Former president Dwight Eisenhower was a much better politician than he was given credit for. He had the savvy to perceive that the then junior Democratic senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, was a shrewd operator but, alas, one who, if properly wooed, could be cooperative and helpful as the leader of the Opposition.
Ike made the most of it, and was well rewarded for the effort. With Johnson playing ball on the Senate side and his Texas colleagues doing the same on the House side, the Republican president had a relatively easy time of it on the Hill.
Ronald Reagaan now has a similar opportunity; for in Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic leader of the Senate, the incoming president also inherits a forceful, effective, responsible politician who is not addicted to narrow partisanship. He does not favor obstructionism.
Johnson, of course, had presidential ambitions of his own, and he well under stood that being seen as "statesmanlike" was a step in the right direction. Bob Byrd is thought to have similar hopes, so he, too, may want to be seen as putting nation ahead of party.
Regardless of Byrd's motivies, however, it is evident that he is ready to work with the new president if the latter, in turn, is ready to pursue the kind of prudent, consistent, non-inflammable policies that Byrd tried to urge on Jimmy Carter.
One reason Byrd has gradually emerged as a possible futrue presidential candidate is that the Democrats might still be in power if his advice had prevailed. As far back as last May, he was alone in warning that the Republicans might win the Senate He called for an "open" Democratic convention to pull the party together. Moreover, he went out of his way to warn Carter against the kind of hasty, reckless action that culminated in the ill-fated hostage raid. It was, of course, a political disaster.
Consulting Congress was not Carter's long suit; if Reagan is wise, he will profit by his predecessor's mistakes in legislative strategy or, rather the lack of it.
At the very beginning of his administration, Carter abruptly launched an entirely new SALT II plan that caught both the Kremlin and Congress by surprise. It never had a chance, whereas the proposed arms limitation treaty Carter inherited from Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger would probably have sailed through the Senate.
In spite of that, Byrd loyally set out to reestablish a favorable climate for a revived treaty; but just when it appeared that he had succeeded, Carter have the opposition new ammunition by his excessive agitaiion over a supposedly new "combat brigade" in Cuba. Although it turned out to be a false alarm, it was ruinous for SALT II.
Like Carter, the incoming president has had very limited experience with national and international affairs; but as governor of California, our largest state, he at least has had to deal with an important, and notably independent, legislative body and, on the whole, managed it pretty well. Carter, on the other hand, often treated Congrss as if it were merely a replica of a one-party, rural-cominated southern legislature. Byrd and Speaker Tip O'Neill tried in vain to explain the difference.
The Republicans have only a three-seat Senate majority in the 97th Congress, but it's enough if Reagan plays his cards skillfully. Under Carter, the Democrats had a 62-38 majority in the Senate, but the retiring president nevertheless suffered numerous defeats in the upper chamber.
Reagan's good luck extends beyond Bob Byrd, for Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the assistant minority leader, is also regarded as a responsible, thoughtful legislator who seldons puts a high priority on parisanship. It goes without saying that, on the other side of the aisle, Reagan is especially lucky in having a Senate majority leader like Howard Baker, who gets along with Democrats almost as easily as with Republicans.
Carter's greatest single disappointment was his failure to win ratification of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. Reagan, however, is in a wonderful position to succeed where Carter failed; for if the new president truly wants a SALT agreement, he can count on Byrd, Cranston and other Democratic leaders to ensure the necessary two-thirds majority for ratification-assuming of course, that the Reagan treaty is as good or better than the sidetracked SALT II agreement.