Conservatives Shouldn’t Seek to Emulate Richard Nixon
Almost three score years after his political handlers promised a “New Nixon,” some on the right have sought to bring the record of the 37th president into focus for a conservative audience. A recent Politico story, and a lengthy journal article discussing Nixon’s presidency by Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, have examined ways in which 21st-century conservatives can emulate one of the most prominent Republicans from the second half of the 20th century.
Those efforts largely fall short for one simple reason: Particularly when it comes to domestic politics, Nixon’s “conservativism” focused on style, not substance. Not only did Richard Nixon not stop the trends that contributed to the growth of government power, but in many ways, he accelerated them.
Big Government Ambitions
In his analysis, Rufo frames Nixon as a counterrevolutionary, one whose strategy contained three elements intended to push back the left’s advances: taming the national bureaucracy, dismantling the radical terrorist and other related groups that had caused so much internal strife in the late 1960s (e.g., Weather Underground, Black Panther Party, etc.), and creating a counter-elite to rebut leftist domination of the media and universities.
But not meeting the goals of the first prong of Nixon’s “strategy” (such as it was) practically guaranteed the failure of the entire enterprise. While temperamentally, most Americans viewed him as conservative due to his hawkish anti-communist stance and his emphasis on “law and order,” in most areas of domestic policy, Richard Nixon governed in ways that most Republicans, let alone most conservatives, would find anathema today.
As a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed observed, Nixon functioned as a tax-and-spend liberal, whose actions half a century ago eerily echo those of the current administration:
In August 1971, Nixon imposed wage and price controls, a misguided policy to constrain inflation. Congress enacted an aggressive fiscal stimulus package while the [Arthur] Burns-led Fed[eral Reserve] provided accommodative monetary policy by only tepidly raising rates before the election, allowing a rapid acceleration of the monetary supply. … Following Nixon’s re-election in November , the Fed raised [interest] rates from 5% to 10.5% as inflation soared.
Big spending by Congress, along with poor monetary policy by the Federal Reserve, led to an inflationary hangover in the Nixon administration, just as they have done for Joe Biden.
Expanding the Bureaucracy
Unfortunately for conservatives, the wage and price controls he enacted in 1971 did not represent the only time Nixon sought more power in ways that expanded federal authority and the permanent bureaucracy. Rufo rightly decries “the cultural revolution that began a half-century ago, now reflected in a deadening sequence of acronyms — CRT, DEI, ESG, and more.” But he fails to note that said “deadening sequence of acronyms” arguably has its roots within Nixon’s own administration.
When it comes to critical race theory and so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, Nixon’s expansion of affirmative action into federal hiring, and creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, perpetuated the grievance of identity politics that persists to this day.
Nixon’s passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments, the Clean Water Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration established a permanent foothold for the left to pit the federal government against economic growth, by allowing unelected bureaucrats to issue regulatory mandates in the name of “sustainability.”
While Rufo mentions Nixon’s “New Federalism” plan as one that intended to devolve authority out of Washington, most of the legislative acts his administration took served only to centralize power within an increasingly omnipotent administrative state. He tries squaring this circle by noting that “by the end of his first term, frustrated by the permanent administration in Washington, Nixon” focused on dismantling the administrative state.
But the efforts Rufo highlights in Nixon’s second term to abolish federal offices, devolve funding for social programs, and otherwise defang Washington’s permanent bureaucracy never took permanent root — in no small part because the legislation Nixon signed in his first term arrogated more power to that bureaucracy.
Rufo laments that Nixon’s “enemies in the bureaucracy and the press were able to use the Watergate scandal to oust him” and thwart his agenda, but even Nixon implicitly (and poignantly) acknowledged the role he played in his own downfall, in his final speech as president in August 1974: “Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them — and then you destroy yourself.”
Nixon aficionados have a point that the president often sounded more conservative than he governed. Denied the ability to utilize a Harvard University scholarship because his family could not bear his absence from their California home, Nixon often denigrated those who obtained the Ivy League education he lacked. His working-class roots meant he rhetorically identified with those he classified as part of America’s “silent majority” spread throughout the heartland, rather than the cosmopolitan vanguard in places like New York and Boston.
But in his domestic policies, Nixon governed in ways that empowered and emboldened the intellectual elites he so loathed. That contradiction should provide conservatives with two valuable lessons: When advancing conservative principles, deeds matter far more than words — and the only way to dismantle the cadre that runs the administrative state involves dismantling power in Washington itself.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.