Archive for the ‘Johnson’ Category

Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

So Much and So Little Has Changed

march-on-washingtonThere must be some cosmic significance (or perhaps the gods of politics are just into irony) that the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington in August of 1963 is being celebrated at the same time that the United States Justice Department is suing the great state of Texas over changes in voting rules that could well prevent minority voters from casting ballots.

The great theme in all the coverage leading up to the actual anniversary of the March and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarkable “I Have a Dream Speech” has been the phrase, “we have come so far and we still have work to do.”

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was with King that day 50 years ago, told an Atlanta television station, “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we must continue to go forward and we must never ever become bitter or hostile, we must continue to walk with peace, love and nonviolence to create a truly multiracial democratic society. Our country is a better country and we are a better people. The signs that I saw before making it to Washington, they’re gone and they will not return, and the only places our children will see those signs will be in a book, in a museum or on a video. So when people say nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes,” Lewis said.

The Congressman then adds that Dr. King would tell us we still have work to do. Indeed, America, we still have work to do.

Losing Ground

The Pew Research Center’s recent study on “Race in America” helps measure just how much work remains. Among the findings in the Pew study: Fewer than 50% of Americans believe the country has made substantial progress in the direction of racial equality since Dr. King envisioned the day when his “four little children” would live in nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” About half of those surveyed said a “lot more needs to be done” to create a truly color blind society.

What is perhaps most discouraging in the Pew study is the retreat – not the forward progress – that has taken place on key measures over the last 20-plus years. For example, the gaps between whites and blacks on measures like median income and total household income have actually grown in that period when measured in 2012 dollars. Put another way, there is work to be done to get back to where the country stood in 1980. There’s more. Black Americans are three times more likely than whites to live in poverty and black home ownership is 60% of that for whites. Black rates of marriage are lower and out-of-wedlock births higher than for whites.

It is hard to look at all these numbers and wonder why John Lewis maintains his optimism until one remembers that he was nearly killed marching for voting rights in Alabama in 1965. He’s the first to say that such politically motivated violence has – mostly – disappeared in America. What hasn’t disappeared, it would seem, are efforts to make it more difficult for people of color, poor people and the elderly to vote and participate in a meaningful way in our politics. Texas is currently ground zero in this debate since the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out the requirement that Texas and other mostly southern states need to gain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before changing election laws.

Texas hardly waited until the ink was dry on Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion wiping out a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before implementing a new voter ID law that many observers believe will make it more difficult for some folks – minorities, the poor and the elderly – to vote. Texas is also going forward with a redistricting plan that many believe is stacked against minority voters.

In announcing the Texas lawsuit Attorney General Eric Holder said: “The Department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs. We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. We are determined to use all available authorities, including remaining sections of the Voting Rights Act, to guard against discrimination and, where appropriate, to ask federal courts to require preclearance of new voting changes. This represents the Department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”

The political reaction in Texas was predictable as Politico reported. “The filing of endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas is what we have come to expect from Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama,” said Gov. Rick Perry. “We will continue to defend the integrity of our elections against this administration’s blatant disregard for the 10th Amendment.”

“Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas and a lame-duck administration trying to turn our state blue,” Sen. John Cornyn said. “As Texans we reject the notion that the federal government knows what’s best for us. We deserve the freedom to make our own laws and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points.”

Consider this tidbit from the earlier mentioned Pew survey. “Participation rates for blacks in presidential elections has lagged behind those of whites for most of the past half century but has been rising since 1996. Buoyed by the historic candidacies of Barack Obama, blacks nearly caught up with whites in 2008 and surpassed them in 2012, when 67% of eligible blacks cast ballots, compared with 64% of eligible whites.” We know, of course, that blacks tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The black vote was critical in both Obama’s elections for the White House and helped turn once solidly Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina competitive for a Democratic presidential candidate. Many experts think Texas is next, but only if the fast growing African-American and Latino voters in Texas have a chance to vote in growing numbers.

The More Things Change

In 1949, a young United States Senator from Texas made his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate defending the southern use of the filibuster to turn back all manner of civil rights legislation. In that maiden speech the young senator talked about federal legislation to outlaw the poll tax, which was of course in an earlier day designed to keep blacks from voting, when he said such heavy handed government intrusion was “wholly unconstitutional and violate[s] the rights of the States.” The south, the senator said, certainly didn’t discriminate, these things were being handled and whats more the south really didn’t appreciate the federal government interfering with its business. State’s rights and all that.

