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Julian E. Zelizer

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In recent decades, as Democrats and Republicans have grown more and more polarized ideologically, and gridlock has becoming increasingly standard in Congress, there has been a noticeable pining for the good old days when bipartisanship was common, and strongmen like Lyndon B. Johnson occupied the White House, ready to twist a few arms or trade a little pork when narrow interests threatened the general welfare. Liberals have perhaps been most vulnerable to this myth of late, with journalists repeatedly calling on Obama to bust through the unprecedented obstruction of the last few years by channeling the spirit of LBJ, who delivered more progressive legislation than anyone, save FDR.

But as the eminent political historian Julian E. Zelizer writes in his new book The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Penguin Press, 2015), this view of the past falls short on a number of counts. When LBJ first took over, he faced the same "do-nothing" Congress that had imprisoned domestic reform under JFK, Eisenhower, Truman, and the late New Deal, too. The South, an increasingly small part of the national population (counting the millions who could not vote), nonetheless dominated the old committee system, thanks to mass incumbency in the one-party region, America's uncommon deference to seniority in the legislature and its local delegation of voter law. Leaguing frequently with the GOP's right wing, Southern chairmen prevented a host of reforms from escaping the drafting stage and reaching a floor vote, even where legislation had popular support. A golden age of bipartisanship. Johnson understood, where many have forgotten, that it was these giants of Congress, not the White House, which held all the power. And these legislators boasted as much, often protected by districts with vanishingly small electorates.

What opened the floodgates to the Great Society was not LBJ, "master of the Senate," famed author of "The Treatment," but the liberal supermajority of the "Fabulous eighty-ninth" Congress. When these votes disappeared in the midterm, a standard historical pattern, reform came to a screeching halt. (One reason Johnson urged House terms–the shortest in the democratic world–be extended to four years.) Liberals had major advantages in the 1960s that they have since lost: huge unions with crucial manpower and funding, a massive civil rights groundswell, "modern" Republican allies, brain-trust and whip organizations in Congress that Zelizer here thankfully recovers from obscurity. But one thing that has not changed is America's uniquely divided governmental system. Reformers dream of Great Men and focus on the White House, not Capitol Hill and the built-in features of gridlock, to their peril.

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