Johnson developed his skills in an institution that now has an approval rating in the low double digits. It’s hard to imagine that today’s electorate, which has such a foul view of Washington and the unprincipled politicians who work there, would vote for such an operator. It’s also hard to imagine that Johnson could rise intact as a public figure in today’s saturated media environment. Johnson’s skills for understanding human needs came from his own deep neediness. His vindictiveness, penchant for bragging, and bouts of paranoia would never have been confined to the back offices the way they were in his day. They’d be the subject of vast Vanity Fair and New Yorker profiles, and consume endless hours of cable talk.
Bob Dole was the last candidate to run as a Johnson-like inside player. Conservatives in his party never really rallied around him because they thought his talent for deal-making and legislative achievement meant he lacked principle. Every inch a senator, Dole could not break out of his upper house’s rhetorical style to speak in the flowing sweep required in the modern presidential campaign.
But let’s imagine that someone with Johnson’s skills could sneak into office. He’d have a tough time working his magic. He would find it difficult to engage a willing partner in such a partisan age. Lyndon Johnson had a pool of Republicans who felt a moral pull to pass civil rights legislation. There was no such large group that wanted to pass universal health care so much that they were willing to buck their party. Members of one party who might want to work with the opposite party have to worry about the outside groups—often backed by wealthy donors—that punish collaborators. In Johnson’s day, on most legislation he was working to get 51 votes. The increased use of the filibuster has raised that bar to 60.
In the 24-hour news environment Johnson’s little payoffs and punishments would be exposed immediately. It’s not just that the microscope is more powerful. The public takes a dim view of legislation used for personal reasons rather than the good of the country. Others think the government can never work for the good of the country and see inside dealing as feather-nesting, not a necessary tactic to break a deadlock and produce effective government. When Obama tried to buy the vote of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson on health care, the “Cornhusker kickback” was discovered, publicized, and removed from the bill.
Given these obstacles, is it time to stop looking for someone with Johnson’s skills and rethink what it means to be effective in Washington? Obama supporters argue passage of the stimulus in 2009, the Affordable Care Act, and Wall Street reform are all signs of the president’s effectiveness. Those measures were passed without Johnson era bipartisan majorities, which means that while Obama didn’t achieve a new era of cooperation, he may have discovered the tactics to win in the new era.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker argues that government can only be effective when one party is in power. But single-party rule isn’t likely to happen often, and that still doesn’t remove Congress’ role as a co-equal branch, which means even if it is controlled by the president’s party, a president is still going to need legislative acumen. If Johnson-like legislative skills are in vogue now, voters should probably drop their fixation with candidates unsullied by practical political experience. Voters should also be more skeptical about how candidates are going to get Congress to enact their fancy campaign claims.
Is there a candidate who has some share of the Johnson talent who could get elected and yet still be effective once in office? We don’t know. Barack Obama never made congressional relations a sustained priority. George W. Bush didn’t either. Bill Clinton had a talent for working with his opponents, but Washington is more polarized now.
We’ve never really seen a real test of an all-out effort to woo Congress in the new age of partisanship. Perhaps the kind of talent that can figure out how to work with Congress in its current incarnation only comes along every 50 years.