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Escape from Nixonland

[ 13 ] October 14, 2014 |



Paul Krugman points out yet again why, as the annual deficit continues to shrink, “deficit hawks” remain undeterred by the spectacular inaccuracy of their predictions:

But what about people who pay a lot of attention to the budget, the self-proclaimed deficit hawks? (Some of us prefer to call them deficit scolds.) They’ve spent the past few years telling us that budget shortfalls are the most important issue facing the nation, that terrible things will happen unless we act to stem the flow of red ink. Are they expressing satisfaction over the fading of that threat?

Not a chance. Far from celebrating the deficit’s decline, the usual suspects — fiscal-scold think tanks, inside-the-Beltway pundits — seem annoyed by the news. It’s a “false victory,” they declare. “Trillion dollar deficits are coming back,” they warn. And they’re furious with President Obama for saying that it’s time to get past “mindless austerity” and “manufactured crises.” He’s declaring mission accomplished, they say, when he should be making another push for entitlement reform.

All of which demonstrates a truth that has been apparent for a while, if you have been paying close attention: Deficit scolds actually love big budget deficits, and hate it when those deficits get smaller. Why? Because fears of a fiscal crisis — fears that they feed assiduously — are their best hope of getting what they really want: big cuts in social programs. A few years ago they almost managed to bully the nation into cutting Social Security and/or raising the Medicare eligibility age; they even had hopes of turning Medicare into an underfinanced voucher program. Now that window of opportunity is closing fast.

A few days ago I noted that, despite the enormous growth of the American economy, median household income has barely increased over the past 40 years, and has actually declined among younger households. There is, however, one group (other than, of course, the upper class) whose real income has increased substantially over that time: the elderly.

Median household income for households headed by Americans 65 and older has increased from $16,831 in 1967 to $35,611, in 2013 dollars. In the late 1960s, a large majority of elderly Americans either lived in poverty or close to it. (The current poverty line for a two-person household is $15,730). Today that bleak state of affairs has been altered drastically, largely if not exclusively as a consequence of Social Security and Medicare. These programs, born of the New Deal and the Great Society respectively, have been nothing less than fabulous successes, which is why they’re so popular.

Obviously both programs require some changes going forward, with Social Security needing some fairly modest tweaks to remain fully funded, and Medicare calling for more challenging reforms (the ACA is a good start in regard to the latter).

Progressives have been living in Nixonland for so long that it’s often easy to forget that most Americans actually like the results of Big Government (sic) just fine, at least as it’s manifested in our most expensive and important social programs.

Remember How Nixon’s Price Controls Destroyed the Democratic Party?

[ 75 ] August 18, 2014 |

Thomas Frank has another in his “why doesn’t Obama use his unilateral authority to cause the Republican Party to spontaneously combust” series up:

President Obama is in the doldrums. He has run out of ideas, and out of gas. His strongest supporters are in the grip of a morbid fatalism. There is nothing the president can do any longer, they sigh, because of the intransigent Republicans in the House of Representatives. The great days of the Obama presidency are behind us, everyone seems to believe, and the most this once-promising president can do now are hold convenings and issue small-bore executive orders while awaiting a round of midterm elections that are likely to go against him. Oh, woe is he.


There is also still an opportunity for momentous, headline-making, consensus-shattering deeds. Each of the following three ideas would move the country in the direction Obama has always maintained he wanted to move us—toward accountability, away from inequality, toward a healthy middle class. And each of them is sufficiently big that it might make a difference this fall.

I know! If Obama was actually willing to do something, he could take major executive action to address, say climate change. Or discrimination against gays and lesbians. Or immigration reform. Or maybe he shouldn’t bother, since something has changed in 2009 and for some reason these issues are all now at best of minor interest to progressives, just like massively expanding health insurance coverage for the poor.

Frank’s three proposed ideas aren’t bad ones, even if the framing is silly. More aggressive prosecution of financial fraud, sure, although I don’t think getting convictions upheld under actually existing federal statutes and actually existing federal courts is quite the slam dunk Frank suggests. More aggressive antitrust enforcement, quite possibly, although I’m pretty dubious about returning to Johnson-era standards. I’m not sure that bringing expensive litigation to, say, block the merger of the 3rd and 8th biggest shoe companies in the country is the best use of scarce prosecutorial resources. And while this could have benefit consumers I see no evidence that it would meaningfully reduce inequality — small businesses aren’t notable for providing better pay. Increasing college tuition is a serious problem, and Obama perhaps should be doing more, but much of the proposed action here is vague or unworkable. (I’ve written before about my puzzlement with the tendency of some leftier-than-thous to fetishize Nixon’s wage and price controls, but what seems most salient here is that the latter didn’t actually work.)

