And Just Like That, The Democratic Coalition Fell Apart
It was as though I awoke in the Bizarro World this morning. There on my TV were Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan singing a duet praising Barack Obama. WHAT? It was actually the President-Elect’s security team that they were fawning over as being “center-right.” They went on to point out that the “liberal-left” were shouting from the rooftops over at the Huffington Post and Daily Kos. I’m not sure I believe that last part because I’m not getting a lot of that in the blogosphere, but let’s consider their point as valid. It gives our critics on the right solace and us something to think deeply about.
What it brought to mind for an old man who lived during the Vietnam War was the policies of a Democratic President that we don’t talk much about on the left. In fact, most of us on the left would like to forget he ever existed. That President was, of course, Lyndon B. Johnson. His mishandling of the war in Vietnam peeled away the anti-war wing of the party, and his Great Society peeled away the Southern Democrats opening the door for Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that is still costing Democrats in Dixie to this day.
As I write this, the divisive Sarah Palin is just winding up a campaign speech before an all-white crowd of shouting Evangelicals in Georgia on behalf of Senator Saxby Chambliss. Glibly, she tossed
off the BS line, “Georgia, you show your respect for the military.” Yeah, Georgia and Saxby Chambliss showed their respect for the military six years ago when they attacked a real American hero, who left three limbs on the battlefield, as being weak on defense. I have yet to hear any kind of respectful apology to former Senator Max Clelland by either Senator Chambliss or his hateful followers. I subscribe to the views of that great lady, Helen, over at Margaret & Helen who says Governor Palin should go back to Alaska and “sit down and shut the hell up!” Give ‘em hell, Helen! I love you!
But let’s get back to some straight talk about how government works in Washington. I can tell that Barack Obama understands this very well despite his “lack of experience.” While he has been compared to JFK and FDR, perhaps we should not be afraid to allow a third comparison, one to LBJ. No question about it, the Vietnam War destroyed Johnson’s presidency. But so did The Great Society and the true civil rights movement that it advanced. Those two factors eventually brought us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and a couple of guys named Bush. But did that make LBJ a bad president? I submit that quite the opposite is true.
Lyndon Baines Johnson came out of the Congress of the United States to first the Vice Presidency and then through tragedy to the Presidency. The latter aspect of his rise to the top continually played against him, partly because the dastardly deed that propelled him to the top happened in his home state of Texas. That brought a certain air of suspicion to his Presidency that never quite went away, especially after the perceived “sweep up” presented by the Warren Commission. But despite these perceived shortcomings, LBJ possessed great ability to get things done on Capitol Hill. He had his friends and allies and knew how to deal with his enemies. He had learned the fine art of compromise, an art that has been lacking in American politics for quite some time. It was this very ability to reach out and engage both parties in his programs that made him a very effective President in a field that he doesn’t get enough credit for.
When Hillary Clinton evoked the name of Lyndon B. Johnson, crediting him as the “white man” who brought civil rights to the oppressed minorities of our nation, she was practically crucified by the black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the media. But like it or not, had it not been for the ability of LBJ to push his civil rights agenda through Congress, Barack Obama would not be getting ready to lead our nation today. No doubt, the civil rights movement would have made considerable progress by now, but not to where we are today.
So how did LBJ bring this ultra-liberal sea change in American democracy about? Sadly, he did it by trading off support for a heavier involvement in Vietnam with conservative Democrats and Republicans for the votes necessary to get The Great Society through the Congress. Had he not done so, he would not have succeeded. An unpopular, costly war in Southeast Asia was the tradeoff that brought sweeping reforms in civil rights legislation. In the process, he lost both the left and right of his own party. So for the liberals who quickly returned and regained control of the Democratic Party he was considered a “bad president” who shouldn’t be looked to for guidance.
But today, some 40 years after LBJ gave up his time in the White House because he followed his heart and brought civil rights to bear in the land, a new President readies himself for leadership. And today what I saw in the idle chatter of Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan was a realization that Barack Obama gets it. If he wants to bring about his social agenda, he must give something in return. The anti-war liberals of our party are brimming with skepticism at his Security Team to be announced later today, but we should remember a couple of important differences in the world of Barack Obama and the world of Lyndon B. Johnson. First, The Middle East is not Vietnam. Unfortunately, Vietnam was not much more than a pissing contest between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Middle East, however, is a region of the world that we are tied to, whether we like it or not.
The juxtaposition of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the world’s need for oil, and now the very real threat of an explosion between two nuclear-armed powers in India and Pakistan, makes this an area that we can only ignore at our peril. Vietnam seemed far, far away in the 1960s, and in its strategic importance to our nation, it was. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and India are almost like feuding next-door neighbors that you wish would move away. But they are not moving away, and neither can we. We are all stuck in this world together and must find some way to get along.
Barack Obama has demonstrated by his Security Team picks that he fully understands this new reality. It is incumbent on us as Democrats of every group in the coalition to remember the historic lessons of LBJ’s Administration. If we want health care, a more people-friendly economy and a continuation of civil rights for EVERYONE, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We must not let our successful coalition fall apart due to a single-issue mentality. We must realize that a strong military posture is a necessary stick to the carrot of a well performed diplomatic approach. We must allow OUR President-Elect to exercise that good judgment that brought us behind him in the first place and do the right thing in the end and help bring about a peaceful world for us and everybody else through the diplomatic skills possessed by Hillary Clinton and himself.
Can we trust Barack Obama to lead us to the place we have so longed to go? YES, WE CAN!
KEEP FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT!