Scott Lemieux: LBJ and the Bully Pulpit

Roundup: Historians' Take

Scott Lemieux is a professor of history and political science at the College of St. Rose.

Ygelsias beat me to it, but as the new Caro indicates one person who didn’t accept the narrative that Lyndon Johnson got an impressive domestic agenda passed by using the BULLY PULPIT do get around Congress was…Lyndon Johnson. And LBJ didn’t believe this not only because he was a powerful congressional leader who was the protege of another powerful congressional leader, but because he also cut his political teeth as an FDR man. And he therefore knew that after the election in which FDR showed the immense power of the BULLY PULPIT by welcoming their hatred first FDR’s Court-packing initiative failed, and then very little legislation of importance passed for the remainder of his tenure, thwarted by the coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans who consistently stopped major social reform between 1938 and 1964.

LBJ’s skills and priorities mattered, because being an “affiliated” president at the height of the strength of a regime gave the agenda-setting powers of the presidency unusual importance, and since LBJ had extensive experience in Congress he (unlike, say, Clinton on health care) he was well aware that the idea that you could go over the head of Congress and impose your will was nonsense. And it’s not as if there was only one direction LBJ could have gone — an affiliated president can favor all parts of an affiliated coalition equally, and while Polk in a similar position decisively sided with the Slave Power Johnson on domestic policy advanced the agenda of the progressive elements of the Democratic coalition. (And LBJ is also a classic example, of course, of Skowronek’s argument that this is where coalitions collapse — on the one supporting civil rights and antipoverty legislation led to Southern conservatives leaving the Democratic coalition for good, and the need to keep important domestic constituencies on board — especially organized labor — contributed heavily to the Vietnam disaster that undermined the Great Society and also prevented LBJ from running for the nomination in 1968.) But where he was successful, LBJ took advantage of an unusually favorable opportunity; he didn’t succeed because he used the BULLY PULPIT to force crucial members of Congress to do things they didn’t want to do.

comments powered by Disqus