If you're looking for a gold standard of Senate majority leadership, you need look no further than one Lyndon Baines Johnson, who also served less effective stints as vice president and president of the United States. Well, actually, I don't quite know how to judge what makes a vice presidency successful, but never mind that part, because it is possible to make that determination for the holder of the title "Senate Majority Leader." And there was never anybody better at it than LBJ.
The fundamental reason why is entirely uncomplicated: he was a ruthless, partisan SOB. His party's legislative agenda was his
legislative agenda, and he would run figurative eighteen-wheelers over all the womenfolk in his family to get it enacted. Anybody who dared get in his way - by which I mean Democrats, as Republicans were neither in the majority nor anything less (aside from Barry Goldwater) than abjectly terrified of the man - would find out very unpleasantly why that wasn't a very good idea, whether that meant being stripped of a plumb committee chairmanship (or never getting the one you wanted) or a full pork allotment. Goldwater, in his memoirs, described LBJ's intimidating manner of "cajoling" recalcitrant Members into knuckling under, punctuated by menace barely concealed beneath a thin film of southern charm and an arm around the shoulders (Johnson was a big man, remember) that was known by his senate colleagues as a "half-Johnson," a waggish reference to the painful wrestling hold known as the "half-Nelson." The unspoken message was unmistakable: go along with me or I will make you suffer without mercy.
And it worked. Indeed, that background and the powers of the presidency (and the circumstances under which LBJ ascended to it) is what gave the country - or, rather, had inflicted upon it - both the Great Society and the Vietnam war. It's doubtful that either could have seen the full light of day any other way.
There were, of course, other effective SML's - Mike Mansfield, George Mitchell, Robert Byrd. And it isn't difficult to see the common thread running between all of them. Namely, all of them were Democrats.
By stark contrast, the four GOP SMLs of the modern (i.e. post-1980) era - Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Trent Lott, and Bill Frist - have also been linked, but by a weak, floundering fecklessness that has largely to entirely negated whatever majorities they at one time or another commanded.
And of all the times that Republicans should be dominating the U.S. Senate over that time, it ought to be now. The GOP enjoys a double-digit majority, and the Democrats have never been crazier, more irresponsible, more extremist, and led by a man less capable or intimidating.
And yet this week, on three signature measures that range from important to life-or-death critical, the current SML - the aforementioned Fristy - could only manage a push
Senate majority leader Bill Frist, heading a 55-to-45 Republican majority, might have expected to deliver a pile of legislative gifts this month to the White House, which had hoped to end the year with $40 billion in budget cuts, approval to drill for oil in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, and the full extension of the Patriot Act giving expanded powers to law enforcement.
But Frist, a Tennessee Republican with his eye on the White House, found his party in a pre-Christmas dogfight [Wednes]day, with GOP lawmakers joining united Democrats in a series of embarrassing setbacks for President Bush and the Republican agenda. ...
Republicans attributed some of their party's defections to the politics of a looming election year and the willingness of moderate Republican senators from New England to defy the President.
But others say that Frist, balancing his presidential ambitions with the task of running the Senate, is not doing what's needed to keep his caucus together.
Personally I don't find any of those reasons palatable. "Politics of a looming election year" palpably radiates trademark Republican timidity that won't get any Pachyderm elected or re-elected. New England RINOs simply bend as far left as the prevailing political winds allow them to, and that just gets back to Fristy's failure to lead. And as to that, I don't think that his presidential ambitions have much, if anything, to do with that, since I would think that, as LBJ illustrated, a SML who aspired to his party's presidential nomination would try to be as effective in his job as "legislative shepherd" as possible, and that sure as hell doesn't auger to being a "nice guy."
I think Fristy's biggest problem is not that he wants to be seen
as a nice guy, but rather that he is
a nice guy. And, unfortunately, his job description requires him to be a ruthless, partisan SOB.
And, unfortunately for the GOP, when it comes to making a change - which will be coming a year from now regardless - there's not a single member of their caucus that comes anywhere near fitting that description. I can conceive of no other explanation for how they can continue to even co-exist with Dirty Harry and his obnoxious band of two-faced, caustic, lying assholes, much less keep seeking "comity" with them in mortifyingly puppy-dog fashion.
