It’s dangerous being a “pragmatic idealist.” Some might even say it’s positively oxymoronic.
President Nixon coined the term to describe his own policy outlook. His British biographer, Jonathan Aitken, once wrote him a letter politely quibbling with the expression. Aitken argued that one could either be a pragmatist or an idealist, not both.
RN disagreed. He believed most Americans were flexible centrists, conservative about some things, liberal about others. His issue-by-issue discernment was firmly rooted in principle. Anglicans, who are often as misunderstood as moderate Republicans, called it the via media – their middle way between Catholicism and Puritanism.
But the President noted well that many if not most political and media elites identified strongly either with the right or the left. So while the fringes of American politics might not have the sheer numbers, they have massive influence. In a political firefight, embattled centrists can be weakened and even done in by flanking fire.
It happened to Richard Nixon during 1973-74. The left had always hated him for his crusading anti-communism. Their antagonism was magnified by his Vietnam policies, which many so-called neoconservatives, ironically, vastly underrate to this day. But we sometimes forget that many on the right also disliked his domestic and economic policies as well as his rapprochements with China and the Soviet Union.
During Watergate, no one was surprised when leftist antiwar firebrands such as Robert Drinan and Bella Abzug demanded his resignation. But the political earth moved when they were joined in March 1974 by conservative GOP Sen. James Buckley. Buckley warned that if RN didn’t resign, Republicans would be wiped out in that November’s mid-term elections.
After learning in August 1974 that conservative lions such as Barry Goldwater had also abandoned him, President Nixon gave up the fight, even though he hadn’t yet been impeached. Republican House and Senate candidates took a massive hit in November. Indeed the party did so badly that it’s reasonable to speculate it would’ve fared better in 1974 if the President had stayed in office until the House could impeach and the Senate try him.
Perhaps remembering what had happened to Republicans that dark November, during 1998-99 most leftist Democrats, many of whom despised President Clinton, stuck by him through his impeachment crisis. Suffering no left-wing defection comparable to Buckley’s and Goldwater’s was the key to his political survival.
The dynamic was subtly different during and after Watergate. For many conservatives, after the Goldwater debacle in 1964 the issue wasn’t so much whether the GOP would dominate politics but who would dominate the GOP. Perhaps some conservatives anticipated that MR (moderate Republicanism) would be discredited along with RN.
I doubt many Republicans intentionally moderated their support for President Nixon to help pave the way for President Reagan. But their profound antipathy to many of his policies might have kept some from fighting as hard as they would have for someone they considered a true-believing conservative.
Whatever conservatives’ calculations at the time, Watergate and its aftermath unquestionably revived the prospects of the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the party. As a reminder of the thinking about President Nixon in those environs, a veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Bruce Bartlett, has published an article on the website of his Washington think tank comprising a handy guide to the prevailing conservative critique of the 37th President.
The ABM treaty, Bartlett argues, was “worse than unilateral disarmament.” RN “ruined the American economy for decades to come” by taking the U.S. off the gold standard and enacting wage and price controls. He was personally responsible for racial quotas, the rise of OPEC, and permanently out-of-control prices and interest and exchange rates. He created agencies such as the “Environmental Protection Administration” [sic] that “have reduced productivity and wage growth for a generation, making every American poorer as a result.”
All in all, Bartlett says, RN “betrayed” conservatives. He argues that many of these ghoulish policies were enacted not out of principle (no, of course not) but mere political expediency. That RN sacrificed his Presidency for the principle of America’s solemn commitment to the freedom of millions of men, women, and children in Indochina doesn’t merit a mention.
Like I said, it’s lonely at the center.