiliating those who aren't personally dependent on you (for example, people in the bureaucracy or in Congress) isn't the best way to earn long-term loyalty. Certainly, when things went bad for Johnson, they went really bad. It’s hard to draw direct connections between his style and, say, the willingness of senators from his party to run against him -- just as it’s hard to draw direct connections between his style and the specific choices of those who supported him. But his style probably didn’t help, and it may have been a significant reason elites turned against him.
There’s a tendency among Johnson supporters to see the war as separate from the good parts of his presidency. At its worst, that thinking comes close to a claim that Vietnam was something that happened to Johnson, while historic legislation is something that he made happen. But even if Johnson is assigned proper blame for the war, it’s still separated out. That probably is wrong; the traits that helped Johnson do well in some contexts were poisonous in others, and it’s not clear that one could have the good without the bad.
To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.
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