Could time-traveling LBJ save us?

Robert Caro released his book in the middle of a blog kaffufle (not that it would be possible to release in any different period) Ezra Klein wrote a New Yorker article describing a cutting edge political science paper arguing that there is no such thing as the bully pulpit effect. That presidents can’t change their popularity ratings by big speeches, so expecting, say a current presidential fellow could make a couple of speeches to change policy, is hopelessly naïve. I would write a review of the article but I’m too lazy to look it up again (What? I ain’t getting paid for this) but hopefully a look at a recent post on TNR about the LBJ and the Great Man theory of history could explain some of my problems.

Obviously his recent article still  on his mind, Ezra Klein brought up a section in Passage of Power that shows the ineffectiveness of the bully pulpit. The blog post mangles the bully pulpit with the Great Man theory for no particular purpose (it even starts with a strawman though that’s probably because Ezra Klein would rather not call anyone out for holding an opinion like that).  While the bully pulpit may not push legislation through an insurgent Congress, the GMT merely holds one man can reach his goals through some sort of method and that he’ll always be able to find that method. LBJ didn’t have to make speeches, just get things done. Johnson did use multiple methods to get bills through the Senate, which Caro describes in detail. LBJ traded with Senators, he created rhetorical flourishes to force Senators to pick sides (“Will the Party of Lincoln reject this bill?”), and he used old connections to push for favors. With the mingling of different terms, it might advantageous to explain what the GMT actually extols.

The question, to keep in Passage of Powers terms, is LBJ a man prepared by psychology and circumstance to use the code of the Senate: institutional rules older than him to his advantage- did he have a hammer when the problem was a nail? Or was he someone who when faced with a situation will always find a solution- did he have a nail and started looking for a hammer?  The later is the Great Man theory but the former can be both true and a rejection of the theory. This difference is confusing a couple talking heads.

For example, Alex MacGillis goes too far in his column. While LBJ might just be purely a product of circumstance, who faced with today’s current political environment would fail (as Ezra Klein seems to be arguing here ) That doesn’t mean someone today couldn’t solve our current institutional problems. Caro’s modern political genius who is also just purely a product of circumstance, who would have been unable to get a Civil Rights bill pass a Southern Senator with an army and a kind word back in the ‘60s, could change the Senate that would gain MacGillis’ approval. When Klein says, “the idea that an LBJ could simply come along and bring Congress to heel is a wishful anachronism. The Senate doesn’t need a great man. It needs better rules.” It sounds like Klein believes the Senate rules were set in stone by unknown hands, found by the pilgrims when they landed on Plymouth Rock or the Fates wrote them in-between cutting threads. But it is men who make the rules and therefore men who can change them. A “political genius” is therefore someone who can change the rules in these circumstances.

The problem in these specific circumstances that MacGillis and Klein are alluding to is that those trying to draw lessons from Passage of Power are far more likely to pull inconsequential facts for politicians to follow.  The Johnson treatment is probably not going to get any tax increases passed Tea-partiers. As always, a book’s practical value is only what useful information the reader can find. Sometimes it’s wrong to go searching for hobbyhorses and biases just because they happen to be on your mind. As Georg Lichtenberg said, “ a book is a mirror: If an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.” Hopefully with Passage of Power you shall find the inspirational apostle in yourself to get something novel with it.

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