Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why blaming LBJ and the Great Society won't fly -- July 14, 2011 column


As we approach the 46th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing Medicare into law on July 30, the Blame LBJ Club is still open for business.

The same people on the political right who complain bitterly that Barack Obama and the Democrats should stop blaming George W. Bush for the rotten economy he bequeathed in 2009 are all too happy to blame Lyndon Johnson, who left the White House in 1969, for the country’s financial woes.

LBJ has been a target of conservative ire since before he declared a war on poverty in 1964 and long after Ronald Reagan quipped in 1988 that “poverty won.” The Great Society has become a great scapegoat.

Rep. Spencer T. Bachus III, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said Wednesday the nation is suffering from a crisis of confidence that’s impeding economic growth. OK so far.

Then the Alabama Republican said the crisis’ origin is debatable. The Great Recession may contribute to it -- may? -- but he believes the “seeds of this lack of confidence were first sown in the well-intentioned programs of the 1930s and the Lyndon Johnson Great Society.”

A discussion about an aging society and the need to rein in entitlement costs is one thing. Bachus’ gripe something else. He basically faulted LBJ for treating seniors like family.

Opening a hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Bachus quoted from LBJ’s taped phone calls with his press secretary, Bill Moyers in 1965. Bachus had seen the comments in a June 28 commentary by Thomas G. Donlan in Barron’s magazine.

Talking about the “average worker,” Johnson said, “I've never seen one have too much health benefits. So when they come in to me and say, 'We've got to have $400 million more so we can take care of some doctors' bills,' I'm for it on health…None of them ever get enough. "They are entitled to it. That's an obligation of ours.”

As only he could, Johnson invoked his mother: “It’s just like your mother writing you and saying she wants $20, and I’d always send mine $100 when she did. I always did it because I thought she was entitled to it,” he told Moyers.

“And I think that’s a much better reason and a much better cause and I think it can be defended on a hell of a lot better basis. We’ve just got to say that, by God, you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled to it, and we promised it to her,” LBJ said.

Johnson was as savvy a political operator as ever was, and he knew how to sell an idea. He also believed in the power and responsibility of government to help improve people’s lives. His critics argue in effect that if Johnson wanted to send his own mother a hundred bucks, fine, but why should he make everybody else send Benjamins to other people’s moms?

And yet it’s exactly that cooperative, in-it-together spirit that makes our social compact work. Obama affirmed the ties that bind us in April when he said America wouldn’t be a great nation without the commitment to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and unemployment insurance.

He also emphasized that spending must be contained. He even put Medicare on the table as part of long-term debt reduction. That was a surprise because it’s always easier for politicians to give than to take away.

In 1965, Medicare covered only people 65 and over, and previously only half the seniors had any health insurance. Presidents and Congress have expanded Medicare repeatedly without worrying how to pay for the expansions – another reason it’s odd to blame LBJ for today’s costly entitlements.

Bachus’ remark didn’t go unchallenged. Rep. Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that Bernanke had warned when he appeared before the committee in 2008 as an appointee of President George W. Bush that the country was on the verge of economic collapse.

To say that the series of terrible economic events, the worst since the Great Depression, may be just a contributing factor to today’s problems and that it’s Lyndon Johnson’s fault seems “very odd history at best,” Frank said.

Frank was right, but it won’t stop the right from blaming LBJ and the Great Society.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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