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The Great Society, America's ownership society and wars

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 19, 2005

When I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1967 at the beginning of the 90th Congress President Lyndon Baines Johnson ("LBJ") was quite popular although many Democrats had been defeated in the 1966 elections. Republicans had gained 46 House seats and 5 Senate seats in that election. Remember that in the landslide election in 1964 Republicans won the least numbers of congressional seats they had held since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's re-election in 1936. Republicans almost were extinct. (Senator Barry M. Goldwater (R-AZ) had been defeated overwhelmingly in the 1964 Presidential election.)

Although President Johnson might have been harmed because some Democrats were defeated in the election, most of the Republicans in Congress were afraid to defy him. LBJ was vindictive. He was serious. He was tough. The First Session of the 90th Congress convened after LBJ's Great Society legislation had been successfully passed in the 89th Congress.

As the First Session of the 90th Congress continued President Johnson became more unpopular because of the Vietnam War. By the end of 1967 a coalition of House Republicans and Conservative Democrats had prevented passage of further Great Society legislation. In the Senate, in which only 25 Senators were required to filibuster legislation, the threat of endlessly discussing legislation was as powerful as the filibuster. As a result some Great Society and other Johnson Administration legislation was defeated in the Senate.

In some ways the 90th Congress was the most conservative congress in recent years. In a sense the judicial recriminations which reverberate today might be said to have begun in the 90th Congress. That Congress filibustered the nomination of Justice Abe Fortas to be elevated to Chief Justice.

Some current Democratic Senators attempt to justify the filibustering of President George W. Bush's nominees by citing the filibuster of Justice Fortas. The filibuster of Justice Fortas was materially different because Fortas never received a majority vote and upon disclosure of questionable financial dealings resigned as a Justice, his nomination to be Chief Justice withdrawn. Only 45 Senators had supported Justice Fortas before the fatal disclosures. President Bush's judicial nominees have been filibustered although they had majority support but lacked 60 votes required to end a filibuster.

The Senator who hired me, Gordon L. Allott (R-CO), would have rejected any Johnson proposal. However, White House proposals were rushed to passage by that Congress. Between 60 and 80 Democratic House Representatives and perhaps 10 Democratic Senators no longer feared Johnson and were willing to challenge him. Rep. Joe Waggoner (D-LA), with whom I worked many times, became the titular leader of the House rebels. Joe Waggoner was terrific. The Democratic Senate rebels, still more reserved and less willing to oppose their Leadership, were headed by Senator John C. Stennis (D-MS). They were conservative opponents. There also was a group of anti-war liberals led by Senator Wayne L. Morse (D-OR). The hatred for Johnson was palpable. All the fear these Members of Congress had about defying Johnson had faded. The success of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy (D-MN) in the New Hampshire primary in 1968 was not the only reason that Johnson did not to seek re-election. LBJ no longer had majority support in Congress. Working with the Congress was no longer pleasant.

I mention LBJ's relationship with the Congress because the latest Zogby Poll reports that President Bush's ratings have been reduced to 41%. Certainly gas prices don't help. Certainly the perceived failure of the Bush Administration to act promptly following Hurricane Katrina has not helped the President. Of course, the unrelenting attack by the establishment media doesn't help. President Bush has received the most unfavorable coverage since his re-election ten months ago. Certainly the fact that Alan Greenspan is raising interest rates again doesn't help.

The President's unpopularity is based upon the wars. There is utter confusion about occurrences in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The media reports only bad news about both wars, and the media has much to cover and report. Some observers, who are among my trusted confidents, state that the wars are waged more successfully than the media has led us to believe. Other trusted observers tell me that for all intents and purposes we have lost the wars. It could be a matter of time before we know the truth.

Kabul, the capitol of Afghanistan, is fairly secure although the Taliban still commits atrocities there. The Afghan countryside is different. Some sources have suggested that all Afghanistan except Kabul belongs to our enemies, such as the Taliban and the War Lords. The United States should remain in Afghanistan indefinitely or suffer the consequences. If we were to leave Afghanistan Kabul would be overrun by militant Muslims who would treat as an enemy the Iraqi Government which the United States Government helped to establish.

I understand some groups of observers must report positively because they have adopted policies in support of the war. I discount those reports. Reliable Taft Republicans, named for the late Senator Robert A. Taft, Sr., not his grandson, Governor Bob Taft of Ohio, have traveled to Iraq. Other trustworthy conservatives have told me that we already have lost the Iraqi War because we made false assumptions when we first went to Iraq. They believe that our failure to secure Iraq has allowed foreign terrorists to take control. When we leave Iraq, even if a constitution were approved, militant Muslims would take control and we would have two Iran-style situations to handle.

I'm not sure which observers are correct. My reasoning is relevant because Republican Members of Congress have begun to criticize President George W. Bush. Confusion over the war has affected Bush's ability to get Senate approval for the right Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The confusion has affected the President's ability to gain support for his proposed America's Ownership Society. It could prevent passage of Social Security reform and even tax reform.

Members of Congress who could be harmed by the President's decline now are trying to save themselves. Under these conditions the Democrats could make major gains in Congress. But the Democratic Leadership is so spiteful, so divisive and so lacks constructive alternatives that Democrats could ruin an historic opportunity. Fear over the actual results of the wars keeps the President's ratings so low that Republicans believe they can do as they please. Maybe the Congressional Leadership, especially in the House, could whip the Republicans into shape. But if it were a matter of self preservation versus helping the President, the President unfortunately would lose.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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