Richard Nixon: The Social Liberal Of His Time


On the centennial year of his birth, a renaissance of interest has occurred about President Richard Nixon. First came Penny Lane's documentary Our Nixon, which compiles home movies shot by the 37th president's closest aides as a way of humanizing the much-maligned "Tricky Dick." Then came the release of The Butler, which adds further nuance to Nixon's cultural image through John Cusack's performance. Finally there was the recent release of the final batch of secret White House tapes, where Nixon discusses everything from Watergate strategies and circuit court nominations to fielding an accidentally placed phone call from a regular citizen.

In light of this new wave of information on one of America's most infamous commanders in chief, I figured it was a good a time as any to pay tribute to a lesser known aspect of Nixon's legacy — namely, how he was one of the last Republican presidents whose domestic policies allowed him to honestly refer to himself as a "man of the center." Although liberals have valid criticisms of such Nixonian social legacies as the ramped up war on drugs, he also racked up some noteworthy liberal achievements, including ....

1. The "Big Six"

To explain the importance of Nixon's "Big Six," a quick tangent is required.

Although conservatives and libertarians love to depict liberalism as a pro-Big Government ideology, this characterization has always been about as inaccurate as the claim that people who are pro-choice are "pro-abortion" or supporters of certain foreign interventions are "pro-war." While extreme liberalism can indeed lead to the collectivist hells of communism and/or socialism (just as extreme conservatism and libertarianism can result in anarchy and/or plutocracy), the vast majority of liberals merely believe that the government can be an effective and even necessary tool for fighting problems like poverty and unemployment, business exploitation of consumers and laborers, racial and sexual discrimination, and the destruction of our environmental resources, to name a few. Nixon, meanwhile, shared the "middle of the road" philosophy advocated by his political benefactor, President Dwight Eisenhower, who once wrote that "it [is] impossible for any durable governmental system to ignore hordes of people who through no fault of their own suddenly find themselves poverty stricken, and far from being able to maintain their families at decent levels, cannot even provide sustenance," with the "Middle of the Road" being "that course that preserves the greatest possible initiative, freedom, and independence of soul and body to the individual, but that does not hesitate to use government to combat cataclysmic economic disasters which can, in some instances, be even more terrible than convulsions of nature."

With that in mind, one of the great missed opportunities of recent history was the rejection of the "Big Six" policies Nixon proposed in his 1971 State of the Union address. As Theodore H. White later summarized, these included not only conservative ideas for welfare reform, revenue sharing between federal and state governments, and a fiscal overhaul of the federal bureaucracy itself, but liberal programs for Keynesian job creation and economic regulation, comprehensive environmental protection measures, and sweeping health care reform. Unfortunately, because the partisan Democratic Congress did not want a Republican White House to claim any substantive domestic accomplishments and the media preferred spectacle and superficiality in its political stories over the president's programmatic details, the Big Six itself was quickly forgotten, along with the meaningful chance for genuine bipartisan policymaking it represented. Thankfully, a few remnants of the spirit of the "Big Six" managed to become law anyway at various points in Nixon's presidency, including ....

2. The "Nixon Shock"

Few aspects of Nixon's economic agenda are as controversial as the so-called "Nixon Shock" — and deservedly so. Only a few months after the Beltway yawned at his Big Six, Nixon stunned the world when he issued Executive Order 11615. Few measures have had such wildly varied effects on the American and world economy; by establishing a cost-of-living council, imposing a 90-day freeze on wages and prices, and setting an import surcharge of 10%, Nixon succeeded not only in curbing inflation (which at that time had been exploding out of control), but prepared the nation for the $25.2 billion stimulus budget he would propose the following year, which led to a significant drop in unemployment (conveniently, just in time for his reelection). Almost as beneficial as the economic gains reaped within 12 months of these policies' implementation, however, was Nixon's demonstrated willingness to stray from the tight boundaries of rightist ideological dogma in the name of the national good. Indeed, by ending most of these policies as soon as it became evident that they had served their purpose, Nixon showed that a president who engaged in economic interventionism could benefit the struggling working classes without lasting harm to their civil liberties.

