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Kenneth W. Mack

A measure of history

By Kenneth W. Mack
March 25, 2010

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WHILE HISTORY’S verdict on the Obama administration will not be rendered for quite some time, the passage of health reform legislation stands as a signal achievement. Supporters say the new law places this administration within the Democratic Party’s longstanding mission to bring security to Americans left out of the social safety net.

In assessing the long and fraught process that brought the once-endangered bill to passage, party faithful have taken inspiration from the great triumphs of the past — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Second New Deal’’ of 1935, which brought Social Security and a host of other measures, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of 1965, which broke the political logjam that had long frustrated federal action on education and health insurance. But that history is is also a measure of how difficult it is to enact social reform legislation at this particular moment in American politics.

When Roosevelt and Johnson wanted to get their legislative agendas moving, each could depend on something that seems both anachronistic and undemocratic today — entrenched congressional committee chairmen who could move things forward, or halt them in their tracks.

The days are long behind us when Roosevelt’s success in getting his New Deal measures enacted hinged on the long-serving Southern chairmen — their tenure in office assured by disfranchisement of black voters — or when the powerful, and fickle, Ways and Means Chair Wilbur Mills could singlehandedly frustrate the desire of multiple presidents for Medicare. That era was interred in the 1960s and ’70s when political activists successfully pushed for procedural reforms that transformed Congress into the modern cacophony of perspectives and political posturing we see today.

If members of Congress are more independent, voters are too. Just a short time ago, the conventional wisdom among historians was that blocks of voters remained loyal to one party for long periods of time, with periodic realignments that could make possible such policy innovations as the New Deal. Today, however, many voters now affiliate themselves with neither party and seem up for grabs.

What seemed to be the greatest challenge for supporters of the health care bill, however, was mobilizing voices outside the Beltway to push things forward. By contrast, when Roosevelt proposed his ambitious 1935 program, everyone knew that political alternatives had been bubbling up all over the country, some idealistic, others demagogic. They ranged from the novelist Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California program, which scandalized the Democratic Party, to Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Society, which grew out of his flamboyant political power in Louisiana.

Thirty years later, Johnson’s reform mandate was cemented not by political rivals, but by social movements outside of Washington that seemed to link Johnson’s success with his ability to get progressive measures through Congress. Johnson’s basic problem was that he took office with no electoral mandate at all. He worried intensely about it, and solved the problem by tying himself to the mantle of his assassinated predecessor.

Johnson pledged to get Kennedy’s stalled civil rights legislation through Congress. That tied Johnson, in turn, to a civil rights movement whose demonstrations had pushed Kennedy to propose the legislation, and in particular to Martin Luther King, Jr. Johnson could formulate his ambitious 1965 social program only with the added confidence, political clout and electoral mandate that flowed from his ability to enact the legislation that civil rights activists had placed on the nation’s agenda.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration seemed to recognize this problem and sought to mobilize supporters around the country, after months in which that kind of improvisational, decentralized energy seemed more in possession of the opponents of social reform legislation than of its supporters.

To the extent that the legislative triumphs of the New Deal and Great Society are held up as inspirational examples in assessing what the Obama administration has achieved, one should also remember the structural advantages that Roosevelt and Johnson had in putting their programs through, and the help that they received, willing and unwilling, from political and social movement leaders who were beyond their control.

When the definitive history of this political moment is finally written years from now, the ability of the administration, and its opponents, to foster innovation in an age of political constraint will surely be one of the central stories.

Kenneth W. Mack is a professor at Harvard Law School.

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