The Democrats Need LBJ

ABC's Stu Schutzman reports from New York:

Not so much President Lyndon Baines Johnson as Senator Lyndon Johnson. Senate Democrats need a leader like LBJ now more than ever. Johnson wouldn’t have stood for the current Democratic “debate” on health care reform. There would be little debate -- he would have imposed his will on straying Dems and his will was considerable. This is not about the merits of health care reform but about politics and party discipline. Today, Democrats in the Senate are acting as if they are all scrunched into a meatball hero -- squeeze one on one end and out pops another somewhere else. Democrats have historically had problems of unity and discipline -- not prominent characteristics in Democratic DNA -- but in this current climate, as the party in power, they’re blowing it. LBJ wouldn’t have stood for that.

In the 1950s, LBJ rose like a rocket through the ranks of the Senate, from whip -- which he wielded mercilessly -- to Senate Minority Leader to Majority Leader. Johnson ruled Senate Democrats with an iron hand. Few ever got out of party line. He didn’t simply count votes, he squeezed them. Historians and political pundits mostly agree that Johnson was the most powerful and effective Senate Majority Leader ever. He accomplished that with an iron-fist. First off, he scuttled the seniority system for committee chairmanships. That gave him the power to hire and fire powerful committee chairs virtually at will. He threatened Senators’ political lifeblood -- their pet projects; he gathered dossiers on them. He would threaten to use the dirt much like a powerful member of the old Soviet Politburo.

The pressure Johnson applied was known as “the treatment” which “could last ten minutes or four hours” wrote journalists Roland Evans and Robert Novak in Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise Of Power. Johnson would confront his “targets” in private, one-on-one and summarily scream, scold, threaten and cajole them, twisting their arms before they knew what hit them. “Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare,” wrote Evans and Novak. “He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling... an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.” And he usually got what he wanted.

This could be just the right prescription for today’s Senate Democrats as they in-fight and dither on the important issues of the day, health care reform not the least of them. Again, this is not about the merits of health care reform; it’s about discipline imposed by an iron-fisted leader who would reward loyalty and punish infidelity. A carrot and stick approach... but, ala LBJ, mostly a stick.

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