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

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


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…

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