Progressive political change in American history is rarely incremental. With important exceptions, most of the reforms that have advanced our nation's status as a modern, liberalizing social democracy were pushed through during narrow windows of progressive opportunity -- which subsequently slammed shut with the work not yet complete. The post–Civil War reconstruction of the apartheid South, the Progressive Era remaking of the institutions of democratic deliberation, the New Deal, the Great Society: They were all blunt shocks. Then, before reformers knew what had happened, the seemingly sturdy reform mandate faded and Washington returned to its habits of stasis and reaction.
The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood this. Franklin D. Roosevelt hurled down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his First Hundred Days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F. Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points -- our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism, and our concentration of vested interests -- to make change possible any other way.
That is a fact. A fact too many Democrats have trained themselves to ignore. And it sometimes feels like Barack Obama, whose first instinct when faced with ideological resistance seems to be to extend the right hand of fellowship, understands it least of all. Does he grasp that unless all the monuments of lasting, structural change in the American state -- banking regulation, public-power generation, Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to join a union, federal funding of education, Medicare, desegregation, Southern voting rights -- had happened fast, they wouldn't have happened at all?
I hope so. Because if Barack Obama is elected president with a significant popular mandate, a number of Democrats riding his coattails to the House, and enough senators to scuttle the filibuster of his legislative agenda -- all of which seem entirely possible -- he will inherit a historical opportunity to civilize the United States in ways not seen in a generation. To achieve the change he seeks -- the monumental trio of universal health care, a sustainable energy policy, and a sane and secure internationalism -- he has to completely reverse the way Democrats have habituated themselves to doing business. If they want true progress, they have to be juggernauts. American precedent gives them no other way.
Let Franklin Roosevelt be our guide. We take for granted now one of his signature political innovations: the idea of an executive "legislative agenda," a specific set of White House proposals, by which the success or failure of a presidency can be judged. FDR's was the first and most spectacular. He understood that the New Deal would pass quickly or it would not pass at all. And so, politically, he yoked Congress' willingness to pass his program without obstruction to Congress' willingness to address the national emergency tout court.
We're not facing a Great Depression–level emergency now. But with an unprecedented 77 percent of respondents in an Associated Press poll saying they believe the nation is on the "wrong track," and 9 percent telling the Gallup organization they approve of Congress' job performance, Obama is not without leverage. Ideally, Obama's Washington would resemble FDR's in 1935. "The stories of that period always seemed to follow the same pattern," Thomas Frank writes in his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, "how the bright young man arrived in the city, fresh from law school, where he was put to work immediately on business of utmost urgency; how he went for days without sleep."
One of those exhausted bright young men, of course, was bright-eyed Lyndon B. Johnson of the Texas Hill Country. The 1930s Washington culture in which LBJ thrived was not merely a function of the New Dealers' scramble to redeem a national emergency. It was a function of the fact that they understood the reality of America as "the frozen republic," as Daniel Lazare has called it. By the time Johnson got his accidental opportunity to occupy his hero FDR's chair, progressives understood implicitly that the unique constitutional system, conceived to protect the minority interests of slaveholders, gives the upper hand to obstructers. This, and not the supposed necessity of trimming ideological sails to placate some notional conservative majority, guided their strategizing. James MacGregor Burns' book on the subject, The Deadlock of Democracy, was not merely what every progressive in Washington was reading during the Kennedy years, it was what every progressive was living. The House Rules Committee, dominated by reactionary Southerners, kept Kennedy from passing even an increase in the minimum wage, let alone his campaign promise -- the cornerstone of his legislative agenda -- to extend Social Security to cover medical care for the elderly. It was, as historians G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot write in their fine recent study, The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s, "a lesson fully understood by the Southerners in Congress. They didn't need to have majorities on their side, they didn't need to have public opinion on their side, they didn't need the president on their side. They only needed to have the rules on their side."
Three accidents of history followed in quick succession to break the deadlock. First, in the most important turning point in history you've never heard of, Kennedy narrowly won a vote to dynamite the House Rules Committee's role as a tar pit for liberal legislation by expanding its membership. Second, the Supreme Court's first "one man, one vote" decision, Baker v. Carr (1962), outlawed Southern electoral systems, which, for instance, gave the three smallest counties in Georgia, with a total population of 69,800, as much voting strength as the largest county in the state, with a population of 556,326. And finally, Kennedy was shot. The national trauma was a blunt political opportunity from whose import Johnson did not flinch. "Let us continue," he intoned in his first address to a joint session of Congress. Then, before this tragic but miraculous once-in-a-lifetime store of political capital drained away, he started passing the liberal legislative agenda that had been little more than a shadow during Kennedy's lifetime.
