Barack Obama’s historic win has enormous significance for America and its image. It has changed how America sees itself and it has, thankfully, changed how the rest of the world sees America.
But Obama’s election is also concrete proof of the enduring triumph of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Obama’s win is the consummation of two pieces of legislation that Johnson forced through Congress: the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Four decades after Johnson left the White House to return to Texas, his voice, his conscience, reverberates in America. The irony is that while Obama’s win was made possible by Johnson, it also marks the end of Texas’s dominance of modern American presidential politics.
Obama ascendance comes at the cost of Texas influence. George W. Bush, the least-popular president in the history of polling, is likely to be the last Texas president for a long time. Obama’s successful campaign was largely based on an effort to tie John McCain to the unpopular Bush at every opportunity. Obama’s single most effective TV commercial may have been the one that shows McCain himself saying that he voted with Bush 90 percent of the time.
Bush got to the White House by taking advantage of the very trend that Johnson feared: In 1964, after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he reportedly told an aide “We have lost the South for a generation.” Johnson has been proven right. Ever since Johnson moved back to his ranch a few dozen miles west of Austin, the Old South has been solidly Republican and Texas has been the western bulwark of the GOP South.
Both George Bushes, 41 and 43, used Texas as their springboard to the White House by relying on the state’s huge trove of Electoral College votes and its big money donors. Texas, a state that was solidly Democratic in Johnson’s day — and has given the U.S. powerful Democratic politicians like former Speakers of the House Sam Rayburn and Jim Wright, and vice presidents like John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner (who famously said the vice presidency wasn’t worth a “bucket of warm spit”) — has become a lead-pipe cinch for the Republicans.
Texas has also been a fairly reliable barometer of success for candidates seeking the White House. Over the past 84 years – 21 elections — only three men have won the presidency without winning Texas: Obama, Bill Clinton (who did it twice, in 1996 and 1992) and Richard Nixon in 1968. Prior to Nixon, the last president to lose Texas and still win the White House was Calvin Coolidge, who lost the state to John W. Davis in 1924, the same year Congress granted citizenship to Native Americans.
When George W. Bush moves out of the White House in January, it will end a remarkable epoch in American politics, an era of unrivaled dominance by the Lone Star State. The numbers prove the point: Two of the last three U.S. presidents, and three of the last eight, have been Texans. By the time Bush hands Obama the keys to the White House, a Texan will have been either president or vice president for 28 of the preceding 48 years.
Obama’s win signals a shift in power away from the South in general, and a shift away from Texas in specific. The states of the old Confederacy — the cradle of GOP reactionaries for decades – isn’t reliable Republican territory any more. Obama won Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Sure, he lost Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of the South. But the Republican Party is in disarray and the GOP’s Texas contingent has negligible power on Capitol Hill. Power players like Tom DeLay and Dick Armey have been relegated to the sidelines. And Texas has a dearth of political stars — Republican or Democrat — who are likely to emerge as national players over the next few years.
In short, the election of Obama and the triumph of the Democrats signals a major shift in the balance of political power. And that shift is northward. Part of that shift is due to demographics and the huge influx of young voters in this election. It is also due to the enduring strength of Johnson’s guts and vision.
Johnson’s great sin was his continuation and expansion of the Vietnam War. But his great redemption was the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. By muscling those two pieces of legislation through Congress, Johnson made real the promises set forth in the Declaration of Independence. On March 15, 1965, a week after violence erupted in Selma, Alabama over the rights of blacks to vote, Johnson delivered what’s now known as the “We Shall Overcome” speech. There are many great lines in the speech, but perhaps the most notable was his rejection of “state’s rights” the phrase that segregationists had used for decades to prevent blacks and minorities from voting. Johnson declared “There is no issue of state’s rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”
Today, Johnson’s legacy endures. The U.S. will soon have a black president from the state that gave us Abraham Lincoln. But it took a white president from Texas to make Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation a reality. And now that Lincoln’s promise has reached its fruition with Obama heading for the Oval Office, the state that gave us Johnson has suddenly become far less important.
ROBERT BRYCE is the author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence.”