One of the last of my summer readings was a revealing book about the rise of progressives to power in early 20th century Washington by Michael Wolraich. He tells a story that has current echoes -- a fight between a pragmatic party leader, Theodore Roosevelt, and an ideological purist, Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin. Both wanted the same things, but pursued quite different tactics. LaFollette refused to compromise and traveled the country exposing the cowardice of his colleagues who failed to vote with him. [He really reminds me of the tactics of Sen. Cruz of Texas today.] President Roosevelt -- to a degree surprising to me -- had almost daily meetings with congressional leaders, trying to work out details of compromises. While most of the action was in the Republican Party, the progressives wound up splitting both parties, leading to Woodrow Wilson's amazing first term and its progressive legislation.
I'm sick and tired of the calls from Capitol Hill for President Obama to "show more leadership" and spend more time schmoozing with lawmakers of both parties, as if that would overcome the hyperpartisanship and legislative gridlock that has captured Washington. Yes, Lyndon Johnson intimidated congressmen into doing his bidding -- but he had significant Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, as well as longstanding personal relationships to draw on. So did FDR. Even Teddy Roosevelt had strong Republican majorities in Congress -- and leaders who could deliver the rank and file behind whatever they agreed.
Obama faces a GOP-controlled House, a Senate gridlocked by GOP obstructionists, and congressional leaders like Speaker Boehner who cannot deliver their troops in support of any compromises.