Less than a month into his presidency, Johnson wrangled from a recalcitrant Congress a loan guarantee to help our mortal enemies, the Soviets, buy grain before he had been in office a month, convincing 38 legislators to return to Washington during their Christmas vacations to approve the loan. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 -- the "war on poverty" -- passed by a nearly two-to-one margin. Johnson advocated for a tax cut that conservatives called a budget-buster, bringing Dwight D. Eisenhower out of retirement to campaign against it. But Johnson passed that, too. Then came Medicare. Then the Civil Rights Act. "I'm not going to cavil, and I'm not going to compromise," Johnson told Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia as the landmark bill Kennedy introduced to no avail in the summer of 1963 was steamrolling its way to completion.
In 1965 Johnson passed new legislation for preschool for poor children, college prep for poor teenagers, legal services for indigent defendants, redevelopment funds for lagging economic regions, landmark immigration reform, a new Department of Housing and Urban Development, and national endowments for the humanities and art. He even added a whole new category to the liberal agenda with the passage of the Highway Beautification Act, the Water Quality Act, and the Clean Air Act. He insisted to his congressional leadership that the House's bill for federal aid to education pass the Senate "literally without a comma changed," aide Eric Goldman recalled. It did indeed, two weeks later, with only 18 votes in opposition.
His insistence on ramming through bills "without a comma changed" wasn't a function of Johnson's natural aggressiveness or ego (or at least not only that). It was, in the American legislative context, a necessary sort of pragmatism. The 36th president saw that his opportunity to move the country forward could end any day and that he must act before America lurched back into a state of fearful reaction. He was right. During the span of just a few weeks in the summer of 1965, Johnson flew to Independence, Missouri, to sign Medicare -- the reform JFK had run on in 1960 -- and to Washington to sign the Voting Rights Act. Five days later, on Aug. 11, the Watts Riots brought down the curtain on the liberal hour. After that, he couldn't even get Congress to approve $60 million for rodent control in the slums.
The right and Democratic centrists have taught us to think of the Great Society in terms of its failures, like the War on Poverty's Community Action Program, which drove a wedge between Washington and local Democratic municipal administrations and supposedly empowered all manner of swindlers and "poverty pimps." We should focus instead on Johnson's remarkable number of broad-based accomplishments in those first 22 months. We now take for granted the notion that the elderly have a right to medical care, that the government should provide aid for education, that immigration policy should not discriminate on the basis of race, and that the government should concern itself with clean air. It would be unimaginable to see them reversed -- in part because of the constitutional inertia that made them so difficult to achieve in the first place. They are the kind of things Republicans now pretend they were in favor of all along. This is the way social change works. It is the responsibility of the next progressive president to crash through a similar set of reforms for the next generation to take for granted.
Conservatives understand these stakes, which is why obstructionism is the rock upon which they have built their political church. Not for nothing was Jesse Helms celebrated so unequivocally by conservatives upon his death this summer: He was "Senator No." They know that a single well-placed roadblock, whether within the news cycle or behind closed doors in the legislative process, can stop progress cold -- even in the face of a Democratic Congress united with a Democratic president and a friendly judiciary. They understand that in America, Democratic (and democratic) mandates are tailor-made for sabotage and that the sabotage must come early, quick, and hard.
This was the reliable formula that brought down such progressive initiatives as Clinton's health-care program. But it was Jimmy Carter's attempt to fix American energy policy that really set the precedent for failed reform. It is easy to forget how progressive hopes were soaring on January 20, 1977. A Republican president had resigned in disgrace. His replacement had proven hapless and tainted. A slew of young liberal lions had been swept into office in 1974 on the wave of disgust, and Jimmy Carter was elected to give America "a government as good as its people." Even the pundits' affection was in his pocket.
In retrospect, of course, we remember how badly Carter mishandled the job of pushing his own legislative agenda. He couldn't work with Congress. He alienated key Democratic constituencies. Maybe such deficiencies won't hobble Barack Obama, who appears an infinitely more skilled politician. But despite his skill, Obama will not be available to avoid the fact that the right also learned from the early years of FDR and LBJ. They know the lessons in their bones: Strike hard and fast by any means necessary to degrade a popular new Democratic president's capability to pass anything big right away, because once something is passed, it might never go away. Carter started out with a bang, just as FDR and LBJ would have counseled. He immediately proposed, as Sean Wilentz records in his new b
ook, The Age of Reagan, "an enormously ambitious legislative agenda on matters ranging from national energy policy to streamlining the federal government." He "demanded and received emergency authorization to deregulate natural gas prices," then handed down unconditional amnesty for draft evaders and "weathered the storm and enhanced his reputation for decisiveness and independence" -- shades of the bold strokes of Roosevelt's First Hundred Days. Through April, his approval rating was 75 percent. "For the moment," Wilentz concludes, "it looked as if the country had found the leader it had been searching for since Richard Nixon's downfall." And it also looked as if that something big might happen before circumstances slammed shut the window of opportunity. The energy program, an effort Carter announced as "the moral equivalent of war," passed the House comfortably in April. But by the end of the year, the Senate eliminated it with extreme prejudice. Partly, again, it was Carter's poor political skill. It also had plenty to do with the fact that Republicans managed to destroy Carter's public goodwill in his first year as president.
