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Joseph A. Califano Jr. Headshot

What the 2012 Election Is Really All About

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More than any other candidate or issue, the election of 2012 is all about the extraordinary legacy of America's most overlooked, complicated, liberal and legislatively productive president, Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society.

Barack Obama is the first African American to occupy the highest office in the land. Can anyone doubt that Obama owes his presidential opportunity to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and LBJ's commitment to give African Americans a fair shot at educational and economic opportunity?

The demography of the electorate has been recast not simply by LBJ's domestic civil rights legislation, but by his repeal of the National Origins Act of 1924. That Act restricted immigration to white Protestants (largely British and northern Europeans), in reaction to the flood of Italian and Irish Catholics, Jews and Eastern Europeans that entered the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hours after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Johnson was phoning senators to pass his Immigration Reform Act to eliminate those restrictions. When he signed the bill beneath the Statue of Liberty two months later, he said, "Never again will the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege shadow the gate of freedom."

LBJ's civil rights and immigration reform legislation is why the electorate is such a pageant of black faces, brown faces, and first generation faces of Indian, Hispanic and Asian Americans, alongside white Americans, participating as citizens of their country. It's why there are Indian-American Republican governors in Louisiana and South Carolina, a Hispanic female governor in New Mexico, and thousands of congressional, state and local candidates who trace their ethnic heritage to Latin America, Asia, Africa, India and the Middle East.

The issues in 2012 echo many battles of Johnson's Great Society. LBJ drove Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor through Congress in a bare-knuckled political brawl, and then wrestled reluctant physicians and hospitals to participate. I wish he could hear both presidential candidates vehemently and repeatedly promising to preserve Medicare.

Republicans attack the Great Society Food Stamps program because 46 million Americans are using them; Democrats counter that Food Stamps keep millions off of the kind of bread lines that marked the Great Depression. Republicans question the value of Head Start and appropriateness of federal involvement in pre-school education; Democrats defend the government's role in providing pre-school help to the poor, noting as LBJ did that "rich kids have always had such help, why not poor kids."

Conservatives and liberals fight over the constitutional validity of affirmative action, the program Johnson articulated with that marvelous analogy of the unfair race between two runners at the starting line, one who had been training for years, the other whose legs had been locked in chains.

The arguments over administration efforts to impose new financial and corporate regulations are 21st-century versions of the Great Society's truth in lending, packaging and securities laws, and its auto safety and wholesome meat laws, all designed to protect the individual in dealing with large corporate interests. Today's environmental clashes between the parties resemble the Great Society rumbles over the nation's first clean air and water and motor vehicle pollution laws.

Finally, there is the overarching conflict over redistribution of wealth and the role of government. Republicans call Obama's effort to redistribute wealth a mortal sin against American capitalism. LBJ spoke often, openly and proudly about redistributing wealth as an essential part of lifting Americans out of poverty and cushioning the sharp elbows of capitalism. He saw redistribution as the essence of the progressive tax system to provide resources for social programs to fulfill government's obligation to help the most vulnerable in our nation.

There is a signal difference. When Johnson went about enacting the tax reduction that President Kennedy had been unable to pass, he faced bitter opposition from conservatives in Congress and had full support from liberals. (The top rate was 90 percent; LBJ proposed lowering it to 70 percent with comparable reductions down the line.) By his commitment to tighten spending, Johnson got enough votes to pass the tax reduction that unleashed the prosperity which provided federal tax revenues to fund the Great Society!

Johnson would appreciate the popular support for Medicare, but he would recognize that change is inevitable. He knew it's the music of commitment, not the legislative lyrics that count. As he said in 1964, "The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."

All in all, LBJ would be pleased that President Obama and Democrats are fighting for his programs -- though he'd likely be upset that they never mention his name.

Joseph A. Califano Jr. was President Lyndon Johnson's chief assistant for domestic affairs and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1977 to 1979. He is Founder and Chair Emeritus of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.