The mood of Washington in this gray, unusually cold winter bore a resemblance Lo the Capital as I perceived it when I first arrived here thirteen years ago, not long after Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected to his second term. Then and now, the Administration moved at a measured step, amidst Democratic charges that the President was succumbing to national torpor and neglecting the country’s unmet needs. The activist role seen as the presidential ideal by many of the permanent residents of Washington—bureaucracy and press—contrasted then as it does now with apparent grass-roots approbation of a President who functions at a leisurely pace. In those days as today, the women’s page columnists of Washington had to cope with a social scene marked by decorum and dullness.
The similarity in the styles of President Nixon in his second year and President Eisenhower in his fifth year is also marked. Even more than the General, Mr. Nixon is isolated from contacts with the press and run-of-the-mill politicians, and he disdains grappling with the dayto-day affairs of Congress. like Ike, Richard Nixon employs a centrally directed and unflamboyant White House staff. A marked taste for ritual is characteristic of both Presidents.
But these similarities are so superficial in nature that Democratic politicians who have concluded that they confront another Eisenhower in the White House are badly mistaken. The difference is that the surface listlessness of the Eisenhower Administration was no facade. By the time I came to Washington midway through General Eisenhower’s tenure, his more conservative advisers’ plans for plowing the New Deal under had long since been frustrated by reality, and the President’s own goal of preventing the Republican Party from devolving toward Taftian isolationism had long since been realized. Save for General Eisenhower’s laudable desire for a détente with Moscow, there was little commitment about anything.
Certainly, the Eisenhower Administration was unencumbered by any overriding political strategy. The political opportunities offered Republicans by General Eisenhower’s landslide victories of 1952 and 1956 were ignored by him and his closest associates. To the dismay of practicing Republican politicians (including Vice President Richard M. Nixon), the government formed its policies and took actions without the slightest regard for the party’s future. The super-orthodox policies of George Humphrey’s Treasury that led to three recessions in eight years were never assessed in the light of their political effect (except by an ineffectual Cabinet minority led by Vice President Nixon). The severe recession of 1958 was a particular catastrophe, leading to that year’s Republican debacle in the congressional elections, the effects of which are still seen on Capitol Hill twelve years later. It prepared the way for Mr. Nixon’s presidential defeat in 1960.
Nothing could be less similar to this recollection of the Republican Party under General Eisenhower mindlessly drifting toward oblivion than this second postwar Republican Administration. No President of the four that I have watched has ever been as finely attuned to the political panorama as Richard M. Nixon is now. Whatever the sins of commission and omission in his Administration, he cannot be faulted for a shortness of vision in realizing and reaching for the political rewards now possible for the Republican Party. Mr. Nixon understands the nation’s political flux, and in company with Attorney General John N. Mitchell, tailors his policies to exploit it. What Nixon and Mitchell have in mind is considerably more sophisticated than a simple “Southern strategy,” or even the passively conservative Republicanism of Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority.
In devising his strategy, Nixon and his cohorts are operating on these basic premises, more realistic and insightful, I think, than the view of political affairs generally taken by Democratic leaders:
Premise No. 1: Even though Democratic leaders haven’t quite caught up to the fact, their party has lost its majority status in presidential politics. Millions of nominal Democrats are in fact between parties, a rich prize for the Republicans to capture in this transitional period.
Premise No. 2: The South is lost for the Democrats on a national level, certainly through this decade and perhaps beyond. As in 1968, the competition there will be between the Republicans and George C. Wallace or possible successors, and it will determine the outcome of national elections.
Premise No. 3: Except for rare idiosyncratic liberals who choose to run as Republicans, the GOP has lost the Negro. However much or little the Nixon Administration might choose to do for the Negro in the national interest, it won’t win any votes.
Premise No. 4: The vast majority of voters—all but a fragment of oldfashioned liberals—are profoundly suspicious of government in general and the federal government in particular.
Premise No. 5: The same majority-including a good many oldfashioned liberals in this instance— have tired of the burdens of empire and want to bring the boys and the bucks back home. While rejecting the peace bloc’s arguments that the Vietnam War is immoral, the public overwhelmingly wants liquidation of the war.
Premise No. 6: Anti-tax sentiment is intense and rising. The middleincome white American, who more likely than not was a Democrat and now is drifting between parties, feels the government is dipping ever deeper into his paycheck to subsidize blacks.
Premise No. 7: Much of the above intersects in the currently paramount position of the “inflation” issue—an inadequate one-word description of the taxpayer’s concern over his paycheck, shrinking in size because of both high taxes and high prices.
To an unprecedented degree, the Nixon White House has pondered these political premises and, though imperfectly, tailored its program and policies to fit them. The result is a President who has a rough battle plan for pushing his party into majority status for the first time in forty years, and who sticks to it with remarkable fidelity. Put in terms much blunter than any Nixon man would use even among friends, it boils down to this: court the South, ignore the Negro; fight inflation, hold down taxes; end the war, reduce world commitments; hold down the size of government, defuse the welfare issue.
