Today would have been the 100th birthday of former president Richard Nixon. Nixon has gone down in history for his role in bugging the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, for which he later resigned his presidency. Though the Watergate scandal rightfully cast a shadow over his legacy, the Nixon presidency was a time of major progressive policy achievements. As the current president gears up to do battle with an intractable Republican Party over the debt ceiling, Nixon serves as a timely reminder of how extreme his party has grown.
Here are some of Nixon’s most important progressive proposals:
Protected the environment. The bulk of modern environmental law was passed under Nixon, including the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon’s interest in conservation, which some contend was politically motivated, led him to support Democratic measures that set the current standards for the environment.
Expanded the social safety net. Nixon, who grew up in poverty, advanced many key policies addressing the plight of low-income Americans. Besides expanding Social Security and Medicare to millions of seniors, he tied inflation to Social Security, permanently protecting benefits from being reduced by inflation. He unsuccessfully pushed for even more protections for low-income Americans, including a comprehensive health insurance plan for those who could not afford it. Another failed proposal would have given low-income families a guaranteed income supplement. The Supplementary Security Income program, which pays benefits to disabled adults and seniors, was also originally a Nixon proposal.
Promoted racial and gender equality. Nixon himself was deeply racist and employed the “Southern strategy” now enshrined in GOP campaigns, playing on racial tensions between African Americans and white Southerners. Yet during his presidency, he enacted crucial affirmative action policies, including federal minority employment quotas loathed by modern conservatives. He also signed Title IX into law, which banned discrimination against women in athletic programs.
Reformed education. Education spending was greatly increased under Nixon, who lobbied for expanded federal funds to inner city schools and child development projects. He introduced the Equal Educational Opportunities Act to officially ban segregation and affirm students’ rights to education, which passed after he left office. He also shot down a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in school, declaring, “The real test of faith is whether it is strong enough to tolerate other faiths.”