LBJ, Where are You Now When the Democrats Need You?

Dick Hughes and LBJ.

The logjam within the Democratic Party involving President Joe Biden and the differing factions of Congressional Democrats regarding enactment of his brick-and-mortar and social infrastructure packages is already having a serious negative impact, domestic and foreign.  This is especially true with regard to both 1) Democratic fortunes in the forthcoming Tuesday gubernatorial election in Virginia; and 2) Biden’s ability to project world leadership at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) scheduled to begin in Glasgow, Scotland on Monday, November 1.

The problem for Joe Biden is one of image.  I am a Biden supporter, but at present, he looks like the student teacher who can’t keep and control the class.  At the Climate Conference, this will definitely affect his credibility in importuning foreign leaders to reduce emissions when he himself appears unable to deliver.

The domestic political impact of the Biden quagmire in Election 2021 is a bit more complex.

With the exception of the 1973 New Jersey gubernatorial election, in which the Watergate scandal, particularly the Saturday Night Massacre, resulted in an overwhelming landslide for Democrat Brendan Byrne over Republican Charles Sandman, adverse developments for a  president have rarely had even a marginal impact on New Jersey gubernatorial races.

Phil Murphy is headed for a victory over GOP candidate Jack Ciattarelli approaching or perhaps exceeding double digits.  The Biden quagmire will not affect Democratic turnout or Murphy’s margin at all.

The situation is markedly different with regard to this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race.  Virginia has a large number of voters, particularly in Northern Virginia who are also federal employees.  The Biden situation has a major effect on their voting decision.  It also has resulted in a significant decline in enthusiasm among Democratic voters for their party, which will undoubtedly affect turnout.

I continue to predict that at some point prior to New Year’s Day, 2022, Biden and the various Democratic players, including leadership in both the House and Senate, the Progressives, and the recalcitrant Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) will reach a compromise agreement.  The media focus will at that point not be on what Biden has given up, but rather the historic level of spending on both brick-and-mortar and social infrastructure and the unprecedented increased level of federal activity in all areas of the domestic economy and the safety net.

The late famous economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, wrote various tomes and treatises on the theme of “private affluence and public squalor.”  The proposed expansion of the public sector under Biden exceeds the fondest Galbraithian dreams.  Once both infrastructure packages are enacted and shovels are in the ground, Biden’s popularity ratings will massively increase.

All this will be too late for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe.  The trend has been running against McAuliffe and in favor of Republican Glenn Youngkin for months now, and Terry desperately needed a bill signing on or before Election Day, enacting either one, or preferably both, infrastructure packages.  He didn’t get it, and the outlook now is for a Youngkin victory.

During recent days, I have found the prospect of a Youngkin victory to be repulsive, given his racist dog-whistles, especially with regard to his depiction of the Toni Morrison classic, Beloved.

Although I am hardly a Terry McAuliffe fan, I hoped and prayed for a pre-election day enactment of a Biden infrastructure package that would elect him as governor and deny a victory to Youngkin.  As that prospect faded, I became consumed by one historical thought.  If Lyndon Johnson were involved in this scenario, either as president or Democratic Majority Leader of the Senate, he damned well would have made sure that a compromise was reached and both infrastructure packages in satisfactory form would have already been enacted.

If any of you doubt me, please immediately order all four of the books in the Robert Caro biographical series on Lyndon B. Johnson and concentrate on the third volume, Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate.

His way of gaining a commitment to vote a certain way on a bill often consisted of non-physical, non-verbal intimidation that simply involved the brandishing of his reputation.

Democratic Senators knew two facts regarding Johnson.  First, he controlled the distribution to Democratic Senators of political contributions of certain campaign donor constituencies, most notably oil companies.  Any Senator who failed to follow Johnson’s lead could incur an inadequacy of campaign funds.

Second, LBJ as Senate Democratic Majority leader maintained autocratic control of the legislative agenda.  A recalcitrant Senator who failed to follow Johnson’s legislative lead would more often than not find that none of his or her important legislative bills. would ever be posted for a vote.

