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Power Trip

Democrats Need to Get Comfortable With Power

If the party wants to stop getting rolled, it needs to rediscover its roots

Photo: Bettmann/Getty

The president was dead. His assailant was dead. The country was in crisis.

The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been so ignored as vice president that his name was still in the phone book, created a commission to investigate the slaying. In November 1963, he persuaded the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, to lead the inquiry — an unprecedented mix of judicial and executive branch powers that LBJ felt was necessary to give the panel the credibility it needed to dispel rumors that Russia or others were behind the attack.

A week after the assassination LBJ reached out to Richard Russell, a respected Senate Democrat, to join the inquiry. The Georgian, who was LBJ’s mentor, balked.

“You’re my man on that commission and you’re going to do it,” Johnson fumed in a phone call to Russell. “Don’t tell me what you can’t do. I can’t arrest you, but you’re sure goddamn well going to serve. You’re going to do it.”

Russell served.

Two years later, LBJ would use his power to roll over Russell and southern segregationists and sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A year later, he’d clobber segregationists with the Voting Rights Act and, later, the Fair Housing Act.

Johnson’s phone call with Russell was recorded. You can hear it here. Democrats would be wise to listen to it and its lessons about power. Maybe every day.

It captures Johnson’s sheer force of will and his unambiguous determination to make others bend to it — as Robert Caro recounted in his multivolume biography of the 36th president. But LBJ wasn’t all id. He had other arrows in his quiver: shameless flattery, relentless energy, an encyclopedic knowledge of procedural trickery. But the call was a reminder that unrelenting determination often matters as much as tactical smarts.

The phone call to Russell resonates because this is an uncertain autumn for Democrats. They stand poised to take back the House of Representatives, a triumph that would give them the chance to stymie Republican legislation but also use the chamber’s powers to investigate the President or even impeach him. At the same time, they might lose seats in the U.S. Senate. The fall has also been a reminder of the Democrats’ seemingly endless capacity to blow it. Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court, after its near derailment, underscored two years of Democratic heartbreak. Watching Kavanaugh sworn in was bad enough for Democrats; seeing it come after Antonin Scalia’s seat was kept vacant for a year underscored their powerlessness, if not impotence.

The Democrats have a much bigger problem with power, and it has bedeviled them for years.

Are Democrats allergic to power, to ruthlessly wielding it? This is a question that has been brewing for years, but it would have seemed like an idiotic proposition to earlier generations. The Democratic party, whose antecedents date back to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is often considered the oldest political party in the world. (It was called the Democratic-Republican party back then and evolved into our Democratic party under Andrew Jackson, which is why most state fundraising events for the party are called Jefferson-Jackson dinners, except where it offends modern sensibilities.)

For most of its history, the Democratic party has been led by presidents who believed in power. Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership was muscular even if his legs failed him. Facing a Supreme Court that invalidated much of his New Deal, FDR threatened to pack the court with new appointees, diluting the power of the conservative old guard. (Mirabile dictu, the court began to rule his way.) FDR also found every way he could to support Great Britain as it faced the Nazis, despite contending with an isolationist Congress. Woodrow Wilson went from the presidency of Princeton to the presidency of the United States in only two years. A pinched intellectual, he was a scholar of presidential power who also used his intuitive understanding of it to advance the Progressive movement and lead America into World War I. He also used his power to segregate the civil service. No one would say he didn’t understand power.

Over the past two centuries, the Democratic establishment has undergone endless ideological gyrations. The party of slavers and segregationists became the home of freedom riders and feminists. Jefferson and Jackson’s party of smaller government spawned an alphabet soup of federal agencies. But there wasn’t much doubt about its ability to use authority for good or ill, and not just in the White House. Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed, the Daleys of Chicago — hell, even George Wallace. Love them. Hate them. You wouldn’t say they were wary of power.

Today’s Democrats seem weaker by comparison. Some of it is the nature of the Congress. No one thinks of Jerry Brown as he departs office as governor of California as weak. But congressional Democrats do seem befuddled. Some of that is a function of being in the minority. Look at Cory Booker. As mayor of Newark he was a brave whirling dervish of reform in a city that desperately needed it. As a low-ranking senator in the minority, he’s reduced to asking prickly octogenarian Chuck Grassley for an additional minute to speak. Being in the minority in Congress is like being at a conference table where everyone else is in a nice Aeron chair and you’re perched on a preschooler’s stool. The humiliation is baked in.

