Politics & Policy

Nixon at 100: Was He ‘America’s Last Liberal’?

His record was far from conservative.

January 9 marked what would have been Richard Nixon’s 100th birthday and reignited an old debate among conservatives. Some view him as an underappreciated statesman who is a victim of a liberal double standard. Conrad Black proclaimed in a 2011piece on NRO that Nixon was “halfway to Mount Rushmore.” I have a more negative take: I believe that Richard Nixon governed more as a liberal than anything else, and that the Watergate scandal set back the cause of conservatism. From our failure to control runaway spending to restrictions on campaign finance, we are still dealing with the repercussions of his mistakes.

There is clear evidence that Nixon didn’t really like or trust conservatives, even if he hired a bunch of them. Rather, he used them and freely abandoned their principles when convenient. In a 1983 interview, he told historian Joan Hoff that his many liberal initiatives as president (from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to his calls for universal health insurance) reflected his own background and association with the “progressive” wing of the Republican party.

In private, Nixon was scathing about conservatives ranging from Ronald Reagan (he considered him a showy “know-nothing”) to William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review. John C. Whitaker, a top Nixon aide, wrote in Presidential Studies Quarterly that he sat with Nixon on a plane the day after Buckley lost the 1965 race for mayor of New York to liberal Republican John Lindsay. 

“The trouble with far-right conservatives like Buckley,” Nixon told Whitaker, “is that they really don’t give a damn about people and the voters sense that. Yet any Republican presidential candidate can’t stray too far from the right-wingers because they can dominate a primary and are even more important in close general elections. Remember, John,” Nixon lectured, “the far-right kooks are just like the nuts on the left, they’re door-bell ringers and balloon blowers, but they turn out to vote. There is only one thing as bad as a far-left liberal and that’s a damn right-wing conservative.” Whitaker wrote that this and other conversations he had with Nixon were indicative of “Nixon’s visceral tilt towards the moderate/liberal side when dealing with domestic legislation, coupled with his respect (maybe fear is a better word) for the political clout of the right wing, so necessary to win national elections.”

Pollster Doug Schoen, who has worked for such moderate liberals as Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg, has gone so far as to claim this month that Nixon was “America’s last liberal.” He notes that Nixon’s 1974 national-health-care proposal “was a far more liberal concept than Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s.” Nixon would have required employers to buy health insurance for their employees and subsidized the employers who couldn’t afford it. He also imposed a minimum tax on the wealthy (the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax, which is only now being permanently indexed to exclude the middle class) and unsuccessfully backed a guaranteed income for all Americans. And that’s before we even get to how Nixon embraced Communist Beijing, dumped America’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, and signed a highly flawed Vietnam War ceasefire that within two years led to South Vietnam’s being overrun by Communists.

Schoen isn’t the only observer to remark on Nixon’s breathtakingly liberal record; he quotes the late Herbert Stein, Nixon’s chief economic adviser, who once wrote, “Probably more new regulation was imposed on the economy during the Nixon Administration than in any other presidency since the New Deal.”

In a single day in 1971, Nixon famously imposed wage and price controls in a naïve attempt to curb inflation, ended the U.S.’s last ties to the gold standard, effectively devalued the dollar, and imposed a 10 percent import surcharge. The list of agencies he created from scratch includes the EPA, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He signed the command-and-control Clean Air Act into law and instituted racial quotas as federal policy. “Incredible but true,” Fortune magazine recalled upon Nixon’s death in 1994. “It was the Nixonites that gave us employment quotas.” As historian Joan Hoff has noted, “Not until the Nixon administration did ‘affirmative action’ begin to become synonymous with ‘civil rights.’”

Nixon’s most controversial federal-spending proposal was the Family Assistance Program, which would have guaranteed a minimal annual welfare payment for all Americans below a certain income level. It was blocked by a coalition of conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Senate, but under Nixon spending on Food Stamps increased from $610 million in 1970 to $2.5 billion in 1973. Today, 47 million Americans, or nearly one in six, depend on the program.

In addition, Nixon created the Supplemental Security Income portion of Social Security, which constitutes a guaranteed annual income for the aged, blind, and disabled and has been a key component in threatening Social Security’s economic sustainability.

Although Nixon expressed few regrets about his domestic record, the exceptions were notable. In 1989, I was invited to a dinner at Nixon’s New Jersey home with other journalists. I insisted that the first part of the conversation focus on Nixon’s domestic programs. He was visibly uncomfortable about defending them — Ronald Reagan, who had tried to cut back on many of these programs’ excesses, had just left office. But Nixon acknowledged some mistakes. Wage and price controls had distorted the economy and served as a precedent for harmful intervention by other presidents.

Nixon also regretted declaring “we are all Keynesians now” as president, just at the time that economists were beginning to discredit Keynes’s precepts. His embrace of Keynesian theory led him to become the first president to submit a budget based on the theory that government should spend as if it were at full employment in an effort to bring about full employment, thereby sanctifying deficit spending as “acceptable.”

Another mistake that Nixon acknowledged was his decision, just before he faced voters for a second term in 1972, to support automatic cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for all Social Security recipients. He told me the change was justified at the time but made federal-budget restraint much more difficult when inflation accelerated later in the 1970s.

But my major memory of that dinner was that, despite occasional regrets, Nixon remained quite proud of his domestic achievements, which expanded the welfare and bureaucratic states. Indeed, the record is clear. As Joan Hoff observed in Nixon Reconsidered, her book seeking to rehabilitate Nixon with liberals:

From the first to the last of the Nixon budgets –1970 through 1975 — spending on human resource programs exceeded spending for defense for the first time since World War II. . . . Funding for social welfare services under Nixon grew from $55 billion in 1970 to almost $132 billion in 1975, making him (not President Johnson) the “last of the big spenders” on domestic programs.

That is, until Barack Obama.

Historians should consider Nixon’s record beyond his use of the IRS to harass his enemies and his spying on domestic opponents. Some of his actions were useful (ending the terminally flawed draft) or visionary (a failed attempt to construct an anti-missile shield against nuclear attack). But viewed in its totality, his isn’t the record of a conservative president. At best, it’s the record of a progressive Republican who, in the end, didn’t view conservatism as a valid governing philosophy — even though it was the basis of the republic created by the Founding Fathers.

As we mark Nixon’s centenary, we cannot celebrate him either as a conservative or as someone who respected the rule of law. When David Frost grilled Richard Nixon in a 1977 interview about the former president’s role in the Watergate cover-up, they had this exchange: 

Frost: “Are you really saying the president can do something illegal?”

Nixon: “I’m saying that when the president does it, it’s not illegal!”

That was simply an unacceptable attitude from someone who took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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