Blog #105 – Was Nixon a liberal, conservative, or moderate?
Using the 1970s’ definitions of liberal and conservative, I’d like you to figure out whether President Richard Nixon was a liberal, conservative, or some combination of both – a moderate.
At that point in the 1970s, a liberal is someone who believes in positive governmental action to solve societal problems and to ensure equality for all. Liberals also see the government as the guarantor of civil liberties and human rights. Generally, liberals believe that government can solve society’s problems because sometimes they are too big to be solved by individuals, charities (non-governmental organizations), or private businesses. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to believe in limited governmental actions and spending, traditional American values, a strong defense, and a belief that capitalist free markets can solve economic inequality. Conservatives want to empower the individual to solve his / her own problems and not rely on the government for help. There is also a major divide about how much of the past / present should be preserved in order to benefit the future. Liberals are willing to try new ideas or approaches to adjust to the changing times, while conservatives want to preserve working structures / traditions and carry them forward into the future. Also, liberals tend to come from historically marginalized groups (think women, African American, etc.) while conservatives tend to come from the dominant groups in American society (white and male).
To make the case that Nixon is a liberal:
Nixon raised the minimum wage by 40% in 1974. He also proposed a couple programs that never came to be but seem amazingly liberal – a guaranteed minimum annual wage for families (Family Assistance Program), and an expansion of Medicare / Medicaid so that everyone would be covered by a government health care program, in which all employers would have had to provide health care for their employees or make up the difference for those employees who couldn’t afford it. “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 1971, Nixon imposed price and wage controls in order to curb inflation, and also took America off the Gold standard. These price and wage controls, like Stein said above, was the most overt control of the American economy since FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression. Nixon also signed the Clean Air Act and created the agencies, Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Nixon also expanded the food stamps program from $610 million in 1970 to $2.5 billion in 1973.
This quote is taken from the National Review (a traditionally conservative magazine) in 2013: “In a 1983 interview, [Nixon] 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.” Nixon told this to an aide: “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.”
Foreign policy-wise, Nixon was not like Reagan’s 1st term. Reagan hated detente because he thought that the agreements like SALT I and II were immoral. Nixon normalized relations with China and kicked Taiwan to the curb, even supporting their dismissal from the United Nations. Nixon also left our ally, South Vietnam, in the lurch after signing a dubious treaty to get us out of the war. Yes, we did make South Vietnam’s army the #4 biggest army in the world after we withdrew, but it wasn’t enough to stop the North Vietnamese from invading and seizing the country in 1975.
Nixon also famously said this in the groundbreaking Frost / Nixon interviews:
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!”
This sweeping interpretation of presidential powers is nowhere written in the Constitution, unless you widely interpret the President’s war powers.
To make the case that Nixon was a conservative:
Nixon originally campaigned in 1968 during the chaos of that year as a “law and order” candidate, as someone who championed the “silent majority” who supported American values but didn’t protest the Vietnam War or burn bras or participate in marches / riots. This technique tended to be something that conservatives would do – promote strong crime strategies like capital punishment, more prisons, and stricter penalties and prison terms (think of the the Willie Horton ad from 1988 Bush vs. Dukakis). Nixon swayed white Southern Democratic voters away from the Democratic Party with his “Southern Strategy” in which he sought a fine line between integration and segregation. To many younger voters and war protestors, he appeared to be an authoritarian figure who escalated the Vietnam War by invading Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971. Under his watch, the FBI also launched COINTELPRO, a systematic wiretapping and disinformation campaign that targeted anti-war and Civil Rights groups from 1965-1971. Another one of Nixon’s programs, New Federalism, sought to push some programs out of the federal realm and into the states’ responsibilities. He felt that it was more important for states to have control over some federal programs and be able to oversee how the money was spent – the idea being that the states know better what they need and should spend it how they want to rather than the distant federal government.
Also, Nixon nominated 4 Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Warren Burger (1969), future Chief Justice William Rehnquist (1971), Harry Blackmun (1970), and Lewis Powell (1971). Nixon’s conservative influence would be felt for decades. Chief Justice Burger was critical of the previous Court’s expansion of rights for criminals in cases like Gideon v. Wainwright and Miranda v. Arizona. Despite many conservative rulings, the Burger Court also included such liberal decisions like Roe v. Wade (allowing 1st term abortions to be legal), Swann v. Charlotte- Mecklenburg Board of Ed. (supporting busing to integrate schools), Furman v. Georgia (postponing all death penalty cases for four years), and U.S. v. Nixon (forcing the president to turn over his recordings in the Oval Office).
Why did Nixon do all of this? Some historians have argued that he was poll driven, and because America had gone through a very liberal phase in the 196s0s (Great Society, Civil Rights legislation), he was responding to America’s demands for environmental laws, work place improvements, and the energy crisis / inflation. Other historians have argued that Nixon was an opportunist who wanted to focus on his foreign policy in Vietnam, the Soviets, and China. That Nixon was cynical enough to let the domestic agenda items pass in order to become the great foreign policy president that he strove to be.
Here’s the video of Nixon on Trial that we saw together in class.
So, in your own words,
- Tell me whether you think Nixon was a liberal, conservative, or moderate. Back this assertion up with your own thoughts (and feel free to do some additional research and site it in your comment);
- Explain how this complexity makes Nixon seem more of a real person as opposed to a stereotype or two-dimensional figure.
400 words minimum total for both answers. Due Wednesday, Nov. 29 by class.