I was listening to a Fresh Air podcast the other day when the guest said that President Richard Nixon, elected as a conservative Republican, declared a federal "war on cancer" in 1971 with seed money of $100 million for research ($580 million in today's dollars). It started the trajectory that now has cancer-research funding at $4.8 billion.
That snippet reminded me that Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency and enthusiastically signed the Clear Air Act. He supported the Clean Water Act but vetoed the version Congress sent him based on cost (the veto was overridden). The similarly groundbreaking Marine Mammal Protection Act — also supported by Nixon and it became law in 1972.
These things happened not because Nixon was the prisoner of a Democratic majority in Congress — the Democrats were often divided and in those days Republicans had liberals, centrists and conservatives — but because he believed in them or thought they made good politics. He also largely funded LBJ's Great Society, albeit some cloaked in the rhetoric of his "New Federalism."
Nixon was no tax cutter. Instead, he instituted revenue sharing with states and cities, putting federal funds behind his conservative principle that they could use the money more efficiently. He proposed a federal health-care program that foreshadowed in many ways Obamacare, as well as a form of guaranteed income for all. Amtrak saved passenger trains, albeit imperfectly, on Nixon's watch.
For decades, Richard Nixon has been the devil to the left. But the left isn't politically relevant anymore (Jerry Ford Republicanism is what passes for "the left" in today's broken political spectrum). What's more consequential is that Nixon is now the devil to the right, which is more powerful than ever. So in the public square today, we are relitigating not Watergate but the domestic achievements of Tricky Dick.