The nation recently recognized the 50th anniversary of President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, which in turn sparked a related conversation about presidents, breakthrough accomplishments, and whether they’re a thing of the past.
Peter Baker asked, for example, whether it’s still “even possible for a president to do big things anymore.” The usual suspects said President Obama could have more of the landmark legislative victories LBJ achieved if only he schmoozed more, led harder, and bent Congress to his will.
LIke many of us, Norm Ornstein is tired of this, and returned to the subject this week because he felt “compelled to whack this mole once more.” I’m glad he did.
I do understand the sentiment here and the frustration over the deep dysfunction that has taken over our politics. It is tempting to believe that a president could overcome the tribalism, polarization, and challenges of the permanent campaign, by doing what other presidents did to overcome their challenges. It is not as if passing legislation and making policy was easy in the old days.But here is the reality, starting with the Johnson presidency…. [H]is drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by having the momentum following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the partnership of Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bill McCullough, detailed beautifully in new books by Clay Risen and Todd Purdum. And Johnson was aided substantially in 1965-66 by having swollen majorities of his own party in both chambers of Congress – 68 of 100 senators, and 295 House members, more than 2-to-1 margins.
This is very much in line with what we talked about two weeks ago: those who want to know whether presidents can still do big things are making a mistake if they focus solely on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Some of the most important legislative accomplishments of this generation happened between 2009 and 2010, in part because of Obama’s leadership, and in part because Congress was eager to govern.
The political process collapsed in 2011, not because the president schmoozed less or forgot how to get things done, but because power changed hands on Capitol Hill.
Ornstein pushed this observation further, in ways journalists – at National Journal and elsewhere – need to understand.
Ronald Reagan was a master negotiator, and he has the distinction of having two major pieces of legislation, tax reform and immigration reform, enacted in his second term, without the overwhelming numbers that Johnson enjoyed in 1965-66. What Reagan did have, just like Johnson had on civil rights, was active and eager partners from the other party. The drive for tax reform did not start with Reagan, but with Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt, whose reform bill became the template for the law that ultimately passed. They, and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, were delighted to make their mark in history (and for Bradley and Gephardt, to advance their presidential ambitions) by working with the lame-duck Republican president. The same desire to craft transformative policy was there for both Alan Simpson and Ron Mazzoli, a Senate Republican and a House Democrat, who put together immigration legislation with limited involvement by the White House.As for Bill Clinton, he was as politically adept as any president in modern times, and as charismatic and compelling as anyone. But the reality is that these great talents did not convince a single Republican to support his economic plan in 1993, nor enough Democrats to pass the plan for a crucial seven-plus months; did not stop the Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich from shutting down the government twice; and did not stop the House toward the end of his presidency from impeaching him on shaky grounds, with no chance of conviction in the Senate. The brief windows of close cooperation in 1996, after Gingrich’s humiliation following the second shutdown, were opened for pragmatic, tactical reasons by Republicans eager to win a second consecutive term in the majority, and ended shortly after they had accomplished that goal.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. Presidents can achieve great things when they work with policymakers interested in constructive policymaking. As Ornstein added, “LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none. Nothing that he could have done would have changed the clear, deliberate policy of Republicans uniting to oppose and obstruct his agenda, that altered long-standing Senate norms to use the filibuster in ways it had never been employed before, including in the LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton eras, that drew sharp lines of total opposition on policies like health reform and raising taxes as part of a broad budget deal.”
It’s not about schmoozing. It’s not golfing. It has nothing to do with compromise or the ferocity of one’s leadership skills. Presidents can do Jedi mind tricks on Congress and co-equal branches can force their will on others through some amorphous combination of persuasion and will power.
Pundits who needlessly argue otherwise need to grow up, understand institutional limits, and read Norm Ornstein.