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May 08, 2012 1:05 PM Robert Caro and Presidential Skill

By Jonathan Bernstein

I recently read a very nice post by Alec MacGillis pointing out (1) that all the Robert Caro worship tends to promote the idea that presidential skill is all that separates LBJ from all the presidents who didn’t pass as many things through Congress; (2) that Caro himself has encouraged that sort of thinking (not the Caro worship, but the Great Man view of history; (3) and that Caro actually played a small role in preserving the filibuster back in the previous decade, which is relevant because Senate rules are a big part of why Barack Obama’s success has been limited.

None of which takes away from Caro’s strengths (although I’ve only dipped into bits of the Johnson books; I’m a bit fan of the Moses book). However, exactly right. I’m one who does place quite a bit of emphasis on presidential skill as an important variable (which is why I’m constantly quoting Neustadt), but it’s clearly true that context matters — which includes the party structure, the party balance in Congress, the rules and norms in Congress, and other portions of the political situation.

The other piece of this is that with LBJ you have to ask: were the short-term gains from bullying and manipulation costly in the long run? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve always suspected (following both Nelson Polsby and, I think, Neustadt) that Johnson’s troubles were very much related to his style.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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