What America needs now is Tricky Dick Nixon (no, I'm not joking)

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

In June of 2008, I wrote a piece here (using my Dr. Sidicious Bonesparkle alter-ego) arguing that were he alive today, former president Richard Nixon would be deemed far too liberal to even be considered for the Democratic nomination. That post was brief and its point wasn’t to laud Tricky Dick, but to make a point about how far to the right the US has slid since Nixon departed Washington, just ahead of the posse, in 1973.

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 

20 replies »

  1. I was first hired as an environmental reporter in 1970 in the days when the Connecticut River, in which I swam as a child, was a Class D river (you’ll die in it). But beginning with the Water Quality Act of 1965, then Sen. Edwin Muskie’s work on the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, I witnessed the river recover to class B (fishable and swimable). Nixon was partly responsible for creating the climate in Washington that made such acts possible.

    In this narrow sense, Muskie and Nixon saw eye to eye. Clean rivers were national assets, not just environmentally, but economically as well. Cleanups required construction of sewage treatment plants (much of which the feds paid for). Job creation, I think, was very much in the back of Nixon’s mind when he created environmental protection agencies. I don’t think he saw protecting the environment as solely about nature, but equally about man’s economic conservation of a healthy environment.

  2. Denny, this is an interesting post. It reminds me of a chapter in Tim Russert’s book, “Big Russ & Me,” in which Russert describes how upon first meeting then-Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he asserts that his association with Nixon will hurt him in the NY senate race. Moynihan goes on to point out that during Nixon’s presidency, social spending eclipsed defense spending for the first time in U.S. history. He also says that Nixon funded the arts, protected the environment and proposed the annual wage program you mentioned. “It’s amazing what he would say yes to,” the senator remarked about Nixon. It sounds like you agree.

  3. Amazing how the passage of time can alter one’s perspective so radically. Indeed, the nation as a whole (especially the Republican party) has moved so far to the right that the terms “liberal” & “conservative” have taken on completely new meanings. In the 1960’s, Hubert Humphrey could proudly flaunt his liberalism. Within a decade, Ronald Reagan did his best (aided by sleazeball political operatives like Roger Alies, Lee Atwater, Roger Stone, Charles Black,et. al.) to redefine liberal as the dirties word in the English language.
    Although Reagan’s electoral success was more due to the appeal of his personality & acting skills than to any endorsement of his conservative ideology, it scared so many on the left that they largely stopped even using the word liberal. Even worse, the aggressive recruitment of extremist evangelical Christians for the GOP cause created a new special interest group to whom politicians of all stripes now began to pander by supprting social policies more conservative than anything seen in a long time.
    Politicians are motivated more than anything else by the desire to win elections, Hence, as the GOP moved further to the right, Democrats could not resist the temptation to tack further to the right themselves, abandoning long held liberal ideas in favor of a more “centrist”approach. Look at the last 3 Democratic presidents (as well as the one who got the election stolen from him in 2000): Neither Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or Barack Obama look anything like a liberal in the mold of Hubert Humphrey or Adlai Stevenson. Any time a more traditional liberal sought his party’s nomination, they were unsuccessful- e.g., Mo Udall, Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Dennis Kucinich (Jerry Brown defies ideoological description).
    What does all this tell us? We already know that politicians are cynical enough to do almost anything to get elected. What it shows is that the standards used to judge politicians have moved so far to the right that very few liberals are willing to fight back in an effort to redefine the terms of our political debate; so far, at least, those few courageous liberals who remain true to their principles have not become well enough organized to achieve electoral success beyond the local (or in a few cases, the state) level.
    This has left liberals so hungry for some victories that the are too readily taken in by the appealing personality & life narrative of someone like Barack Obama. Obama is a genuinely nice guy, very smart, & a gifted speaker. However, his record in ofice shows that he prefers to cater to the wishes of the rich & powerful rather than fight for liberal ideas (e.g.,single payer health care);he needs their money to win an election in this era of “Citizens United.”
    The only way to change this unfortunate dynamic is for liberals to become bettter organized & keep the presssure on Democratic politicians everywhere. If they ever become afraid of losing our votes, they may begin to come around. Groups like MoveOn, Common Cause, People for the American Way, & the PCCC are a good start. Still, we need a lot more people to show a lot more courage, & a lot more stomach for fighting our hardest, until the battle is won.
    If we can do that, then maybe in another decade or two people won’t have to write articles like this one about how liberal Nixon was.