A literary assassin played an outsize role in this project. Former Nixon operative William Safire was ensconced on The New York Times op-ed page. Sloppy record-keeping and the sort of petty favoritism endemic to provincial banking had brought Carter's close friend and budget director Bert Lance, a former banker in Georgia, before a Senate subcommittee for minor questioning. Safire raised a series of where-there's-smoke-there-must-be-fire insinuations. He hinted that the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund (which "the Labor Department says corruptly bankrolls Las Vegas mobsters," Safire helpfully reminded readers) played a role, along with, of course, the Chicago Democratic Machine -- and Arabs!
Safire penned eight Lance columns over the next four months, sometimes twice a week. He repeated the original charges, dropping ones others debunked, ever implying that the charges he still mentioned were the only ones he had made all along, counting on the public's short memory to cover the fact that his original case was falling apart. Most often, his columns baited reporters: Why were they "refusing" to investigate Lance like they had hounded past Republicans? More cunningly, Safire larded the columns with less-than-subliminal linguistic references to Watergate. "Lancegate," he implied, was exactly the same. He even declared a memo by the Manufacturers of Hanover Trust was "the 'smoking gun.'" (Readers were counted on to vaguely recall that the "smoking gun" tape that had brought down Nixon two years earlier also involved the derailing of an FBI investigation.)
It worked, at least where it counted: in the court of political cartoons. Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock gave Carter a "Checkers Award," after the infamous cocker spaniel Richard Nixon used to save his hide in a famous 1952 speech. Syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant went with a more straightforward depiction of Carter as Nixon: "Stonewall it. ... They're out to get us." Lance resigned; the Justice Department handed down indictments. Even though Lance was eventually completely exonerated, the damage was done. Carter, like Obama, had run as a "different kind of Democrat" -- pure, unsullied. So saboteurs like Safire had a clear challenge: "prove" that Carter was just another impure politician, if even on the shakiest of pretexts.
That, of course, is what the right will try on the next Democratic president. They will take the possibility that Obama might break through the icy seas of conservative stasis and try to render it an absurdity. There is now an army of Safires and a Republican Party full of Senator No's. Recall William Kristol's famous memo enjoining congressional Republicans to refuse to deal with President Clinton's proposed health-care reforms. "The plan should not be amended," he wrote, "it should be erased." The right might not be at its strongest, but it certainly understands that the American system favors fell swoops, on offense as well as on defense. The system provides conservatives with opportunities for obstruction in profusion -- no matter how low their approval ratings.
Barack Obama has not run as a policy maximalist. By and large, his big proposals have all been in that safe spot where liberals can't quite get mad and the Beltway wise men can't quite get scared. He has advocated for not-quite-universal health care rather than single-payer, and promised tax cuts, not massive new social outlays. But this shouldn't worry progressives. There may be no better way to achieve an operational liberalism than to appeal to America's rhetorical conservatism. That, after all, was how the balanced-budget-promising Franklin Roosevelt ran in 1932 and how the let-us-continue Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964.
But when it comes time to govern, an ingrained habit of incrementalism may be a very profound problem indeed. Stopped in our tracks time and time again in attempts to assure Americans the basic social rights taken for granted by citizens of every other industrialized nation, progressives have made virtue of necessity -- we have learned to think of strategic incrementalism as a positive good, even an end in itself. If, on the morning of January 20, 2009, Barack Obama should wake up to find himself president, with 60 senators and 250 representatives, plus 60 percent of the public firmly in favor of passing universal health care, would his instincts direct him to ram the legislation through as quickly as possible? No one can say for sure. This attitude is so dormant in progressive thinking that it's hard to know whether we can revive it.
Weisbrot and Mackenzie's The Liberal Hour is a very aptly named book: a splendid evocation of just how evanescent American moments of reform truly are. They are not unlike an action movie starring Bruce Willis, who has 60 minutes left to defuse a time bomb before everything blows up. Take immediate action, and you might just get reforms that had seemed impossible the day before but are impossible to imagine America without just one and two generations later. Take it slow, however, and you might not get anything at all.