Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon, and the Search for the Lost Republican Presidential Coalition
When the definitive history of Republican presidential dominance in the late 20th century is written, Richard Nixon will be seen as the architect. Indeed, a half-century later, in the early 21st century, when Republican presidential fortunes are once again on the wane, GOP partisans might usefully study the Nixon era to gain some how-to pointers.
Fortunately, politicos have a conveniently incisive study guide to the 1968 presidential election in the form of Pat Buchanan’s new memoir, The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority.
We might note that victory for Republicans is a slightly different thing than victory for conservatives. Mr. Conservative, Barry Goldwater, had run as the Republican nominee for president in 1964, but he had gotten clobbered, winning just 6 of 50 states and less than 39 percent of the nationwide vote.
For ideological purists, such a losing result might have been okay, because, after all, Goldwater was a man of principle. However, one can’t get much done if one doesn’t hold power; to get anything done in politics, it’s necessary to win an election.
Enter Richard Nixon. His narrow victory in 1968, followed by his huge victory in 1972, established a new Republican alignment in national politics.
And what about Ronald Reagan? Yes, he stands as one of the greatest presidents in US history—and yes, he was a great conservative, as well as a great Republican. Yet his victory coalition in the 1980 and 1984 elections looked a lot like Nixon’s in ’68 and ’72. Reagan was the greater figure, but Nixon had come first.
It was Nixon who nailed down the idea of a center-right majority, bulked up by the Heartland and by the South. So while Reagan might have been Goldwater's ideological descendant, the Gipper was Nixon's political heir; the Nixon coalition begat the Reagan coalition. (And come to think of it, President Reagan was a lot more moderate than Candidate Reagan. It’s still not clear that a Goldwater-ish candidate can either win or govern.)
The smarter Nixon people saw it coming: They saw that the 1968 election could usher in a new era. Buchanan approvingly recalls a 1968 memo from Kevin Phillips, then a young analyst working for Nixon: “The Democrats are going to be the Left party—and a minority—and the GOP are going to be the Right-Center majority.” Phillips’ prophecy proved true for the next quarter-century, until the Republican coalition cracked up as a result of George H. W. Bush’s pledge-breaking tax increase.
And of course, Phillips himself has long ago fallen away from the Republican faith. That’s a reminder, again, that the political world has changed a great deal since the Nixon era. So maybe it’s time to revisit those days, to see what the GOP looked like when it was truly a big tent—a winning tent.
In so revisiting, we might pause over the Nixon achievement—the fact that he won at all. From 1932 to 1964, the Democratic Party won seven of nine presidential elections; the GOP could win only when it ran Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War Two, as its standard-bearer. And Ike, of course, was neither an ideological conservative nor a Republican Party-builder.
Yet after that long Republican losing streak, something happened: The GOP started winning the White House. From 1968 to 1988, the Republican Party won five of six presidential elections. Yes, the GOP had something figured out in that era; those were the days, ’68 to ’88, when states such as California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey were reliably Republican.
Yet those GOP victories were fleeting; they will be remembered as a brief shining moment—a Republican Camelot, one might say. Since then, since 1992, the Democrats have won four of six presidential elections, and if one counts the popular vote, the Democrats have won five of six. Today, even Republican optimists, bullish about GOP prospects in ’16, have a hard time imagining the Party carrying the Golden State, the Nutmeg State, the Garden State, or the Land of Lincoln.
So what were the Republicans doing right in the 60s? What were GOPers doing better a half-century ago than today?
Buchanan tells the story well, and he bolsters his tale with copious evidence from those days—not just his first-hand memories as a major participant in the campaign, but also abundant news clips and archival campaign memos. The man is obviously a packrat, and for the sake of history, that’s a good thing.
In 1965, Buchanan was a twenty-something editorial writer for The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, when he traveled to nearby Belleville, IL, to see Richard Nixon speak at a Republican rally.
Nixon, of course, was a major star in American politics, albeit a tarnished star. Elected to Congress from California in 1946, he had zoomed to instant nationwide renown as the lead investigator in the Alger Hiss case for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon helped prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Hiss had been a communist spy. And so, of course, much of the left swore a collective oath of lifelong hatred and vengeance against Nixon.
Meanwhile, Nixon went on to win election to the US Senate in 1950, and then, just two years later, Eisenhower tapped him as his vice-presidential running mate. After eight years in Ike’s shadow, Nixon sought the presidency on his own in 1960, only to lose a squeaker to John F. Kennedy—and many say that the election was stolen from him. But there was no doubt that Nixon lost the 1962 California gubernatorial election fair and square. And there was also no doubt that in the hours after that defeat, Nixon descended into bitterness and self-pity, telling reporters,“You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
That election defeat, and that press conference, were widely seen as the epitaph of Nixon’s career; the liberal media were all too happy to declare Nixon to be a “loser” and be done with him.
