In a recent column with the title, “The Banality of Change,” David Brooks makes the argument for Hillary Clinton as the candidate who can get things done without a lot of what kids call “the drama.” She is seasoned and, thus, adroit in the political arts. And …
Deft politicians are not always lovely, as Lyndon Johnson demonstrated, but they are subtle, cunning and experienced. They have the ability to work noncontentiously with people they don’t like, to read other people’s minds, to lure opponents over with friendship, cajolery and a respectful nudge.
There is something arresting in that passage and it is, of course, the mention of Lyndon Johnson. It is hard to imagine any candidate, running for just about any office, promising to be, in any way, like Lyndon Johnson, who left office in disgrace, with the country bogged down in a war he had promised not to fight and the cities in flames. He had entertained visions of being one of the greatest of American presidents and was, instead, an epic failure. The country is still paying the price. Not least at the failed VA health care system where people who fought in Vietnam are seeking care and routinely being denied it by bureaucrats who then claim that those people are receiving the attention they need. The bureaucrats then pay themselves bonuses. Thus are the sins of LBJ handed down, generation unto generation.
But… there was that time, early in his administration, when Johnson was a colossus of American politics and it was entirely plausible to compare him to Franklin D. Roosevelt and to imagine that he would, indeed, achieve enough glory to satisfy even his monumental vanity.
And what a time to be alive and in Washington. His will was irresistible and his vision of a “Great Society” was undeniable. The few Republicans left in Congress had been thoroughly housebroken. They went along with his designs and things “got done.”
To be a policy person was to know glory. So there was a “War on Poverty.” It ended about as successfully as the one in Vietnam, that country where Johnson had famously promised American boys would not be sent to fight. Ground Zero in his domestic war was Appalachia where the greatest change, half century later, is in the number of people who are not simply poor but also addicted to heroin.
But if the “War on Poverty” wasn’t especially successful in Appalachia, it did great things for Washington, where the policy people live and prosper and persuade themselves that great things can be accomplished by new, imaginative programs. That the right people doing the smart things will get it done.
Hillary Clinton, in Brooks’s view, is the right person and she has the skills to get it done. But it is hard to recognize in her any of those malign gifts that made Lyndon Johnson such a force during those few months before the body count of American draftees began to rise. And that is a good thing. The policy people are good at designing complex government solutions to the many problems they see and that challenge their genius. They are not so good at managing the systems they create — witness the VA — or in doing something about the flaws in their own designs. Everyone in Washington knows, for instance, that there are problems with the Social Security system. And everyone says that there are “easy fixes.” These would include: raising the retirement age, rising the tax on current earners, eliminating the cut off in taxable earnings, etc. etc.
Easy, right? Just ask a policy wonk. The solution is to raise taxes and reduce benefits. Why don’t those idiots in Congress just do it?
Well, because it is politically hard to do. Lyndon Johnson was a success at creating benefits. Not so much at getting people to pay for them. And Hillary Clinton won’t be any better and might be worse.
She may be “deft” but she is no magician. So she will sell the easy stuff — free college, higher minimum wage — and ignore the stuff that turns out to be not so easy after all, like fixing social security. People who imagine that policy wonks will somehow save the republic can imagine her as the new incarnation of Lyndon Johnson. They are wrong, of course, and that is one rare bit of good news about her election for which we can all be thankful.