It is long past time for the Republican party, at the presidential level, finally to unshackle itself from the legacy of Richard Nixon. The truth is, the Republican ticket has had a clear Nixon influence in every election from 1952 on — and if the past week’s polling news is any indication, the two hottest potential candidates for the 2016 campaign bear the Nixon imprint again. Lord forbid.
First came the news that former Florida governor Jeb Bush is seriously considering the 2016 race, with a Washington Post poll putting him in a statistical dead heat for first place with Paul Ryan. Then came the rampant speculation that the Netflix movie Mitt, combined with a poll putting 2012 standard-bearer Mitt Romney ahead of the 2016 pack in New Hampshire, would entice the former Massachusetts governor into a third race for the White House.
If either man were to land on the ticket, Nixon’s touch would still be evident.
Since 1952, at least one of the two people on each Republican ticket has had his life, or his immediate family, directly affected by Nixon. (Indeed, every ticket from 1952 through 2008 featured either a Nixon, a Bush, a Dole, or a crotchety Arizona senator, all with immediate-family Nixon ties.) Nixon himself of course was on the ticket in 1952, 1956, and 1960. The next cycle produced the only partial anomaly, in that Barry Goldwater and William Miller owed little to Nixon — although Nixon had slyly maneuvered in subtle ways to make it easier for Goldwater to defeat Nelson Rockefeller so that Nixon would be best positioned to pick up the pieces for 1968. (Baseball great and Republican activist Jackie Robinson wrote, for what it’s worth, that Nixon effectively allied with Goldwater all along.)
The next two cycles, of course, featured Nixon again at the top of the ticket. And the next six featured men whom Nixon had personally groomed for party leadership. Nixon chose Bob Dole in 1971 to head the Republican National Committee heading into Nixon’s reelection campaign; Dole, of course, would be the vice-presidential nominee in 1976 and would head the ticket in 1996. Two years later, Nixon personally chose George H. W. Bush to replace Dole at the RNC.
The Nixon-Bush connection is particularly worth noting. The simple fact is that Nixon rescued Bush’s political career from the scrap heap when Bush lost a race for the Senate in 1970. First Nixon appointed Bush to be ambassador to the United Nations (the Washington Star wrote that Bush’s appointment represented a “major downgrading” of the position), then sent him to head the RNC, and later let it be known he thought Bush might be vice-presidential material when Nixon left office. The simple reality is that people who serve just two terms in the House and then lose Senate races do not usually end up with a series of high-level executive appointments. Without Nixon’s sponsorship, Bush surely would not have been within sniffing distance of a presidential run in 1980, and the vice presidency under Reagan would have been a pipe dream.
Of course, it is almost impossible to imagine that George W. Bush or Jeb Bush would have enjoyed the prominence to have run for governorships in their respective states without their father’s vice presidency and then presidency. So: No Nixon sponsorship, no Dubya or Jeb, either.
So that takes us through the 2004 election. Then came 2008, with another son of a Nixon disciple. Admiral John McCain Jr. was commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater for the entirety of Nixon’s first term, and a stalwart supporter of Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” and of Nixon’s Cambodian incursion; and it was Nixon who negotiated the end of the war and thus the return from torturous captivity of naval aviator John McCain III — U.S. senator from Arizona and presidential nominee in 2008.
Finally, the 2012 GOP ticket was headed by Mitt Romney — son of Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development. Granted, George Romney was more a rival of Nixon’s than a disciple, but when Nixon put him in the cabinet, it was thought at the time to give Romney a chance to rehabilitate himself politically after being “brainwashed” from the 1968 presidential campaign. Either way, again, the Republican party was stuck with Nixon-era families and, frankly, Nixonian political attitudes of only vague center-rightism.
All of which might seem to be little more than happenstance, of no real import. But it’s not. First, it shows that the insiders — the guys with known, family names, the guys with longstanding connections with moneyed interests — still dominate the presidential selection process, adding considerable weight to the public impression that Republicans are the party of stasis, status, aristocracy, and primogeniture. These are not impressions that help win elections.
Second, it makes the Republican party look ossified. If the GOP does nothing other than recycle the same names that have dominated it for the past 50 years, it hardly appears to be a forward-looking organization. Think about it: While I haven’t looked myself, I can all but guarantee that if someone went through copies of, say, Time or National Review from the summer of 1968, he would find at least one issue, if not more, containing every one of the names Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Romney, Dole, and McCain. In fact, the same might be true of a National Review or Time from 1964, although perhaps McCain and Dole would not have earned a mention.
In sum, the same darn names have dominated the GOP for an entire half-century, and last week’s presidential talk contained two of the same names still. (One only awaits a boomlet for another run by Senator McCain to make the story complete.) This is no way to inspire a new generation of voters.
This also is why a shorter presidential nomination season, which provides even a bigger advantage to candidates with early money, is exactly the wrong direction for Republicans to go. Yet (as I wrote here two weeks ago) that’s what the Republican National Committee is doing; and it’s likely to produce another nominee named Bush or Romney, at either the first or second spot on the ticket.
Richard Nixon was a rather savvy politico. But it’s time to move on from the families he nurtured for leadership. It’s time we didn’t have Dick Nixon to kick us around anymore.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review.