Lyndon Johnson arrived in Washington in 1937, a young New Dealer congressman—and the following year, he witnessed and survived a conservative revolution that redefined national politics. The recession of 1937–1938, along with the failure of FDR’s court-packing scheme and his effort to purge conservative Democratic candidates in favor of New Dealers, cost the Democrats a net loss of seventy-two seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate in the elections of 1938. Those results signaled the beginnings of a new bipartisan conservative working majority of Midwestern Republicans and Southern segregationist Democrats that would thwart liberal politics for decades.
Johnson made his way in the world of that majority, rising to the highest levels of the Democratic leadership by accommodating himself to its limits. As Senate minority and then majority leader in the 1950s, he learned to work with the so-called “Modern Republican” administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower to offset the rise of the hard Republican right epitomized by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and even, in 1957, to secure passage of the weak but symbolically important Civil Rights Bill. Elected vice president three years later, Johnson understood as well as anyone the power of the enduring bipartisan conservative coalition and the imperative of attacking it head on in order to win any reform legislation—and he understood how it might best be done. John Kennedy, who failed to pass a single important piece of domestic legislation in nearly three years in office, could have put that understanding to good use, but instead he froze Johnson out.
After Dallas, when he would turn a dead man’s program into a martyr’s cause, fastening once again on civil rights, Johnson was more than well-prepared. He would, in effect, need to create his own majorities in Congress—not in the name of an ideology, personal branding, or dream of some new fanciful bipartisanship, but piecemeal. He would do so as each ever-shifting political situation arose, relying on a thorough knowledge of the rules of both houses of Congress and just as thorough knowledge of the men he needed to persuade. Thus, to pass the tax cut bill and clear the way for the Civil Rights Bill, he picked the lock of the Senate Finance Committee by winning over Harry Byrd, the senior Democratic member of the venerable conservative majority; and to secure the Civil Rights Bill, with Humphrey’s help, he seduced the Republican leader, Everett Dirksen. And by the end of the year, thanks in part to the Republicans’ overreaction in nominating Barry Goldwater for the presidency, Johnson had obliterated the bipartisan anti-reform alliance and swept in the enormous, liberal Democratic majorities of the eightieth Congress that would swiftly approve, by lopsided margins, the Voting Rights Bill, Medicare, Medicaid, Project Head Start, and the other programs of the Great Society.
Barack Obama came to the presidency with enormous gifts but only four years of indifferent government experience in Washington, which partly accounted for his perception of recent political history and the crisis he faced, above all his notion of the Republican Party. Since the departure of Ronald Reagan, the Republicans on Capitol Hill, and especially the House, had lurched fitfully further to the right, their caucus centered in the white conservative South that Johnson and the Democrats had abandoned when they fought for civil rights and which Goldwater first gathered up for the GOP. Like the conservative counter-revolution of 1938 and after, this had been the overriding reality of congressional politics after 1994.
Following the defeat of President Bill Clinton’s health care reform early in his first term, the Republicans regained the House majority led by the right-wing agitator Newt Gingrich; and after Clinton recovered to outfox Gingrich and then win re-election, the Republicans pushed ever further to the right, under the command of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who commandeered the impeachment farce and then forced Gingrich out. The conservative five-to-four majority on the Supreme Court placed George W. Bush in the White House, but Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” quickly gave way to the brutal and politicized methods of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. The DeLay-led right-wing Republican Congress was happy to go along, even after DeLay’s money-laundering corruption came to light, after which the Democrats regained the House majority in 2006. By then, most of the country had turned fiercely against Bush—and so would the irreducible hard-right base over his desperate effort to stanch the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression with a massive bailout of financial institutions. This right-wing revulsion against Bush as a secret “big-government” betrayer would in time explode as the Tea Party.
Looking back on this history, the impeccably centrist political scientists Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have recently observed that the undeniable reality for decades—obscured by a cowed press corps intent on proving its objectivity—is that right-wing Republicans, especially in Congress, have been the cause of the intensified polarization in Washington, turning their party into “an insurgent outlier in American politics.” Yet in the face of this reality, Obama propagated the idea that both parties were responsible for the acidulous politics of the 1990s, that “politics as usual” and “the old Washington games with the same old Washington players” had produced stalemate. He offered instead a transcendent and “transformative” post-partisanship that would carry the country to the higher ground of peace, prosperity, and social justice. He would be the latest antidote to the kind of low political scheming that an earlier generation of reform Democrats had seen and detested in Lyndon Johnson and, in many cases, in Robert Kennedy as well.