In hindsight, many people look back on Nixon and think of him as a liberal. Even Noam Chomsky claimed that he was the “last liberal president”, and he had stood strongly against his war policies. He is not the first person to identify Nixon as a liberal. As his economic adviser Herbert Stein wrote, “Probably more new regulation was imposed on the economy during the Nixon Administration than in any other presidency since the New Deal” (Fund, 2013). National Review seems to agree with this view of him as well, as stated by columnist John Fund (2013) “But viewed in its totality, his isn’t the record of a conservative president. At best, it’s the record of a progressive Republican who, in the end, didn’t view conservatism as a valid governing philosophy – even though it was the basis of the republic created by the Founding Fathers”. Bear in mind that many of Nixon’s stances actually put him very solidly in the mainstream at the time. Most Republicans and Democrats supported the creation of the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration. In 1970, he imposed a 90-day freeze on wages and prices to fight inflation, which were quite popular at the time. Nixon also enacted the predecessor to affirmative action: the Philadelphia Plan, supported guaranteed minimum income under the proposed program known as the Family Assistance Plan, and got revenue sharing passed.
There are some reasons to believe that Nixon’s liberal reputation is overstated and done so to a significant extent. Although the creation of the EPA, OSHA, and the Endangered Species Act are looked back on as progressive moves as is his Clean Air Act, it must be kept in mind that these measures got close to universal acclaim at the time of their passage. The same was true with the price controls instituted at the time. Consider the margins of passage for these measures:
Clean Air Act of 1970
House vote on June 10, 1970: 374-1.
Senate vote on September 22, 1970: 73-0.
The Senate bill was a bit stronger than the House bill, and although the vote was unanimous, John Williams (R-Del.) and Robert Griffin (R-Mich.) were opposed but did not vote as their colleagues, ultra-conservatives Paul Fannin (R-Ariz.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), were absent but supported the measure. By signing the measure into law, Nixon was in accord with Barry Goldwater and all but two senators.
Occupational Safety and Health Act – Created Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration.
Senate vote on November 17, 1970: 83-3.
House vote on December 17, 1970: 310-58.
Endangered Species Act
Senate vote on July 24, 1973: 92-0.
Final House vote on December 20, 1973: 355-4.
The Endangered Species Act, for instance, got no votes against in the Senate, which at the time had figures such as Barry Goldwater and Jesse Helms serving. On final passage, it only had four extremely conservative members of the House voting against. The sagebrush rebellion took a few years to fully mobilize against policies restricting land use in the name of environmentalism.
Opposition to the ways these measures were implemented came from conservatives, and at times not long after passage. Efforts to push back OSHA’s extensive reach were underway as early as 1972, with the most popular push-back measures being efforts to exempt small businesses from its coverage.
Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War was staunchly critiqued by leftist anti-war Democrats, as he opposed proposals for pulling out before the U.S. could put South Vietnam in a solid position to defend itself from North Vietnam. He often vetoed domestic spending bills on cost grounds, opposed strengthening controls on the oil industry in 1974, and opposed the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974. Nixon also opposed busing as a means for school desegregation, issued an executive order effectively restoring the Subversive Activities Control Board, opposed increasing federal aid to education, opposed strong minimum wage legislation, opposed high public works spending, and opposed a comprehensive child development program. As for the Clean Air Act? Nixon backed a proposal by Rep. James Hastings (R-N.Y.) in 1973 to postpone emissions standards for vehicles from 1975 to 1977.
Overall, I think Richard Nixon politically was moderate with a dash of ruthless pragmatism. While he backed a number of conservative backlashes to liberal policies, he pioneered a few of his own, particularly with the Family Assistance Plan. While he took a stance on Vietnam that was for winning as opposed to pulling out, he also backed numerous foreign aid measures. He ultimately was in spirit an Eisenhower Republican. Nixon stood often to the right on issues of spending, minimum wages, etc., but stood to the left on certain issues of social welfare and in particular foreign policy. He thus deserves both praise and condemnation from a conservative perspective.
Fuller, Jaime. (2 June 2014). Environmental policy is partisan. It wasn’t always. The Washington Post.
Fund, J. (11 January 2013). Nixon at 100: Was He ‘America’s Last Liberal’? National Review.
Kenworthy, E.W. (11 June 1970). A Clean-Air Bill. The New York Times.
Kenworthy, E.W. (23 September 1970). Tough New Clean-Air Bill Passed by Senate, 73 to 0. The New York Times.