Still, Nixon was not yet 50 years old. If he chose to do so, he could plot his comeback—and that’s just what he did. After losing in California, he decamped to New York City, got himself a partnership at a big Wall Street law firm, and set about not only building a legal career, but also rebuilding his political career. In 1964, he campaigned hard for the doomed Goldwater campaign, even as many establishment Republicans were distancing themselves from the Arizonan. Nixon’s efforts didn’t help the doomed Goldwater very much, but they sure helped Nixon himself; in the wake of the ’64 defeat, a grateful Goldwater endorsed Nixon as the best man for the GOP to run four years hence.
And so it turns out that even a Goldwaterite such as Buchanan was attracted to Nixon. Buchanan details how he craftily maneuvered to catch on with Nixon. What was his trick? He went up to him at the rally in Belleville and introduced himself.
Nixon himself was something of a moderate, ideologically. Nixon’s own heroes were William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson; one biographer cited by Buchanan describes him as “a liberal in a conservative sort of way.”
Yet Nixon was tough-minded, and ever since the Hiss case, he had known that the Eastern establishment hated him—and he hated them back. Moreover, Nixon was smart, and he had an eye for talent and loyalty. He snapped up Buchanan, who would prove, over the next 50 years, to be one of RN’s most articulate and dogged defenders.
But even the best relationships start out with little steps. Buchanan moved to New York City, where he was one-third of Nixon’s three-person political operation; the other two were Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s longtime secretary, and “Miss Ryan”—that is, Mrs. Pat Nixon herself, using her maiden name to help answer the phones.
Part of Buchanan’s new job was extricating the boss from sticky political situations. For example, in 1965, the syndicated columnists Evans & Novak reported that Nixon had said, in an unguarded moment, that conservative icon William F. Buckley was a threat to the Republican Party. Summoning up the sort of hair-splitting that was drilled into him in Catholic parochial school, Buchanan labored forth a clever explanation of Nixon’s gaffe and then managed to sell it to Buckley and the National Review set. As Buchanan recalls, he was much in need of Confession after that episode: “The Jesuits at Gonzaga would have called it a violation of the Eighth Commandment”— that is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
In fact, the Nixon team proved itself very adroit, in both politics and policy.
At one point, Buchanan drafted a pro-Nixon letter to be signed and mass-mailed by Fred Seaton, who had been Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior. But then, for an added touch of Heartland authenticity, Buchanan flew to Seaton’s home in Hastings, NE, so that Seaton could personally sign each note and thus the envelopes would all have a local Cornhusker postmark.
As Team Nixon expanded, Buchanan realized that he was the “designated conservative” in the Nixon campaign, and that there would be “designated moderates,” too—and even “designated liberals.” As Buchanan writes of Nixon, “He wanted to be certain he heard the ideas and opinions of a spectrum stretching across the party and beyond the party.”
Yet for his part, Buchanan also uses his book’s pages to settle some scores with old party enemies; he paints former Michigan governor George Romney, for example, as a hapless liberal lunkhead and former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller as a well-financed but unprincipled opportunist.
Yet out of the broad spectrum of opinion flowing into the Nixon camp came nuanced sensitivity to political issues. For instance, Nixon was careful to stay on the good side of farmers and their Farm Bill. And he was at pains to answer—fully and carefully—any questions on Social Security. He was careful to defend the program; he did not fall into the Republican trap of entertaining the idea of chopping or privatizing earned entitlement programs. It was just such musings, Buchanan recalls, that had been “so ruinous to Goldwater.” (So here, for example, we can see how the GOP of the '60s had a better sense of what the voters in a center-right coalition will, and will not, tolerate.)
As to the tricky and tragic issue of the Vietnam War, Nixon was simultaneously hawkish and critical. That is, he supported the overall mission of the war but criticized the way that President Lyndon Johnson was leading it. So when a temperamental LBJ lashed out at Nixon in October 1966, just days before the midterm elections, Nixon, the old pro, was ready for the high-stakes confrontation. Assuming the pose of someone who had himself been at the White House, Nixon purred with faux sympathy, “I can understand how a man can be very, very tired and how his temper can then be short.” Nixon’s understated response to Johnson captured the prevailing public mood: The Democrats had been in power too long; they were too frazzled to be effective.
Yet Buchanan—who would go on to author a dozen books, including a slew of best-sellers—was more than just a word-mechanic. He was an idea guy. Although his own heart was with Goldwater, he could see that mere Goldwaterism couldn’t win nationwide; there simply were not enough right-wingers to make the electoral math work.
Buchanan quotes one of his early memos to Nixon, recalling the party dynamics of the mid-60s: “The right wing of the party is hurting psychologically. It feels the left wing stabbed it in the back in 1964... and yet at the same time it recognizes that simon-pure conservatism alone will never prevail in a national election.”
Hence the need for a center-right coalition, holding on to moderate Republicans, even as liberal Republicans were likely to find a new home as Democrats. And to replace those fleeing liberals, the GOP would have to pull in conservative Democrats. As Buchanan put it in another memo, “The Irish, Italian, Polish Catholics of the big cities—these are our electoral majority—they and the white Protestants of the South and Midwest and rural America. That way lies victory.” Exactly.
