The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider’s Perspective on Nixon’s Surprising Social Policy
“The Last Liberal Republican” is a memoir of my decade in politics, especially the first three years in Richard Nixon’s White House. As special assistant to the president, I worked with him on his universal health insurance proposal, his overhaul of the Food Stamp program and, most significantly, his Family Assistance Plan (FAP), to place a floor under the income of American families. With today’s proponents of cash assistance to combat child and family poverty ranging from Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and Mitt Romney to the Biden administration, and mayors around the country, Nixon’s efforts seem remarkably relevant.
As he took office in 1969, Richard Nixon was heir to the “presidential” wing of the Republican Party. That more progressive wing had nominated the GOP’s presidential candidates for over a quarter-century: first, in 1936, with Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas, then in 1940 with Wendell Willkie; in 1944 and 1948 with Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York; in 1952 and 1956 with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. With these and Nixon’s own 1960 nomination, the party nominees were more liberal than the Republican congressional wing. Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 foreshadowed the GOP’s future direction, but ended that year in a catastrophic GOP loss. In 1968, Nixon shed the extremes and campaigned as a stabilizing figure, turning the dials back toward the American center.
Nixon was a man of government, an activist in social policy. In his first year, he proposed a full-dress attack on poverty, its centerpiece being his guaranteed income for families with children. FAP was intended to reform “welfare” by focusing on poverty — lack of money. FAP was a national cash “floor” on family income, including income of families where there was a wage earner making below the poverty line, even if working full time.
Nixon also radically revamped and expanded the Food Stamp program, intending that it ultimately be phased into his cash program. Now known as the SNAP or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, what Nixon forged feeds tens of millions who might otherwise go hungry.
Two years later, Nixon proposed universal health insurance, which was to utilize the private sector. It provided sweeping benefits including coverage of pre-existing conditions 40 years before the Affordable Care Act did. Employers were to provide coverage to their employees. Its companion, Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), offered federal subsidy of premium costs for those Americans who could not afford them.
In the face of these social programs, the growing conservative movement within the GOP mutinied. Gov. Ronald Reagan called FAP “redistributionist,” and opposition formed to Nixon’s health insurance legislation. Nor did the liberals support Nixon. The center did not hold, and Nixon’s secret attempts with Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy to forge a compromise on a national health insurance bill foundered.
Nixon was “The Last Liberal Republican.” After him, social policy within the GOP was more addressed by tax cuts and macro-economic growth and less with concern that the safety net reached needy Americans.
Nothing like Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan was seen again until the COVID Relief bill last winter. These elements to fight child poverty, though, will expire and call out for renewal or permanency. The issues to be debated this fall will not be new. They were weighed a half-century ago by Nixon: Can people be trusted to be given cash if they are poor? Will they spend it on essentials for their children or dissipate it? Will income supplements to those working hard but still poor lead them to “lie about,” or will they continue to work? Should there be a work requirement for receipt of the income maintenance? Should it be a grant to everybody, or should it be “income-tested” — phased out as income grows? At what level should the payments cease? What about the dependent poor, those who cannot work? Finally, how much can we afford?
Debates about health insurance are not over, either. Nixon’s detailed, ambitious and private sector plan with universal coverage and generous benefits can be a compass pointing a direction for a fresh look at health care.