WASHINGTON — The parallel seems irresistible: two presidents, two Texans, each caught in an unpopular war, hobbled in their last two years in the White House, with prospects getting dimmer for persuading Congress to enact their domestic agenda.
When President Lyndon Johnson, mired in the Vietnam War, went before Congress on Jan. 10, 1967, he stood at the same point in his presidency that George Bush stood on Tuesday night: two years to go before the end.
Last week presidential historian Robert Dallek drew the LBJ-Bush parallel, writing that “the two presidents' wartime predicaments represent a strange convergence of two men with vastly different backgrounds and political philosophies.”
But the analogy is flawed.
Despite his unpopularity due to the Vietnam War, Johnson did get a remarkable amount of what he sought in the ’67 State of the Union speech, including landmark legislation that still has a powerful effect on American society, such as the law banning age discrimination in hiring and firing.
Johnson had the votes
Johnson had in 1967 what Bush lacks: a majority in Congress.
Despite GOP gains in the 1966 mid-term congressional elections, Johnson was still a president trying to move in a direction that many members of Congress wanted to move.
They, like he, sought a bigger, more activist federal government.
When Johnson went before Congress in 1967 for his State of the Union address he faced a House that had 247 Democrats and a Senate with 64 Democrats.
Bush has only 202 Republicans in the House and 49 in the Senate. And some of those Republicans sounded very skittish about some of the proposals they heard in Bush's State of the Union Tuesday night.
LBJ’s ’67 speech shows how determined he was to not let the Vietnam War and his own unpopularity cripple his effectiveness as a president with a bold domestic agenda.
Here are some of the goals LBJ announced in his 1967 State of the Union address and what he actually got:
- Goal: “I will recommend that each of the 23 million Americans now receiving (Social Security) payments get an increase of at least 15 percent.”
- Got: On Jan. 2, 1968 Johnson signed into law the 1967 amendments to the Social Security Act which increased benefits by 13 percent.
- Goal: “We must eliminate by law unjust discrimination in employment because of age.”
- Got: Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which made it illegal for employers to fire, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against a worker or job seeker due to his or her age.
- Goal: “We should find a solution to fair housing, so that every American, regardless of color, has a decent home of his choice.”
- Got: The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which include the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited racial and ethnic discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.
Johnson was even able to do something that Bush may envy by the time his presidency ends: on June 13, 1967 he nominated Thurgood Marshall to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark. Two months later the Senate overwhelmingly voted to confirm Marshall.
All in all, 1967 was a first-rate year for a supposedly unpopular president.
Republican eyes on 2008
Unlike Johnson in 1967, Bush's opportunities seem to be more in the prevention of bills he thinks unwise than in the signing of bills he wants.
Not only does Bush face a Congress in the hands of his adversaries, but the surviving members in the diminished Republican ranks feel jitters about their chances in the 2008 elections.
Up for re-election in Democratic-leaning states are endangered GOP senators such as Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota who may side with Democrats on crucial votes.
It is the conservatives in Republican ranks who may be one of Bush's biggest headaches.
For example, after Bush unveiled a proposal Tuesday night that would give a tax deduction to workers who purchase their own health insurance — but also would for the first time consider the value of employer-provided health insurance as taxable income, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R- Calif., said warily, "I'm going to have look at the small print of that very closely."
Democrats pounced on Bush's proposal as "a tax increase on the middle class."
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To the dismay of conservatives such as Rohrabacher, Bush now appears to have the votes in Congress to enact a bill creating a guest worker program and granting legal status to illegal immigrants.
"Of course I think that would be a disaster," Rohrabacher told me Tuesday night after hearing the president. "Once you legalize the status of 15 million illegals in this country, there are 50 to 100 million other illegals just waiting to come across (the border) when they find out we're willing to give legal status to illegal immigrants."
Will congressional conflict with Bush over Iraq — which looks like it could ultimately result in a vote on cutting off funding for military operations — affect Bush’s ability to get things done on non-Iraq matters such as energy and Social Security?
“That’s a good question: how will it spill over into other areas?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I hope we will understand that the challenges of America are many and great and our differences can not consume the whole agenda. I will be arguing with some of my closest friends on the other side of the Iraq issue and hope to work with them on Social Security and immigration.”
Bush's core beliefs at stake
But striking a deal on Social Security, for example, would likely require Bush to discard one of his core beliefs: never raise taxes.
House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said after last November’s election that he was willing to put on the negotiating agenda with Bush an increase in the eligibility age for Social Security benefits and a tax increase in order to make Social Security financially viable.
Such moves are “on the table,” said Hoyer.
Bush strategist Karl Rove recently told National Journal “everything’s on the table” when it comes to changes in Social Security, so at least two of the powerful players are sounding alike.
If Bush decides that, on some matters, he doesn't want to make a deal, he'll have help in playing defense against bills he doesn’t like. His firewall is the Senate’s 60-vote cloture requirement. Democrats will need to get 60 votes to stop debate on legislation and move it to a floor vote.
Veto or concede defeat?
Bush’s most potent weapon is the one he neither mentioned nor even hinted at in his address Tuesday night: his veto power.
After the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, Clinton enjoyed great success with his veto power, killing 37 bills with only two of his vetoes over-ridden.
Yet the more Bush wields his veto power, the more combative relations with Democratic leaders will become.
The White House has already said he’d veto House-passed legislation on federal funding of stem cell research, mandatory bargaining of prescription drug prices by Medicare, and an end to certain royalty benefits for energy companies.
Each of these measures passed the House with some GOP support, but with less than a veto-proof majority. That's about the only encouraging news that Bush has gotten lately.
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