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Book Review

The Lost World of Ecumenical Republicanism

Law and Liberty

March 2, 2023

As improbable as it may sound, one of the more interesting books on the market right now is a policy memoir largely about the rise and fall of Richard Nixon’s welfare policy. For a few wonks, scribblers, and geeks, that policy history is quite valuable as a reminder of how it’s all been said before and will all be said again. But Price’s story is more than just a helpful explainer for the more recent thorny and contentious debates over child tax credits. It’s also a portrait of a Republican party that once knew how to broker its own coalition, governing through the power of two wings, a conservative “base,” and an “establishment” leadership.

The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider’s Perspective on Nixon’s Surprising Social Policy deserves a place in the pantheon of gossipy Washington micro-histories. Its author, John Roy Price, served in the Nixon White House under the tutelage of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the urban policy guru and later Democratic US Senator from New York. Nixon picked Moynihan to untangle the political, social, and administrative wreckage left in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The centerpiece of the Nixon domestic agenda, unbelievably from today’s standpoint, was the proposal to establish a “guaranteed family income” or GFI. This was effectively a universal basic income, meant to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program that had seen its caseloads explode in the 1960s despite robust economic growth and record-low unemployment. 

Price, a native of north shore Long Island, descends from the Eisenhower-Rockefeller wing of the GOP. He fought alongside Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 to try to deny Senator Barry Goldwater the presidential nomination, seeing, as did virtually everyone including probably Goldwater himself, that his nomination was a political death wish. He re-upped with Rockefeller in 1968 for a campaign that foundered on the then-unthinkable idea that a man might divorce, remarry, and begin a new family with his new wife. Times, as they say, have changed.

Before the 1968 campaign, Price had joined John Doar (father of Robert Doar, president of AEI, where I’m employed), working for the bi-partisan economic development effort of Democratic Senator Robert Kennedy and Republican Senator Jacob K. Javits in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Doar had given Price a leave of absence to work for Rockefeller’s nomination. When Nixon won the nomination, Nixon’s team approached Price about helping with the general election campaign. After initial hesitation—it took persuasion by John Doar to play for the Republican team and Nixon—he joined Nixon’s fall campaign and later worked in the Nixon administration. One of the stronger ironies of this tale is that Doar eventually became chief counsel of the House Watergate Committee that delivered the coup de grace to Nixon’s presidency. That’s how turbulent and confusing the Nixon years actually were.

Nixon’s fall campaign built on the post-Civil Rights Act rupture of the New Deal coalition with a “Southern Strategy” that successfully incorporated former Southern Democrats into the GOP presidential coalition. This is where the personal-biographical tends to embody the contradictions of the macro-political. As Price—a soldier in a GOP establishment that had been indispensable in pushing through civil rights over the objections of Southern Democrats—worked to improve housing and job opportunities among low-income minorities, Nixon’s campaign was holding together the establishment and emerging populist wings of the “silent majority.” This was a house divided that couldn’t remain for racial equality and social uplift and play to the resentments of Southerners who had been forced to surrender Jim Crow segregation. Nixon tried to have it both ways, introducing an enormous political tension that plagued his policy program. 

The underlying basis of the Nixon-Moynihan partnership was the concern that the civil disturbances of the late-1960s evidenced a profound erosion of American institutional life, including and especially, the family. Moynihan had taken a bruising amount of guff over his 1965 report on the Black family, with its impolitic reminder that, all things being equal, children are better off with two parents rather than just one. The assignment given to Moynihan, Price, and the rest of the new White House Council on Urban Affairs (CUA) was to come up with an “income” strategy to replace a welfare program that contributed to family dissolution and had huge geographic differences in benefits. It also had to be acceptable to the same coalition that had passed civil rights without alienating the GOP’s new Southern arrivals. 

There is a very interesting “who done it?” angle to the death of Nixon’s welfare reform.

The effort was aided considerably by the breadth of ideological consensus for shifting from welfare to income. Milton and Rose Friedman’s 1962 proposal for a negative income tax had at least the potential to appeal to the libertarian right as an alternative to the vast administrative state that had sprung out of the Great Society. It’s worth noting that LBJ, worried about an anti-welfare backlash, had specifically ruled out income transfers in 1964 telling his War on Poverty team: “no dole.” Nixon and his team were educated in the wisdom of that insight as the GFI debate wore on. 

