THE BLOG
10/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time for Barack Obama to Take a Lesson From Lyndon Johnson

My father died in December 2006. My only consolation is that it didn't happen two months earlier.

Because by early November of that year, the Democrats had regained control of Congress, ending their six-year wandering in the wilderness and the country's six-year descent into madness and my Dad's six-year winter of discontent. Though no ideologue for the Left, my father hated the neo-conservative, evangelical wing of the Republican Party that took over Washington with George Bush in 2000 and flowered after 9/11. I used to spend hours on the phone listening to him grit his teeth while he tried to say the names Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and Rove. He couldn't stand their arrogance, their superstitions, their jingoism, their doublespeak, or their disrespect for rational thought. On bad days, he was unable to tolerate their clothes or even their taste in music.

But my father reserved his purest anger for the Democrats, who'd allowed themselves to get walked on for six years without raising so much as a peep to ask for mercy. Oh lord, how he would go on for hours over the phone or across a delicatessen table about the wobbly-kneed Left that had caved on the PATRIOT Act, the War in Iraq, and tax breaks on private jets for billionaires.

So listening to him ramble joyously (and this was not a man given to doing anything joyously) that sweet election night in November was enough to bring tears to a son's eyes. By midnight the House had been called for the Democrats; by early the next afternoon, the Senate fell too. When the news came in, my Dad and I were delirious, as much from exhaustion as exaltation. Who could sleep on a night like that? It didn't hurt that my father's truest legacy, and the one he passed on to his son, was a desire and an ability to stay up later than anyone he knew.

So, though I hated to see my father go, I'm glad he went when he did: right in that golden moment after the Democrats has regained power but before they started proving yet again that they have no idea what to do once they have it.

Honestly, I don't know if my Dad could have handled the political season we've been living through this summer; this debacle, this slow death of American thought, rhetoric, and reason. The rise of Sarah Palin would have given him the shakes; the ascendancy of the Birthers and the Tea Baggers would have curled his toes and sent him into paroxysms of distemper; the asphyxiation of the Obama health care plan by ideologues carting around their lies about "death panels" and Nazi-ism from town hall to town hall would have laid him low.

But in the end, Democratic capitulation would have been what did Joel Rosenblatt in, just as it's doing his son in. Somehow, to distort a phrase, our party always manages to snatch defeatism from the jaws of victory, and this time is no different. Even with right and reason on their side, even with a filibuster-proof majority on their side, the Democrats have again found a way to lay down and cower. Even as I type, Obama is considering taking the public insurance option off the table. This after ghoulish fear-mongering "forced" the Democrats to get rid of free end-of-life-counseling. This after Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said, "We should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma," yet remains the White House's point man in the Republican Party. Shouting "fire" in a movie theater will get you jail time; Grassley may just get an ambassadorship.

So I ask you, as much for my father as myself: Where is Lyndon Johnson when you need him?

Think of all that Johnson did to push forward a far more sweeping and complicated legislative agenda than health care in the mid-1960s, an agenda that would eventually bring the country the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the NEA, PBS, the Kennedy Center, and the War on Poverty? Go here for an in-depth examination, but the short version is: Everything He Had To, from sweet-talking Congressmen to threatening legislative aides to cajoling religious leaders to playing on the decency of reporters (not an easy thing to do) to setting up task forces to doing interviews with any newspaper or TV station that would have him. Say what you will about LBJ, but he was incapable of being beaten around on an issue (except Vietnam, but who am I to nitpick?).

We on the left could use a little of that spirit right now. We've got the majorities, so why not take them out for a spin? Where's that LBJ-like toughness we keep hearing our former Chicago-community-organizer-turned-president is possessed of? The problem is I worry that Obama would rather be liked than right, that he would rather win the approval of Congress than their votes. I hope I'm wrong about this, but over the last few weeks I've been feeling the presence of the old weak-kneed Ghost of the Democratic Party Recent Past. Just watch footage of Democratic Representatives trying to reason with constituents who think they're actually taking part in a political debate when they compare Obama to Stalin and Obamacare to the Final Solution. Johnson would have dressed these people down in public and then drank all the liquor in their cabinet. Today's Dems look like they're all searching for a back door they can slip out of.

Thank God Barney Frank is alive and kicking, or I would have abandoned all hope already.

I guess it's appropriate that it's Chuck Schumer (that tough Jew from the most Jewish of all cities who, as one of the architects of the Democrats' 2006 victory, decided that he was tired of getting kicked around by white Southern Gentiles claiming they alone were the possessors of true American values and patriotism. Jews had been hearing this forever - like blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and women - and I imagine Schumer finally got fed up) coming once again to the rescue of the Democratic Party, saying on Meet the Press that when Congress reconvenes in September Democrats will consider pushing through a health care bill without the support or involvement of the Republicans. "We could get a public option that could be passed with the 60 Democratic votes we have," he said. "It's looking less and less likely that certainly the Republican leadership in the House and Senate will go for a bipartisan bill."

This is the only reasonable approach to dealing with a party whose only goal is to stymie the president's agenda and who have gone so far off the intellectual deep-end in their quest that they may as well be speaking a different language. This way, not only do you get your law passed, but you regain the loyalty and respect of your constituents, most on whom spent the better part of the 2000s afraid to speak their party's name for fear of being kicked out of respectable establishments and who cheered the 2008 election as the end of their days of shame.

Maybe, just maybe, Schumer will be the man to knock some sense into the party and its president and help it realize that when you've got power, the only person you have to blame if you fail to use it is yourself.

Please, Chuck: Do it for my dear old Dad. I'm beggin' you.