U. S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) became the most powerful man in Washington D.C. by copying the methods of America’s most progressive President.
McConnell dominates the U.S. Senate by using strategies Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas) developed almost 70 years ago. To elaborate, Johnson became a major force in politics by leveraging the power of the U.S. Senate Majority Leader.
In the 1950s, U.S. Senators viewed Majority Leader as a thankless job nobody wanted. Johnson, however, embraced the positions of Democratic whip and Democratic whip. The whip was the Senate Democrats’ second-in-command.
Notably, two Democratic majority leaders in a row lost reelection in 1950 and 1952. Hence, no Senate Democrat except LBJ; an unpopular freshman, elected in 1948, wanted the jobs.
How LBJ Created the Modern US Senate
U.S. Senators hated those jobs because they required enormous amounts of work and did nothing for their reelection efforts.
Johnson or LBJ, however, viewed the party leaders’ jobs as an opportunity. LBJ understood that the party leaders could perform many favors for other Senators.
Johnson could fill those requests and perform all the thankless and boring tasks of party leadership. Hence, LBJ made himself indispensable to other Democratic Senators and some Republicans.
Consequently, the Senators had to pay LBJ back when he needed something. Astutely, Johnson bided his time and spent two years as the whip and five years as majority leader.
Other Senate Democrats were happy to let Johnson handle all the chores they hated. Stupidly, the Senators failed to realize they owed LBJ a giant favor.
LBJ’s Giant Favor
In 1957, LBJ called in the favor to accomplish something most political observers thought impossible: pass a Civil Rights Bill.
To explain, the U.S. Congress had passed no civil rights legislation in 82 years since 1875. Since then, some of the most powerful US Senators had failed to move Civil Rights legislation through Congress.
In 1957, the pundits viewed all civil rights legislation as dead on arrival, because Southern racists owned the Senate. Johnson, however, had a plan. All the segregationists owed LBJ many favors.
Johnson planned to call in all the favors in and get a moderate civil rights bill passed. Johnson proposed moderate legislation because knew that the segregationists would kill a strong civil rights bill.
How LBJ did the Impossible
However, LBJ knew he could leverage the favors to get Southerners to support a weak civil rights bill.
Yet, Johnson also understood that any Civil Rights bill could be an enormous victory in 1957. To explain, Johnson calculated that passing a weak civil rights bill could clear the way for stronger legislation.
On 9 September 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Johnson had done the impossible.
In response, US Senator John F. Kennedy Sr. (D-Massachusetts) observed, “the Democratic Party owed Johnson (the presidential) nomination.” However, Democratic primary voters disagreed with JFK.*
How LBJ Became an Effective President
In 1960, primary voters chose Kennedy as the party’s presidential nominee. In the same year, LBJ shocked pundits by becoming JFK’s running mate.
To elaborate, in 1960 pundits thought the vice presidency had less power and prestige than the Majority Leader’s job. However, the majority leader’s power and prestige came from Johnson.
Perhaps Johnson figured he could use the Vice Presidency as he had the majority leader’s position. To elaborate, Johnson built his career with two thankless jobs, so he calculated another unwanted position could give him more power.
Once again Johnson accepted a lesser job in exchange for future opportunities. On 22 November 1963, opportunity knocked in the form of JFK’s assassination.
Johnson’s Incredible Legislative Success
Johnson took advantage of his experience in the Senate and the national grief over Kennedy’s death to orchestrate the most successful legislative campaign by an American president. The Landmark Legislation of LBJ’s presidency includes:
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Food Stamps
- Urban Mass Transit
- The US Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Food for India
- Social Security Increases
- A modern government for the District of Columbia (Washington DC)
- Public Broadcasting
- The Outer Space Treaty
- Veterans Pensions Increases
- Aid to Handicapped Children
In fact, LBJ got many impressive pieces of legislation passed in 1968, the year the Vietnam War destroyed the President’s popularity. Incredibly, Johnson could get controversial legislation; such as gun control, through Congress while protesters were calling him a baby-killer in the streets.
