In the Washington Post last week E.J. Dionne penned an Op-Ed piece noting the “changing” historical image of former President Lyndon Johnson and feted this development by labeling it as “…a thoroughly justified revival of Lyndon B. Johnson’s standing.” This work is not, however, a simple nostalgic tribute to the 1960s. Dionne argues that this supposed LBJ revival shows that America is experiencing what he calls a “leftward tilt” and he hopes that our current President will, like Johnson, strike while the iron is hot to force irrevocable liberal change on the USA.
In his piece Dionne sings the praises of President Johnson, the Lone Star Machiavelli. He views LBJ and his legacy through the lens of a celebration last week at the Jonson Presidential Library, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mr. Dionne uses this introduction as a means of discussing Johnson’s great legislative achievements, and, of course, his revived historical standing, as exemplified in a 2008 historical work entitled “The Liberal Hour” by Professors G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot. This particular volume, for which Dionne wrote an effusive dust jacket blurb, presents the political history of the Great Society era in a highly positive light. It also suggests the possibility, as Dionne passionately hopes that the country might be able and ready to engineer a similar left-liberal reform today.
Mr. Dionne waxes rhapsodic over the Johnson Administration reforms and claims that the LBJ revival “brings with it a new appreciation of the durability of the reforms enacted on his watch. It turns out that these were irreversible social reforms…that future generations came to take for granted and refused to wipe off the books.” He goes on to suggest that the American public is growing ever more liberal, and that this generation will cement the Affordable Care Act as the new normal, the way that the 60s generation gave us the Civil Rights Act, HUD, VISTA, and federal aid to education, among other things.
An alternate reading of the triumphalist history of the 1960s that Dionne sketches out reveals a more complex picture. First of all, Dionne is on very shaky ground when he cites a minor historical work and credits the tome for spurring this supposed Johnson revival and concurrent liberal revival. The publication of this particular work, and the enthusiasm with which it was received, does not prove that the American people are now liberals; it simply proves that most of the academic historians are still liberals. Furthermore, many of the “achievements” of the Great Society were marginal, at best. The vaunted War on Poverty cost trillions of dollars, but failed to end, or even noticeably reduce poverty. It did, however, place a permanent and ever-growing strain on the federal budget, was financed by massive deficits, and is forcing a complete breakdown of the government’s fiscal house in the near future. The Great Society also set in motion welfare dependency, and the corresponding collapse of the black family structure. This unfortunate phenomenon is now spreading to all of the races, in nearly equal proportion.
Finally, by 1968, Johnson’s last full year in office, the Treasury Department declared that, in the wake of the Great Society and the conflict in Vietnam, the nation (the richest in world history) was bumping up against the limits of her financial resources. The government began replacing silver coins with ones made of base metals, setting the stage for the inflation of the 1970s. Government efforts to help the poor, well-intentioned though they were, had the effect of wrecking the economy and throwing the country into a decade of economic distress. Yet, E.J. Dionne looks back fondly on this era.
Dionne ends his praiseful ode by stating that “…the deeper LBJ legacy is of a consensual period when a large and confident majority believed that national action could expand opportunities and alleviate needless suffering. The earthily practical Johnson showed that these were not empty dreams.” In fact, Johnson won his 1964 landslide by invoking the memory of his martyred predecessor. When Johnson moved sharply to the Left, his support dropped exponentially. In the 1966 mid-term elections the Republican won 47 House seats and a startling 12 Senate seats, as well. The electorate pronounced their final judgment on Johnsonian liberalism in 1968 when GOP candidate Richard M. Nixon, running somewhat deceptively as a conservative, won the Presidency, defeating Jonson’s Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who was proud to be known as an unabashed liberal.
The Op-Ed piece that Dionne wrote is not, of course, primarily a historical review. E.J. Dionne is not a historian; he is a commentator and editorial writer for the Washington Post. He segues into the real purpose of his piece when he remarks “There is …a devout wish that President Obama had the inclination to match LBJ as the Harry Potter of legislative wizardry.” Here Dionne drops the History Professor pose entirely and reverts to form as an Obama cheerleader. He does compare Obama unfavorably with LBJ by saying that Obama, aloof and condescending, will not play the game of “schmoozing legislators” as Johnson did very well. It is unknown whether Obama has blackmailed legislators, which is something else that Johnson did well, but that is another story.
Dionne then launches into his favorite refrain, namely the idea that mindless Republican obstructionism is the one thing poisoning the political waters today. As Dionne states “The problem is that Obama could spend hours sharing beer and bourbon with our elected representatives and still not overcome the sharp ideological turn in contemporary conservatism that has moved Republicans behind resolute opposition to everything he does.” Our favorite commentator then goes on to contrast this state of affairs with the 60s, when some Republicans worked with LBJ to help implement his agenda after the Great Society bills were signed into law.
Here we see E. J. Dionne’s true lament. He longs for the good old days when the Democrats ran the entire show in Washington. They controlled the Presidency, both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the permanent government, the bureaucracy by name. Most importantly, the prestige media framed all debate in terms favorable to the Democratic Party, and worked to advance their agenda. Dionne, of course, believes that there is a role for the Republicans to play in the two-party system, but this role should be to slow the Democrats down, without stopping them. He would take the country back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when sensible and “moderate” Republicans like Charles Halleck, Jerry Ford, Everett Dirksen, and Bob Dole questioned program costs, recommended spending a little less money, but usually split the difference, thereby giving the Democrats 75-80% of what they wanted. This “80% Solution” is what constitutes good government to E.J. Dionne and the rest of the gang at the
E.J. Dionne continues to insist that he sees a liberal groundswell building in the country, and he hopes that soon we’re going to party like its 1969. Mr. Dionne is making a mistake by expressing a wish as a scientific certainty. 2014 is shaping up for Obama the way 1966 shaped up for Lyndon Baines Johnson. The losers will be the Democrats, specifically the liberals. The winners will be the American people.