It’s almost as if Lyndon Johnson in 1949 could have been writing Rick Perry’s press releases in 2013. Johnson, famously and historically, changed over time and signed the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Still, from 1949 to 2013, the similarity of the political rhetoric from the young Lyndon to the blow-dried Rick Perry is stunning. Neither one talks about race, but it is all about race.

Under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” There is nothing in that amendment about “sovereign states” or that states “deserve the freedom to make” their own laws. The amendment is not ambiguous. It doesn’t require a lot of analysis. The words speak for themselves. The Voting Rights Act was the means Congress chose in 1965 to enforce the amendment until the Court’s recent ruling. So much has changed and yet so little has changed.

For much longer than a century the basic act of citizenship – the right to vote – was systematically denied millions of citizens. If we consider nothing else as we mark the anniversary of that historic March on a hot August day 50 years ago, we would be wise to consider, with all the work that remains to be done to “perfect” our Union, that we cannot tolerate policies and politics that actually cause black Americans to lose hard fought ground; ground we should all be proud we have gained since that great March.

 

Judicial Radicals

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhen Lyndon Johnson finally decided to double-down on civil rights legislation in 1965 and push for a federal voting rights act he began the political effort by delivering one of his most eloquent and important speeches.

Having already conceded that passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would cause his Democratic Party to lose the south for a generation – a prediction that has turned out to be way too modest – Johnson, the former Congressman and Senator from Texas, did what politicians too rarely do. He appealed to Americans to live up to their proud ideals and then he put the power of his presidency behind voting rights for all Americans.

“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult,” Johnson said in a television speech on the evening of March 15, 1965. “But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Congress debated Johnson’s proposed legislation throughout the summer of ’65 with both the president and the Democratic leaders of Congress knowing that Republican votes were essential to passage since southern Democrats were almost to a man opposed to a federal voting rights act (VRA). Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois is a political hero for his role in securing passage of the historic legislation. In a striking parallel to the dilemma national Republicans face today over immigration legislation, Dirksen realized in 1965 that the stakes were enormous for the GOP if it failed to secure passage of a law to help African-Americans gain full citizenship.

“This involves more than you,” Dirksen told one of his colleagues, as recounted in Neil MacNeil’s wonderful biography. “It’s the party,” Dirksen pleaded. “Don’t’ drop me in the mud.”

Dirksen eventually rounded up the GOP votes necessary to end a filibuster and the Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a vote of 77-19. The House vote was equally lopsided – 333-85 – with virtually all Representatives and Senators from the south voting “no.” When Johnson went before Congress to press for his legislation – here’s a segment – you can catch a glimpse of southern members, like North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, refusing to applaud some of LBJ’s strongest lines.

(Here is one other historical footnote: Then-Idaho Congressman George Hansen, an ultra-conservative Republican, was alone among Pacific Northwest members and one of  just 85 House votes against the Voting Rights Act. Most who voted “no” contended the law was unconstitutional because it intruded on state’s rights to establish voting procedures.)

In 1970, again in 1975 and then in 1982 and again in 2006 four Republican presidents – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush – signed extensions of the Voting Rights Act. In each case Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep the Act in place, including the controversial “preclearance” provision that was at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision that effectively ruled the law invalid.

So extensive was the Congressional work on the Voting Rights Act extension back in 2006 that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the record in her recent dissent in the court’s 5-4 decision.

 “The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held 21 hearings, heard from scores of witnesses, received a number of investigative reports and other written documentation of continuing discrimina­tion in covered jurisdictions. In all, the legislative record Congress compiled filled more than 15,000 pages,” Ginsberg wrote. “The compilation presents countless ‘examples of fla­grant racial discrimination’ since the last re-authoriza­tion; Congress also brought to light systematic evidence that ‘intentional racial discrimination in voting remains so serious and widespread in covered jurisdictions that section 5 preclearance is still needed.’”

Ginsberg also noted pointedly that the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870 in the wake of our bloody Civil War, specifically grants to Congress “the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The Voting Rights Act was that “appropriate legislation” in 1965 and remained so until Chief Justice John Roberts and the other conservatives on the Court substituted their judgment for that of the U.S. Congress.

