The fall of the house of Nixon

The conservative Republican Party that Richard Nixon created in the '60s is now coming apart at the seams under George W. Bush. Could that spell the end of his presidency?

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published August 13, 2004 1:12AM (EDT)

The drama of Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency 30 years ago this month has long overshadowed his political achievement. Nixon's criminal White House seemed an aberrant episode rooted only in his pathologies. But Nixon was the founding father of the modern Republican Party. It was Nixon who created a brand-new coalition of Southern conservatism in reaction to the civil rights movement, absorbing the Dixiecrat followers of George C. Wallace. The coalition consisted of urban-ethnic Catholics and white-collar suburbanites fearful of racial turmoil and the breakdown of law and order. They were resentful of student protests, assertive women and the loosening of social mores. And it was Nixon who shifted the Republican Party's locus of power from the Northeast and Middle West to California, the Southwest and Florida. His natural cynicism allowed him to juggle the volatile elements that jelled for Ronald Reagan.

By the time of Nixon's election in 1968, the Democratic coalition had cracked up under the duress of race and Vietnam. Now the Republican Party that came to power in 1968 is itself exhausted. It has lost its political impetus, playing by its old rules as the Democrats were in 1968. Its instability, contradictions and anachronisms have been apparent for more than a decade, since Clinton's victory in 1992. And the ferocious Republican effort to overthrow Clinton accelerated his political gains.

George W. Bush did not make a new coalition or offer a refreshed Republicanism, despite the trope of "compassionate conservatism." He came to power only as a result of a flawed Democratic strategy in 2000 and even then he lost the popular majority and had to rely upon a skewed Supreme Court to install him in office in an unprecedented decision. After only nine months, his presidency was already winding down, and he lost the Senate with the defection of a Republican who crossed the aisle. After 9/11, the war on terrorism substituted as the political equivalent of old Republican Party anti-communism, the ultimate glue holding disparate elements together. Still, the party is coming unstuck, disintegrating in its historic base.

California, the home state of Nixon and Reagan, has disappeared from the Republican national coalition. Its demographic transformations, especially the ever expansive rise of the Hispanic electorate (2-to-1 Democratic), postindustrial economy and concomitant social liberalism make it a forerunner of the future. (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is politically possible only as a social liberal and honorary Kennedy, through marriage.) Bush is so far behind in California that there is no campaign there whatsoever.

To win the general election, Bush must raise his percentage of Hispanic votes from 35 percent in 2000 to close to 40 percent. But according to a recent July Democracy Corps poll, he is 5 points below his 2000 level and 7 points down in the Southwest and Florida.

In Illinois, Land of Lincoln -- former presidential bellwether and bastion of congressional GOP leadership since time immemorial -- the Republican Party has fallen off the map. In 1960, in his famous victory, John F. Kennedy won the state with 65 percent in Chicago. Nixon actually carried Chicago in 1972. But Gore won the racially calmed, postindustrial city by 80 percent. The Chicago suburbs, 2-to-1 Republican as recently as 1988, have now begun to tilt Democratic, just as have the suburbs of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the state Republican Party has imploded, unable to find a credible U.S. Senate candidate against the star of the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama. In fact, it has finally scraped the bottom of the barrel with its own African-American, Alan Keyes. A screeching religious right fanatic, Keyes, who has worn a lapel pin featuring the feet of a fetus, is Jerry Falwell as played by Little Richard. Obama is beating him 67 to 28 percent, and that undoubtedly represents Keyes' peak. Keyes opened his campaign by saying Obama's stance in favor of legal choice for women on abortion is "the slaveholder's position." Their debates, to be broadcast throughout the Middle West, may turn votes against the Republicans in every state bordering Illinois.

The turn in Michigan is, if anything, even more distressing for Republicans. West Michigan, home to Nixon's successor Gerald Ford, and even today unrepresented by any Democrats in Congress, favors John Kerry by 12 points above Bush in a poll taken by a local TV station. This collapse is largely a consequence of the desertion of moderate Republicans repulsed by Bush's reckless economic mismanagement and neoconservative foreign policy. These moderates are overwhelmingly mainline Protestants, also offended by Bush's evangelical culture war and faith-based efforts to break down the wall of separation between church and state.

The party that Nixon built is crumbling. Bush is the candidate of canned talking points and a party whose instincts have become rote and often counterproductive. The "war president" wraps himself in the flag but the latest Code Orange terrorist alert aroused no one to rally-'round-the-flag; instead, it raised questions about Bush's timing and handling. Rather than campaign on his record, he has challenged Kerry to justify his vote for the Iraq war resolution, and when Kerry explained his reasoning, Bush accused him of "nuance." How can Bush change the subject? With independent voters bleeding away from him, he has taken to stumping with the Republican maverick Sen. John McCain, his mortal enemy. Can Bush dump Cheney without being seen as desperate and repudiating his entire term? Bush's father owed his political career to Nixon's patronage; now the son is in danger of inheriting the wind.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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