Obama Could Learn from LBJ

The sequester is coming, and it’s likely to affect everything from the Clark County School District to parks—federal installations and beneficiaries of federal funds. It shouldn’t, and that brings us to some lessons from the past, in Washington and in Nevada.

In 1965, Nevada’s two U.S. senators, Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, had strained every nerve to obtain passage of the Southern Nevada Water Project. Las Vegas needed the water from Lake Mead to come into the valley to serve the growing population and help it grow further.

But their fellow Democrat, Representative Walter Baring, had broken with his party on most major issues in the 1960s. His colleagues held up the bill in the House. Then President Lyndon Johnson decided to make the Nevadans “sweat a little” before he signed the bill—although he ranked Bible and Cannon among his closest allies in the Senate. Was Las Vegas ever in danger of not getting the water?  Probably not, but the risk existed.

LBJ made his presence felt in Nevada in other ways. In 1964, Cannon faced a difficult re-election campaign in what should have been an easy year for him as a Democrat with the standard-bearer headed for a landslide. But he had a tough opponent, Paul Laxalt, and faced rumors of a scandal. The Review-Journal was roasting Cannon for it. LBJ called publisher Donald W. Reynolds and apparently reminded him that the licenses for his radio and television stations would come before the FCC, whose members Johnson appointed. The R-J suddenly changed its tune about Cannon, who won re-election by an 84-vote landslide.

The point is that LBJ played hardball. Around that time, legendary columnist Walter Lippmann attacked him regularly on Vietnam policy and Senator Frank Church constantly cited him in speeches. The story is that Church asked LBJ about a project for his state and LBJ said, “Well, Frank, the next time you need a dam in Idaho, why don’t you talk to Walter Lippmann.”

Democrats occasionally sigh and wish Barack Obama were LBJ and could operate as he did. The times are different. But Senator Harry Reid—whose role as Senate majority leader Johnson once filled, who isn’t too far behind LBJ in his success at managing the Democratic caucus, and who actually went to law school on Baring’s patronage as a Capitol policeman—opposed the idea of giving Obama more power over what cuts will result from the sequester. He saw it for what it was:
Republicans hoping to make Obama absorb the blame for their unwillingness to compromise.

Yet giving Obama that power might not be a bad idea—if he thought like Lyndon Johnson. Consider Nevada. The only delegation member not to vote to avoid the fiscal cliff, Mark Amodei, represents the northern tier in the House. In his district resides Fallon Naval Air Station, with 3,000 military and civilian employees. Churchill County is a beautiful place with a fine community college, but it voted in 2012 for Mitt Romney, 7,061 to 2,961, or 69-29 percent over Obama. Its residents voted in similar numbers for Senator Dean Heller and Amodei. They are devout Republicans who dislike the federal government. Why would they want a military base? Besides, they love the view of the Second Amendment as giving them the right to own machine guns, and having the military there just makes the threat of the federal government all the greater.

Nevada was slated to lose $9 million in federal money for education with the sequester. Why should the money be evenly cut? Republicans unwilling to compromise represent two congressional districts in Nevada. Indeed, Clark and Washoe are the only Nevada counties that voted for Obama in 2012. Why, Elko went for Romney, 12,014-3,511, while Lincoln County voted 1,691-400. White Pine voted 2,601-983 despite Reid, an Obama supporter, saving its federal subsidized airfield. Clearly, rural Nevadans don’t want any federal money and resent things like military bases, airports and highways. Why not give them what they want by not giving them what they don’t want?

Would Obama do that? No. Should he? If you want him to be Lyndon, yes. But remember: LBJ also got us full-bore into a foreign war we never should have fought. Maybe it’s something about Texas.