From the days of Earl Warren’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, through every presidency from Johnson’s to Bill Clinton’s, conservatives have railed against the scourge of “activist judges,” who “legislate from the bench.” Countless speeches have made from the local Rotary Club to the floor of the Senate condemning “liberal” judges who did not merely interpret the law, but “make the law.” It was good political rhetoric and arguably, at least once in a while, it was true. But the recent split decision on the Voting Rights Act should once and forever put the lie to the charge that  it is only liberal judicial activists who wear the black robes.

Chief Justice Roberts opines in the case Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder that America “has changed” since 1965 and that continuing to apply the same standards to evaluate voting fairness for African Americans in the states of the old Confederacy (and a couple of others) fails to take into account those changes. What the very conservative Chief Justice does not confront is the political process, the hearings, the testimony, the reports and first-hand experience that informed the Congress first in 1965 then in four subsequent sessions to keep the landmark law – and the precleareance provision on the books.

There is no nice way to say what Mr. Justice Roberts did other than to admit that he, and his four like-minded conservative colleagues, substituted their judgment for that of the Congress and a conservative Republican president. That action should forever re-write the definition of “judicial activism.”

“When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination,” Justice Ginsberg wrote, “and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.” An eloquent way of saying – leave the lawmaking to the lawmakers.

Regardless of how individual members of Congress feel about the Voting Rights Act, and we can assume based upon the legislative history that the vast majority of members support the Act, any Congressman or Senator should be taken aback by the level of  judicial activism of the Roberts Court. (One wonders what Idaho’s two lawyer-senators think of this ruling both on political and Constitutional grounds. I have yet to see them questioned on the subject.)

Rare in modern times has the expressed will of Congress been so manhandled as in Shelby County decision. In light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama’s recent remarks on race in America and the fact that several once-covered jurisdictions – Texas, for example – have already moved to change voting requirements in a way that many experts believe will make it more difficult for many Americans to vote, it is worth remembering more words from Lyndon Johnson on that night in 1965 when he spoke so profoundly about the right to vote.

“There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem,” Johnson said. “And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.” Progress has been made, but we have more distance to go to solve that problem and again, as in 1965, Congress must act.

 

It Is Never Easy…

lbjWhen Congress created the Medicare health insurance program in 1965 and President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark legislation – that’s LBJ handing one of his pens to Harry Truman who had long advocated for the program – the law gave the Johnson Administration less than a year to implement the vast new groundbreaking program. More than 19 million elderly Americans were immediately eligible for Medicare coverage in the summer of 1966 when the law went into effect, but there was widespread concern that the program wouldn’t work.

As Sarah Kliff wrote recently in the Washington Post “nobody knew whether the new program would provide benefits to millions or fail completely.”

“What will happen then, on that summer day when the federally insured system of paying hospital bills becomes reality?” Nona Brown, a New York Times reporter, wondered in a story published in April 1966. “Will there be lines of old folks at hospital doors, with no rooms to put them in, too few doctors and nurses and technicians to care for them?”

Many of the same questions are being asked now about the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), particularly in light of the news dump in the middle of the July 4 holiday period that one of the most controversial portions of the law, the employer mandate, will be postponed for a year. Obama and those charged with implementing the ACA should hope they fare as well as those uncertain bureaucrats did back in 1966. By the time Medicare took effect 47 summers ago more than 93% of eligible seniors had enrolled, but it required an extraordinary effort to properly launch the program that was once labeled by the American Medical Association as the “beginning of socialized medicine.” Today, of course, politicians mess with Medicare at their peril – ask Paul Ryan – doctors most often now complain about reimbursement levels and the program that many once thought couldn’t be made to work is one of the most popular government programs ever.

How did LBJ and his administration pull it off? And are there lessons in that history of almost 50 years ago for those struggling to implement Obamacare amid predictions that a “train wreck” in coming?

One fundamental difference between 1966 and 2014 (when the ACA goes into effect) is the personality and style of the men occupying the Oval Office. Lyndon Johnson possessed an almost obsessive love of pulling the levers of presidential power. With his White House micro-managing almost everything the U.S. Forest Service actually sent its personnel out into the woods to find “hermits” and sign them up for Medicare. The government hired thousands of temporary workers, opened hundreds of new offices and literally sent people door-to-door campaign style to find eligible elderly folks. It helped that no one sued the Johnson Administration over the implementation of Medicare and that both the government and the country were smaller in 1966. It also didn’t hurt Medicare implementation that the White House and both houses of Congress were controlled by the party that had for a generation or more pushed for its passage. LBJ had no John Boehner to contend with.

