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Today In “Dick Nixon, Liberal Hero”

[ 129 ] July 20, 2015 |


Please, please make it stop:

It isn’t that I feel some fervent nostalgia for the good old days of moderate Republicanism, although it’s true that the Nixon-era GOP was only microscopically to the right of today’s Democratic Party on most major policy questions – and decidedly to its left on healthcare and social spending. (Which United States president actually proposed a nationwide, single-payer healthcare system? Well, I’ve already given you the answer.)

The answer to O’Hehir’s question, of course, Harry Truman. I happen to have Richard Nixon’s health care proposal right here, and it’s distinctly to the right of the ACA. (Dig that fully privatized Medicaid!) And even this is far too generous, because it assumes that Nixon sincerely supported such a health care plan, and you’d have to be delusional to assume that. The Heritage Uncertainty Principle might be the most obvious con in history, and yet it’s amazing how many liberals line up to give it their live savings and house keys. Yes, the Republican Party was better then, but its offer on comprehensive health care was exactly the same as it is today: nothing.

I’ve observed this before, but the political universe people nostalgic for 1972 have invented is bizarre. Allegedly this was a golden age in which 1)The Democratic Party weren’t a bunch of corporate sellouts but actually supported single-payer, and 2)the last liberal president Richard Nixon totally supported single-payer and yet 3)not only did single-payer not pass nothing remotely like single-payer came close to passing and 3)when this awesome, way-left-of-Obama Democratic power controlled Congress and the White House for 4 years starting in 1977 not only did single-payer not pass but no major progressive legislation passed. At some point, it might be time to consider the possibility that premises 1 and 2 are wrong.


How to be a Hack, “Nixon Was a Liberal!” Edition

[ 398 ] July 16, 2015 |


Our friend Freddie deBoer is self-immolating today, and since better people than I are on it I’d rather talk about this gem unearthed by a commenter:

Obama is to the right of Richard Nixon irl

We’ve discussed this before, but I’m not sure there’s any better illustration that someone 1)considers themselves very sophisticated about politics and 2)has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about that this particular bit of truthiness. Fortunately, Elizabeth Drew has a good corrective to this nonsense in a recent Atlantic, but let’s respond to Freddie’s attempts to defend this silliness with the tl; dr version:

Check their records in domestic policy.

Ok. I see some environmental legislation that passed with massive veto-proof majorities despite Nixon’s contemptuous indifference to the subject. I see the Clean Water Act passing over his veto. I also see Nixon vetoing a bill aiding the unemployed and local services, a pay equity bill, a minimum wage bill, and a bill creating a national day care system. On the other hand, I see on the one hand Barack Obama signing the most progressive package of legislation since Johnson with razor-thin margins to work with in Congress, and I also see him vetoing zero progressive bills. When Richard Nixon got his first choice he nominated Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court; Obama nominated Elana Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. So, in short, I see that anyone claiming that Nixon is to Obama’s left on domestic policy is revealing their own massive cluelessness.

Check their preferences on health care.

Nixon’s preference on health care was “to do nothing.” We can see this from the fact that he was working with a Congress well to his left and nothing came close to passing. The fact that Republicans can offer decoy fans and various country-fried rubes will take the plans as sincere expressions of Republican policy preferences while presenting themselves as tough-minded leftists will never cease to be hilarious.

I don’t claim to know what precise health care reform Barack Obama would favor in a parliamentary system, but I do know that he succeeded in getting comprehensive health care reform passed where presidents since Truman have failed. Also note the utter idiocy of the methodology of comparing empty position statements with actual statutes. If one takes this logic seriously, Obama would be more left-wing if he had held out for single payer and gotten nothing. This is just remarkably dumb. (And, of course, even the people making this argument don’t take it seriously — the response to such a result would not be “you have to respect Obama’s lefty purism!” but “the failure of the Senate to bring the bill to a vote proves that Obama really didn’t want it.”)