Meanwhile, of course, the old Democratic New Deal coalition was coming undone; the undoing issues were not only Vietnam, but also civil rights, urban upheaval, and campus protesters. Indeed, Buchanan drips special contempt on student-radicals, on the kind who would throw rocks at cops and spell “America” as “Amerika.”
And most Americans agreed. So the Democrats paid a heavy price at the ballot box. The 1966 midterm elections were a huge victory for Republicans; the GOP won 47 House seats, 3 senate seats, and 8 governorships—and one of those gubernatorial winners, of course, was Ronald Reagan. Yet no Republican that year campaigned harder than Nixon; he was building up chits for his own race to come.
Even so, the Democrats, joined by many old-line Republicans such as New York City Mayor John Lindsay, continued to move left in the late '60s. That is, the left was so sure of itself—sure that America was wrongheaded, even evil—that it ignored the evidence that the bulk of the country thought that America was a pretty good place.
As it happened, Buchanan was on hand in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic convention, when Hubert Humphrey was nominated to replace the retiring Johnson. Once again, Buchanan is at his most polemically ferocious in describing the hippies and protesters, as well as their enablers in the establishment and the Big Media. As for Buchanan, his sympathies are clearly with the Chicago cops and the Chicago machine pols; after all, these “ethnics,” many of them, were future Republicans.
Meanwhile, the South, too, was moving to the right. Buchanan describes the energy of a 1966 Republican event in Columbia, SC, featuring Nixon, Sen. Strom Thurmond, and Rep. Albert Watson: “It was unlike any rally I had witnessed.” As Nixon said afterwards to Buchanan, “This is where the energy is. This is where the future of the party is!”
Much of the white South, of course, was peeling away from their ancestral home in the Democratic Party over the issues of integration and civil rights. Buchanan, in his telling, is careful to insulate Nixon from any accusation of racism; as he puts it, “What the Left never understood, or would never accept, is that Nixon brought the South into the Republican column not because he shared their views on segregation or civil rights. He did not.” That is, Nixon believed in integration and civil rights.
But, continues Buchanan, describing the thinking of the Nixon team:
What we shared was the South’s contempt for a liberal press and a hypocritical Democratic Party that had coexisted happily with Dixiecrats for a century but got religion when conservative Republicans began to steal the South away from them.
In his own unsparing way, Buchanan sums up the political tumult of the era—tumult signaling that the long reign of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society were coming to an end:
The crisis of liberalism was that the social revolutions tearing America apart were contained, almost entirely, inside the Democratic Party. The antiwar movement was led by students from elite campuses who were part of the Democratic Left. After Goldwater’s nomination, black America had gone Democratic 16-1. And yet it was out of black America that the soaring crime and the urban riots were coming.
In other words, in the political and physical conflagrations of that era, the Democratic coalition was eating itself alive. Indeed, it was obvious to many observers at the time that something had to give. Buchanan approvingly quotes the center-left columnist Joe Kraft, who opined in 1967, “The ordinary American is a forgotten man politically, and I suspect that the true representatives of the disconnected middle... have not yet appeared.”
In other words, the stage was set for Nixon to be that “true representative” of what was coming to be called “Middle America.” In fact, the Nixon men—and they were all men—sensed that they had a huge political opportunity, beyond even the ’68 election: The phrases “New Majority” and “Silent Majority” run all through Buchanan’s book.
Buchanan even ventures a minor revival of the image of Nixon’s ’68 running mate, Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew. Agnew might now be forgotten—except when he is reviled as a crook who ultimately resigned from the White House for reasons unrelated to Watergate—and yet in ’68, he became a national figure because he was so tough-minded and outspoken. In particular, Agnew was willing to dress down, in public, Maryland’s black leadership, which had stayed stonily silent when a “black power” advocate, Stokely Carmichael, had passed through Maryland preaching an incendiary message. As Agnew told the black leaders:
You met in secret with that demagogue and others like him and you agreed, according to published reports that have not been denied, that you would not openly criticize any black spokesman, regardless of his remarks. You were beguiled by the rationalizations of unity.
Nixon admired that sort of bluntness and toughness, of course, and so Agnew ended up as his running mate.
Still, the Nixon-Agnew ticket came perilously close to losing in ’68 because Alabama governor George Wallace, running on a segregationist platform, won more than 13 percent of the nationwide vote, carrying five Southern states. Wallace never had a chance of winning the White House; he was a spoiler, and nothing more—and he nearly spoiled the election for Nixon. Without Wallace on the ballot, Nixon would have won ’68 in a landslide.
Even so, Nixon eked out a victory, and four years later, with Wallace out of the picture, the center-right coalition emerged, and Nixon won reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote. Even the great Ronald Reagan was never to win a vote total that high.
So that’s the story of Nixon’s comeback, as told by one who was there. And half-a-century later, for victory-starved Republicans: Attention must be paid.