Johnson could pass legislation because of his complete understanding of Congress and the people in it. No other president; not even Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), rivals Johnson’s success at legislation.
Most presidents are happy with one gigantic piece of legislation. Johnson got dozens of impressive laws passed because he understood the process.
How Mitch McConnell uses Johnson’s methods
Today, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) employs Johnson’s methods to implement his conservative agenda.
Like Johnson, McConnell has made himself indispensable to other Senators. Senators go along with McConnell even when they disagree with him because they owe Mitch.
McConnell has accomplished the impossible in the Senate, much as Johnson did. For example, under McConnell’s leadership the US Senate has approved over 200 federal judicial appointments, including two US Supreme court justices.
In our modern era of federal gridlock, such success is unprecedented. That success is largely McConnell’s work.
Moreover, McConnell’s Senate also passed the most sweeping overhaul of the US tax system in over 30 years. Thus, McConnell has accomplished two seemingly impossible tasks as Senate Majority leader by using Johnson’s methods.
Lessons you Can Learn from Mitch McConnell and Lyndon Johnson
Even those who hate McConnell’s politics, including me, cannot argue with Mitch’s success. I think McConnell bases his success on Johnson’s legislative methods.
Some lessons you can learn from Lyndon Johnson’s legislative success include:
1. Take thankless jobs and do them well. Johnson succeeded in the Senate by taking the unwanted positions of whip and majority leader and succeeding at them. People remember those who take the thankless jobs and repay those individuals.
McConnell has incredible influence because he accepts the unpopular role of defending the despised President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida). Thus Trump owes McConnell everything.
2. Do favors for others. Johnson and McConnell’s successes are based on the gratitude of other politicians. For example, Southern Senators owed Johnson so they would accept his civil rights policy.
Likewise, moderate Republicans owe McConnell so they supported Mitch’s far-right judicial appointments and extreme tax increase. Meanwhile, President Trump owes McConnell everything for blocking impeachment.
3. Know the process. Johnson succeeded in the U.S. Senate because he took the time to learn the Senate’s processes. Johnson already understood Congress because he had over a decade of service in the U.S. House of Representatives. As President, Johnson used his knowledge of congressional processes to pass an incredible variety of legislation.
McConnell is in a similar position to block Democratic legislation and get his measures passed because he understands Congress’s processes.
4. Be humble. Johnson became a power in the Senate because he had the humility to accept the thankless positions of majority leader and whip.
LBJ became president and passed his legislative program because he was willing to accept the thankless position of Vice President.
McConnell has impressive power because he is willing to let Trump hog the spotlight. Johnson gained power in 1960s Washington by letting JFK get the publicity and the glory.
An advantage to this humility is that the mob will attack the person in the spotlight rather than the individual in the shadows when things get rough. Thus McConnell can relax while the media and Democrats try to destroy Trump.
5. Use the power you have. Many people fail because they do not use the power they have.
Politicians; for example, often lose because they spend all their time seeking more prestigious offices while failing to exercise the powers of their current jobs. For instance, the US Representative who skips committee meetings to make public appearances.
Johnson was willing to explore the powers of his positions before pursuing other jobs. Today, Mitch McConnell is powerful because he is willing to exercise all the powers of Majority Leader, an obscure position.
6. Understand the difference between power and prestige. Many people spend their lives chasing prestigious positions that offer no little or no real power. For instance, the presidency of the United States, governor, or mayor.
Moreover, the same individuals will reject powerful roles because they offer no prestige or publicity. Johnson understand this reality and searched for powerful positions with no prestige such as the vice presidency. Hence, LBJ, a man with no charisma and an offensive and obnoxious personality became one of the most powerful and successful politicians in history.
Likewise, the nerdy Mitch McConnell exercises power in Washington because he seeks real power than media attention. McConnell is powerful because he ignores prestige and glory.
Understanding how Johnson wielded power; and how McConnell wields power today, can help you succeed in any form of politics.
*See Leadership: In Turbulent Times By Doris Kearns Goodwin page 205.