Still with many doctors and hospitals skeptical of Medicare the Johnson Administration faced major hurdles in the implementation effort, including the obvious need to get providers suited up for the launch. Government workers enlisted the American Hospital Association to educate hospital administrators and, believe it or not, the television networks donated time to promote the program. Private insurers were contracted to serve as intermediaries with program participants. When Social Security Administrator Robert Ball briefed the Johnson Cabinet in May of 1966 he confidently predicted that there would be some rough spots, but that the implementation would come off on time and it did.

One issue Johnson’s bureaucrats had to contend with that thankfully doesn’t exist today was a provision in the Medicare act that required hospitals to be certified in advance as being in full compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In other words hospitals could not participate in the new program unless they supplied services equally to whites and blacks. Some southern hospitals held out for a time, but eventually came around when it became apparent that elderly whites as well as African-Americans were being denied coverage.

On July 25, 1966 the New York Times reported that “M-Day” had come and gone with civil rights compliance the only major problem. The fears of vast overcrowding of hospitals or that elderly would resist signing up and paying a $3 per month fee simply didn’t materialize.

Obama has his own sticky issues, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threatening the heads of major professional sports leagues if they even think about helping spread the word on the ACA and the House of Representatives still voting regularly to repeal the law.  Once Medicare passed LBJ had little overt opposition to contend with. In truth the Republican Party of the 1960′s was sharply split over Medicare. High profile conservative leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan warned against the evils of socialism, with Goldwater asking what was next after free health care for the elderly, a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink.”

Still four of the eight Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee supported the bill in committee in 1965. In the House 68 Republicans opposed the bill on final passage – including Representatives Bob Dole of Kansas and George H.W. Bush of Texas – but 70 House Republicans voted in favor. A sizable number of conservative Democrats, many from the south – the parties in those days actually had liberal and conservative wings – also opposed Medicare.

So will implementation of the Affordable Care Act crumble under the weight of the complexity of the law and the still fierce Republican opposition? Barack Obama certainly faces obstacles to implementing his signature accomplishment that Johnson didn’t, including a hectoring House Speaker and at least a minority of the country that remains deeply skeptical of the new law. And, as he has before, Obama may find that he has to step up, become more visible and employ his considerable oratorical skills to save the day and define what success and failure would look like.

After ceding almost all of the decision making about crafting the ACA to Congress the president has done a consistently awful job of communicating about the finished product leaving many Americans to ponder, or more likely not, the “eyes glazes over” complexity of the legislation. The naysayers have largely won the battle to define the ACA, just as LBJ refused to allow Goldwater and others to define Medicare as a “communist plot,” and they now seem ready to try to win the battle over its implementation. But wishing Obama were more like Johnson in his willingness to use the power of his position is a little like damning the cat for not being a dog. Yet, it is unmistakably true that forceful, engaged executive leadership is most needed when policy and politics get the most difficult. That is a lesson for the ages.

Let’s give the last word to former federal Budget Director Alice Rivlin who could give the communicator-in-chief a few lessons in discussing complexity and politics. Rivlin wrote at the Brookings Center’s website: “In the polarized politics of our time, the opponents of the ACA have attacked it both as a federal government power grab—described as “socialism” by people who have forgotten what socialism is—and as overly complicated. But if it really were a federal power grab it wouldn’t be so complicated. The complexity is created by our two traditions of relying on private markets whenever possible and preserving diversity at the state level. These traditions are part of our political DNA, and if we value them—and most of us do–we should not complain that they make governance complicated.”

A Democratic administration once implemented a groundbreaking new law amid much skepticism and against considerable opposition. Times have changed, but it should be possible again. We’ll see.

 

It’s the Demographics, Stupid

The modern Republican Party has a major problem with Hispanic voters and watching the party struggle to address that problem increasingly reminds me of the great Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a -dope” strategy during his bruising fight in Zaire in 1974. In this case Barack Obama is playing Ali and the GOP is cast as George Foreman, the guy who punched himself out of contention, swinging wildly while Ali crouched against the ropes and survived.

On the very day the GOP issued a highly critical 100-page report on its performance during the 2012 election and what it might do to get back on track, Republican Senators, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa and David Vitter of Louisiana, indicated that they will oppose Obama’s pick to be Secretary of Labor. That pick, of course, is Thomas Perez currently the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and a man with a classic personal resume that includes being the son of Dominican immigrants and a Harvard Law PhD.

Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions must not have gotten the memo about Republicans wanting to reach out to Hispanic voters after the party’s dismal showing in the last election with that rapidly growing demographic group. Sessions termed the Perez nomination “unfortunate and needlessly divisive.” Ali couldn’t have done a better job of setting up the rope-a-dope. As Republicans prepare to throw wasted punches at the highest ranking Hispanic Cabinet appointee, Obama pivots to his talking points about inclusion, living the American dream and finding a place in the vast ocean of American politics for everyone – especially the demographic group that will increasingly decide elections in the 21st Century.

Here is just one telling statistic about the GOP Hispanic problem as compiled by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza: in the 2012 election just one in ten Republican voters were non-white. That is a remarkable number. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that is white has steadily fallen from nearly 90% in 1980 to just over 70% now. Little wonder that the GOP has lost four of the last five national elections as its base – older white voters – decreases as a percentage of the overall voting population. These numbers also help explain why some in the GOP seem so hung up on making it more difficult, particularly for non-whites, to vote and why the party’s national base has dwindled to a few very conservative western states and the south of the old Confederacy.

Take a look around the west to gauge the GOP’s challenge with the changing demographics of the electorate. Arizona’s population is now 30% Hispanic, Idaho’s Hispanic population is more than 11%, while Oregon’s is 12% and all are growing rapidly. Oregon’s Hispanic population, for example, has grown by 64% since 2000. Similar numbers exist in Colorado, Nevada and Texas. California’s demographics likely mean the state is out of play for the GOP for the foreseeable future.

The left cross that follows the right jab on these demographic numbers signals even more long-term worry for the national GOP. While Mitt Romney, the champion of “self deportation,” gathered in 27% of the Hispanic vote last year – the lowest percentage in modern times for a Republican – the party has actually been losing Hispanic voters for years. Seventy percentage of Hispanics now firmly associated with the Democratic Party, a number that has shown an almost unbroken upward trend for more that the last decade.

The heart of the problem for the GOP is, of course, immigration policy. “If Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the GOP’s new post-election report states. “In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”

But in true rope-a-dope fashion one of the party’s best connections to Hispanic voters former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while trying to navigate the choppy waters to his right and left, recently sent wildly conflicting messages about his own position on whether real reform includes a “path to citizenship” for people who have come to the U.S. illegally. The party’s two highest ranking Hispanic elected officials – Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are so beholden to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that they can’t get on the same page regarding immigration policy.

In the final analysis, however, the rope-a-dope comparison really doesn’t work for one basic reason. In his famous 1974 Rumble in the Jungle Muhammad Ali absorbed tremendous punishment from George Foreman before Foreman finally wore himself out and lost the fight. When it comes to cementing the Democratic hold on Hispanic voters Barack Obama really isn’t taking any punches, or perhaps more correctly the GOP isn’t landing any. Obama can set back and watch as old, white GOP Senators like Jeff Sessions and Chuck Grassley wear themselves out over the appointment of an Hispanic to run the U.S. Department of Labor. Such opposition sends a powerful message that the old, white party just isn’t interested in the new, emerging majority. In the end Obama wins even if he loses on a Cabinet appointment as it becomes more and more obvious where the fastest growing demographic group in nation feels most at home.

History will record that 31 Republican Senators – Sessions and Grassley included – voted against the confirmation Justice Sonya Sotomayor, the first Hispanic appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The vast majority of those Republican “no” votes came from the South and West; from places like Texas, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada were before long that kind of vote will become a litmus test of whether you have put out the welcome mat or slammed the door shut. Here’s a guess that failing to cast an historic vote in 2009 to put the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court won’t look so good in the history books.

In 1967 when Lyndon Johnson nominated the great civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to become the first African-American on the high court only 11 Senators voted against his confirmation. Ten of those Senators were white southern Democrats who made the raw political calculation that they couldn’t risk the home state political backlash that would follow a  vote to put a black man on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Democrats fundamentally changed as a national party as a result of Johnson and civil rights in the 1960′s and, as Johnson correctly forecast, that change cost Democrats the South. But it also helped guarantee that African-American voters would remain solidly in the Democratic camp in every subsequent national election.

