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Tom Zirpoli: Outside of Watergate, Nixon the last progressive GOP president | COMMENTARY

As a high school student in 1968, when Richard Nixon was first elected president, and a college student in 1972, when he was re-elected, I volunteered at the Nixon campaign office in Virginia Beach. This was all before I understood Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, of course. Then again, Nixon never tried to overturn an American presidential election like Donald Trump, so we must keep these things in perspective.

Nixon was a fascinating person, and I first became interested in politics watching him do many good things for our nation. Today, he would be called a RINO – Republican in Name Only – by a majority of his own party as most of his domestic agenda would be rejected as socialism. Nixon, however, was president when the GOP believed in using its positions to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, not just the rich. That concern has certainly dissipated.

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Nixon was a progressive thinker. He was ahead of his time on many domestic issues, especially the environment. He signed bills that created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Clean Water Act in 1972. These three bills alone improved the health and well-being of millions of Americans. Today’s Republican Party would likely undo all three if given half the chance.

Nixon cared about the working conditions for ordinary Americans. He was the first president to discuss the possibility of a four-day work week and predicted many businesses would move in that direction. He created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970 to provide national workplace safety standards. He signed the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972 to set national standards and recall requirements for dangerous products, especially those that could harm children.

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Nixon used his presidential powers to take care of ordinary Americans. He recognized and acted to address racial discrimination within the federal government. He created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise and, recognizing discrimination in federal job employment, advocated for a mandatory minimum of employees of color for all federal contract jobs.

When it comes to women’s rights, Nixon was ahead of his time. He supported the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to give women a better chance in the hiring process and to advance in their careers. He walked his talk, too. He appointed more women to his administration than any of his predecessors. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and federal legislation to include sex discrimination in the U.S. Civil Rights code. He supported Title IX to give women’s sports teams more equal footing compared to men’s sports.

He was pro-health care for ordinary Americans. In 1972, he expanded Medicare to Americans with disabilities and other health conditions. Ahead of his time, Nixon advocated that all employers should offer health insurance, at least to their full-time employees. He was one of the first national politicians to link insurance payments to income, understanding that poor Americans could not afford health insurance premiums. Some of the ideas in today’s Affordable Health Care Act were first advocated by the Nixon administration.

Nixon believed that the federal government could play an active role to improve the health and well-being of all Americans. He supported the National Cancer Act and the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act, which set aside federal money for national research on these health concerns affecting many Americans, especially many poor Americans.

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According to historian Richard Brownell, Nixon doubled spending on entitlements during his two terms in office. He federalized the Supplemental Security Income program after seeing some states holding back on services compared to other states.

As stated by Brownell, “The breadth and scope of Nixon’s domestic policy achievements indicated that he had a sustained belief in the power of an activist federal government to improve the fortunes of American citizens.”

Instead of tax giveaways for the rich, Nixon signed the Tax Reform Act of 1969 and created the Alternative Minimum Tax so that the rich would contribute a fairer share to the national treasure, even after taking various exemptions and deductions aimed at helping the rich hold on to their wealth.

Since then, of course, the minimum tax has dwindled to nothing with all the tax giveaways of Republican presidents since. America has not had a Republican president since Nixon who cared about the rich paying their fair share of taxes. Instead, every Republican president since Nixon has cut taxes for the rich and made it easier for them to avoid paying their fair share.

What happened to Nixon’s Republican Party where, as Brownell states, the fortunes of American citizens mattered? Can anyone imagine today’s GOP supporting any of Nixon’s initiatives to clean up the environment, improve working conditions for ordinary Americans, or make children’s products safe? Heck, today’s Republican Party can’t even advocate for masks in schools to keep our children safe from COVID-19.

Tom Zirpoli is a professor and program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster and his column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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