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The Everlasting Nixon

When Richard Nixon died in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton surprised many on the Right by giving a warm eulogy for a President he once protested against as an antiwar activist. Then Clinton’s campaign-finance and other scandals began piling up, followed by the out-of-court settlements and intimidation of sexual harassment victims to keep them silent, and the warmth of the eulogy became clear: Tricky Dicky and Slick Willie inhabited the same immoral universe.

Douglas Schoen, a Democratic strategist, lays out in The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixon’s Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics some strong comparisons between the two that go beyond their peccadilloes. Long credited with an innovative “triangulation” strategy that involved kidnapping ideas from the other side, Bill Clinton was in reality following in the footsteps the strategy’s originator, Richard Nixon.

Even their slogans were a tip-off. Nixon said that “only conservatives can do what liberals dream of.” Clinton famously, or infamously depending on your point of view, announced that “the era of big government is over.” Policy-wise, both triangulated. Running for office on law-and-order issues and victims’ rights, Nixon also supported gun-control measures that were stiffer than Clinton’s and even the current President’s: he wanted to ban handguns. Nixon denounced the Great Society’s cradle-to-grave welfare while extending its benefits farther than LBJ envisioned (he supported welfare provisions for single women attending college). Capitalizing on white anger against what they saw as federal favoritism toward blacks, and in effect moving the South into the Republican coalition (a constituency that has ever since then reliably voted Republican), he ushered in “employment quotas” that forced businesses to hire an equal number of blacks. (Paul Moreno’s explication of Nixon’s “Philadelphia Plan” for Law and Liberty readers is here.)

Clinton followed suit from the other side. If it was true that “only Nixon could go to China”—a slogan that encoded the idea that only a strong anticommunist could be trustworthy enough to cut a deal with Mao Zedong—then the equivalent expression for the 42nd President was that only he could reform the federal welfare system. And he did, taking far more Americans off the welfare rolls than Ronald Reagan attempted. Courting the gay vote by promising to get rid of the ban on homosexuals serving in the military, Clinton nevertheless signed the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which defined marriage as strictly between a man and woman.

Schoen deserves credit for bypassing Watergate, the usual obsession when it comes to Nixon, in order to assess his presidency from a policy standpoint. On the other hand, he should have factored in how that scandal brought him even closer to Bill Clinton. Both used pay-offs. Both employed fanatical spinmeisters to assert that focusing on wrongdoing prevented a hard-working Chief Executive from doing the people’s business. Both also enlisted sections of their constituencies whom they often betrayed: Clinton had feminist liberals defending him against Republican attacks on the abuse of office of a sexual harasser; and at the height of Watergate, Nixon enlisted conservatives such as Barry Goldwater (who complained that Nixon only paid attention to the Right when “his ass was in a sling”) to circle the wagons to try to save his presidency.

Then, too, in hailing Nixon as “the last liberal” President of the 20th century, Schoen sometimes lets his enthusiasm overlook key facts, particularly regarding Ronald Reagan. The author christens Nixon a “visionary” for his strategy of détente with the Soviet Union, but it was Reagan who sensed that the Soviet economy was on the ropes. Nixon had believed that the Soviets had a “bustling” economy; he later admitted he was wrong about this and Reagan right. It was Reagan who orchestrated the novel idea of hastening the Soviet implosion by forcing them to compete in a costly arms race they could not win.

Schoen argues that Nixon’s influence is apparent today. He is certainly correct with regard to the South remaining in the Republican camp. But he doesn’t consider that Nixon was a Republican anathema to the party’s conservative base, a major exemplar of a phenomenon that bedevils today’s politics: the RHINO (Republican In Name Only) politician. It is this phenomenon within the GOP that generates so much anger at the grassroots, and has ended up elevating Donald Trump as a serious candidate. Nixon today would be scoffed at by Tea Party Republicans and, even without the specter of Watergate, would have elicited boos from conservatives.

That being said, Doug Schoen has written an engrossing book that certainly validates his argument that Nixon was more than his scandals.