Check their relationship to the social safety net

Asked and answered above. Obama signed a comprehensive health care reform bill that, among other things, included a massive expansion of Medicaid. Nixon — did no such thing, but he did veto a proposed expansion of the safety net.

I dunno, maybe one reason Ta-Nehisi Coates is a much more widely respected writer is that his political writing tends not only to be highly insightful but also tends to avoid massive howlers.

Nixon on Hillary

[ 27 ] April 9, 2015 |


Above: The two kindest, gentlest men in American history.

What did Richard Nixon think of Hillary Clinton? Well, this is probably about the easiest question in the world to answer.

Mr. Nixon praised Barbara Bush as a model of a wife who has her own opinions without upstaging her husband, and suggested that many Americans are still put off by a male politician who does not seem to be as strong as his wife. The former President allowed that, unfortunately, some voters agree with Cardinal de Richelieu, who said, “Intellect in a woman is unbecoming.”

Of course, the caveat here is that Maureen Dowd is the source of this story, so the chances she made it up are probably 50 percent.

But this serves as a chance to say bad things about both Richard Nixon and Maureen Dowd, which means a perfect blog post.

Siting the Nixon Library

[ 26 ] March 29, 2015 |


As I’ve mentioned before, the Nixon Library is Disneyland for cynical left-wing historians. It’s located in boring ol’Yorba Linda, Nixon’s birthplace. Turns out this was very disappointing for Nixon, who had incredibly grand ideas about what his library should look like. And that included stripping the western part of Camp Pendleton for it.

Obsessed with his place in history, Nixon needed to acquire a location that, in and of itself, would command respect – awe, even. He had the exact spot picked out, and it was spectacular: vast, open, California wilderness, miles of stunning beaches, and magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. Its setting alone would trump all past, and likely future, presidential libraries. The only thing preventing Nixon from realizing his vision was something that, in so many other parts of his political life, he never let stop him: it would not be legal.

The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 prohibits the use of federal land for a presidential library, and that presented a problem: Nixon’s perfect site just happened to be on federal property. Worse, the exclusive parcel was, inconveniently for Nixon, in the western part of Camp Pendleton, one of the country’s largest Marine Corps bases.

Occupying eighteen miles along the Southern California coast and more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand acres between Los Angeles and San Diego, the camp was – and is – the main training base for all West Coast Marines. Vital to the mission and readiness of the Corps – particularly those then training to go to southeast Asia – the Marines did not want to give up a single acre or a foot of shoreline. The Department of Defense (DoD) protested that Nixon’s plan would “severely handicap” military functions at Camp Pendleton, pointing out that during 1970 alone, more than 77,000 Marines trained in the specific area of the base that he wanted.

To say the least, Nixon did not get his wish. But he and his henchmen sure tried:

When Congress got word that the president desired to transfer the land – but not that he wanted it for his library, only for a state park, the cover story – it prohibited the sale, lease, or transfer of Camp Pendleton without further congressional authorization.

Nixon, along with All the President’s Library Men – which included H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman (the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Nixon Library Foundation’s board of executive trustees), Donald Rumsfeld, Fred Fielding, and John Dean – went ahead anyway. They wrested thousands of acres and miles of beach away from the Corps, enlisting the National Archives and Records Service, the General Services Administration, and even the United States Secret Service in hiding the fact that he planned to build his library on the stolen land.

Like many of Nixon’s plans to circumvent the law, this one included a cover-up. Unlike many of his plans, though, the cover-up had been part of the strategy from the start. While Nixon’s plan wasn’t fully successful, the cover-up lasted for more than forty-five years – until I discovered hundreds of pages of evidence in what was then known as the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland.

The whole story is pretty amazing. The actual library is insane enough. What this would have looked on a spread like Nixon envisioned, I can only imagine. I almost wish it happened, just so I could make fun of it.

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.)

[ 130 ] 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

[ 295 ] 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.

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