Whatever the merits of these ideas, however, I do know that 1)taking action on them would not meaningfully affect the outcome midterm elections, and 2)would not cause the Republican coalition to collapse. If bold executive action on important issues was what was necessary to win midterm elections, all of the actions Frank ignores would already be sufficient. I really have no idea why the value of pretending otherwise is supposed to be.

Nixon on Panda Sex

[ 18 ] July 28, 2014 |

I’m not saying this is on the level of LBJ ordering pants, but Richard Nixon talking about panda mating patterns is not something you expected to hear when you woke up this morning. And look, he got his information from Bob Haldeman, so you know it’s reliable!

JFK Stole the Election But Dick Nixon Let It Go For the Good of the Country!

[ 162 ] July 20, 2014 |

The only problem with this well-worn myth, which is not just advanced by those on the right, is that every underlying premise is false.

Did the Left Get More Out of Nixon Than Obama? (SPOILER: No.)

[ 129 ] March 11, 2014 |

There are a depressing number of howlers in Thomas Frank’s interview with Adolph Reed.  Much of the content repeats arguments made in his earlier pieces, so I won’t add to what to what I’ve already written.  But Reed’s defense of Nader does not get off to a good start:

My response to them was, the vitriol was a signal that they were looking for a scapegoat because their flawed candidate couldn’t even carry his home state. I mean, if he could have carried his home state he would have won the presidency.

I’m amazed that people keep repeating such abject nonsense with a straight face. I’ll take it seriously as soon as someone can point to anyone making that argument urging the Republicans in 2012 to throw tons of money into Massachusetts and Michigan. But I suppose it makes this inevitable:

That any public figure, especially a politician or a figure in a movement, is going to be like a hologram that’s created by the array of forces that he or she feels the need to respond to. That’s how it was that we got more out of Richard Nixon from the left than we’ve gotten from either Clinton or Obama.

The first sentence is actually pretty much right. But the second, as Erik noted recently, is wrong even on its own terms. Reed’s version is better because at least he doesn’t suggest that Nixon was a liberal. But the argument that he was forced to be a liberal is still wrong. The Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act passed not merely with veto-proof majorities but with unanimity or near-unanimity in each house of Congress. They weren’t laws that the environmental movement “got out of Nixon”; he didn’t get push them through a closely divided Congress or something. He wasn’t particularly relevant to their passage and couldn’t have stopped them if he wanted to.

But even if we assume that this liberal legislation that passed while Nixon is in office represents more for the left than the ACA, ARRA, the repeal of DADT, etc. — which I think is absurd, and in none of these pieces does Reed bother to try to defend his assertion that no law signed by Obama represents an accomplishment the left can like — one also has to consider what the right got out of Nixon. Where’s the Rehnquist or Burger or Powell Obama appointed to the Supreme Court? What important liberal bill did Obama veto? Taking an appropriately broad view, the idea that the left got more out of Nixon is indefensible, and seems to rely on the tautological argument that if Barack Obama supports it can’t be “left” (and the fact that this doesn’t apply to Republican presidents is instructive indeed.)

And as a coda, my jaw duly dropped at this question from Frank:

The two-party system is so frustrating for someone like me. I often wonder why the Republicans don’t ever make a play for disaffected Democrats. They certainly could have in 2012 and they had almost no interest in that.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you see the two parties, in a time in which there’s an unusually large gap between them (and not just because the Republicans inexorably march to the right), as largely indistinguishable branches of “neoliberalism.” You speculate about why a party that is far, far to the right of even mainstream Democrats on most important issues (economic as well as cultural) has no interest in making a play for the small minority of Democrats who see Obama as the soulmate of Reagan and Thatcher. Personally, I’m inclined to think the question answers itself…

To Noam Chomsky and Everyone Else: Richard Nixon Was Not a Liberal

[ 294 ] February 24, 2014 |

Oh Noam:

Three Democrats have held the position of commander-in-chief since the Richard Nixon era, but if you ask philosopher Noam Chomsky, it was the 37th president and infamous Watergate casualty who was truly the last liberal to preside in the Oval Office.

