As we celebrate Richard Nixon’s 100th birthday, there is so much more to reflect on than the Watergate scandal. Nixon is many things to many people, but 40 years after his crushing 1972 reelection victory, it becomes clearer that he is also something few would have imagined: America’s last liberal.
That may sound like more than a bit of a stretch, a misunderstanding of Nixon’s presidency and his policies. But I would counter that if we look back over the last 45 some-odd years in American history, we have ample evidence that Nixon’s credentials would put him starkly at odds with today’s Republican Party.
Though Nixon, and other Republicans in the 1970s, would never have expressed it in this way, our 37th president was a pro-big government, pro-public spending, and pro-social safety net president.
Nixon was not only a fervent supporter of the Clean Air Act, the first federal law designed to control air pollution on the national level; he also gave us the Environmental Protection Agency. The creation of the EPA represented an expansion of government that would face fierce opposition were it being debated today. The EPA is also one of the agencies on Capitol Hill that the business community most detests—along with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which polices working conditions. OSHA is another Nixon creation.
Herbert Stein, chief economic adviser during the administrations of Nixon and Gerald Ford, once remarked: “Probably more new regulation was imposed on the economy during the Nixon administration than in any other presidency since the New Deal.”
How many remember that Nixon was a champion of affirmative action? “Incredible but true”, as Fortune magazine put it in 1994 when Nixon died, “It was the Nixonites that gave us employment quotas.” Though many credit John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson with initiating affirmative action, it was rather Richard Nixon who first sanctioned formal goals and time frames to break barriers to minority employment.
Social Security benefits, a cornerstone of the Democratic Party platform, were also crucial to Nixon’s policies. He ushered in a minimum tax on the wealthy and supported a guaranteed income for all Americans, a move that would rile today’s Republicans to unprecedented heights.
And finally, consider health care: Nixon’s proposed reform would have required employers to buy health insurance for their employees and subsidize those who couldn’t afford it. Nixon’s version of national health care was a far more liberal concept than Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s—and it failed because of Democratic opposition, not lack of support from Nixon’s own party. (Ted Kennedy later said that opposing Nixon’s health-care plan was one of his biggest political regrets.)
On foreign policy. Nixon’s famed “open door to China” policy, in the midst of the Cold War embraced Communist Beijing and the notion of an increasingly multipolar world. Nixon’s ideological flexibility and foresight demonstrated thinking that went beyond partisan divides—a brand of reasoning almost completely foreign to the right today.
All things considered, there is no doubt in my mind that Nixon would not be welcome in today’s Republican party. Considering his ideals and his record in office, it’s no surprise that the GOP chose to compare Mitt Romney with Ronald Reagan in the 2012 campaign, rather than with Richard Nixon. For Nixon stood for an approach and a philosophy that Republicans abandoned long ago.
So, on the 100th anniversary of Nixon’s birthday, we should remember him as a president that helped to change the face of the world and to usher in an end to the Cold War. He did it with what, today, would look like liberal panache.