As Senate Democratic Majority leader, LBJ’s effective utilization of these two powers made him the most effective Senate leader of either party in American history.  And as president, he continued to maintain autocratic power over 1) the legislative agenda through his use of the veto power and 2) the legislative campaign purse through his control of the Democratic National Committee and its influence over various donor constituencies.

LBJ.  Lyndon Baines Johnson.  I have more ambivalence about him than any of our other presidents.

He was the most skilled and effective legislative leader in American history, both as President and Senate Democratic Majority Leader, in effectuating the enactment of landmark, historic legislation,

He was also a strange mixture of magnificent goodness and appalling amorality.

He could be cruel and vulgar in the extreme to his aides.  LBJ was known to force members of his staff to meet with him in conference while he was sitting on a toilet.  I would rather have worked for the abusive late owner of the New York Yankees, George M. Steinbrenner than submit to this Johnson treatment.

LBJ’s amorality resulted in totally corrupt self-dealing on his part, the classic example being his procurement of a radio, and later a television station from the FCC.  Lyndon Johnson was indeed a most greedy man.

And yet, he also was a man of supremely noble purpose.  He used his legislative leadership talent to enact measures that made a huge improvement in the quality of American life.

It is said that watching the legislative process is liking watching the making of sausage.  The involvement of LBJ’s powers of the campaign purse and the legislative agenda often made watching the legislative process fascinating and repulsive at the same time.  Yet in the end, the final legislative sausage produced under the Johnson suzerainty was indeed magnificent.  The two classic examples were Medicare and the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s.

Every time I receive outstanding medical care, as an American senior citizen, I express gratitude to LBJ for the passage of Medicare.

As one whose political passion is the attainment of racial social justice, I will forever be indebted personally to Lyndon Johnson for the three most significant acts of civil rights legislation acts since Reconstruction, namely the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 (public accommodations), 1965 (voting rights), and 1968 (housing).

Often political friends of mine have challenged the notion that the Johnson method could have worked in this era of social media and the proliferation of various new donor constituencies.  My answer is that with his powers of the legislative campaign purse and the legislative agenda, Johnson could have overcome these obstacles easily.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal a most significant factor that influences my high regard for LBJ.  My Jewish heritage and Judaism define my entire life, and LBJ was the best friend the Jews have ever had in the White House.

During the period leading up to the onset of the Second World War and before the Holocaust, in 1938 and 1939, LBJ led an illegal, covert operation known as Operation Texas that successfully enabled hundreds of European Jews to evade immigration laws and quotas and covertly enter the United States through Cuba, Mexico, and South America.  When asked why he was willing to risk going to jail in order to save European Jewish refugees, Johnson replied by noting his paternal family’s membership in the Christadelphian church, which taught that Jews were the Chosen People and that one would be judged in the next world by the way he or she treated Jews in this world.

Later as president, LBJ continued his remarkable brotherhood with Jewry by literally ensuring the continued survival of the State of Israel.  When France, Israel’s then primary supplier of military equipment cut off assistance to Israel after the 1967 Six Day June War, America under Johnson’s leadership furnished the Jewish State with the offensive weaponry, including tanks, and fighter jets that enabled Israel to maintain its continuing national security.

Yes, I am well aware that Johnson’s role in the Vietnam War will always cloud the LBJ legacy of monumental domestic accomplishment.  But how can I not revere his memory in view of what he did to assist Jewish survival throughout the world?

And there is no question that at this time of disarray in the Democratic Party, LBJ’s presence as a national leader is missed more than ever before.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission

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4 responses to “LBJ, Where are You Now When the Democrats Need You?”

  1. Ah, yes. LBJ. The man that brought us gems like “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” and “I want real loyalty. I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy’s window, and say it smells like roses.” and who can forget “I’ll have those n**gers voting Democratic for the next 200 years.”

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