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The Cards and How You Play Them

Political fundamentals are important but not determinative of outcomes

By Dylan R. Matthews

There once was a president who proposed a national government-run daycare program, a universal health care plan almost identical to the one eventually passed in 2010, and a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans. What’s more, he got all those measures—which, taken together, would have transformed the US into a bona fide, Western European-style social democracy—reasonably close to passage. He oversaw major Constitutional reform measures, including the lowering of the voting age to 18 and the passage by Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupation Safety and Health Administration and signed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act into law.

If you read enough articles like this one, you know that the president in question isn’t Franklin D. Roosevelt, class of 1904, or Lyndon B. Johnson, or anyone else you’d expect; that’d be too easy. No, it was Richard M. Nixon, enemy number one of the left for upwards of a decade and also the person who came closest to closing the gap between the American welfare state and those of all other developed nations. The fact that we cannot even imagine a conservative Republican advocating policies remotely similar today can tell us a lot about what has happened to U.S. politics since the 1970s. And the fact that Nixon failed in bringing the U.S. in line with its peer nations can tell us a lot about how hard it is to make real progress even when the fundamentals are on the side of change.

Today, it’s hard to imagine even a Democrat proposing some of Nixon’s agenda. A guaranteed minimum income would be laughed off the table, a silly proposal to give people an excuse to bum around and not work, rather than the devilishly effective anti-poverty measure it is. So what happened? Basically, the parties got more ideologically polarized, and the Republicans got much more conservative than the Democrats got liberal. As Jacob Hacker explained to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, since 1975 Senate Republicans went twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats went to the left, and House Republican went six times as far to the right as House Democrats went to the left. The end result was that the political center shifted significantly rightward.

So we’re left with a Democratic president whose domestic agenda is less ambitious than that of a Republican president from three decades ago and a Republican opposition that decries that same agenda as rank socialism. No matter how well Obama plays his cards, the fact remains that he’s been dealt a terrible hand, and it would take reversing a generation-long national shift in political culture to change that. Obama could throw his heart and soul into a guaranteed minimum income proposal and it wouldn’t get half the momentum it did when Nixon pushed one.

But playing your cards well still matters, and advocates for a more generous welfare state played their cards really, really terribly in the 1970s. The man who killed Nixon’s health care plan was not a free market conservative but Senator Ted Kennedy ’56, who, preferring a single-payer approach, decried the Nixon proposal as little more than corporate welfare. Kennedy’s last fight, of course, would be pushing for passage of the Affordable Care Act, which shares most of its structure with the Nixon plan.

The death of Nixon’s childcare efforts was even more bizarre. As Edward F. Zigler, the administration’s head advisor on childcare, explains in his excellent book, “The Tragedy of Child Care in America,” Nixon first proposed a program to be run as a partnership between states and the federal government. But civil rights advocates like Marian Wright Edelman killed that plan for fear of increasing the power of segregationist state governors, preferring instead a technically unworkable plan that would have had the federal government coordinate childcare with thousands of individual municipalities. Their lobbying, combined with opposition from the religious right, ended up killing the effort entirely.

Changing the fundamentals is important, but how you perform given those fundamentals matters tremendously, as well. The fundamentals for health care reform were orders of magnitude better in the Nixon administration than they were in the first years of Obama’s tenure, and yet Obama got it done while Nixon failed. The difference was that liberals in 2010 knew how to take a win and liberals in 1974 didn’t. The day-in, day-out tactical dance of legislating is boring, disheartening stuff. But getting it right could not be more important.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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