But the Democrats have a much bigger problem with power, and it has bedeviled them for years. The GOP has been knocking down norms since well before Donald Trump was elected, playing harder and tougher. This is not to say that Democrats are saintly and Republicans thuggish or Democrats ascetic and the GOP Machiavellian. There have been plenty of times in recent decades when Democrats mugged Republicans. The nomination of Robert Bork is often cited as such a moment. Democrats were also unbecoming during the George W. Bush era when they jammed up judicial nominations, preventing an up or down vote on GOP nominees like Miguel Estrada — perhaps inspired by Republican treatment of Clinton nominees like Elena Kagan. (Note: Estrada helped represent me in a First Amendment case that went to the Supreme Court in 2005.) Democrats can be pricks, too.

But Republicans have been playing harder ball for much longer. Back in 1988, Michael Dukakis was unprepared for the Willie Horton ad and the onset of attacks from Republicans. In the 2000 Florida recount, the GOP famously sent master power player James Baker to lead the recount effort (along with a posse of operatives posing as protesters), while Gore’s team was led by the more restrained Warren Christopher, setting up the Supreme Court’s conservatives to deliver the coup d’grâce. In 2004, John Kerry put so much stock in his Vietnam War record that he barely mentioned his 20 years in the U.S. Senate during his acceptance speech as Democratic nominee. But, famously, his campaign was unprepared for the “Swift Boating” of his record. Counterfactuals are always hard to play out. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that if Democrats had been tougher, we might have seen a President Dukakis or Kerry. Attempts at looking tough — Dukakis in a tank; Howard Dean cheering loudly — were easily portrayed as pathetic because they played into a preexisting narrative of Democrats as wimps.

Power is an art. It requires knowing one’s goal and knowing how to take what you can get — while at the same time keeping sight of your larger goals.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were elected and reelected, of course, but each had his own challenges. For Clinton it was the Kenneth Starr manhunt and all the associated craziness, while Obama had to contend with charges that he was a socialist and wasn’t American. Each got things done because of his willingness to embrace the understanding—articulated by the first Democrat, Thomas Jefferson—that “The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches.” Each ran into unalloyed opposition. No Republican voted for Clinton’s economic plan in 1993, just as none did for Obama’s health care plan.

I’ll tell you a story. At the end of 2010, Obama made a smart deal with Republicans. The Bush tax cuts were about to expire, which would have meant a massive tax hike on all Americans while the economy was still wobbly from the financial crisis. Obama marched to the White House briefing room to coo about the deal. He was asked if the Republicans might use the pending need for a debt ceiling hike to try to extract more cuts in social programs. Obama dismissed the possibility.

But Obama was wrong, and naive in the extreme. Republicans used the debt ceiling as a lever in a way it never had been used before. To his credit, Obama, like Clinton, managed to turn the government shutdown against the Republicans, essentially transforming his powerlessness into an asset.

Obama got a lot done, none bigger than health care, but with the Merrick Garland nomination, Obama seemed to unilaterally disarm. Yes, he expressed anger that the GOP-controlled Senate would not permit a vote on his nominee. But he didn’t fight back every day. It was as if he had become numb to Mitch McConnell’s norm-smashing filibustering. The psychologists call it “learned helplessness,” like when animals who are subjected to cruelty in the lab lose the will to help themselves out of a bind.

Power is an art. It requires knowing one’s goal and knowing how to take what you can get — Jefferson’s game of inches — while at the same time keeping sight of your larger goals. Lyndon Johnson used his power artfully when it came to domestic policy, but couldn’t make Southeast Asia bend to his will. (Six months later, he’d be calling Richard Russell to lament about Vietnam.)

We don’t know which of the Democrats toying with a presidential bid will have the will to power, to use Nietzsche’s oft-debated phrase. Elizabeth Warren has the fight, but the Harvard Law School professor’s DNA flub makes you wonder if she knows how to pick her battles. Joe Biden knows the system, but four decades in a Senate that was more genial may have left the septuagenarian unprepared for the battles ahead. Outliers like lien-plagued Michael Avenatti are pugilists, not leaders.

It’s usually hard to identify those with a masterly ability to wield power. Abraham Lincoln was a former Congressman and traveling lawyer when he was elected, and FDR, while a successful governor, was considered to be so without beliefs that he was dubbed “a chameleon on plaid.” The truth is the Democrats probably won’t know they’ve picked the right captain and commander until they’re thrust into power. If they’re thrust into power.

Journalist. Contributing Editor @ Washingtonian and The Washington Monthly. Father. Human.

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