Posts Tagged 2012 Republican primary
Every political party has members that it is ashamed of. The Democrats have Lyndon Baines Johnson and, to some extent, Jimmy Carter. The Republicans have that incompetent oaf William Howard Taft. However, the GOP’s biggest political bogeyman is Richard Milhous Nixon, and not just for the obvious reasons. Republicans could probably excuse Watergate, but they could never excuse Nixon’s love of big government.
Today’s Republican Party is obsessed with small government, but few presidents have done as much to expand government power as Nixon. Like any power-hungry leader, his foreign policy was a one man show. Nixon made many controversial decisions, such as the Christmas Bombings and the invasion of Cambodia near the end of the Vietnam War, unilaterally. “Tricky Dick” was also pathologically secretive. He sent Henry Kissinger to negotiate secretly with China, a move that would surely be out of line in a party that believes the president shouldn’t even raise taxes.
When President Obama authorized air and cruise missile strikes against Qaddafi loyalists in Libya, the right wing decried his actions. They said Obama was overstepping his authority by authorizing military action without consulting Congress, and accused the President of dragging America into another war. Those are valid points, but Obama didn’t do anything Nixon wouldn’t have done. American troops did not invade Libya, but they did invade Cambodia.
Nixon was also a fan of big government in domestic policy. He may have thought everyone under the age of 30 was a filthy hippie, but he also created the Environmental Protection Agency and approved the Clean Air Act. Most Republicans believe the government should spend less, but Nixon authorized massive agricultural subsides, so you can thank America’s 37th President for all the high-fructose corn syrup in your food.
In a stump speech, Newt Gingrich implied that all African-Americans are lazy, and the conservative backlash against birth control made the Republican Party seem a tad misogynist. In that context, the current frontrunners would be appalled by Nixon’s platform. In 1970, Nixon implemented the Philadelphia plan, the first major federal affirmative action program. While he was not exactly a feminist, he also supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
Clearly, a lot has changed since 1974. Today, Republican candidates are encouraged to take a more absolutist view, saying “yes” to tax cuts, “no” to health care reform, and leaving it at that. Nixon, who ran on a “Southern Strategy” meant to play on whites’ opposition to the Civil Rights movement, but also supported affirmative action, seems much more rational and nuanced than his successors. How could that be?
Many people shudder every time Newt Gingrich talks about the biased liberal media, or when Rick Santorum talks about religion or family values, but they were nothing compared to “Tricky Dick.” This was, after all, a man who kept a list of enemies. Nixon cut his teeth politically in the “Red Scare” days of he 1950s, and thought he could convince North Vietnam to sign a peace treaty by dropping more bombs. There was that whole Watergate thing, too.
The Republican Party of 2012 is very ideological; its members adhere to certain ideas and believe they are non-negotiable. Nixon was the same way, which is what drove him to act unilaterally. He sent Kissinger to meet with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in secret because he did not want to deal with opposition from Congress and the media.
Nixon could be just as stubborn as any current Republican candidate, but he was also more interested in holding onto power. Anyone in 1968 could tell that supporting peace in Vietnam would garner a significant number of votes, so that’s what Nixon did. In office, he supported liberal policies because he knew it would give him political credibility beyond the Republican base. In other words, Nixon was a real politician.
That level of activity is in stark contrast to the current Republican strategy, where members of Congress stall debates and candidates spend more time talking about what they disagree with than what they actually plan on doing. When Richard Nixon starts looking like a big government liberal in comparison, America is in a very scary place.
Nixon’s abuse of power was a clear demonstration of how badly things can go when a Commander-in-Chief shuts out the voice of opposition. Yet Nixon was able to acknowledge that opposition, at least for his own selfish political reasons. Even that is too much compromise for today’s Republican party.
When Rick Santorum said he wanted to “throw up” after reading John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech “The Religion Issue in American Politics,” it was, to say the least, controversial. How could a Catholic presidential candidate be so disgusted by the only Catholic president’s campaign statement on religion? Santorum thought Kennedy was trying to subvert religion and, as I shall try to explain, this is not the first time that mistake has been made. However, in today’s highly polarized social climate, it may have very different consequences.
