Constitution Daily

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Taking advice from the master

April 25, 2012 by David Thornburgh


In a continuing series of posts, David Thornburgh explores the tools and techniques public leaders use to get things done and move more than just a slim majority of a decision-making body to a conclusion.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a blow-by-blow account of President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner’s attempts to hash out a debt reduction plan last summer. It’s no secret that these negotiations ended with little more than a new round of finger pointing. What was fascinating about this article though is its depiction of both sides’ willingness to sacrifice sacred cows to cut a deal: Boehner was willing to raise additional tax revenue, and Obama was willing to cut entitlements. For a few days or hours at least, the specter of a grand compromise was real.

Which begs not one but two questions: a) why didn’t the deal stick? and b) had they struck a deal, how would it have played with Boehner’s colleagues in the House and the Senate? The two questions, of course, are critically connected. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the New York Times alleges that while Obama had lined up the support of his legislative lieutenants Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner was facing a tough sell.

Politicos and pundits love to muse about John Boehner’s relationship with the Tea Party freshmen who made him speaker. The wise-guy line is that when it comes to Boehner and his new colleagues, the tail wags the dog. But throughout his career, Boehner has shown that he is willing to forge bipartisan compromises to get things done (lest it be forgotten, Boehner worked with liberal lion Ted Kennedy to write No Child Left Behind). The question now is: if Boehner can strike a deal with his liberal opponents, what will it take to get his own team to go along?

As in many four-dimensional legislative chess matches, it strikes me that the man who could answer that question best would be Lyndon Baines Johnson, the so-called “Master of the Senate” and the 36th president. If LBJ could sit down with John Boehner over a drink or two (with LBJ’s watered down, of course), what would he tell him? In T-shirt speak: WWLBJD?

Begin with the blunt basics: a leader is only as effective as he or she is powerful. As the Senate’s leader for eight years, LBJ’s ability to lord power over his colleagues was legendary. A master at reading his colleagues, their hopes, and more important, their fears, and the best vote counter in Congress, LBJ knew better than anyone where his fellow legislators stood. And LBJ made it no secret that legislators’ loyalties needed to stand with him.

As Robert Caro points out in his epic trilogy (soon to be quartet) about the Master of the Senate, LBJ amassed power by currying favor. To the powerful old Senate lions, he was deferential, almost sycophantic, securing their affection under the guise of boy-like admiration. To his contemporaries, LBJ was alternatively a confidant and a terror. Those who voted with LBJ were rewarded with plum committee assignments and big campaign donations. Those who opposed him were exiled—if someone who had crossed LBJ walked into a room, he would literally turn his back and ignore him. Having brilliantly consolidated his power over the Senate’s formally independent committees, LBJ made sure that the only way to move a bill forward was to go through him.

So what would LBJ’s advice to John Boehner boil down to? Perhaps this—know your colleagues, know what makes them tick, and do whatever you have to do to persuade them that their fate lies in your hands.

Certainly times have changed since Johnson’s 1950’s era Senate. But lessons learned about paths to power and influence are timeless, because human nature is timeless. In Washington as elsewhere, past is often prologue, and shrewd politicians learn as they go. If President Obama is re-elected, he and Speaker Boehner will have more opportunities to work together to get things done. And LBJ will be watching.

David B. Thornburgh is the Executive Director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

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