The question for current Republicans is whether they are willing to make such a fundamental shift; a shift that will rile the Tea Party and the aging, white base of the GOP?  It is worth noting that the lone Republican vote against Thurgood Marshall in 1967 was Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a fellow who would find himself right at home in the current very conservative, very white Republican Party. Enough said.

 

The Veep

As the analysis continues around Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate a little history may inform how, generally speaking, unimportant the Number Two’s are to the eventual success of a national ticket.

For sure Ryan brings youth, partisan excitement, strong conservative credentials and a certain policy wonk attractiveness to the GOP ticket, not to mention the potential to put dependably blue Wisconsin into play in November. Still, to believe that a relatively unknown member of the House of Representatives really could help the ticket requires a major break with what history tells us about the running mate.

Only twice in the 20th Century – 1932 and 1960 – did running mates really make an electoral difference. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to give the second spot on the Democratic ticket to House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas in order to secure his party’s nomination. In those long ago days, Democratic convention rules required a two-third vote of the delegates to bestow the party’s blessing on any candidate. FDR flirted with trying to change the controversial rule that had forced the Democrats to a marathon 103 ballots in 1924, but even the popular Governor of New York had to ultimately admit that he would have to find some way to command a super majority in order to secure the nomination.

Garner, a tough-talking, bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking southerner, was a favorite of the party’s more conservative wing and had the backing of, among others, newspaper magnate and would-be kingmaker William Randolph Hearst. Garner also controlled a large block of convention votes from his own state, as well as from California. Facing a convention deadlock, FDR and Garner did what politicians used to do – they made a deal. Garner knew that he couldn’t get the nomination for himself, but could potentially deny it to Roosevelt. A dark horse alternative could have happened at the Democratic convention in 1932 and think for a moment how that would have changed history.

Cactus Jack, a the Speaker was called, threw his block of votes behind the more liberal FDR in exchange for the vice presidential nomination. The Boston-Austin axis was created and the powerful ticket – a New York patrician and a Texas populist – coasted to victory over the humbled Herbert Hoover. A vice presidential decision made a big difference in 1932.

Another unlikely pairing, a northeastern patrician and a wily pol from the Texas Hill Country, came together to win the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy was afraid he might lose Texas to Republican Richard Nixon, since Dwight Eisenhower had carried the state in the two previous elections, so he overruled his brother and campaign manager, Bobby Kennedy, and gave the Number Two spot to the Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Arguably, Johnson not only helped the Democratic ticket carry his home state, but also helped ensure narrow Kennedy margins in a number of other southern states. Another vice presidential candidate made a big difference in 1960.

But, that’s it.

It’s difficult to find many other examples in our history – maybe 1864 when Lincoln created a national unity ticket with Democrat Andrew Johnson – where the second place on the ticket helped contribute to victory. More often vice presidential candidates have created problems rather than victories. Think of Sarah Palin four years ago or Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was dumped from the Democratic ticket in 1972. And, more often than not I would argue, a vice presidential decision is made for personal rather than strategic reasons. It is, after all, the rarest of rare chances when one politician can completely remake another.

Harry Truman picked the older Alben Barkley, the Senate Democratic leader in 1948, because Barkley was loyal, Truman liked him and it seemed to be Barkley’s turn. There is evidence to support the contention that Nixon selected the virtually unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew in 1968 because Agnew was sure not to upstage the presidential candidate. When FDR abandoned Garner in 1940 – the eight-year vice president publicly disagreed with Roosevelt’s quest for a third term – Roosevelt insisted on the wonkish, not particularly popular Henry Wallace as his running mate. (Henry Wallace is the answer to a great political trivia question: Who went from being Secretary of Agriculture to the Vice Presidency?) If anything, Wallace hurt the Democratic ticket in 1940 and FDR in turn dumped the Iowan from the 1944 ticket in favor of Truman. The GOP candidate in 1940, Wendell Willkie, gave the Number Two spot to Sen. Charles L. McNary of Oregon, primarily because McNary was well-liked in Washington and had the political experience that the businessman Willkie lacked.

So, Paul Ryan may – or may not – turn out to be an inspired choice as Mitt Romney’s running mate, but if he actually helps the ticket to victory in November he’ll be running in the face of much political history. A safer political bet would be that a relative unknown Congressman from a Midwest state with a long paper trail of controversial votes and policy positions will prove to be a drag on the ticket. There is little precedent to support the idea that a vice presidential candidate is the “game changer” that the pundits have been discussing since last weekend.