Let me give you a definition of the word ‘liberal.’…Franklin D. Roosevelt once said…It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. ‘A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.’ – Richard Milhous Nixon
Richard Nixon was our last liberal president. – Noam Chomsky
My brevity, taken alongside the decidedly snarky context of “Dr. Sid’s” writing through that period of time, perhaps invited the reader to treat that argument as light comedy at the time, especially given that way back then, five months before the election, many voters still regarded Candidate Obama as something of a progressive. There was, on the part of most, a decided tendency to evaluate him on his silver-tongued speechery instead of cold analysis of his actual record. Considered objectively, there was precious little in that record suggesting that either State Senator Obama or US Senator Obama was anything but a pretty pro-corporate centrist. In his memoir, the president quips that he earned early – “never scare old white people.” While he may have been playing that for a light-hearted laugh, the lesson seems to have evolved through the years: When we look at his record as president, the prime directive seems to be “never upset rich white people.”
Looking back three years, maybe I should have put a little more time into the Nixon Argument. Not that it would have swayed too many minds, of course, but the truth is that I was onto something quite real and deadly serious. Now I find that other voices, very high profile voices, have come around to my way of thinking. Note the epigraph at the top of the page, for instance – Noam Chomsky uttered these unlikely words to a sold-out house at the University of Colorado back in April. And just a few days ago Bruce Bartlett wrote in The Fiscal TImes that Barack Obama is “a Democratic Richard Nixon.”
Liberals hoped that Obama would overturn conservative policies and launch a new era of government activism. Although Republicans routinely accuse him of being a socialist, an honest examination of his presidency must conclude that he has in fact been moderately conservative to exactly the same degree that Nixon was moderately liberal.
Here are a few examples of Obama’s effective conservatism:
- His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary;
- He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;
- He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals;
- He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;
- And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions that go far beyond those offered by Republicans.
We should pause here to reflect on the diversity of perspectives that have reached similar conclusions. Bartlett has worked for the likes of Ron Paul and Jack Kemp. He was once a “senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House” and served as “deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department during the George H.W. Bush administration.” And Chomsky is one of America’s most renowned liberal intellectuals. These are two smart men who one imagines don’t agree on much.
Nixon posted an objective record that we can use for purposes of comparison. Consider (and forgive me for repeating some of what I wrote three years ago here):
- He got us out of Vietnam.
- He was a keen foreign policy type whose diplomatic efforts strengthened our relationships with both established and emerging world powers.
- He implemented the first significant federal affirmative action program.
- He dramatically increased spending on federal employee salaries.
- He oversaw the first large-scale integration of public schools in the South (something the crackers where I grew up were none too happy about).
- He proposed a guaranteed annual wage (aka a “negative income tax”).
- He advocated comprehensive national health insurance (single payer) for all Americans.
- He imposed wage and price controls in times of economic crisis. This wasn’t a terribly good idea, but it was the furthest thing from a conservative idea. Truth is, it was positively socialist.
- Both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities thrived under his administration in ways they have not since.***
- He indexed Social Security for inflation and created Supplemental Security Income.
- He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.
- He promoted the Legacy of Parks program.
- Title IX became law on his watch.*
- Social spending eclipsed defense spending for the first time in U.S. history.**
- He appointed four Supreme Court Justices. Three of them voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade.
Now, am I telling you Nixon was Mother Teresa? No. Hunter Thompson said Nixon so crooked he had to screw his pants on in the morning, and there was that little dust-up over Watergate. He was run out of town on a rail and for good reason.
There was also his infamous “Southern strategy,” and yes, a thousand times yes, it was unforgivable. A couple of years ago I listened as David Sirota conducted a fascinating interview with a Nixon relative (looking for the cite here, and will update if I can find it). In that interview, it was asserted in no uncertain terms that Nixon didn’t have a racist bone in his body. Instead, the overt racism of that ugly campaign moment was purely and exclusively about the pragmatics of politics. It is unclear whether being a racist is better or worse than being a non-racist who panders to our worst ignorance and hatreds in order to win an election. Neither is admirable, and if on this basis you want to consign RMN to the deepest level of hell, you can feel free to do so with my full blessings.
And a number of people, when presented with the laundry list of Nixon’s accomplishments, reply that Tricky Dick was by god no liberal, that he did some of those things because he had to, that in some cases he was doing little more than taking credit for the efforts of others, etc. To this I reply: maybe, but so fucking what? In this political day and age it is unthinkable that anyone could rise to the level of the presidency with enough soul left unsold to do the right things for the right reasons. The best we can possibly hope for is to get the right things done for any reason whatsoever.
Besides, we’re comparing him with Obama, who seems hellbent on getting the wrong things done for the wrong reasons. Advantage Nixon.
When I say that America needs Richard Nixon, you may read that as more of a comment on how badly screwed we really are than on any laudatory assessment of the man’s essential character. But as you do so, stack the factual record of his up next to the factual record of the Obama administration to date and ask yourself honestly: who would you rather have on the Democratic ticket in 2012?
As I get comments, both online and offline, I’ll be updating this piece. In particular, people have added to the list of things Nixon did. When I add one, I’ll credit them here.
* Belinda Christ
** Charlie (commenter – see below for more)
*** Paul Edwards