Latest Scholarship

February 3, 2010

Obama In Context: Some Data on LBJ

Here's a bit I posted this morning at my own blog, followed by a few second thoughts.  To begin, here's the cross-post:

Is Obama blowing his big lead? My friend Ivan passes on some contextual data from the Lyndon Johnson years.

First: Johnson came out of the 1964 election with far bigger Congressional majorities than Obama brought home in 2008--a full two thirds in the Senate (the last time that happened)--also two thirds of the seats in the House, achieved via a stupendous pickup of 36 seats. Ivan reports:

In 1965 the first session of the Eighty-ninth Congress created the core of the Great Society. The Johnson Administration submitted eighty-seven bills to Congress, and Johnson signed eighty-four, or 96%, arguably the most successful legislative agenda in U.S. Congressional history.

But it didn't last. In 1966, the Dems followed up on their 36-seat gain with a 48-seat loss. They retained a majority in the House, but greatly depleted. Remarkably, they lost only three seats in the Senate and retained a 64-36 seat edge. And for what it is worth: the three Republican newcomers were Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Charles Percy of Illinois and Howard Baker of Tennessee--any one of who would probably qualify as a bomb-throwing lefty revolutionary by the standards of today's GOP.

Ivan adds: "if you are going to lose big anyway, isn't it better to have given America the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, NEA, PBS, the Wilderness Act?"

---

Followup: I suspect that you can ascribe the 1966 collapse to two factors: one that the 1964 victory was just abberationally large, and 1966 was a kind of reversion to mean.  And two, the great gorilla in the room was the Viet Nam war. Johnson had rolled to reelection in large part by exciting fears that his adverary, Barry Goldwater, would be a war president.  And then Johnson became, in the eyes of many, as much as or more of a war president  than anything Goldwater might have exemplified.

I suspect that Johnson's great success can also be attributed in large part to one salient vector: fear.  Johnson is a fascinating guy in so many ways, but one was that he hadn't the least hesitancy  about scaring the living daylights out of his adversaries and making them foresee that if they stood in his way they'f find themselves trussed up and cuffed to the doorknob.  Others have tried, but I'm not sure any politician since Johnson has used stark terror quite so effectively as he who said "come, let us reason together."