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The paradox of Richard Nixon

The recent centenary of his birth has got me thinking, as I sometimes do, about Richard Nixon.

Nixon was a liar, a crook, an antisemite and an all-around son of a bitch. But he had an appreciation for the progressivism of an earlier Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Tory liberalism of Benjamin Disraeli. As president from 1969 to 1974, he pursued an interventionist domestic policy that most of today’s Republicans would denounce as dangerously radical. In 1971 he declared himself a Keynesian and introduced a “full-employment” budget with deficit spending to create jobs. The same year he imposed a 90-day freeze on prices and wages to head off inflation.

On health care, Nixon’s former aide Ben Stein argues, a plan that Nixon proposed in February 1974 was more comprehensive than Barack Obama’s.

Mr. Nixon’s health care plan would have covered all employed people by giving combined state and federal subsidies to employers. It would have covered the poor and the unemployed by much larger subsidies. It would have encouraged health maintenance organizations. It would have banned exclusions for pre-existing conditions and not allowed limits on spending for each insured.

I know a bit about this because I, your humble servant, as a 29-year-old speech writer, wrote the message to Congress sending up the bill.

In many ways, the bill was far more “socialist” than what Mr. Obama has proposed. It certainly involved a far larger swath of state and federal government power over health care. Please remember that this was 36 years ago, when middle-class Americans still had some slight faith that government was on their side.

Nixon supported and signed laws giving the federal government new powers to oversee job safety and health and protect the environment. I’ve previously posted a remarkable video from 1972 in which Nixon criticized Congress for not acting forcefully enough to strengthen environmental laws. (Will a Republican president ever talk like that again?)

As president, Nixon backed the unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which later became the object of scorn among conservatives.

And yet the same Nixon brilliantly exploited the “culture war” politics which not only helped him win the presidency in 1968 and 1972 but which (with variations) helped elect much more conservative Republicans for decades.

That brand of politics– which emphasizes cultural differences between a supposedly out-of-touch “liberal elite” and ordinary hardworking Americans– may have reached the limit of success and begun doing Republicans more harm than good. More on that in an upcoming post.