During a discussion on HuffPost Live, Chomsky weighed in on the minimum wage debate, blaming neo-liberals for keeping talk of wage increases off the table until now.

“It’s a shame that it’s taken so long to even be a discussion,” Chomsky said. “As for support, we may recall the last major program for helping families at the level of survival was under Richard Nixon. In many respects Nixon was the last liberal president.”

Sigh. Perhaps some images will help here. This is a liberal.

This is not a liberal.

I see this argument about Nixon all the time and it drives me crazy. It is deployed by progressives to express their frustration at the current political climate. Richard Nixon did this and that, say progressives. He signed all this environmental legislation. He amended the FLSA, says Chomsky. What has Carter, Clinton, or Obama done!

Richard Nixon was a liberal in no way. Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus. Nixon didn’t like signing those bills. He would have LOVED to rule in the 1980s when he could slash the welfare state, kill Central American commies, ignore the AIDS crisis, and undermine environmental regulations. But he couldn’t do that between 1969 and 1974. Nixon really wanted two things–to fight the Vietnam War and look like a world leader. He didn’t care much about domestic policy one way or another. Sure, if he had his druthers, he would have ruled conservatively. As it was, he wanted to build support for the war by signing relatively liberal legislation.

Perhaps some concrete examples will help. Nixon signed a spate of environmental legislation, ranging from the National Environmental Policy Act to the Occupational Safety and Health Act to extending the Clean Air Act to Marine Mammal Protection Act. But as Brooks Flippen has shown in his book analyzing Nixon’s environmental record, Nixon’s was completely indifferent to anything usually considered the natural world. You weren’t going to see Richard Nixon out hiking. He received no joy from nature at all. He weakened this legislation where he could. But Nixon recognized environmentalists for the political power it was. He thought that if he could sell himself as an environmental president, greens would then support his efforts in southeast Asia, or at least vote for his reelection. Beginning in 1972, when he didn’t need their help anymore, he indeed did begin vetoing legislation, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972. Because he hated the whole idea of it. Moreover, he knew that much of this legislation was passed with veto-proof majorities. He wasn’t going to burn political capital he needed in foreign policy on a useless veto for principle’s sake. He was a conservative in a time when he could not rule like a conservative.

What’s happening today is that even smart progressives are using Nixon as a uncontextualized figure to compare to everything they dislike about today. But this gives the presidency way too much power and essentially fetishizes the power of the presidency at the cost of a meaningful analysis of how political change is made in the United States. Unfortunately, if a law gets passed, the entire credit or demerit for it rests in the popular mind on that president and not on Congress or the millions of Americans who wanted it. This is a mistake.

The framing of this sums up the problem.
Richard Nixon didn’t do these good things for the environment, or at least certainly not by himself. Congress and the American people did. Nixon was making a shrewd political calculation by signing this legislation. He was more scared of environmentalists than business. Environmentalists held more legislative power than business in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until after the Powell Memo in 1971 that corporations got in gear and began pushing back. That coincided with the economic troubles and oil crises of the 1970s and the decline of the liberal consensus, opening the door for decades of conservative counterrevolution that continues today.

By thinking of our past and present entirely in terms of presidential politics, we make enormous mistakes in understanding how change occurs. No president is ever going to create the change we want. Only through organizing for policy changes does this happen. It’s not Barack Obama that is making gay rights a reality. It’s millions of gays and lesbians and their supporters demanding equality. Such was the same with civil rights and Johnson or New Deal policies and FDR. Electing the right president is important, but if you have enough power to scare politicians, they are likely to do more of what you want them to do than your enemies want them to do. That’s why Richard Nixon signed that environmental and economic legislation.

So I’d not only argue this Nixon as liberal construction is wrong, I’d argue it is dangerous because it distracts us from creating the change we want.

Was LBJ Worse Than Bush, Nixon, Clinton, And Reagan? (Spoiler: No.)

[ 283 ] February 20, 2014 |

We cocky Jacobin secular liberals are used to Damon Linker’s moderately culturally conservative concern trolling by now. I must say, however, that this is a twist I didn’t expect:

The competition for worst president since the early 1930s is pretty fierce. But for my money, Lyndon B. Johnson comes in first, winning the contest of awfulness over George W. Bush by a hair.

