A specter is haunting the 2016 presidential election — the ghost of Richard Milhous Nixon.
That’s right: “Tricky Dick,” “King Richard,” the only U.S. president to resign his office and then receive a full pardon from his successor for his abuses of power. Twenty-two years after his death, Nixon continues to cast a long shadow over presidential politics. Like it or not, he’s still “the one.”
As Democratic pollster Douglas E. Schoen argues in his new book, The Nixon Effect, that the 37th president’s influence is “so overarching that I have no hesitation in declaring him to be the most important politician of the postwar era — for both parties.”
It’s a bold claim, but Schoen has plenty of evidence to back it up. No political actor of the past 60 years has been more consequential, he writes. Not Lyndon B. Johnson with his Great Society and his civil-rights legislation. Not even Ronald Reagan, who brought American conservatism into the mainstream and won the Cold War.
Nixon may not have invented the term, but he bequeathed us “red” and “blue” America. Or as Schoen puts it, Nixon remains “the central figure behind the identification, articulation and exploitation of America’s contemporary political division.”
Nixon cannot be simply dismissed as a crook who left the White House in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. In reality, he created “the template for transcending (the nation’s) differences politically and electorally.”
How? Not by making gross appeals to Southern racists, as the tale is sometimes told. Rather, by capturing the political center and pushing his opponents to the margins.
It was Nixon, after all, who opened communist China to the West. It was Nixon who sought detente with the Soviet Union — a controversial play that angered conservatives and helped set the stage for Reagan’s ascendancy in 1980. It was Nixon who advanced universal health insurance, a proposal that Democrats in Congress rejected because it wasn’t left-wing enough. It was Nixon who pushed federal affirmative-action programs and presided over the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nixon did all of that — and it drove liberals and conservatives nuts.
Every Oval Office aspirant claims to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Nixon was both.
“He united by dividing, in fact,” Schoen writes. Nixon saw that there really was a silent majority of regular, middle-class Americans eager for law and order and social stability. Against them was a ruling class of liberal elites, intellectuals and, of course, the media.
Nixon convinced Americans that he was with them and against the elites. And it worked brilliantly. Nixon’s re-election victory in 1972 remains the biggest blowout in history. He won 49 states, 61 percent of the popular vote and 520 of 538 electoral votes.
Ultimately, Schoen believes that Republicans would do well to be more like Nixon at his best — which was also Nixon at his most unprincipled. Schoen prefers to call him “nonideological” and “pragmatic,” but the truth is Nixon was deft at adapting himself to the political currents.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Of all the candidates running this year, Donald Trump — brash and utterly shameless — is probably the most Nixonian.
I’m not a Trump man by any stretch. To me, he is the worst sort of demagogue and a danger to the republic. But he’s playing to the center like no other candidate. He shreds the media with undisguised glee. And he speaks to millions of Americans who are truly anxious about their economic prospects and the future of the country.
In the book’s closing pages, Schoen channels Nixon to assess the Trump phenomenon. “He is the living expression of the silent majority, circa 2016,” Schoen says. “I wouldn’t bet on him to win the nomination, but my goodness — he’s a political force. He has upended our politics.”
Just like Nixon did and continues to do.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
© 2016 The Sacramento Bee