  4. Election joke as two bumper stickers:
    Mainstream sticker: “Obama 2012: As Good As It Gets!”
    Progressive sticker: “Obama 2012? Not Good Enough!”

  5. In substantial agreement, though I was corrected recently myself, when asserting Nixon ended Vietnam. He withdrew lots of troops, finally, though it took five or more years (and won Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize, about which Tom Lehrer quipped, in paraphrase, this absurdity made satire nearly obsolete. In fact, despite President Ford wanting to continue some counter-insurgency there, Congress ended Vietnam by denying any more money. Now that simple termination would be a novelty today.

    In the spirit of skepticism about liberal vs. ? terminology, I think another frame would be Government That Works (until Reagan, perhaps) vs. Government in Gridlock (now), neutralized into either stall or chaos so other, more organized powers (corporate, media, lobbyist, religious) take over the vacated spaces — and do whatever they damn well please. You can find a liberal achievement under Clinton, even arguably in lesser terms with Obama, but they are minor in comparison to the abject losses across the boards (to unions, the majority, the poor, the homeless and jobless, the less educated, the young, etc.).

  6. Well, it’ll be their mutual Company patrons, the Bushs (JEB); or their surrogate White House-serf, Obummer. Too Many A$$-$OUL$!

  7. This is a great article! I don’t think I’ve laughed so much at political commentary since HST. At least towards the end of the article: “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.” Great article, thanks for the insights!

  8. One detail about Nixon we all overlook… a President Nixon in 1961, while he still had his mental health, would have been quite different from the one we know from 1969–since he was naturally enough quite insane by then (more so than the rest of us, no?). I would also argue that “Only Nixon can go to China” was as much a truism in 1964 as in 1974; would there even have been a war in Southeast Asia?

    • Maybe not, Kevin. That’s a hell of a thing to consider.

      If you grew up believing Nixon was the devil, as so many of us did, it’s very, VERY hard thinking about the fact that he’s starting to look pretty good by comparison.

  9. If Nixon was a liberal, then “the media” are decidedly right of Mussolini. For who cheered the loudest when Nixon resigned? Our media, that’s who! & Who turned Ronald Reagan, our most politically androgynous (if he was conservative, I’m a particle physicist) President, into a neocon saint? The media, that’s who!

  10. I stopped by because I noticed you linked to my blog with your opening quote. The post you specifically linked to was one I put a lot of time into writing. I was writing about Sirota’s book on the 80s, but of course it began before then. The 80s was just when it became all to clear how much everything had changed from earlier in the century.

    I was recently reminded of one major point of the shift.


    “As you can easily see, real wage growth essentially stagnated in 1974, and ever since the Reagan revolution, almost all growth from productivity has been vacuumed up by the very top of the income scale.”

    I was born in 1975. So, for every year of my life the middle class has been shrinking. In a book about GenX, the authors (I believe it was a book by Strauss and Howe) spoke of how GenX began experiencing this change as children and young adults when the older generations were still mostly oblivious. GenX had high childhood poverty rates and had unemployment rates as young adults not seen since the Great Depression. Minority GenXers were hit even harder.

    Certain demographics felt these changes in very real ways for decades prior to 2008. It just takes a while for Washington DC, Wall Street and the MSM to respond to the reality on the ground. Meanwhile, many middle class and working class Americans were clueless about what was happening and were easily manipulated with fear-mongering and scapegoating. Everything became distorted, the past included.