Wow. Obviously, Vietnam is a major black mark, but even if foreign policy was the sole criterion for evaluating presidents it’s hard to see how this could make Johnson worse than Bush, given that Iraq was just as much a fiasco but wasn’t already underway when Bush took office. But what about Johnson’s immense achievements in domestic policy? Let’s leave aside the question of what legislation Bush signed that can compare to the two most important pieces of Civil Rights legislation ever passed by the United States Congress — although we really shouldn’t! — and focus solely on the Great Society’s poverty programs. First of all, LBJ allegedly misused the BULLY PULPIT:

The same dynamic prevailed in Johnson’s case for the creation of a “Great Society,” made in a speech delivered in Michigan on May 22, 1964. Living on the far side of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical attacks on big government, Bill Clinton’s pragmatic triangulation, and Barack Obama’s decision to reform health care using a proposal first floated by a right-wing think tank,

Apropos of nothing in particular the “ACA was a Republican plan” lie! (Remember this when the list of LBJ’s domestic achievements leaves out Medicaid altogether.) To be clear, I don’t think this was at all intentional, but if someone was writing a post specifically to bait me I’m not sure they could have done better. Suggest that Richard Russell should have run for president in 1964 giving voters a superior alternative, maybe. Anyway, back to the argument:

Johnson’s bizarrely inflated rhetoric cannot help but sound like the transcript from an alien political world.

I find the rhetoric admirable myself, but I’m the first to say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Why should economic progressives not see Great Society legislation as a substantial achievement? Here is the evidence in its entirety:

When it comes to the social welfare programs that Johnson signed into law in order to prosecute the war on poverty and realize the Great Society, they were a decidedly mixed bag. Some, like Medicare, have proven popular and enduring. Others, like the anti-poverty programs wrapped up with the Office of Economic Opportunity, were far less effective, and ended up being dismantled during the conservative resurgence they helped to inspire.

So, the evidence that the Great Society’s antipoverty programs didn’t work is that…conservatives (including the presidents Linker prefers to LBJ) wanted to dismantle them? What seems much more relevant is that the legislation LBJ signed substantially reduced poverty, progress that was stalled or reversed by the policies favored by the presidents Linker prefers to LBJ. Also note our old friend the countermobilization myth in its purest form: if liberals win major policy victories this might produce conservative opposition, so…liberals should preemptively avoid winning?

In his recent paean to Christopher Lasch’s (quite terrible) final book, Linker resists calling the combination of cultural conservatism (“[b]ut for the working class, life in post-sexual-revolution America can be far bleaker”) and skepticism towards economic reform reflected in his belief that LBJ is the worst president of the last 70 years he seems to favor “conservatism” because it’s not identical to contemporary Republican laissez-faire. Well, the label is unimportant, and Linker can choose how he wishes to describe himself. But whatever you want to call his political vision, I think I speak for most progressives when I say that it’s normatively unattractive as well as empirically deficient in many respects.

The Wages Of New Jersey’s Nixon

[ 153 ] January 9, 2014 |

But it was worth it — to inflict retaliation on a politician who refused to grant you an irrelevant endorsement!

Emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations – including one in which a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious – due to traffic gridlock caused by unannounced closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, according to the head of the borough’s EMS department.

The woman later died, borough records show.

A definitive example of Republican governance.

New Jersey Nixon

[ 246 ] January 8, 2014 |

I haven’t written about the forced traffic jams in Fort Lee because, while the speculation that it was done for political revenge against Fort Lee’s anti-Christie mayor was plausible there wasn’t really any evidence to support it.  Well, that’s changed:

A series of newly obtained emails and text messages shows that Gov. Chris Christie’s office was closely involved with lane closings on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge in September, and that officials closed the lanes in what appeared to be retribution against the mayor whose town was gridlocked as a result.

Mr. Christie has insisted that his staff and his campaign office had nothing to do with the local lane closings, and said that they were done as part of a traffic study.

But the emails show that Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in Mr. Christie’s office, gave a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close the lanes about two weeks before the closings occurred.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she emailed David Wildstein, Mr. Christie’s close friend from high school, and one of his appointees at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge.


The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, is a Democrat and did not endorse Mr. Christie. In the emails and texts released Wednesday, Mr. Christie’s staff and appointees were gleeful when the abrupt lane closings gridlocked the town for four days, beginning with the first day of school and including the anniversary of Sept. 11. Mr. Sokolich, who had not been informed of the closings, texted the governor’s top appointee at the Port Authority asking for “help” because the lane closings were making children on buses late to school.

