Richard Nixon, State, and Party: Democracy and Bureaucracy in the Postwar Era

By Rung, Margaret C. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Richard Nixon, State, and Party: Democracy and Bureaucracy in the Postwar Era

Rung, Margaret C., Presidential Studies Quarterly

We just don't have any discipline in government. That's our trouble.... We got to get it in the departments.

President Richard M. Nixon to George Schultz(1)

As Richard Milhous Nixon perceived it, the bureaucracy's lack of responsiveness to the will of elected officials constituted the "trouble" with government. His frustration with the absence of "discipline in government" underscores the ambiguous as well as contested relationship that exists between the twentieth-century party system and administrative state. This article examines the nature of that uneasy relationship as it pertains to Nixon, who strove to define the proper relationship between these two fundamentally distinct political institutions. Focusing on his connections to the party and bureaucracy during his prepresidential career illustrates how this twentieth-century political leader sought to shape the post-World War II American political system, even as the system molded--and hindered--him.(2) Accordingly, the picture reveals that over the course of his long career, Nixon had a consistent agenda with respect to political institutions; as president, he labored to promote that program but with little success. Party (a traditional concept of democracy) defined Nixon's approach to domestic politics. Throughout his early career, Nixon worked to promote party governance over bureaucratic management. This was especially evident in his efforts to construct postwar labor policy, an area of politics in which the bureaucracy and the Republican Party were frequently at odds. As a product and advocate of party, Nixon built his early career on the belief that elected officials, not autonomous bureaucrats or special interests, should govern the nation.

Nixon's commitment to party operated on two levels. On one level, he identified himself as a Republican and vigorously campaigned to bring about a voter realignment to revive the Republican Party after its crushing defeats in the New Deal era. On another level, Nixon perceived himself as a party politician who fervently believed in the viability and necessity of a two-party system. While he frequently criticized the Democratic Party, he firmly believed in its right to exist and argued that a two-party system was a crucial component of a stable democracy, because it helped to confine sharp ideological debates and prevent splinter groups.(3) While a legislator and vice president, Nixon's attitudes and actions did much to reinvigorate the impression that a vibrant two-party system existed.

Naturally, these identifications--as a Republican and a party politician--often overlapped, but at other times they clashed. For Nixon, the central and ultimately tragic paradox was that Republican Party leaders did not always behave in ways that advanced a party system of governance; many, for example, supported the expansion of administrative power, and others had difficulty distinguishing themselves from the Democrats. To remain faithful to his party ideology, Nixon felt compelled on occasion to break with the Republican Party. As president, his roles as Republican Party leader, party politician, and chief executive came into severe conflict as he battled Congress, the Democratic Party, and the executive branch. At the height of his career, Nixon's role as party politician and Republican Party leader constrained him. In the end, he felt isolated and ineffectual as an elected leader. From the Oval Office, he felt that he could not make government work.

Dissecting Nixon's belief system vis-a-vis governmental institutions alleviates the frustrating task of categorizing him solely along a liberal-conservative continuum. Because his policies tended to move (with the shifting political winds) between both ends of the spectrum, many scholars have portrayed him as an opportunist with no ideological commitments, save a devotion to the aggrandizement of power. Others, however, have described him as a moderate, or as someone who started out as a conservative and became a "liberal" when elected president.

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Richard Nixon, State, and Party: Democracy and Bureaucracy in the Postwar Era


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