It has come to this, boys and girls: Nostalgia for Richard Milhous Nixon from New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman:
Surveying current politics, I find myself missing Richard Nixon….
The Nixon era was a time in which leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy, and in which policy decisions weren't as warped by corporate cash as they are now. America is a better country in many ways than it was 35 years ago, but our political system's ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable.
Krugman adds the disclaimer that Nixon was almost (but not quite!) the equal in evil to Dick Cheney, but goes on to add:
Nixon proposed requiring that all employers, not just large companies, offer insurance.
Nixon also embraced tighter regulation of insurers, calling on states to "approve specific plans, oversee rates, ensure adequate disclosure, require an annual audit and take other appropriate measures." No illusions there about how the magic of the marketplace solves all problems.
So what happened to the days when a Republican president could sound so nonideological, and offer such a reasonable proposal?
Lest we allow misty-colored memories to get in the way, it's worth recalling that Nixon's policies, large and small, were disastrous on just about every level (one great exception: He ended the draft). You'd think a well-regarded economist of Krugman's age would remember stagflation and life on the ground during those swell Nixon years, when adequate disclosure, what, meant the meager percentage of Americans who had credit cards back then knew they were paying 21.75 percent annual interest? If Nixon's regulatory impulses were so freaking noble and grand and effective, why did the economy absolutely suck under his command? True, Tricky Dick had no illusions that the marketplace solves all problems. That's what Bebe Rebozo and the Watergate plumbers were for.
More to the point, the Nixon years were hardly free of partisan rancor and ugly personal attacks from every point on the political spectrum. Nor were they in any way nonideological (note to Krugman: The White House is currently occupied by a Democrat). Hmm, in fact, the Democratic candidate for president in 1972, George McGovern, likened Nixon to Hitler in a major address. And McGovern's short-term running mate, Sen. Tom Eagleton, anonymously slagged McGovern(!) as the candidate of amnesty, abortion, and acid. Yeah, that was a gentler America, where hippies and construction workers, and elected officials, had civilized debates about policies. And everybody thought America was so gosh-darn governable that virtually every movie, novel, and non-fiction book was some variation on The Late, Great Planet Earth or Future Shock.
The proximate cause of Krugman's Nixostalgia is the current health-care reform debate, during which various voters and officials have, my god, expressed discontent with both the status quo and proposed reforms (as vague as they are, and will almost certainly continue to be even after Barack Obama's speech next week). To Krugman that represents the ascent of corporate influence and "the right-wing fringe" (which despite being powerless is somehow holding a Democratic Congress in thrall). It has deranged him at least as much as the electoral success of George W. Bush, which is to say Kruman now needs a rubber room the size of airplane hangar just to keep from bouncing off the walls. Yes, there is something really rotten to the core with a country that actively debates a massively important issue that may well define quality of life and economic vitality for, I don't know, the next generation or two. What are we thinking, people? Shouldn't we rush through whatever plan Krugman, or Steny Hoyer, or Ted Kennedy, or Bob Dole, or some other grand vizier, says is all good? For god's sake, alternative proposals for actual reform, such as Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's real-world plan, are just getting in the way.
If The New York Times' reputation and influence is diminishing over time—and it surely is, as cultural knowledge, status, and power become increasingly decentralized—it's not simply a result of economic changes in the media and newspaper industries. It's because of the content, dammit, including ideologically obtuse and vacuous dreck such as Krugman's column on Nixon. Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca always had Paris. Krugman will always have Nixon. The rest of us will, hopefully, have a future in which we have better and cheaper health care. But not if we don't debate the hell out of it and, maybe just maybe, come up with a way to use the same market forces that have somehow driven down the real prices of just about everything else.