So, as you probably already figured out, I was less than impressed with the killing of ANWR, the punting of the Patriot Act renewal, and the passage of a miniscule rafter of budget cuts (or, rather, reductions in the rate of galloping runaway expenditure growth) that required Dick Cheney to warp back from the Middle East to cast a tie-breaking vote. In this I didn't differ from the bulk of the center-right blogosphere.
Cap'n Ed, who stopped being a Fristy fan after the McCain Mutiny, distilled it down to the three "P"s - preparation, passivity
, and procrastination
No, Senator, you need to ask the Republicans why they voted against [ANWR] - that's your job. A real caucus leader would already have known how and why their members would vote and would have held back on calling the question until everyone had gotten back in line. Harry Reid doesn't have too many problems with bloc unity, and he can't offer committee chairmanships and votes on pet causes like Frist can. Lawyers tell you that they shouldn't ask questions during testimony for which they don't already know the answer; doctors shouldn't start surgery unless they know where the abnormality is located. It's called preparation, and we're not seeing a lot of it from the Republican leadership in the Senate.
~ ~ ~
Speaking of putting things off, why did the Senate and the House wait until the very last minute to get this done? The GOP has talked about Patriot Act renewal since last year - but no Democrat wanted to do it during an election year. (Not then, anyway.) The topic has come up at various times all year, but no one did any heavy lifting on the effort until the Act had almost expired. All of a sudden, the House and Senate discovered the Patriot Act, and the Democrats suddenly "discovered" that it had turned America into a police state. Does that make any sense?
Not if ensuring a permanent Patriot Act was a powerful, punctuated priority. And that just gets back to Republican timidity, which even so dogged a GOP cheerleader as Hugh Hewitt
has proved unable to continue ignoring:
The inability of the Republican majority to force a showdown earlier in the year, or to carry the day on two of the three major items dooms Bill Frist's presidential campaign, and may have cost Mike DeWine his Senate seat. Watching Bill Frist close the session [Wedneday] night was painful, his rhetoric as tired as his face, and the empty chairs and behind him symbolized the chamber that will not be led.
Hard to tell the "leadability" of a chamber when the man who is supposed to be leading it refuses to lead.
But, just to show that there is still such a thing as right-wing optimism, J. Peter Freire at AmSpecBlog
thinks that kicking the Patriot Act can down the road six months is an unqualified victory:
This is being labelled a compromise. This is absolutely untrue. This is no compromise, but a victory. Now, Republicans have had the Democrats vote twice in favor of the Patriot Act. Even with the aid of the supposed "outing" of the President's "secret" wire-tapping, revelations of black sites, and in the midst of McCain's torture amendment negotiations, the Dems still had trouble explaining their filibuster - which was only barely successful. In six months, when it comes time to take another vote on the amendment, opponents won't have BlackSite-gate, Wiretap-gate, nor Torture-gate to pressure the moderates to their side. Instead, they'll have a 2006 election driven by Congressmen needing to appear strong on defense - the Dems have lost.
1) It doesn't matter how many times Dems vote for the Patriot Act, when it comes up for renewal again they'll always act like it's the first time they've ever laid outraged eyes on it;
2) The only thing that matters about the Dems' PA filibuster is that it succeeded, and enjoyed four GOP defections;
3) Dems and the media will never stop flogging "BlackSite-gate, Wiretap-gate, and Torture-gate" for the next six months, and will probably add several more "-gates" to the mix
4) If Senate Republicans weren't scared to death of renewing the Patriot Act, they wouldn't have sought to push the next renewal date past the 2006 mid-term election.
None of the above need prove a liability to the GOP majority. Their problem is that they are so often their own
liability that they turn such issues that should be their strongest advantages into political millstones 'round their necks instead.
FWIW, Jay Cost of the Horserace Blog doesn't see any way that the Democrats can regain the majority
on either side of the U.S. Capitol next year. But that'll be a function of the political landscape and electoral "structuring," rather than any Republican merit. And it won't change the fact, as no less a commentator than Brother Hinderaker
has joined me in observing, that:
[W]hen the Democrats are in the majority, the Democrats run Congress. When the Republicans are in the majority, the Democrats still run Congress.
Maybe elections don't really matter that much after all.