I was listening to a Fresh Air podcast the other day when the guest said that President Richard Nixon, elected as a conservative Republican, declared a federal "war on cancer" in 1971 with seed money of $100 million for research ($580 million in today's dollars). It started the trajectory that now has cancer-research funding at $4.8 billion.
That snippet reminded me that Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency and enthusiastically signed the Clear Air Act. He supported the Clean Water Act but vetoed the version Congress sent him based on cost (the veto was overridden). The similarly groundbreaking Marine Mammal Protection Act — also supported by Nixon and it became law in 1972.
These things happened not because Nixon was the prisoner of a Democratic majority in Congress — the Democrats were often divided and in those days Republicans had liberals, centrists and conservatives — but because he believed in them or thought they made good politics. He also largely funded LBJ's Great Society, albeit some cloaked in the rhetoric of his "New Federalism."
Nixon was no tax cutter. Instead, he instituted revenue sharing with states and cities, putting federal funds behind his conservative principle that they could use the money more efficiently. He proposed a federal health-care program that foreshadowed in many ways Obamacare, as well as a form of guaranteed income for all. Amtrak saved passenger trains, albeit imperfectly, on Nixon's watch.
For decades, Richard Nixon has been the devil to the left. But the left isn't politically relevant anymore (Jerry Ford Republicanism is what passes for "the left" in today's broken political spectrum). What's more consequential is that Nixon is now the devil to the right, which is more powerful than ever. So in the public square today, we are relitigating not Watergate but the domestic achievements of Tricky Dick.
This antipathy is real but unspoken. Unspoken at least partly because enough Republican voters are still alive who believe that Nixon was railroaded out of office for offenses that some of his predecessors did with impunity. That this was payback going all the way back to Nixon's HUAC days and investigation (what the left saw as McCarthyite persecution) of the patrician diplomat Alger Hiss (who almost certainly was a Soviet spy).
But unspoken, too, because today's Republican politicians believe history began in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Not the actual Reagan who often governed pragmatically and did nothing to further the agenda of the theocrats and anti-abortion lobby, but the Reagan of rhetoric, their fevered projections, and tax cuts (although the real Reagan raised taxes more times than he cut them).
Today's GOP politicians don't even realize the parts of Nixon they have adopted: the "Southern strategy" of going after white voters with racist dog whistles (irony: as Vice President, Nixon had been a strong civil rights supporter and Daddy King backed him for president in 1960). Another one: paranoia.
My intention is not to simplify an extremely complex historical figure (I'll leave it to commenters to enumerate Nixon's sins; that's not my point here — but do tell us how Watergate was worse than Bush/Cheney). Would cynical Nixon salute the Tea Party merely because they win? Or would Quaker Nixon listen to his sainted mother? It is impossible to put a historical figure in the present and play pretend with any certainty.
Still, whether the candidate is Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz in 2016, this GOP presidential campaign will be running on a platform to repeal the New Deal, the Great Society, and much of the Nixon administration.
Only in a country that enjoys the protections and progress from those eras, as well as those of many other presidencies (think of George H.W. Bush and the Americans with Disabilities Act), could a plausible majority thoughtlessly vote to roll them back. The regression is astounding. But that's where we are.
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