As president, he issued the executive order that established the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported and ultimately signed the Clean Air Act into law. He oversaw the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He was a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and the civil rights movement, including affirmative action. He launched the “war on cancer,” and tried to pass a law that would have mandated employers to provide health insurance to their employees. Following up on a campaign promise, he dramatically drew down US ground forces in Indochina, and ultimately ended the draft. Meet Richard Nixon – whose liberal creds compare well with any president since.
Next consider Jimmy Carter’s record. He oversaw deregulation of aviation, trucking, rail, communications and finance. He reestablished the selective service, the precursor to the draft, while increasing military spending. And he appointed Paul Volcker to head the Fed, whose brand of conservatism has been the model for every Fed chair since, prioritizing the control of inflation over the maximization of employment.
Jimmy Carter, to be fair, was quite liberal in many important ways, initiating or improving numerous programs to help the poor, children, workers and women. And like every recent democratic president, Carter’s term in office was a period of fiscal restraint, with annual deficits never rising above 3% of GDP, and the overall debt, as a fraction of GDP, smaller when he left office than when he entered. (One of Carter’s earliest political missteps was a confrontation with Congress over pork-barrel spending.)
Many forget that Carter came to office – and left – as a southern moderate with a conservative bent, not dissimilar to Bill Clinton. While he had many pet programs to help the disadvantaged, he generally sought to reduce the presence of government in everyday life, as evidenced above all by the fact that he left behind a US government that was slightly smaller than the one he inherited from Gerald Ford.
Many also forget that Nixon’s domestic policies were almost uniformly liberal. While it is often remarked that Reagan would be rejected by today’s GOP for being insufficiently conservative, it is rarely appreciated that Nixon would today stand to the left of many democrats. So it was that the postwar era was a sort of golden age for America, when the DNC and GOP were both dominated by liberals, with conservatism enjoying no more than a regional popularity in a few isolated backwaters.
Above all, one must appreciate that, like LBJ and JFK, Nixon and Carter were each exceptional men. Nixon was renowned for a discerning mind; Carter’s brilliance has only become more apparent in the most spectacular post-presidential career in modern times. Not coincidentally, all were liberals, certainly by today’s standards.
It says much about American politics that, in just 20 years, the nation went from having a nuclear engineer for president (Carter), to one who could not even pronounce the word nuclear (Bush Duh), while enduring two terms of a GE spokesmodel in between. This is not a coincidence. Reagan’s legacy is the dumbing-down of presidential politics, if not the presidency itself – paving the way for a deluge of Quayles, Bush Duhs, Palins, Santorums, Bachmanns, and other lightweights who lack the mental acuity to be Washington DC’s sewer commissioner, much less pretend to the oval office. Conservatism is and has ever been the movement of stupid, for stupid, and by stupid, as exemplified by the exceptionally low quality of candidates it offers for national office, including the presidency.
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