Julian Zelizer has an excellent new book about the Great Society. I have a review of it up at the Washington Spectator:
But the most crucial factor working for Johnson was that congressional majorities didn’t have to be persuaded to favor civil rights. With the violence necessary to sustain American apartheid being revealed by the civil rights movement, not only liberals but moderates on both sides of the aisle supported the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act, making it easier to break the logjam created by a minority of Southern segregationists. Overcoming this minority obstruction was far from a trivial accomplishment, but it’s much more easily done when large majorities of Congress and the public are already on your side. And powerful social movements are much more likely to persuade recalcitrant legislators than are presidential blandishments.
LBJ wasn’t the only 1964 presidential candidate responsible for the substantial achievements of the 89th Congress. Barry Goldwater deserves some credit for the progressive legislation Johnson signed into law, including Medicare, Medicaid, and major federal educational and anti-poverty spending. Johnson’s crushing defeat of Goldwater brought with it huge and unusually liberal Democratic congressional majorities. The Republicans who survived “were profoundly shaken by the election returns and believed they could no longer afford to obstruct Johnson’s proposals.”
Zelizer also shows that Medicare was not imposed top-down by Johnson, but its shape was largely determined by negotiations within Congress, with LBJ frequently taking a hands-off role. (And the decision not to pursue universal health care reform was in itself a major compromise, particularly since the decision to provide health insurance to those over 65 made getting the necessary support for European-style health care effectively impossible.)
The liberals who built the Great Society also derived some political capital from a darker source: the escalating disaster in Vietnam.
The thing is, the man who more or less invented the modern position of Senate Majority Leader probably does have the highest legislative WAR of any progressive president in history. It’s just that the effects of presidential action apart from agenda-setting in terms of getting new legislation enacted are very marginal. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the White House is where major change ends, not where it begins.