I had breakfast this week with one of Hollywood’s most ferocious, self-confident and successful doers of deals. He was still steamed about what an unforgivably lousy negotiator his president had been on the debt ceiling agreement.
One particular Obama move he found appalling above all the rest. “There is a provision in our Constitution that speaks to making sure that the United States meets its obligations,” the president had said, referring to Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, “and there have been some suggestions” — by Bill Clinton and various legal scholars — “that a president could use that language to basically ignore that debt ceiling rule.”
According to my Hollywood supernegotiator friend, Obama should’ve stopped right there — or, even better, followed up with that standard ambiguous saber-rattling line: “No option is off the table.” Raising the possibility of unilateral executive action would’ve strengthened his hand against the Republicans. Instead, Mr. Transparent and Reasonable instantly ruled it out in the weakest way possible: “I have talked to my lawyers. They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”
My friend recited the president’s surrender sentence incredulously, slipping an obscene seven-letter gerund in front of lawyers. Since the Republicans were threatening to go nuclear in unprecedented fashion, why didn’t the president at least threaten to use his unprecedented nuclear option to stop them?
In other words, it’s a pity Barack Obama isn’t more like Richard Nixon. I think of Nixon every year around now, as another anniversary of his resignation (Tuesday the 9th) rolls around. President Nixon famously tried convincing the Communists that he might literally go nuclear if they didn’t behave. “I call it the Madman Theory,” he explained to his chief of staff. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.”
Of course, a lot of us swooned over Obama partly because he seemed so prudent, straightforward and even-keeled. But now, with Republicans spectacularly applying the Madman Theory for the first time in domestic politics, Obama’s nonconfrontational reasonableness isn’t looking like such a virtue.
It’s frustrating. We’ve had presidents who were intelligent and progressive but also cynical and ruthless when necessary. Effective, tough-minded, visionary liberals such as F.D.R., Clinton ... and Nixon.
In popular imagination, Nixon remains nothing but a great goblin — scowling bomber of Southeast Asia, panderer to fear and racism, paranoid anti-Semite, dispatcher of burglars — but the truth is, he governed further to the left than any president who followed him. The overreaching Euro-socialist nanny state that today’s Republicans despise? That blossomed in the Nixon administration.
Spending on social services doubled, and military budgets actually decreased. He oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. His administration was the first to encourage and enable American Indian tribal autonomy. He quadrupled the staff of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, almost tripled federal outlays for civil rights and began affirmative action in federal hiring. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and signed Title IX, the law granting equality to female student athletes. One of his Supreme Court appointees wrote the Roe v. Wade decision.
Nixon made Social Security cost-of-living increases automatic, expanded food stamps and started Supplemental Security Income for the disabled and elderly poor. It helped, of course, that Democrats controlled the House and Senate. But it was the president, not Congress, who proposed a universal health insurance plan and a transformation of welfare that would have set a guaranteed minimum income and allowed men to remain with their welfare-recipient families. It was Nixon who radically intervened in the free market by imposing wage and price controls, launched détente with the Soviets, normalized relations with Mao’s China and let the Communists win in Vietnam.
And, for good measure, the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts grew sixfold, by far the biggest increase by any president.
The idea of Nixon — Nixon? — as a de facto liberal provokes cognitive dissonance, especially among people over 50. Facts notwithstanding, they refuse to buy it, as if they’ve been fooled by a parlor trick. But the only trick involved is judging Nixon circa 1970 by the ideological standards of 2011.
My late mother, who voted for every Republican presidential candidate from Wendell Willkie through George H.W. Bush, became a Democrat in her 70s. “These black hats,” she said of the G.O.P. right, “have gotten as nutty as fruitcakes. Nothing they say shocks me anymore.” She voted five times for Nixon, whose Madman Theory was a tactical posturing to make the Communists think he was an unhinged, reckless fanatic itching to wreak havoc. But a national Republican Party dominated by actually unhinged, reckless fanatics itching to wreak havoc in America? I think that would’ve shocked her. I think it probably would’ve even shocked Nixon.
Kurt Andersen, the host of public radio’s “Studio 360” and the author, most recently, of the novel “Heyday,” is a guest columnist.
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