When President Lyndon B Johnson signed the1964 Civil Rights Act, he reportedly said to his aide Bill Moyers, “We have given away the South for a generation.” For decades the Democratic party, under the leadership of the great FDR and the visionary JFK, had temporized with their own extremists: the pro-segregation faction in Congress. LBJ said enough.
To secure passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson cut loose southern Democrats and worked closely with northern Republicans. A southerner, a politician’s politician, a legendary vote counter, in full possession of his reason, decided to use his much-prized power to do right. At the time, white southerners voted for Democrats by a 10-point margin and accounted for a full one-quarter of Democrats’ total national vote. Johnson knew even he had signed away his party’s control over the federal government for a generation.
To shutdown the shutdown, the GOP needs its own LBJ. While the moment demands a leader possessing LBJ’s combination of political skills and moral clarity, instead, we have Republican Speaker John Boehner who, time and again, has demonstrated that he prizes his speaker’s gavel more than the public interest.
Imagine LBJ ever saying, as Boehner did Sunday, that there aren’t enough votes to pass a clean continuing resolution to reopen the government. The Republican House speaker seems mystified by the historic role of the US House speaker: to lead, not follow, his caucus.
Since the rise of the Tea Party wing of the Republican party, the US has lurched from one crisis to another. It is time to break the fever. As we learned during 2011’s debt ceiling crisis, Tea Party ideologues are insatiable. Concede once, and they come back for more. Since this faction takes compromise from Democrats as a sign of weakness, only a Republican, in full knowledge that the responsible members of the party are likely to suffer defeat, can administer the bitter medicine.
Ideally, the shutdown would end with such a bracing, clean, we are done with the politics of perpetual crisis vote. How the shutdown will actually end is another matter, as I doubt Boehner will man up.
Instead, GOP moderates and responsible Democrats will likely offer the speaker a face-saving exit from the crisis du jour. And some months hence, we will find ourselves here again – a prospect utterly demoralizing to those of us outside the Beltway bubble who care little about the delicate egos of our leaders and are yearning for leadership and a return of political sanity.
Nancy L Cohen is the author of Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America. She is a visiting fellow in the History department at Occidental College and is the author of two previous books on American politics.