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Thinking Nixon

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One of the odd things about modern American history that both liberals and conservatives these days find themselves a little squeamish about remembering (much less acknowledging) is the role of the late former president Richard Nixon in devising much of the social legislation that is now under attack from the right.

Richard Milhous Nixon. Tricky Dick. Mr. Watergate. That's right. It was Nixon, the darling of the right wing in his own time, who created such organs of government as the Environmental Protection Agency and who once proposed to enact a guaranteed annual income as a substitute for an outmoded welfare system.

The fact is, Nixon was downright New Dealish (though in a moderated — i.e., "conservative" — way). Our point in bringing this up is to wonder what happened to that era of Republicanism. And Nixon's well-documented paranoia and deviousness are irrelevant to a consideration of the question. The two GOP presidents on either side of him historically, predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower and successor Gerald Ford, both had simon-pure reputations, and both had similar policy inclinations — not, as is the fashion of so many of their lodge brothers today, to dismantle government or, in the infamous words of one Grover Norquist, an ideologue in favor with today's Grand Old Party, to "drown it in the bathtub."

We bring this up because something struck a nerve during a debate on the Shelby County Commission the other day. In making the case that funding for a proposed sickle-cell center at Methodist Hospital should be disallowed, Republican commissioner Wyatt Bunker made the point that it was not the business of government to sponsor such a "social thing."

Really? A disease-control center encounters opposition as a "social" boondoggle because ... what? That it would mainly deal with a low-income population, which, in this case, is primarily African American?

Hold that thought. We've got another coming. 

Simultaneous with the commission's winding down its budget considerations, the GOP-dominated state government was leaning hard on the Shelby County Health Department to dispossess itself of any working relationship with Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit whose local branch is used to dispensing Title X federal funds for family-planning purposes. Having failed to get foolproof legislation passed that would defund Planned Parenthood and remove it from its historic role in such programs, the state Health Department itself is arm-twisting to prevent the Shelby County Health Department from partnering with whom it pleases.

That reminds us of the notorious GOP-sponsored HB 600, the bill, now enacted into law, that went so far as to prohibit local jurisdictions from passing workplace anti-discrimination ordinances.

Didn't the Republican Party used to pride itself on its call for decentralization and local empowerment? What happened?

And then we remembered the other Nixon, the president who famously disgraced himself when caught in the act of scheming to create an all-encompassing state monolith. That Nixon is making a comeback, has apparently become something of a role model, even as the one who tried his hand at constructive public policy is ignored. Ah, the times!

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