A quick learner can soak up a lot in four years in the U.S. Senate, but to master the way games are played and won in the sandboxes beneath the Capitol Dome, President Obama could have learned a lot from Lyndon B. Johnson.
For example, Obama might have gotten a smarter, surer start on his stimulus bill if he’d only known the old story of President Johnson and the Courthouse. Specifically, how wily old LBJ, who mastered the arts of political gaming in his years as Senate Majority Leader, later created a political game for something as mundane as a new courthouse for Nassau County, on New York’s Long Island — and even choreographed all the players’ moves.
Back in the mid-1960s, the notion of a new courthouse was considered prized pork for Long Island, a longtime Republican stronghold that had grown to three million people, and where Democrats held three of the island’s five congressional districts, thanks to LBJ’s 1964 landslide victory over conservative icon Barry Goldwater.
Now Johnson was out to keep things that way — and so he had a White House aide pass the word to Democratic Rep. Herbert Tenzer’s assistant that the president’s next budget would fund the new courthouse.
Great, said the congressional aide, can we put out a press release announcing it? No, said the White House aide, LBJ has something better in mind. First, the White House will put out the word that the new budget has no funds for the courthouse. Next, you announce that your congressman is coming to the Oval Office to argue the case. You meet with the president for a few minutes, then leave and immediately you hold a press conference. There your congressman will announce that he convinced the president to change his mind — and that the new courthouse is now funded in the president’s budget! And lo, it came to pass.
Fast-forward to 2009. The president who made it his mission to make the 1964 Civil Rights Act the law of a still segregated land may not have believed his eyes as he saw Barack Obama sitting behind the desk of the Oval Office. But Johnson might have given America’s 44th president a good ol’ Texas backslap if only President Obama had adapted LBJ’s old Courthouse ruse to try to get some real Republican support for his stimulus bill at the start of the game.
Indeed, from wherever he was watching television Monday night, the late LBJ (who installed three TV sets in his Oval Office — one for each network, ABC, CBS, and NBC — and had a specially created, pre-remote-control device with three buttons so he could turn up the sound on each if news erupted) may well have allowed himself a wink-and-a-nod at a certain moment in President Obama’s first prime-time news conference. Namely, the last answer of the night, when Obama, still a Washington newcomer by Johnsonian standards, confessed that maybe he’d just learned a lesson in the gamesmanship of the economic $800 billion-plus stimulus bill.
Remember Obama’s starting stimulus bill strategy — if it were a card game, he’d have been playing with all his cards face-up. Knowing Republicans wanted a bill with big tax cuts, Obama initially put in the ones he wanted. But not one Republican voted for the House version; a Senate compromise attracted just three Republicans, barely enough to avoid parliamentary death by filibuster. So, Obama was asked, what had he’d learned about bipartisanship in Washington?
"I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some, and then let them take credit for all of them," said America’s quick-learning 44th president. "And maybe that’s the lesson I learned."
Then Obama turned and as he walked away, down the red carpeted hallway of his new home, I thought I saw an unseen hand reach down and bestow an "atta-boy” back-slap, LBJ’s gift for a lesson learned.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)