An old Cold Warrior, militant anti-Communist and a nasty political infighter not averse to playing dirty, Richard Nixon was despised by the Left. But for all his bombastic rhetoric and scheming personality, Nixon was essentially attached to the Eastern Establishment through his term as Eisenhower’s Vice President.
Nixon had to resolve a problem his 1960 run for the White House had caused with Conservatives in order to unite the Party behind him; strengthened by the defections of Southern and working class conservative democrats to the Republican Party during the chaos of the Johnson years, the Base dominated the Party. But the RINOs, though muted, remained.
Conservatives had little to trust when dealing with a Machiavellian manipulator like Nixon. Just before the 1960 convention he cut a deal with Rockefeller after a marathon 8 hour meeting at Rockefeller’s apartment in NYC which became known as the “Compact of 5th Ave.” or, as Goldwater termed it, “the Munich of the Republican Party”.
Desperate not to split the Party as the Conservatives would later do in 1964, Nixon accepted all 14 changes Rockefeller and the RINOs demanded be made to the Republican Platform. Nixon ordered the Platform Committee to comply. Nixon sold his independence through this servile act of appeasement but headed off a challenge by Rockefeller for the nomination and also gained the acceptance of the RINOs who hitherto were as distrustful of him as the Conservatives were.
In 1960, he lost in the closest election in American history up to that time to Cold War Democrat John F. Kennedy.
While nominally supporting Goldwater in 1964, Nixon was relatively mute during the campaign. After Goldwater’s defeat Nixon spent much time building up support by campaigning around the country for many local Republican candidates. By 1968, he was the frontrunner for the nomination, certain he had learned all the lessons his previous bitter failures – both in the 1960 Presidential race as well as his disastrous run to become governor of California in 1962 – had taught him. Having placated the Left of the Party in 1960 with the Compact, in 1968 he surrounded himself with Conservatives such as corporate lawyer John Mitchell and speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. But he did make one important concession to the Eastern Establishment: he chose Rockefeller’s close associate and foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Advisor – though he acted with the powers and portfolios usually reserved for the Secretary of State during Nixon’s first term.
Nixon knew he had to get the Conservative Base to support him or he had no chance of victory. He knew that George Wallace, the rightwing governor of Alabama was considering an independent run on a third party ticket that would draw enough conservative votes away from him (especially in the critical area of the South) to ensure his defeat despite the anarchy that reigned in the Democrat Party, which was torn apart by internal disagreements over Vietnam.
So he ran as a Conservative. He would combat crime and riots and restore “Law and Order”; he had a “secret plan” to win “Peace with Honor” in Vietnam; he would move away from the neo-socialist policies of the “Great Society”; he would “get tough” with the Soviets and Red Chinese; he would return power to the States, which was taken as a go-slow policy on Federal support for Civil Rights issues such as forced bussing and instead foster “Black Capitalism” in urban areas; he would heal the deep divisions in American society and, as he said, “bring us together”.
The election was close, but even with Wallace drawing off Conservative votes and carrying much of the South, Nixon was able to hold enough of both RINO and Conservative voters to squeak out a very, very narrow victory (43.4 per cent to 42.7 per cent) over the hapless Democrat candidate, Johnson’s sycophantic Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But the strategy had worked: he had placated BOTH wings of his Party.
Four years later, Nixon felt that the Conservative mask was not as essential to wear. Nixon had come down hard on domestic terrorism through a vigorous crackdown of questionable legality carried out by the FBI called the “Co-Intellpro”. Urban riots tapered off. A new Supreme Court Chief Justice signaled a harder line against crime. Far reaching arms agreements were concluded with the Soviets; Chinese fears of Soviet attack across their Asian borders allowed Nixon and Kissinger to “open the door” to much better relations with Beijing. “Peace with Honor” was achieved in the Vietnam War, which was ended through a combination of severe military action taken in conjunction with diplomatic efforts to deny support to North Vietnam by its sponsors in the USSR and China.
Most important in terms of electoral politics, George Wallace was forced out of the 1972 Presidential race due to severe injuries suffered in an assassination attempt, leaving the South almost completely Nixon territory.
A coalition had come together consisting of a core Conservative Base infused with what would later become known as Religious Right or Values Voters who were mainly Southern traditionalists upset with the moral direction of the country caused by the upheavals of 1960s. These people were former Democrats and like many of their politicians, switched sides from the Democrat to the Republican Party. Urban union workers similarly upset with what they saw as a radical anti-Patriotic trend in the Democrat Party joined Republican ranks in supporting Nixon. Also coming on board from even further Left Democrat precincts were the so-called neo-Conservatives, brought in by their fellow intellectuals such as William F. Buckley.
The Democrats indulged the furthest reaches of their leftwing ideology and nominated a totally inept candidate, Senator George McGovern, who had been a Bobby Kennedy supporter in 1968 and the Party’s most vocal critic of the Vietnam War. Horrified by the far left candidacy of McGovern, the Conservative Base, though suspicious of Nixon, remained solid for him. He was helped by the fact that he himself came from California, the center of the Conservative Base and by the many favors owed to him by those for whom he had campaigned for while in his wilderness years.
McGovern proved to be a very weak candidate who faced an impossible uphill battle against a sitting President who could point to a series of impressive accomplishments, especially in foreign policy. Unsurprisingly, McGovern lost in a landslide of historic proportions in the 1972 elections.
Nixon apparently felt he no longer needed to bend a knee to the Eastern Establishment… and this hubris was inevitably followed by nemesis.