“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Mr. Wildstein texted Ms. Kelly.

“No,” she texted back.

“I feel badly about the kids,” he texted.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” she said, referring to Mr. Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, who was trailing consistently in the polls and lost by a wide margin.

This unnecessary damage inflicted on Fort Lee residents and other commuters and travelers is classically Nixonian in that it was bullying as an end in itself, not for any real political purpose. Christie’s re-election was not going to depend on getting the endorsement of the mayor of Fort Lee and was not in any doubt in any case. He did it because he can. You can see why he’s such a darling in the Republican Party…

Nixon, Kissinger, and Genocide

[ 144 ] November 11, 2013 |

As part of my longstanding argument that people making “Nixon was really a liberal president” arguments are being too clever by at least three quarters, Gary Bass’s new book The Blood Telegram is apparently devastating about Nixon’s role in the genocide that preceded the creation of Bangladesh:

In practice, this meant that Yahya — a vain, shallow mediocrity — was suddenly considered indispensable, free to do whatever he wished in East Pakistan. With the White House averting its eyes, the largely Muslim Pakistani Army killed at least 300,000 Bengalis, most of them Hindus, and forced 10 million to flee to India. Bass lays out his indictment of the White House: Nixon and Kissinger spurned the cables, written by their own diplomats in Dacca (the capital of East Pakistan), that said West Pakistan was guilty of carrying out widespread massacres. Archer Blood, the counsel general in Dacca, sent an angry cable that detailed the atrocities and used the word “genocide.” The men in the White House, however, not only refused to condemn Yahya — in public or private — but they also declined to withhold American arms, ammunition and spare parts that kept Pakistan’s military machine humming. Indeed, Nixon regarded the dictator with genuine affection. “I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced,” he told Yahya.

The voices of Kissinger and Nixon are the book’s most shocking aspects. Bass has unearthed a series of conversations, most of them from the White House’s secret tapes, that reveal Nixon and Kissinger as breathtakingly vulgar and hateful, especially in their attitudes toward the Indians, whom they regarded as repulsive, shifty and, anyway, pro-Soviet — and especially in their opinion of Indira Gandhi. “The old bitch,” Nixon called her. “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do,” he said.

These sorts of statements will probably not surprise the experts, but what is most telling is what they reveal about Nixon’s and Kissinger’s strategic intelligence. At every step of the crisis, the two men appear to have been driven as much by their loathing of India — West Pakistan’s rival — as by any cool calculations of power. By failing to restrain West Pakistan, they allowed a blood bath to unfold, and then a regional war, which began when Gandhi finally decided that the only way to stop the tide of refugees was to stop the killing across the border. That, in turn, prompted West Pakistan to attack India.

Sunil Khilnani has much more.

Nixon, Watergate, and the Credibility Fairy

[ 30 ] October 21, 2013 |


Nixon, in the newspapers that morning, argued that the crisis in the Middle East meant that Watergate had to be put aside; Henry Kissinger, that morning, flew to Moscow to negotiate the tense situation, and Nixon spoke about “those in the international community who may be tempted by our Watergate-related difficulties at home to misread America’s unity and resolve.”

This is a particularly egregious instance of a not-terribly-uncommon way of invoking the credibility fairy. The argument (which is not, itself, wholly insensible) is that domestic dispute produces international uncertainty with respect to American resolve and interest, undermining the credibility of U.S. commitments. The most common manifestation of this during the Bush administration was the effort to quiet Iraq critics by claiming that terrorists and insurgents drew inspiration from American discord. To my recollection we’ve seen a lot less of this particular trope during the Obama administration; while I recall plenty of arguments about credibility during the Syria debate, I don’t remember many claims that domestic disagreement itself undermined US resolve-itude. The closest we’ve come to a domestic-politics-as-credibility-problem lately is the debt ceiling fight, which is more about institutional capacity in the face of domestic political conflict than about resolve per se.

Our Nixon Podcast

[ 7 ] September 19, 2013 |

About a month ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian Frye, professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law and producer of the documentary Our Nixon.

Here’s the video:

And here’s the audio.  Profuse apologies for the poor audio quality, for which the fault lies entirely with me.

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