Well ... he almost achieved that. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the "Nixon Shock," aside from the temporary nature of its positive ramifications (as its measures were rolled back, so too did much of the relief that had resulted from them), was that it ended convertability between the American dollar and gold. Foremost among the problems here was that it placed unprecedented — and, many have argued, dangerous — power in the hands of the Federal Reserve. Additionally, as former George W. Bush speechwriter and pundit David Frum has explained, "There is no magical monetary cure, monetary policy is a policy area almost uniquely crowded with trade-offs and lesser evils. If you want a classical gold standard, you get chronic deflation punctuated by depressions, as the U.S. did between 1873 and 1934. If you want a regime of managed currencies tethered to gold, you get regulations and controls, as the U.S. got from 1934 through 1971. If you let the currency float, you get chronic inflation punctuated by bubbles, the American lot since 1971. System 1 is incompatible with democracy, because voters won’t accept the pain inherent in a gold standard. System 2 is incompatible with the free market economics I favor. That leaves me with System 3 as the worst option except for all the others."

3. Nixoncare

While Nixon's most pivotal economic legislation was marred by his destabilization of our national currency, his legacy was much more solid when it came to protecting the health rights of American citizens. By creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970, Nixon provided the machinery for American workers to guarantee that their working conditions abided by reasonable safety and health standards. In a similar vein, he proposed several health care reform proposals radical enough to make Obamacare pale in comparison. First, in 1971, he proposed creating a private health insurance employer mandate, federalizing Medicaid for poor families with dependent minor children, and supporting HMOs. Then, in 1974, he laid out a Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) that would provide universal coverage by offering Americans a choice between three types of insurance programs, including Employee Health Insurance, the cost of which would be shared by employers and their workers and would cover most Americans; an improved Medicare plan for senior citizens; and Assisted Health Insurance, which would cover the working poor and anyone else ineligible for the first two programs by having Federal and State governments paying those costs beyond their financial means. Although employers would have had to contribute 65% of the cost for premiums under his plan, it was in other respects considered a moderate alternative between the extremes of a socialized health care system and the status quo that left millions of working class and unemployed Americans uninsured or with inadequate coverage. As Nixon explained at the time:

"By sharing costs, consumers would have a direct economic stake in choosing and using their community's health resources wisely and prudently. They would be assisted by requirements that physicians and other providers of care make available to patients full information on fees, hours of operation and other matters affecting the qualifications of providers. But they would not have to go it alone either: doctors, hospitals and other providers of care would also have a direct stake in making the Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan work. This program has been designed to relieve them of much of the red tape, confusion and delays in reimbursement that plague them under the bewildering assortment of public and private financing systems that now exist. Health-cards would relieve them of troublesome bookkeeping. Hospitals could be hospitals, not bill collecting agencies."

4. Nixon the Tree-Hugger?

While he is hardly thought of as a great ecological president, Nixon is responsible for several key developments in the history of environmental protection, including:

- The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which declared environmental protection as an official national policy and established the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

- The Clean Air Act of 1970, which established National Ambient Air Quality Standards to protect public health against excessive emissions of hazardous air pollutants. To implement its provisions, it included State Implementation Plans, New Source Performance Standards, and National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, as well as brought about...

- The signing of an executive order (on December 2, 1970) that created the Environmental Protection Agency, which remains to this day the foremost organization responsible for managing and protecting our environmental resources.

With all this said, however, Nixon did veto the Clean Air Act of 1972 and even went so far as to defund major portions of the bill after it was passed. This is because, at the end of the day, Nixon did not fall neatly into the dichotomous ideological categories that seem to define our political life today. As this brief look at his domestic policy legacy should make clear, he was an incredibly complicated man whose presidency remains so inscrutable that the more we learn about it, the less we truly understand it.This, of course, does not mean that liberals shouldn't pay him his due where it is deserved.