What ensued was a classic in the genre of DC bureaucratic battles. On one side was Moynihan, Labor Secretary George Shultz, Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch, and Price; and on the other, Counsellor (later Federal Reserve Chair) Arthur Burns and Martin Anderson. Burns and Anderson opposed the plan on principle as unaffordable, redistributive, damaging to work incentives, and a potentially dangerous expansion of federal power. Pat Buchanan from the sidelines of the debate, intuited that the new Republican Party, dependent on Southern Democrats who had bolted their former party over civil rights, wasn’t predisposed to support a social policy that sounded as though it might disproportionately benefit low-income Black families. As it turned out, the Family Assistance Plan would have distributed resources equally to white and Black families across regions with concentrated poverty, that is, the South. In the heated atmosphere of the late-1960s and early-1970s, facts like those could not compete with political passions. 

Nixon being Nixon, the policy needlepoint was intense and sustained. Extensive negotiations, proposals, counter-proposals, rebuttals and sur-rebuttals, and sur-sur-rebuttals raged in front of a president who, when it came to policy details and arguments, could never get enough. Price says this process was what Nixon described as a “Brandeis brief” after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who was famous for exhaustive legal research. Then, as now, family income transfers were a hornet’s nest of ideological conflicts and policy trade-offs, and no one could quite find a universally acceptable balance between maintaining work incentives, guarding against the destitution of children and families, and avoiding “benefit cliffs” that interfere with economic mobility. Somehow, as Nixon plotted a path on arms control, ended the Vietnam War, built détente with the Soviet Union, opened US relations with China, launched a war on cancer, created the Environmental Protection Agency, and conspired to destroy the Democrats’ hopes in the 1972 presidential election, he found reserves of time, thought, and energy for welfare. He was the archetype of the “old man in a hurry,” and, as it turned out, he was very dangerous indeed. 

Styled the Family Assistance Plan, Nixon’s proposal, shepherded by Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills, cleared the House of Representatives not once but twice. But it never made it out of Russell Long’s Senate Finance Committee. (One can only imagine what Russell’s daddy, Huey Long, the populist Kingfish, would have made of that.) There were several more false starts on a legislative package, including one Pat Buchanan christened “Big FAP” which was an attempt to revive the overall effort by, get this, Casper Weinberger when he joined the Nixon administration as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1973. But momentum for the idea had stalled and soon the Watergate scandal froze everything.

There is a very interesting “who done it?” angle to the death of Nixon’s welfare reform. A number of plausible suspects make an appearance in Price’s narrative. Was it Bryce Harlow, Nixon’s congressional affairs lead and close ally of Martin Anderson, who signaled House and Senate members that the boss didn’t really want it? Was it a coalition of Nixon-hating anti-poverty advocacy groups who, despite pleas from Moynihan, wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer from Richard Nixon? 

Price says neither. In the final analysis, Ronald Reagan, then California governor and Nixon’s 1968 rival for the nomination, was in Price’s words the “capo di tutti capi” responsible for deep-sixing FAP and its progeny. In opposing Nixon’s plan, Reagan was operating out of his natural suspicion of government, angling to capture the surging right flank of the party, and to redirect the “Nixon Republicans” toward his vision of the future. There also was a bit of the personal. Bob Finch, Nixon’s HEW head and a FAP advocate, had run with Reagan to become California Lieutenant Governor. Finch had outpolled Reagan by several hundred thousand votes in the 1966 election, kindling a rivalry between the two men. Ultimately, it seems what really killed Nixon’s welfare agenda was that it was a somewhat alien, esoteric, politically counter-intuitive policy that ended up with a constituency of one: Richard Nixon. 

The book ends on a wistful grace note. Price visited Nixon several times after his resignation, including once in New York City not long before Nixon’s death. They talked together about the welfare battles of the early administration and the more recent evidence from other income support experiments, which were as ambiguous and inconclusive as the 1969 debate over them had been. “John,” Nixon asked, “would FAP have worked?”

Price’s reply, “I just don’t know,” captures the essence of why this “gamble on human nature,” as Nixon put it, never passed in the first place. Nixon, Price says, sat silently looking into the distance perhaps perplexed by another “what might have been” moment in a life that had been filled with them.