Undoing the Nixon legacy
12/27/2001 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
My old friend Burt Pines always used to say that Richard Nixon did many things for which he deserved impeachment and removal from office, but none of them had anything to do with Watergate. Burt was particularly down on Nixon for signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. It was worse than unilateral disarmament, he said, because it ONLY restricted our ability to defend ourselves.
Now, to his great credit, George W. Bush has ended the ABM Treaty. Having taken the first step toward ridding America of Nixon's legacy, I think he should move forward and get rid of the rest. There is, in fact, a great deal of Nixon's ill- conceived legislation still on the books -- policies still in place and institutions still operating that all should go the way of the ABM Treaty.
In this short space, there is not room to the list all of Nixon's misguided domestic and economic policies. Following are some of the worst.
-- Affirmative Action. During the Kennedy and Johnson years, affirmative action simply meant that government contractors should make an extra effort to recruit minorities where possible. In 1969, Nixon put forward the "Philadelphia Plan," which required strict quotas for minorities on federal construction projects. Later, this policy was extended to all government contracting. Thus it was Nixon who first converted affirmative action from a relatively benign policy into the rigid quota system that we have come to identify it with today.
-- Taxes. During the 1968 campaign, Nixon promised that he would allow the 10 percent surtax to expire as scheduled on June 30, 1969. Almost immediately after taking office, however, he asked Congress to extend it, thereby raising taxes. Moreover, to pick up Democratic votes, he offered to repeal the Investment Tax Credit as well, thereby raising the cost of capital for every business in America. When this failed to attract enough Democrats, Nixon sweetened the pot by putting forward a tax reform plan designed to soak the rich. Among its worst features was an increase in the capital gains tax.
-- Budget. Nixon supported the biggest increase in domestic spending of any president in the 20th century. One of his worst mistakes was to permanently index Social Security benefits to inflation, something never contemplated by the originators of the program. In 1974, Nixon also signed into law legislation abolishing the de facto line item veto authority enjoyed by every president up until then. Thus the uncontrollability of the federal budget and accompanying deficits owe their origin to Nixon's policies.
-- Regulation. Much of the crushing federal regulation of business got its start under Nixon. Among the agencies that he created are the Environmental Protection Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The vast costs imposed on the economy by these alphabet agencies have reduced productivity and wage growth for a generation, making every American poorer as a result.
-- Inflation. Nixon blamed the Federal Reserve for losing the White House in 1960, and he was determined to make sure it didn't happen again. At his earliest opportunity, he got rid of hard-money man William McChesney Martin as Fed chairman, replacing him with easy-money man Arthur Burns. Burns pumped up the money supply to create a false prosperity. When inflation increased, Nixon forever broke the dollar's link to gold, ended fixed exchange rates, and imposed wage and price controls. These actions led to the rise of OPEC and put prices, interest rates and exchange rates on a roller coaster that continues to the present day.
The sad thing is that almost all of this was done for a single reason: to get Nixon re-elected in 1972. It wasn't done out of ideological conviction, as Johnson's Great Society was, nor out of economic necessity, as Roosevelt's New Deal was. Nixon ruined the American economy for decades to come just so he could be president for another four years, and then he only got two.
The truth of the matter is that Richard Nixon was, perhaps, the most left-wing president in history in terms of domestic and economic policy. His reputation as a right-winger rests almost entirely on his role in exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent back in the 1940s. For this, the left vilified Nixon to his dying day, which forced conservatives to support him even though he betrayed them.
I believe George Bush should make it his mission to undo as much of Nixon's mischief as possible. He has made a good start by dumping the ABM Treaty, but there is much more to be done.