Kennedy gave his speech on April 21, 1960 to answer anti-Catholic statements. His opponents argued that Kennedy would always put his religion first and thus would not represent the values of the majority of Americans. Kennedy answered with an endorsement of religious plurality. “For voters are more than Catholics, Protestants or Jews. They make up their minds for many diverse reasons, good and bad. To submit the candidates to a religious test is unfair enough – to apply it to the voters themselves is divisive, degrading and wholly unwarranted,” Kennedy said. Bringing religion into a presidential election only created false divisions among people who voted for a variety of reasons, not just religious ones.
Not every American practices the exact same religion, or thinks of everything in religious terms, but Santorum’s reaction to the Kennedy speech is not the first time someone has confused that statement for anti-religious sentiment. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When Jefferson became president, his Federalist opponents used those words against him.
Federalist newspapers published editorials declaring Jefferson an anti-Christian and thus unfit to lead the nation. Again, an endorsement of religious plurality was viewed by some as an attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular; in this case, Jefferson’s reference to “twenty gods or no gods” was twisted into proof that Jefferson was either a polytheist pagan or an atheist.
However, the Federalists’ propaganda would probably have been viewed differently in the 1800s than Santorum’s statement is in 2012. Jefferson had worked with the men that eventually became the Federalists to draft the principles of the new American republic; it is unlikely that their positions on religion’s relationship with politics differed enough for the Federalists to honestly argue that Jefferson’s policies threatened Christianity. Instead, this was good ‘ole character assassination, an attempt to paint Jefferson as immoral and thus unfit for the Presidency.
Santorum’s reaction to Kennedy’s speech has a much broader tone. He obviously wasn’t trying to say that Kennedy was immoral or unfit to lead, why would he? Instead, Santorum seemed to be trying to prove his chops as a defender of the faith in a Republican primary where conservative Christian votes matter.
In that context, it’s no wonder Santorum started feeling sick when he read the Kennedy speech, because he is doing exactly what Kennedy warned against: creating false divides based on voter’s religious views. Criticizing candidate Kennedy for acknowledging that people vote for non-religious reasons will only anger those people, and set them against Santorum’s supporters, whose fears of religious persecution are stirred up when the candidate talks about one of his fellow Catholic’s most important speeches as a threat to religious freedom.
The stakes are a lot higher than in Jefferson’s time. The author of the Declaration of Independence could shrug off an attack on his religious views, and return the favor in kind. The Federalists were attacking one man, Santorum was attacking a large segment of the electorate. In politics, some things never change, but the context does.
John Adams was right about a lot of things, but not everything. As much as we rely on the Founding Fathers to guide the development of American society, even 200-plus years after the fact, they couldn’t predict everything.
Adams in particular tried to dissect an issue that is very relevant to 21st century Americans: the relationship between money and political power. “Why do men affront heaven and earth to accumulate wealth, which will forever be useless to them?” Adams asked. “Because riches attract the attention, consideration, and congratulations of mankind,” he declared.
According to Adams, wealth was a means to an end, and that end was self-aggrandizement. People did not seek to accumulate material wealth just to be rich, because what they really sought was “the attention, consideration, and congratulations of mankind.” That, Adams argued, was the motivator of human ambition. “Ambition springs from the desire of esteem and from emulation, not from property,” he wrote.
If Adams could see the 2012 Republican primary, with its anonymous Super PACs and campaigns financed by obscure individual billionaires, he might have to change his position. The rich men (and women) of the 21st century are a new mutation of the ones Adams was talking about, or even the robber barons of the 19th century.
Today’s wealthy individuals do seem to think money is an end, not a means. Instead of seeking the approval of their fellow Americans, they shun publicity so they can accumulate more wealth without interruption. Recently, the names of significant campaign donors were released by the Super PACs, and most of them were unrecognizable. The campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are financed largely by individual billionaires; if Adams was correct, why aren’t they running for president?
In the past, individuals really did use their money to buy the attention of their countrymen. Cornelius Vanderbuilt built a ship for the U.S. Navy so he could get the title “Commodore.” Andrew Carnegie donated money to build the New York Public Library, and got himself a memorial in the form of a New York institution.
Today’s billionaires don’t seem interested in any of that. They may not be able to take their money to the hereafter, but all they want to do is get more of it. It’s not about the glory anymore; it really is all about the Benjamins. It is very rare for John Adams to underestimate humanity’s capacity for evil and selfishness, but this time America’s wealthy are acting in a way he could not predict.