That many liberal politicians in both parties can’t quite comprehend what is happening is evidenced in their amazement over President Nixon’s handling of the Abe Fortas vacancy on the Supreme Court. Well aware of the intense opposition to the Court under Chief Justice Warren in the South (though by no means wholly in the South), Mr. Nixon made it clear through his 1968 campaign that his appointments would be based more on conservatism than any other criteria. He wasn’t really believed. Even after the nomination of Judge Clement F. Haynsworth, the President was not taken at face value. The efforts by some liberal Republicans to convince Mr. Nixon, following Havnsworth’s rejection by the Senate, that he should name a pro-civil tights Southerner to the vacancy shows their failure to comprehend what he was talking about: expanding the Republican base against Walktceism in the South.
Mr. Nixon’s political strategy in the South is particularly singleminded, partly because tlie potential for Republican gains there is so obvious and partly because this is the particular province of Attorney General John N. Mitchell. But the Nixon strategy looks elsewhere than to the South.
The President’s first economic report to Congress, submitted in January, is an indication of what he is doing. The report’s five-year economic projection deliberately forecasts underemployment in the years ahead in what Nixon economists call an “interlude” between the present galloping inflation and a more controlled growth. Behind the projection is political calculation. By planning the economy to operate below capacity, they hope to control the inflation that is the major preoccupation of Republican voters, actual and potential. The unemployed resulting from this policy would for the most part be the black and the young, neither of whom are counted on for much help in Mr. Nixon’s political blueprint. This kind of calculation has only a remote family resemblance to the feckless Eisenhower policy of provoking deep and politically masochistic recessions.
Mr. Nixon’s closest advisers are sure they have the popular side in the current phase of their old struggle with the Democrats over spending. When the President defended his veto of the Health, Education, and Welfare bill on national television as an attack against high prices, he was the clear winner over the exponents of education quality. William Safire, the White House’s leading wordsmith and a student of the Roosevelt presidency, believes the formula of “spend and spend, tax and tax, elect and elect,” coined by Hatty Hopkins in 1938, is badly out of date, if the Democrats persist, Safire believes, they will find it means “spend and spend, tax and tax, lose and lose.”
In response to the public revulsion against government regulation and spending, Mr. Nixon is moving in two directions. First, and for reasons other than economic, he is winding down U.S. participation in Vietnam at a rate considerably faster than his critics thought he would. (One hundred fifteen thousand troops have been scheduled for withdrawal since lie took office.)
Second, Nixon has been groping for a way to provide at least some government help for the poor arid the blacks with a minimum of governmental involvement and, more important to him, irritation of the white middle class. During the 1968 campaign, Mr. Nixon toyed imprecisely with the notion of tax incentives for private business to help blacks but dropped it soon after entering the White House. Instead, Presidential Counselor Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked the President into distributing money directly to the poor without any intervention from bureaucrats or social workers.
This began on a modest scale with the inclusion by Congress in the tax reform bill, at the Administration’s urgings, of a provision excusing the poor of all taxes. Much more ambitious is the welfare reform bill, which establishes a family allotment to the poor, whether they work or not, and dresses up this radical approach with a great deal of conservative camouflage about work requirements and the like. In a strictly political sense, the welfare reform bill is Mr. Nixon’s attempt to appease white-middle-rlass rage over the welfare issue while providing ;m essentially nongovernment framework for helping the poor.
But welfare reform has an uncertain future in the Congress, thanks largely to inattention from the President and downright hostility from some members ol the Administration. Here the inept and lackadaisical approach by the Nixon White House in guiding this landmark legislation in Congress is strikingly reminiscent of the Eisenhower era. The performance on the welfare bill is not unique.
The liberals in exile here are convinced that Mr. Nixon, lacking General Eisenhower’s avuncular charisma, will ultimately bore voters to death; it is supposed that voters will then turn against him because of unmet social needs. Democratic political technicians are less optimistic. One told me recently: “Nixon is running right on the spending issue. He’s getting the troops out of Vietnam. He seems to be gaining in the South. I think he is in for 1972 with a Republican Congress and maybe beginning a new Republican era—unless the economy turns sour.”
The souring of the economy in the imminent future is Richard M. Nixon’s Catch '72. If he cannot slow the inflation (and the prospects are not good) , he will try to blame it on Democrats—past, in the Johnson Administration, and present, in the Congress. But a recession—an honest-to-goodness recession of the 1958 variety—would have such a distinctive Republican flavor that he could not blame it on the Democrats. It could happen, perhaps more likely in 1971 than in 1970. But it won’t happen in the fatalistic manner of the Eisenhower recessions of the 1950s, not without frantic efforts by Mr. Nixon to turn it back. That, in short, is the real difference between 1970 and 1957.
-ROBERT D. NOVAK