Many policies favored by President Nixon, from wage controls to healthcare, were hardly conservative.
I have often heard right-leaning folks say something along the lines of, “Apart from the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon was a great president.” Richard Nixon was tremendously popular for the majority of his presidency. He won his second term by one of the largest landslides in the history of presidential elections, defeating George McGovern by an electoral count of 520-17, and garnering almost 61% of the popular vote.
Conservatives who still admire President Nixon perhaps mistakenly attribute his popularity to greatness. Greatness is a relatively subjective term; however, conservatives should consider a president “great”only if the president pursued a conservative agenda. Overall, Mr. Nixon did more for progressive causes than he did for conservatism. Here’s why:
The size of the federal government grew significantly under President Nixon. Federal spending increased by about $115 billion during the Nixon presidency (13.2 percent over eight years). Mr. Nixon issued 346 executive orders, most of which were burdensome regulations on the economy. During his presidency, he created several new powerful agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. The power of the federal government expanded greatly under the Nixon administration.
Mr. Nixon ordered wage and price controls on everything. In August of 1971 on national television, President Nixon announced: “I am today ordering a freeze on all prices and wages throughout the United States.” Although this was an extreme example of government overreach, the move was popular: 75 percent supported the plan according to polls. When it came to domestic policy, Mr. Nixon appeared to care more about passing popular legislation than strictly following a conservative agenda.
Richard Nixon supported nationalizing health care. The health care plan proposed by the Nixon administration was even more progressive than the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). Mr. Nixon’s proposal included an employer mandate that would require companies of all sizes to provide health insurance for their employees. The ACA only requires companies with more than 50 employees to do the same. Mr. Nixon’s plan would have placed restrictions on how insurance companies could vary their benefits packages; the ACA actually allows more freedom. Now, I am by no means advocating for the ACA; it was a disastrous theory and has now become a disaster in practice. The Nixon administration’s health care proposal was even more disastrous. Fortunately, it received enough opposition in Congress not to be implemented.
President Nixon pushed for a more moderate Republican Party. In July of 1960, Mr. Nixon met with Nelson Rockefeller, the successful businessman and governor of New York, to discuss pushing the Republican platform in a more moderate direction. The “Goldwater conservatives” were rightfully outraged. Richard Nixon favored pragmatism and coming to the middle, even if it led the party away from ideological consistency.
Political courage is rare. It can be difficult to stand up for what you believe, especially when it means losing votes.
All of this is not to say Richard Nixon was a bad president. Under Richard Nixon, the United States grew as a leader in world diplomacy. Modern Republicans should look to the Nixon administration for examples of how to properly conduct a foreign policy. Mr. Nixon used diplomacy where proper, but he was never afraid to escalate a situation when necessary. His negotiations with China helped the United States develop the trade partnership we have with the economic giant today, though perhaps he was incorrect to fail to sufficiently engage with the fact that Mao Zedong was responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.
Mr. Nixon did well to negotiate with the Soviet Union regarding nuclear peace. President Nixon also took a hardline stance against the evils of communism. His contributions in communist countries like Chile, Vietnam, Cuba, Cambodia, China, and the USSR helped provide the groundwork for President Ronald Reagan to defeat communism. Had President Carter stuck with the tactics favored by the Nixon administration, communism may have declined sooner in Eastern Europe.
Many of the policies Richard Nixon pursued were not particularly conservative, even if his private worldview or off-the-record comments suggested otherwise. Some of his policy stances seemed more the result of pragmatism and political expediency rather than a commitment to principle. Republicans, thus, should not be so quick to defend President Nixon. Just because he was a Republican in-name does not mean he should be revered by Republicans when so many of his policy positions inclined leftward.