As a political junkie who got hooked in the late ’60s, I never thought I’d see the day when people would resurrect Lyndon B. Johnson and cite him as a role model.
Back in the day, few thought well of LBJ. He got waist deep in the big muddy of Vietnam, and his sonorous TV demeanor made Ed Sullivan look like Elvis Presley. On the other hand, when it came time to get Medicare passed in ’65, he had a great inside game. He sweet-talked some of the congressmen, and smacked the rest of them upside the head — the carrot, the stick, whatever it took.
That was LBJ at his best. Which is why some esteemed commentators are urging President Obama to channel the big fella in the health-care debate. The advice is understandable. Health-care reform is not just an issue; it’s a political metaphor that may well determine whether Obama succeeds or fails as president.
His quest to fix the dysfunctional system is grinding through five congressional committees, and it’s tough to tell who’s in charge. Obama has set broad goals (promote choice, cover the uninsured, control costs), but he has set no specifics on how to achieve those goals. Instead, he says he is waiting “to see what emerges from these committees,” few of which seem to agree on anything. Sometimes it seems as if we’re all hostage to the whims of a Montana senator named Baucus, whose entire state has half a million fewer people than the city of Philadelphia.
Hence, the call for Obama to seize his “Johnson moment.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the LBJ scholar, wants Obama “to take charge, to draw lines, to pressure, to threaten, to cajole,” to basically herd the cats on the Hill. Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist, has declared, “It’s time for a little LBJ,” with “some serious arm-twisting for good measure.” Dean Baker, who runs a liberal think tank, invokes LBJ and urges Obama to “get the list of every hardball nasty political ploy” that Johnson ever used.